Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

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Nicolas Henry, Kazuko Shiriashi in her forest of poems, Tokyo, Japan, from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

The best known secret to learning is _____________.

You might have filled this blank in with a number of responses such as (and not limited to) experience, persistence, building proficiency, being a good student, or having a great teacher(s). All are true, however, this post will focus on something that is often forgotten or neglected in many contemporary school environments: learning through play.

Learning through play essentially means that learning should be fun, engaging, and challenging, realized through the games and activities we all enjoy. Play enables us to think, create, and interact in a very natural and cognitive manner. One of the many benefits of play is that students eagerly develop social and emotional bonds as a result of collaboratively playing with their peers. Play enables us to communicate with each other more repletely and understand each other with greater empathy because teamwork is a large part of many games. Other essential habits of mind developed through playing include: persisting (the greater the challenge the sweeter the reward), managing impulsivity (developing metacognitive strategies to effectively solve a problem), and taking responsible risks (play embraces uncertainty and allows for calculated judgements in the absence of rules). Play is so developmentally important because it allows children to design a world uniquely for them and carve out a place where they can feel independent and in charge of their outcomes. In the classroom or school environment, play makes learning uniquely relevant to students, while strengthening their metacognitive, social and emotional, and practical (play is embodied/kinesthetic learning after all) skills. After playing or engaging in playful learning, students can reflect on what went well, what was most challenging, and what they would improve upon or change for the next time. Learning without didactic imposition is the crux of playful learning. Students learn far more by actively doing than they do by sitting and listening to a lecture.

Contemporary art embraces the element of play very efficiently. Artists seek out creative strategies to address aesthetic and conceptual issues in order to create engaging and entertaining works of art. While making art is serious undertaking, any artist will tell you that if it becomes too serious they’re not having fun anymore. Unless you’re painting by numbers, all art making combines a playful engagement with materials and subject matter. Some artists like Slow Art Collective (mentioned in an earlier post) fully utilize play in order to construct meaning in collaboration with the viewer. In fact, their work is largely conceived with the expectation that visitors will interact with it and construct new knowledge through explorations with a wide variety of materials.

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Nicolas Henry, Woo Kwong Hou doing his Tai-Chi on the rooftops of Hong King from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

No matter how old we are, the most wonderful thing about play is that it helps us all express our inner child. This is apparent in Nicolas Henry’s series of photographs The Playhouses of Our Grandparents, which enables participants (and viewers) to reflect on the joy of playful and dramatic storytelling. Henry traveled the world in order to meet older individuals (elders of the community) from a variety of cultures, and collaborated with them on building elaborate ‘playhouses’ that symbolize the spirit of imagination, innovation, independence, and cultural identity. In his description of the project, Henry declared: “Inside every one of us, lies the youthful spirit of a child who revels in creating with everyday items around him, a world invented entirely by his imagination.” Henry achieves this by encouraging his subjects, elders of the community, to envision their ideal playhouses, which are then collaboratively built to reflect the objects, memories, and experiences from their past and present. These playhouses are reminiscent of the forts that children imaginatively create with a variety of found materials. Looking at these playhouses, it becomes clear that, to paraphrase Walt Disney, if you can dream it, you can do it. Similar to childhood forts, these playhouses gave the elder participants a sense of sanctuary, protection, and social and emotional expression. It is so important for all of us to have a special place where we can feel safe to take creative risks, and express our autonomy from the confines of the physical and emotionally demanding world we live in.

Artists Miranda July and Nina Katchadourian also create playful works of art that break away from the mundane and stressful routines of daily life. Katchadourian’s work, realized through unique and surreal pairings of materials and subject matter might seem absurd at first glance. After all, her most famous work includes an ongoing series of in flight projects (Seat Assignment, 2010-ongoing) including a body of work bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps, and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. However, for each series of art she makes, Katchadorian carefully conceives a complex set of rules and balanced relationships for quotidian conditions. The results are playful and imaginative encounters with the banal and uninspired facets of life. Katchadorian utilizes play to reveal the creative possibilities of finding inspiration, excitement, and awe in everyday life.

In the online series Learning To Love You More (2002-2009), artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher posted playful prompts to engage participants (anyone who visited the website) in an artful game where they had the creative freedom to create unique visual, audio, or written responses. Learning To Love You More was structured enough to make art-centered projects accessible for a wide range of individuals who may or may not have any prior artistic experience. In other words, it was important for no one to feel left out. Each question addressed a specific and simple activity such as feeling the news,  re-enacting a scene from a movie that made someone else cry, drawing a constellation from someone’s freckles, giving advice to your past self, or making a poster of shadows. Participants were also prompted to do assignments that built off of other participant’s responses. The artists even gave participants the option to create their own prompts and give a demonstration of the prompt (via text, video, sound, drawing, photography, etc) so that others can follow along and participate. The success of these assignments was the fact that they were very specific, yet left open ended enough in order to encourage a multitude of choice, which liberated each participant’s creative endeavors. July and Fletcher’s participatory based art project unleashed individuals’ potential to create symbolic and empathetic responses to the human condition. The participants in Learning To Love You More frequently took calculated risks that made them open to vulnerability, made creative judgements in the interpretation of the rules, and expressed their unique personalities in a metacognitive, social and emotional way. This project feels quite similar to the games many of us played as children where we assigned ourselves roles and situations that reflected the way we perceived ourselves in the world and guided us to our desired personal experiences. Learning to Love You More exemplifies the benefits of play as described by psychologist Peter Gray (Gray 2011):

“(1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”

When play is supported in an art-centered learning environment, students make invaluable explorations, discoveries, and insights about themselves and the world around them. Play gives us the necessary freedom to construct our ideal social, emotional, and constructive experiences. When imagination is given free reign, we start to realize that materials are everywhere and compelling subject matter is simply dependent upon our playful and artful interaction with each other and the environment.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Elkind, David. 2017. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books. 

