Stories on Creativity: Kevin Tavin

Kevin Tavin had aspirations to become an artist, but to his surprise was swept away by teaching children and students. Now Tavin is Head of Department of Art at Aalto University, while continuing with his other passion, research.

“IT’S THE USUAL STORY: I married a Finnish woman. Well, that’s the short answer to why I am in Finland. Actually, my first brief visit to Finland from U.S. was over ten years ago during an international art education conference. In 2008, I came here as a Fulbright senior scholar. Eventually, in 2012, I moved to Helsinki permanently. Now I have a large new family and a toddler, too.

Like most people working with visual arts, I had aspirations to become a professional artist. From an early age, I knew I wanted to do something with art, but didn’t know what that was.

I attended a community college to find out what could happen and took foundation art courses and courses in psychology. I think the psychology course took me in a certain direction, while I enjoyed the art courses and wanted to continue with that. I then went to a private art college. But I still had the same questions: Should I study to become a graphic designer, professional artist or an art educator?

Ultimately, I chose art education. At the time, it seemed more practical and more interesting to me, but I really didn’t think about becoming a teacher. I thought I would just continue with my studies.

It was only when I encountered a group of young students in a classroom during so-called Saturday school, where children take art classes outside of public school, that I felt art education was for me. I was so nervous about it, frightened in some ways, because I had very little experience with children. However, I really enjoyed it! It felt natural to teach children, and to engage them in looking at and making art. That was 1987 or 1988, and it really started me on my path as a teacher.

I received my BFA in art education, took a job as a primary school art teacher for six years, and did my MA part time while teaching. After writing a thesis, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD. It was funny, because I never thought that I would be so interested in writing a thesis. I felt very good about doing the research, and decided to continue my studies.

I let go of the idea of becoming a practicing artist. As I think about it now, making art never really gave me the same type of satisfaction as writing. I enjoyed it, but somehow it was a different type of experience and set of challenges.”

 "I was so nervous about teaching kids at first, because
 I  had very little experience with children."


Before Aalto University, American Kevin Tavin taught e.g. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Ohio State University.

“IN FEBRUARY OF 2015, I started as the Head of the Department of Art, and it requires a lot of my time. I also teach two courses this semester. Probably my own research is suffering a bit, although I am still trying to publish something all the time. I know, however, that I am not able to be as productive, at least not academically, with my favorite subjects as in the past.

Lacanian psychoanalytic theory is one of those subjects, and a prominent part of my work. I find the theory quite complex and offering opportunities to spark certain ideas about desires for art education, for example, in students. I also like to teach about Lacanian theory and visual culture to open up different ways of seeing the world.

I know that a lot of people have given up on Lacan, but I haven’t quite yet. It’s so intense, rich and difficult that I like it. It offers me challenges that never seem to end. Still, it’s just one set of theories to open up. It provides questions. On a practical level, you wouldn’t teach fifth graders art using Lacan directly, or as a therapeutic model of pedagogy. I would never do that.

In terms of teaching the course on visual culture, I am the one learning from my students. As a teacher, I provide them with some theories to discuss different ways of seeing or some language to frame experiences with the world. But I don’t ‘teach students to see’. They are already doing that.

In the best sense, I think that it is important, if I can disrupt some normative ways of seeing and raise troubling questions that disturb a too easy reading of the world. But this goes for me too. I want to be disturbed by my students’ reactions and interpretations. It’s always a long-term process, which delights me.”


“I ENJOY BEING IN Helsinki. My personal life is in Finland now, and there is a lot to do here at the university. For example, the art education program is celebrating its 100th birthday. If you think about the next 100 years, this is a great opportunity to make curricular changes, consider different ways of seeing, newer devices and technologies, different ideas about life, the world, making art, and so on. Art and education aren’t static. I am dedicated to opening up opportunities for students.

For me, life cannot be just administration. I’d like to continue my research on Lacan and take it further. For example, areas that are interesting and exciting for the future include post-humanism and biological art. The biofilia lab in Otaniemi is run by our department. It’s recognized internationally with great visiting artists and scholars and cutting edge projects. I am learning about that now, and trying to theorize what it means for the future of art education and pedagogy: biology and art coming together.

There are some fantastic projects and exciting future directions for art education! For example, one faculty in the department is focusing on questions about ethics and media. What constitutes life? What is our role? How can we govern the relationship between biology and representation, rather than being governed mostly by scientific communities?

I think that artists and educators need to be involved with these important questions.”•

"I want to disrupt normative ways of seeing the world."


Sources of Inspiration

1 “Most influential publication of my own: Wrestling with Angels, Searching for Ghosts: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Visual Culture.
2 “Most provocative publication of my own: Eyes Wide shut: The Use and Uselessness of the Discourse of Aesthetics
   in Art Education.

3 “Most inspiring book, early in my career: Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture by Henry Giroux.”
4 “Artists I am interested in: Mark Tansey, Glen Ligon, Marlene Dumas, Matthew Barney.”
5 “Intersecting fields of interest: curriculum studies, media studies, visual studies, critical pedagogy, cultural studies,
  art theory and criticism.”


Profile photos by Maija Astikainen


Page content by: | Last updated: 24.11.2015.