A Conversation with St. Louis Artist and Arts Educator Molly Lawless
St. Louis-based artist Molly Lawless might have nine years of middle-school arts education under her belt, but if you had told her 13-year-old self that she’d grow up to become a teacher, she would have scoffed. Lawless embraces that same unpredictability and flexibility in her own work with alcohol inks and in her teaching philosophy. We spoke with Lawless to learn more about her background, her process and her career in education.
As an arts educator yourself, what was your arts education like growing up? Have you always known you wanted to make and teach art?
I didn’t have much exposure to art until middle school. My art teacher was the first to suggest to me that I might have talent. My best friend and I took the class together, and I remember saying to each other how great it would be to grow up and become art teachers. Funnily enough, both of us now have graduate degrees in education.
My path to get there wasn’t exactly linear. I even dropped out of high school in my junior year to attend an alternative school. I was a terrible student—now, as a teacher, I try to be open with my students about that. I remember my social studies teacher at the alternative school telling me, “Molly, you’re meant to be a teacher.” I probably rolled my eyes. I hated school. I ended up pursuing an undergraduate degree in Corporate Communications, then realized after I entered a fierce job market that what I really loved to do was teach. I went back for my Master’s degree, and now I’m in my ninth year teaching art at the middle-school level. I just recently joined the Clayton School District at Wydown Middle School.
How has your style or subject matter evolved over time?
I’ve always been interested in abstraction. I rarely work from a predetermined subject. I like to leave room for interpretation, for the viewer to draw on their personal experience. Before I fell in love with alcohol inks, I worked with acrylics, watercolor—any medium that gave me the ability to make an intentional line and manipulate it with water.
I try to go into the process of creating a new painting with no expectations. Making decisions on the fly is something I find exciting. Lately, I’ll feel drawn to a certain color scheme and watch the way those colors interact on their own accord.
For those unfamiliar with alcohol inks, how do they behave, and what do you love about working with the medium?
Alcohol inks are similar to watercolor, but more highly pigmented and used on a non-porous surface. I paint on yupo paper, which looks like glossy photo paper. The ink dries on top instead of absorbing into it. I’ve seen alcohol inks used on glass, ceramic, vellum, even metal. You can manipulate the drying process using a blow dryer, or a straw, or just your breath. The longer you let the ink sit on the paper, the deeper of a shadow that’s left behind, a sort of stain. When you layer it, you get some translucent areas that contrast with other hyper-pigmented areas.
Alcohol inks have a mind of their own. I try to work with positive and negative space, but alcohol inks are challenging to manage in that way—I’ll intend to leave a space untouched and then suddenly the paper is covered in ink. I’m learning to trust the medium’s unpredictability.
How does your artistic practice inform your teaching, and vice versa?
I think the fluidity of water inspires my teaching. Kids often think “good” art needs planning. I tell them to just go with it. I’ve had kids in tears, thinking they ruined a project, and that’s when I try to show them that sometimes the worst mistakes end up with the best outcomes. It’s not about perfection, it’s about the process.
In your experience, why is arts education important?
What I love about arts education is you can incorporate so many other subject areas. It’s a very interdisciplinary tool. In my units, we touch on history, current social and political issues, math for measuring and understanding proportions, the science of color theory, as well as reading, writing and researching. Kids learn project-management skills that can be applied to every career. Not to mention the confidence and personal growth kids feel when they express themselves in a safe space.
Working a full-time job as an artist and creative entrepreneur can get overwhelming. How do you juggle your professional life and your personal creative endeavors?
During the summer, I focus on creating my own art and developing my brand. When the school year starts, my teaching job and my students come first. I’m also a mom, which presents its own challenges. I spend lots of nights and weekends on my creative goals. I’m working now to continue getting my work out there. I would love to eventually see my work in more commercial spaces. It takes a lot of initiative to reach out to people, but I just keep going. No fear. Starting this business has been so empowering in that way.
All photos courtesy of Molly Lawless.