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.”  American Journal of Play, v3 n4 p443-463 Spr 2011.

Sobel, David. 1993. Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 

Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

The Artful Community – Tapping into who we are, what we know, and who we know for inspiration

What is the role of the artist in today’s global and multicultural civilization? How can we make art that signifies the wide range of cultural identities, which we are each a part of? Jeffrey Gibson is a contemporary Native American artist of Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, whose multi-disciplinary practice seeks creative answers to these complex questions.

Gibson was working as a painter and sculptor when he realized that the myth of the artist and genius does nothing more than perpetuate specific art world and cultural privilege. For Gibson, being artist is not about embracing an esoteric practice of creating objects of desire for an elite audience, but rather embracing the role of a member of society who cultivates multicultural relationships by collaborating creatively with the people around him. This collaboration results in a visual communication of intersectional identity and ideas, which are explored through traditional and non-traditional materials. Gibson’s materials and inspiration for his artistic practice come from the relationships he builds with people from his own multicultural background. He has reached out to other Native American artists and craftspeople in order to develop powerful objects that symbolically expressed the shared cultural experiences and personal narratives of indigenous artists.

Typically, American art history taught in AP Art and university level courses largely excludes the work of Native American artists (it is only about 6% of the AP art curriculum, while Colonial American art makes up around 42% of the curriculum). Traditionally, visual imagery and cultural objects from the indigenous Americans have been taught and re-presented through a historical lens. This relegates Native American culture as a totemic or fetishized discipline for our colonialist scrutiny, and most importantly, it fails to recognize the fact that Native Americans have existed and thrived to this day.  Furthermore, art museums are well behind the times in collecting and presenting modern and contemporary works by Native American artists. Integration between Native American and Western American artwork is too few and far between and/or problematic and controversial. The latter is exemplified by the work of Jimmie Durham, an American artist who appropriates Native American (specifically Cherokee) themes, while his identity as a Cherokee is highly contested by Cherokee curators and artists. Regardless of the facts surrounding Durham’s cultural identity, there are large gaps and blurred lines between modern and contemporary Native American art and modern and contemporary American art, which Gibson’s work seeks to address.

Through an interdisciplinary discourse around his intersectional identity as a Native American growing up enveloped by Western consumer culture, Gibson fuses contemporary Western and non-Western perspectives within his works of art. Dance and fashion are some of the creative elements that Gibson transforms to express an interconnectivity between his identity as a LGBTQ Choctaw-Cherokee man and the popular traditions of both indigenous and colonial America. For example, he has created vibrant sculptural outfits used in performances, which are inspired by Native American pow wows, as well as nightlife and club scene culture. The outfits are indicative of an eclectic mix between native American regalia and the New Romantic club movement, which included the enigmatic fashion designer, club promoter, and performance artist Leigh Bowery. Gibson’s sculptural costumes, which are created through intricate patterning and layering of found objects, entice our sensory perceptions (specifically sight and sound), while drawing upon a wide variety of archetypal themes.

Gibson’s collaboration with contemporary Native American individuals, some of which are described in the TED talk video at the top of this post, have yielded works that blur the lines between craft and conceptual art. The realized objects re-present Native American culture in an ongoing discourse, which stays true to tradition while embracing the complexities and interpersonal relationships of contemporary life. For example, Gibson collaborated with Native American choreographer, dancer, and musician, and activist, Jesse McMann-Sparvier, who created eight traditional elk-hide drums, which Gibson then painted and arranged as a hanging sculpture. The sculpture resembles a twelve foot totem suspended by rawhide lacing, and can be easily transported from one space to another. Gibson has also re-appropriated objects of personal significance from individuals like David Rowland, whose passion for skateboarding helped him persevere through tough times. Gibson re-presented Rowland’s worn in skateboard as a sculpture, wrapped in hand painted animal hide that alludes to traditional Native American rawhide containers known as a parfleche. He called the sculpture Time Capsule (David Rowland’s Skateboard (2012), as a preservation of Gibson’s memory about Rowland’s triumphant personality.


With steady growing student diversity in many school districts throughout the United States, multicultural educational curriculums are essential to provide each student with relevant and relatable learning experiences. Making sure students develop the skills and knowledge to become competent participants in multicultural communities enables them to contribute to interpersonal societal relationships, which influence the continual creation of culture (Kuster 2006). Showing a diverse range of examples of artwork that spans across time and place, is a great way for educators to keep students engaged with the visual culture that encompasses our current era of globalization. Students can scrutinize art objects from an extensive group of cultures, and be asked to think about who made the objects, where they come from, and what their impact might be within culture. Added contextual background, provided by the teacher, about the artist(s) and artworks, will facilitate students understanding about how an artist imbues an artwork with significant meaning related to social, emotional, and cultural circumstances. For example, students might be shown Jeffrey Gibson’s Time Capsule (David Rowland’s Skateboard), watch a video clip of Jeffrey talking about his relationship with David Rowland, and interpret which aspects of the work are reminiscent of different cultures and the personal connections that the sculpture expresses.

In response to their understanding about how visual art symbolically represents a personal and/or collective narrative, students can share objects that have personal significance to them and express why they are meaningful and how they might signify the culture and environment that they are a part of (Tavin and Hausman 2004). Students can map out traits that represent who they are and create works of art that express their unique hopes, dreams, and experiences using their personal object as a starting point of reference.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Kuster, Deborah. 2006. “Back to the Basics: Multicultural Theories Revisited and Put into Practice.” Art Education, 59(4): pps: 33-39.

Tavin, Kevin and Hausman, Jerome. 2004. “Art Education and Visual Culture in the Age of Globalization.” Art Education, 57(4): pps. 47-52.



The Artful Community – Tapping into who we are, what we know, and who we know for inspiration

Art and Education, Not Jails

Prisons, jails, and detention centers may seem like the least likely venues for art-centered learning, however, these sites, which account for nearly 1% of the U.S. population, are in dire need of social, emotional, and creative reform. Serious prison reform includes commuting and pardoning prisoners with long sentences for non-violent crimes; strengthening community based treatment programs for those with mental illness; and developing educational curriculums within prisons and restorative justice initiatives in communities and schools across the country. The overarching goal for our society should be abolishing to mass incarceration and finding alternative justice related practices. The arts and education can play a role in making this goal more attainable. Artist and activist Benny Andrews understood this and in the early 1970s he began an arts program inside of the local New York City jails such as the infamous The Tombs. The “Prison Art Program” was developed by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which Andrews co-founded to advocate for the rights of African Americans within the cultural sector. Reflecting on the need to bring serious attention to arts and humanities programs in prisons Andrews said: “along with losing many of their basic human rights, it seems that prison artists have also lost their right to be considered fine artists, regardless of their artistic accomplishment.” (Bernstein 2010). This model for prison art education eventually grew to 37 programs in 14 states.

Die Jim Crow and Humanize the Numbers are two current projects that incorporate art and education to address the epidemic of mass incarceration and systematic racism in America. Humanize the Numbers uses interdisciplinary creative practices to connect Michigan state prisoners with college students, activists, and artists. Through the medium of photography, incarcerated individuals are able to reclaim their individuality by symbolically presenting their stories to the general public.

The benefits of photography workshops held within prisons are twofold. First, the incarcerated individuals learn photography skills and the artful ways they can express themselves visually through the camera’s lens. They are given a powerful tool to relate their personal narrative to their intended audience. While they may be held back physically behind concrete walls, their artwork transcends the confines of the prison into society at large. This has enormous transformative benefits because it humanizes these individuals while instilling in them a sense of self-efficacy for creating such powerful work in the face of adversity. Second, the college students and other outside collaborators assume the role of allies, actively listening to the prisoners who are sharing their personal experiences. After time, due to the collaborative aspects of the project, inmates and students form a sense of trust and understanding for one another. Bonds are made between two sets of people that wouldn’t likely have had the chance to share these experiences in the community outside of prison.

Die Jim Crow, shifts the power dynamic back to the incarcerated individuals through the strength of song. Die Jim Crow is an ongoing conceptual art project where current and formally incarcerated individuals write, perform, and record songs about the criminal justice system and their personal experiences dealing with the harsh realities of life in jail and on the streets. Much of the pain and suffering described in the songs is a result of socio-cultural inequality and systematic racism. Songs address the inhumanity of prison as well as the distressing realities of the streets, where black individuals are disproportionately affected by violence and institutionalized discrimination. In the song Headed To The Streets, songwriter and vocalist B.L. Shirelle, who was released from prison in 2015, expresses her concerns regarding the lack of resources, empathy, and social justice related support that are available for formally incarcerated individuals:

“Tell me what this liberty means / Now that I’m out can I live and be free? / Can I work for a company that pays more than minimally? / Will I give up before I see what’s in it for me? / This ain’t about material it’s about looking in the mirror seeing inferior” 

For many of us outside of the criminal justice system, we learn about prison via sensationalized media stories, television dramas, and statistics, however, we miss the most important element, which is the actual accounts of the people within the system. We generally only see prisoners in relation to their mugshots or other negative images spread across media outlets. Sharing their unique personalities through moving works of art is an important step in restoring the civic participation of individuals who have had their voices silenced by the criminal justice system.

In our schools, harsh responses to discipline related issues are problematic in many instances and may contribute to the school to prison pipeline. The authoritarian process of suspending or expelling students as the first form of recourse (zero tolerance policy), without any thoughts of rehabilitation, is damaging on the student. Just like with inmates in the prison system who are made to sit alone in a cell for 23 hours, handing down strict punishments to students without mediation and reflection benefits no one. Not focusing on the larger issue of why the student is acting out and how they can modify their behavior more positively can ultimately lead to future run-ins with the law for the student.

Restorative justice is a good approach to positive behavior modification because it allows for the accused and the accuser to come together in a safe environment in order to discuss their issues and reconcile their differences. The offender takes accountability for their actions and through engaging in discourse with the victim and other members of the community, finds common ground to make amends for their transgressions. In other words, everyone finds justice being served because the systematic barriers of inequity have been removed and the issue is addressed in a communal and fair manner.

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Meme explaining different ideologies for basic human rights. Courtesy of Marieke Altena (@KikiAltena) on Twitter.

It is important to understand the definitions for equality, equity, and justice. Each of these ideologies seek to solve complex issues of social, cultural, and economic differences in order to give everyone the same inalienable human rights. In schools, equal learning opportunities means making sure everyone has the same resources such as free nutritious meals, textbooks, supplies, and materials. Equitable learning means that all students get individualized, student centered supports that they need to learn. A justice centered education goes even further in addressing the systematic issues and barriers that limit our human rights by taking on the roots of inequality and inequity. Restorative justice is the key to finding a just solution for the glaring inequality, inequity, and injustice, that exists in our schools, prisons, and marginalized communities.

Theater of the Oppressed is one particular example of art-centered restorative justice. This method of theater enables actors and audience members to be equal and active participants in the theatrical process. Participants become what Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed’s founder, called ‘spect-actors,’ a dual role where actors and audience members take simultaneous control of a dramatic narrative that focuses on social and political transformation. As a result of spect-actor-ship, the hierarchy between the people on stage and those who are seated in the audience is shattered. Through the arts, the strive for justice is expressed in a poignant and evocative manner, which humanizes individuals’ social and emotional experiences and gives all voices a platform to be heard and understood. This humanization acknowledges the traumatic situations that affect us and activates creative and effective ways to cope with these traumatic experiences (Levosky 2017).

This is precisely the type of positive reinforcement that keeps students engaged in school and builds much needed trust throughout the school community.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bernstein, Lee. 2010. America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Gee, Mike. 2010. “Restorative Justice and Participatory Action!” Theater of the Oppressed NYChttps://www.tonyc.nyc/mikeandpar

Gonzalez, Jennifer. 2018. “Restorative Justice in School: An Overview.” Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/restorative-justice-overview/

Levosky, Alison. 2017. “Restorative Justice through Arts Programs.” Education Studieshttp://debsedstudies.org/restorative-justice-through-arts-programs/ 
Art and Education, Not Jails

Putting Art Education on the Map

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Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) from atop Rozel Point, in mid-April 2005.

Geography is the study of people, places, things, and the environment. Geographers, the practitioners of geography, scrutinize the relationship between natural and synthetic environments. Geography is akin to art because both disciplines seek to communicate humanity’s reciprocal relationship with the environment. While geography uses data and research methods to study people, places, things, and the environment, artists use symbolic expression to humanize these aforementioned relationships. Because the environment and its impact on both perception and culture has enormous effects on the way we communicate, environmental geography has inspired artistic movements of the past such as the Hudson River School, as well as the contemporary Land Art zeitgeist.

The Hudson River School painters were so taken with the pristine landscape of the mid-19th century Hudson Valley (in New York state) that they captured its glory and essence within their large oil paintings. These paintings visualize a unique moment in time as observed and experienced by the artists themselves. The motive of the artists from the Hudson River School was to symbolically depict their discovery and exploration of the natural scenery surrounding the towns that had been settled in the relatively young United States of America. They also wanted to show the possibilities for humans and nature to coexist in an era that was experiencing rapid industrialization and development (of course, this was somewhat of a false modesty since the indigenous Native Americans were already achieving this prior to the arrival of European colonists).

While there were stylistic elements in the paintings by Hudson River School artists (such as color, line, scale, and texture) that they enhanced for dramatic effect (after all, the movement was inspired by the highly idealized and subjective style of 18th and 19th Century Romanticism), a glimpse of Thomas Cole’s painting A View of Two Lakes, And Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning (1844), and a photograph of North South Lake from 2018 by avid Hudson Valley and Catskills hiker Brian Paul, shows that the scenery featured in Cole’s painting is largely intact to this day. This is one example of  how geographically themed art from the past can inform us about the similarities and differences between the civilizations of the past and present. In some cases, the environment has changed so drastically that renderings from the past are nearly unrecognizable today. For example, the way that historical artists such as William Merritt Chase and Henry Gritten depicted the Gowanus Bay (namesake to the contemporary Gowanus Canal) in New York City compared with contemporary works of art by Steven Hirsch and Sto Len, reflect the alarming effects of human made pollution (due to unregulated industry that began shortly after Chase and Gritten painted their depictions of the bay), which resulted in the Gowanus Canal becoming a designated Superfund site. While landscapes depict natural geography, cityscapes portray the communities that humans have designed constructed. The social emotional role that cityscapes play in our relationship and experience with the world around us has been described in a previous post, citing examples of artwork by Romare Bearden and Martin Wong.

Land art is a conceptual public art movement that started in the 1960’s and 70’s with an aim to direct art’s focus back to the natural environment. Just like the Hudson River School painters, land artists wanted to create bold forms of visual expression that would inspire awe and interest in nature and present a stark contrast to the urban and industrial scenes prevalent throughout the modern world. While there are no strict stylistic guideline’s for defining the movement, the common theme has been the use of natural materials found in situ to create large scale works of art that transform the landscape of remote geographical locations. Artists like Robert Smithson, whose landmark land artwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), exists on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah. The massive sculpture was constructed entirely from mud, basalt rock, salt crystals, and water. In other words, Smithson created the entire 15 foot wide work of art from the natural materials on site. Because the sculpture protrudes out into Great Salt Lake, it is periodically covered by water (although recent droughts have made its visibility more prominent) and subjected to natural elements, which can potentially cause its physical deterioration (or destruction). The work of art is currently maintained by Dia Foundation whose ongoing mission is to preserve the sculpture, which is threatened due to both natural and human made reasons. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has become a major tourist destination for art lovers and interested travelers alike. It has even been added to geographical maps of the region and declared by the state of Utah to be its official artwork. 

Although self declared as not being land artists, Husband and wife artist duo, Christo and Jean-Claude, have artfully raised awareness for the natural environment by encircling and covering natural and physical objects in brightly hued fabric or other materials. For example, their project Surrounded Islands, emphasized the geographical location of eleven islands within Biscayne Bay in Greater Miami, Florida by forming a bright pink outline around each island. The floating pink fabric surrounding each land mass highlighted the islands’ tropical flora, the array of colors noticeable in the water of Biscayne Bay, and visual effects of the Floridian sky. As a result of Christo and Jean-Claude’s creative endeavor, forty tons of garbage was removed from within the eleven islands.

While Christo and Jean-Claude’s Land Art installations have all been ephemeral, the impactful qualities of each project have culminated in a longstanding dialogue regarding environmental conservation and cultural identity. While some critics applauded the couple for their contributions to environmental and cultural awareness (See: Fineberg, 2004; Galloway, 1995), others have highlighted the controversy their projects have caused among some groups living in the region where Christo and Jean-Claude’s work was proposed and/or displayed.  The conversation regarding the merit of Christo and Jean-Claude’s work is a fine example of how geographical regions are made up of a diverse range of individuals with a variety of opinions on culture, aesthetics, and the environment. Christo and Jean-Claude’s work is crucial to the conversation regarding what outcomes public art should account for in relationship to the people and the physical spaces where the work is installed. In other words, is the project beneficial to the people and the environment that encompass the geographic location where a public artist(s) chooses to work?

This brings us to the concept of placemaking and the public artist’s responsibility for addressing cultural geography in an empathetic and mindful way. A good example of a successful public art project that brought the public together in a positive way, is Wrapped Reichstag by Christo and Jean-Claude (remember them?). In addition to working with the natural environment, Christo and Jean-Claude have employed their signature style of aesthetic wrapping over human-made geographical landmarks such as Germany’s Reichstag. After planning Wrapped Reichstag for over twenty years, the duo finally put their plan to action on June 24, 1995. The wrapping of this historic building  was a cathartic expression in light of Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The building’s geographical location, just meters from the wall that divided Germany in two, provided a poignant symbolic metaphor of a country that suffered from political, cultural, and social emotional schizophrenia during and in the immediate wake of the Cold War. By wrapping the building in a manner that resembled the way we wrap presents, the artists re-presented the Reichstag to the German people signifying a celebratory moment in their history. The response to the public artwork was overwhelmingly positive with large crowds of German citizens (former citizens of East and West Germany) gleefully gathering around the site during the project’s construction and throughout its display.

Justin Blinder, Vacated, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Artists such as Paula Scher and Justin Blinder have also creatively utilized geography to address social, economic, and political concerns. Paula Scher’s painted maps of the United States employ elements of art and principals of design such as color, line, and typography to communicate a wide degree of information such as local population, real estate costs, demographics, voting trends, political affiliations, transportation systems, and weather patterns. Scher’s maps are replete with information, but there is a very personal element to each large scale painting. This is evident in the blatant gestural marks and painterly like textures, which emphasize Scher’s personal emotional response to the data being presented. There is provocative political commentary within many of the social, economic, and environmentally themed maps, where it is clear through the expressionistic painting style that Scher feels a sense of urgency to address and raise our awareness to these issues. Overall, these maps, which also include the durations of driving from city to city, time zones and area codes, afford us a wealth of different perspectives for understanding our vastly diverse Nation.

Justin Blinder’s Vacated series (2013) addresses the rapid and turbulent changes to neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan by documenting the process of gentrification using a cache of images collected through Google Street View. About his process, which is a combination of data mining, computer programing, and geographic mapping, Blinder stated:

Vacated reverse engineers Google Street View to highlight the changing landscape of various neighborhoods throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The project finds cached, historic images of New York City hiding in plain sight on Google Street View. These images are algorithmically extracted by merging the Department of City Planning’s PLUTO dataset with Google Street View, and searching for all properties that have been altered or constructed since Google Street View began (2007.)”

In the GIF image above, Blinder depicts a vacant lot and adjacent family homes turn into a massive luxury condo on the corner of McGuinness Blvd. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The drastic transformation from small multifamily homes and mom and pop storefronts into impersonal looking condos with chain retailers is both visually and emotionally stirring. One of the negative effects of gentrification is that it negates a neighborhood’s architectural character by favoring bland and uniform residential towers over historic architecture. Additionally, gentrification displaces many longtime residents who contributed to the fabric of their neighborhood for generations, which greatly shifts a neighborhood’s demographics and culture.

Guadalupe Maravilla, Requiem for my border crossing and Tripa Chuca on view at The Whitney Museum. Photograph by Adam Zucker

In addition to documenting and expressing their relationship to world around them, artists, being creative and visionary people, might also choose create imagined geography. For example, Guadalupe Maravilla’s series of collaborative drawings called Requiem for my border crossing were realized through a collaboration between the El Salvador born artist and undocumented U.S. immigrants engaging in the popular Salvadoran game called Tripa Chuca (translation: dirty guts),where players each take turns drawing lines paper. The rule of the game is that these lines can not intersect. The fantastical drawings in Requiem for my border crossing were inspired by maps from a 16th Century Aztec codice that documents the indigenous peoples called the Toltec and Chichimec, who lived in areas that make up modern day Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Using the maps in the codice as a starting point, Maravilla and his collaborators embarked in a symbolic dialogue between historical and contemporary experiences of cultural identity and immigration. Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantôme (1996) is a scale model of an idealized cityscape featuring references to a variety of the world’s civilizations, which the artist describes as “a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all the races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven.” With global civilization in a constant state of flux and turmoil, envisioning a better and more unified world has been a key component of many artists’ practice.

Because geography and art are both disciplines that contextualize human experience within the world, it is beneficial they are presented in a way that has profound consequences for lifelong learning. An art-centered geography curriculum should promote understanding, communication, and connectivity across borders and state lines (also discussed in a previous post called Transcending Boundaries, which cites the work of Tanya Aguiñiga and AMBOS). It should seek to express and depict unique visions that celebrate local and global communities and preserve our shared natural resources.

Through a variety of independent and collaborative projects, students can harness the power of art to become emerging geographers and community development planners. An example of a project would be to have students design their own unique neighborhood maps, based on their experiences, prior knowledge, and research on their own communities (an overarching theme within this unit is think locally act globally). For inspiration, students can be shown Romare Bearden’s The Block, Martin Wong’s La Vida, and Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Ville Fantôme. Students should describe what they see, identify the types of people and buildings that make up the compositions, and judge whether the depiction is realistic, imagined, or a mix of the two. Next, they can discuss the information saturated maps of Paula Scher and Justin Blinder’s Vacated project. Students should be prompted to describe their neighborhood in terms of its resources (or lack thereof) and elaborate on whether they’ve noticed any social, economic, or environmental changes.

Students will then be asked to discuss what community means to them, brainstorm several ideas about what makes a good community, and be given a homework assignment to interview people within their own communities in order to find out what others think the epitome of a good community should encompass. During studio time, Students will re-imagine their neighborhood in a highly personalized manner, which reflects what they believe represents a good community. Taking the role of a community development planner, students will create 2D paper collage maps of their neighborhoods that incorporates their needs and interests and the interests and needs of their neighbors. They can include whatever else they think would make their neighborhood collectively better, such as parks, public plazas, restaurants, better infrastructure (such as public transportation and bike paths), or quality affordable housing. This project can also be extended to incorporate 3D paper attachments in order to make scale models of the maps they have designed. Students will present upon why they believe they have improved their neighborhood for themselves and the other people who live there. 

Artistic learning in collaboration with the study of geography is a great way to encourage students to become future innovators and leaders who make local and global communities more equitable and sustainable. In order to build and maintain a world for everyone to succeed, it will take the practical knowledge acquired from learning geography working in tandem with the creative thinking and empathy that the arts teach.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. 2018. “Congolese Artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Most Ambitious Work Is an Intricate Dream City. Here’s How to Understand It.” Artnethttps://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/bodys-isek-kingelez-1308167

Fineberg, Jonathan. 2004. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: On the Way to The Gates: Central Park, New York City. Yale University Press: New York.

Galloway, David. 1995) “Packaging the Past.” Art in America. 83. 86-89, 133.

Marshall, Julia & David M. Donahue. 2014. Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom. Teacher’s College Press: New York.


Putting Art Education on the Map

E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights

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Fujiko Nakaya, Fog Sculpture #94925 “Foggy Wake in a Desert: An Ecosphere,” Sculpture Garden, Australian National Gallery, Canberra. Photo by Bertie Mabootoo

Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) is a non-profit organization co-founded by contemporary artists and engineers from Bell Labs in order to push the boundaries of artistic expression through the use of modern technology. E.A.T began in 1966 under the leadership of artists Robert Whitman and Robert Rauschenberg and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer. The founding members believed that technological innovations could expand contemporary artists’ repertoire and visual vocabulary, while the social and emotional expressionism realized through tech-based artworks would be inspirational for engineers to create more empathetic innovations that benefit society.  The creative and playful experimentation and collaboration inherent in E.A.T’s multidisciplinary approach has enormous benefits across the primary and secondary educational curriculum (see: Resnick, 2017) and within society at large.

When E.A.T was launched, it was immediately popular within the art and engineering communities. A diverse range of artists and engineers (over 4,000 members) were partnered to collaborate on proposed projects. The organization didn’t exclude any one artist’s proposal nor cast judgement over the perceived aesthetic value within the project. E.A.T diligently matched artists and engineers based on the uniqueness of each proposal. They wanted to make sure that the relationship between engineers and artists was mutually beneficial and relevant. The results were immersive avant-garde artistic innovations such as Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures, which were first realized through E.A.T’s participation at the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.

In addition to art related projects, E.A.T’s series called “Projects Outside of Art” focused on art and technology centered explorations in interdisciplinary areas such as communications/telecommunications, agriculture, and multiculturalism. For example, the Anand Project (1969), brought artists and engineers to the Anand Dairy Cooperative  in Delhi, India to create an educational television network for the rural community. The project was initiated by E.A.T’s Billy Klüver and Robert Whitman along with Vikram Sarabhai of the Nehru Foundation for Development (Delhi, India). The Anand Project developed an educational program for women dairy farmers via the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE), which made educational programing accessible to Indians living outside of major cities. Over 50 years later, E.A.T has continued to support cross-disciplinary partnerships between artists, scientists, and engineers.

Collaborations between artists and engineers are inspiring for each discipline, which is why STEAM based learning initiatives have been gaining steam (pun intended) in schools. Art classrooms need to embrace contemporary digital and mechanical culture. Computers, digital media software, 3D printers, nuts, bolts, switches, and gears should be as readily available for students’ creative use as paintbrushes and paints. When art and technology are combined to creatively solve problems or symbolically express an issue, the results are technological innovations that are favorable to the social and emotional needs of the general public. Artists who learn how to communicate via technology open themselves up to a larger audience, which exists outside of museums and galleries (see: Cory Arcangel and Debora Hirsch). Engineers who employ studio habits of mind develop technology that greatly benefits our well being because of their understanding of how art enhances our appreciation for the world and our understanding of each other.

Technology is developing at a rapid pace and an unanticipated consequence is it’s depersonalization on human relationships in some instancesThrough STEAM based learning and art-centered technological projects however, advancements in technology can be harnessed for humanitarian purposes such as environmentalism and social justice activism. When used in tandem with interpersonal relationships, technology can expand our range of communication and bridge the gap between diverse groups of people. Art is about pushing the limits of materials and ideas in order to re-present a portrait of the human condition. With the artful utilization of technology, we are able to boldly innovate and express ourselves through endless dimensions. 

E.A.T. Experiments in Art and Technology from Tabitha Denholm on Vimeo.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Battista, Kathy; Forti, Simone; Morris, Catherine; and others. 2016. E.A.T. Experiments in Arts and Technology. Cologne: Walther König, Köln.

E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights

Food For Thought

Food brings people together. It may sound simple, but sharing a meal opens up a great deal of potential for developing social and emotional bonds between diverse groups of people. This is largely because food, like visual art and education, is a gateway to cultural understanding and appreciation. The culinary arts foster a dialogue about our unique and collective identities in a positive and empowering setting. Contemporary artists such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Rakowitz, Heather Hart and Jina Valentine (Black Lunch Table), and Rirkrit Tiravanija, have used food and the sharing of meals to raise awareness about community and the multicultural issues that affect the way we interact together, relate to one another, and learn collaboratively.

Gordon Matta-Clark was one of the earliest contemporary artists to harness the potential of food as artistic expression and social-emotional communication. In 1971, Matta-Clark, dancer Carol Goodden, and performance artist Tina Girouard, co-founded FOOD, a restaurant in SoHo, New York, which was managed and staffed completely by artists. FOOD was a significant innovation that combined a passion for fine dining with artistic discourse and experiential art making. When FOOD came on the scene, SoHo was in the midst of becoming a major artistic destination, however, there were limited spaces for artists to come together and enjoy a good affordable meal. While Matta-Clark and Goodden typically assumed the roles as chefs, FOOD also invited guest artists to curate meals and take on various roles as the restaurant staff. The restaurant was significant in employing and feeding a diverse group of creative individuals. There was no menu, just whatever inspired the chef and staff on a given day. In addition to providing a good artful meal, FOOD gave patrons an opportunity to meet within a safe space for cultivating creative ideas. Many art and cultural collectives such as the Philip Glass Ensemble, and the Mabou Mines dance troupe, were frequent visitors. While FOOD closed after just three years, it established an important legacy within New York’s urban cultural environment and inspired numerous advancements within the fine art and culinary fields (such as the open kitchen, the offering of seasonal ingredients, vegetarian meals, and food themed installations and performances which were all fairly revolutionary for restaurants at that time). At FOOD, food ingredients became the art materials, cooking became the artistic process, and communal meals were the product of artful expression.

In 1990, Rirkrit Tiravanija similarly rejected the notion that to be an artist one must produce objects (typified as traditional forms of art) such as drawings, paintings, films, or sculpture, through the staging of pad thai at Paula Allen Gallery in New York. Instead of displaying objects on the walls of the gallery, Tiravanija cooked meals for gallery visitors that reflected his diverse cultural background. These meals shifted the focus of the art gallery from an extravagant commercial space into an equitable communal environment where a wide range of people came together to share a unique experience.

Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (2003-ongoing), utilizes the making and serving of food as an expression and celebration of intersectional identity, collaboration, and empathy. Rakowitz’s project was inspired by his Jewish-Iraqi background and the desire to illuminate Iraqi culture to unlikely audiences throughout the United States. Because issues pertaining to Iraqi culture have been either portrayed as negative or simply ignored by the collective culture within the United States, Enemy Kitchen serves delicious food and a powerful and positive message of cultural awareness. With the help of his Jewish-Iraqi mother, Rakowitz compiled a series of essential Baghdadi recipes. Enemy Kitchen eventually took shape as a food truck where American Iraq War Veterans worked alongside Iraqi Refugee chefs to make kebab, kofta, and kubba (among other dishes) and served it to the public. The intimate experience of veterans who fought in Iraq learning to make traditional Baghdadi recipes by hand from Iraqi nationals, is evident of food’s power to unite seemingly different groups of people under a common humanitarian goal: to feed the hungry. Enemy Kitchen also takes the form of an ongoing workshop where Rakowitz introduces and co-creates traditional Iraqi meals in the kitchen with middle and high school students. One of the goals for the project is to incorporate these dishes into New York City’s public school cafeteria lunch menus. The overarching idea for Enemy Kitchen is that food nourishes the body and opens the mind to an alternative discourse around the cultural visibility of Iraq within the American landscape.

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Black Lunch Table’s “The People’s Table” session at the High Line on 7/11/18.

Artists Heather Hart and Jina Valentine also address issues of intersectionality through their Black Lunch Table initiative. The project, combines oral history, formal conversation, and community building around the sharing of a meal and personal expression. Inspired by the traditional lunchroom environment, Black Lunch Table’s The People’s Table brings a diverse group of participants together around a lunch table to engage in candid discussions that are prompted by questions written on cards relating to topic such as identity, equality, equity, and public space. The questions are geared to focus attention on marginalized groups within the community. The prompts provide a platform for individuals with varied life experiences to speak about how they perceive inequality and reflect upon how heterogenous groups within the community can come together to dismantle institutional racism. The discussions are structured to give everyone a voice to discuss the aforementioned topics and to be active listeners to others who have different life experiences and/or perspectives.

All of the aforementioned projects have strong learning capabilities in schools. In the classroom environment, a pot-luck meal, which celebrates the intersectionality of each student’s identity can be planned and implemented. During this process, students will also work collaboratively to create a limited edition cookbook featuring the recipes that are most meaningful and representative of them as individuals and/or as a collective. Students will be prompted in-class with several open-ended questions about what food means to them, their family, and their community. They should have ample time to discuss their answers in groups and make notations about their classmates’ similar and different food-related experiences. Additionally, students will be encouraged to interview family members about their favorite culinary experiences and record specific family recipes to share with the rest of the class.  If an actual meal is to be carried out in class/school, it is vital that students and parents inform the school and teachers about any food allergies or dietary needs.

The meal and the related discussions can be documented through photo, video, and exit interviews, which also serve as assessments. The realized cookbook should be aesthetically pleasing, featuring signs, symbols, and other artistic elements inspired by the diverse range of cultures that are represented in each recipe. A communal meal provides nourishment to the body, mind, and spirit, which is essential for our personal growth and understanding of each other. It produces literal and figurative recipes for success.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Waxman, Lori (2008). “The Banquet Years: FOOD, A SoHo Restaurant” (PDF). Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 8 (4): 24–33.

Food For Thought

Artful Learning Through Active Listening

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Catherine Schwalbe, #FreeListening, 2018. Photo Credit: Pate Conaway.

Active listening is one of the most valuable skills that an educator can bring into the classroom in order to create a successful student/teacher relationship. Active listening means that the teacher is fully engaged and focused on the conversation they are having with a student. There should be no other distractions. The teacher should maintain eye contact with the student, take account of the student’s tone and body language (their expressive nature through which they’re speaking), and be genuinely interested in the discussion that is taking place. It is important for educators to show that they’re truly listening by asking appropriate follow up questions, while being mindful not to interrupt the student or come across as didactic.

Active listening is a strategy that teachers should use to motivate students to become more socially and emotionally present in school. When educators really take the time to listen, they learn a great deal about what their students are passionate about and how they learn. More than anything else, it is important for teachers to get to know their students and to show them that they are respected for what they have to say. Active listening builds a much needed trust between teachers and students, which inspires collaborative learning environments and educational experiences that promote a thirst for inquiry and life-long learning.

So how does this concept relate to the arts? Listening is an important aspect of the artistic process too, in fact, it is an art form in itself. Artists don’t live in a bubble, they rely on the feedback of others in order to help them along with their process and the realization of ambitious projects. This is why formal and informal critiques and/or studio visits are so essential to an artist’s practice. It is helpful for the artist to be able to ask their peers questions in order to gauge how their work is being perceived and whether it is executed well. Listening is an especially helpful technique and skill for the artist whose work is socially engaged and relies on the participation of one or more individuals. This was especially the case for Mel Chin when he listened to the concerns of community members from Flint, Michigan before initiating Flint Fit. Artists such as Catherine Schwalbe,  Pablo Helguera (whose work with oral traditions and storytelling have been written about in a previous post), and Summer Zickefoose, have each incorporated active listening into their work in a way that allows for a genuine communication and artful expression between the speaker and the listener(s). Their work utilizes playfulness, creativity, open-endedness, responsive understanding, and reflection, in order to facilitate meaningful moments of social interaction.

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Summer Zickefoose, Visiting (Belfast), Antrim Road, 2010. Photo Credit: Simon Mills

In her Visiting series (initiated in 2009), Summer Zickefoose invites individuals to join her in a friendly conversation over tea. In 2010, Zickefoose performed the project in Belfast, Ireland –Visiting (Belfast)– on various main streets throughout the city. Zickefoose set up a mobile tea-cart along the street and asked a passerby to join her for a cup of tea. Once the invitation had been accepted, the two individuals sat down, and Zickefoose would ask them how they took their tea. Over tea, they shared an intimate conversation. This face to face interaction afforded the participant, who was a member of the community, with a platform to talk about their day and anything else of significance that they wanted to share. The tea service, a common daily activity in Ireland, as well as Zickefoose’s role as both “hostess” and active listener, offered a sense of comfort and a mutual respect between the two individuals. The invitees were given the chance to express their personal experiences and self-identity, and Zickefoose had the distinct opportunity to obtain a greater understanding of the Belfast community and the uniqueness of its citizens. After each conversation, Zickefoose recorded from memory, the name of the participant, how they took their tea, and what they spoke about onto a tea napkin. To this date, the project has had three different iterations including Visiting (Belfast).

Catherine Schwalbe transforms the actions of listening and being heard into a collaborative art project called #FreeListening (2018-). The ongoing project, which launched at the Annual Chicago Fluxfest over Memorial Day Weekend, gives participants a platform to be heard and/or hone their active listening skills. During a #FreeListening session, Schwalbe provides her undivided attention and listens intently to whatever the person who wants to be heard has to say. At the end of the session, Schwalbe presents the participant with a hand lettered proclamation and tips about ways to enhance their own listening skills. This experience turns listening and being heard into an artful experience where actively sharing and receiving strong social and emotional feelings bestows a sense of catharsis for both individuals. It is truly beneficial for the speaker to be able to express candid thoughts and for the listener to be an advocate for the speaker’s voice to be heard. Schwalbe’s #FreeListening project asks us to reflect on how we can not only be necessarily heard, but how we can become better listeners and understanders too.

In the art classroom, active listening integrated with creative exercises can be a great way to develop strong social and emotional connections between students. This is a great way to encourage students to socialize with each other and develop a mutual trust and respect for one another. To begin, students should be grouped into pairs with someone they don’t normally speak with on a daily basis. Students will take turns talking about an issue that is important to them (the teacher should provide a few motivating questions such as “what was/is the most challenging moment in your life?”), while their partner maintains good active listening techniques. After each student has engaged in both speaking and listening, they will independently fill out a worksheet that assesses how well they listened to their partner (questions will prompt students to relay/restate the information their partner told them). Once they’ve finished their assessments, the students will get back into their pairs and create a work of art that visualizes or symbolically represents the information they’ve learned from listening to each other. For example, students can create a drawing, painting, or collage that re-presents what they remembered about their conversation, or a poem, or a script, which they can perform for the class.

Another idea is to have students set up a site-specific environment within the school (a listening station) where they can conduct one-on-one listening sessions with their peers. Students will create an artist statement describing the intent of the project and simple directions (such as sit comfortably, face each other, maintain eye contact, notice body language, respond only if asked, restate significant moments in the dialogue when necessary for emphasis and understanding) that will initiate the exercise. These listening sessions would require the student whose listening to focus their full attention to what their classmate is saying and only offering a response if the conversation warrants it (or they need to ask for something to be restated). In other words, the listening student engages solely in active listening. The students will switch roles so that each student experiences being an active listener. After they have completed this exercise, students will record what they remembered from the conversation as a listener. These recordings can be assembled and displayed on an aesthetic “listening wall” within the school.

Supporting student’s active listening skills through memorable and creative activities can have positive long-lasting results on their school, home, work, and recreational relationships. In an age where we are largely occupied by interacting through screens and artificial intelligence, it is important to develop interpersonal skills and habits of mind that can build and strengthen our real-world relationships. Active listening and face-to-face socialization without any distractions from gadgets, allows us to be completely in the moment and engaged, while developing empathy, and value for each other. When we become active listeners, we live, learn, and love artfully.

Artful Learning Through Active Listening