Quotes from the Field v.2

This is another edition (see: Quotes from the Field) of inspirational quotes from practitioners of the visual arts, which can be utilized within an educational framework. After each quote, I contextualize the message in terms of how it relates to key pedagogical theories, ideas, and practices. This volume features quotes from Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, Anselm Kiefer, and Helen Frankenthaler.


“Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” – Jasper Johns

Through this quote, Johns astutely expressed the basic tenets of both art and education, which is that everyone learns and perceives things differently through an experiential process. In the artist’s studio, creativity is diversified and expressed through a combination of aesthetic and cognitive elements. Artists often revise their work and even change direction completely while they are working on a project. Sometimes, the exploratory relationship of working with a material is largely responsible for a shift in focus or an ‘ah-hah’ moment. In the educator’s classroom, instruction is differentiated in a way that engages students’ multiple intellegences (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences) and makes learning relevant for a diverse student body.

Artists have a unique role within civilization as creators of experiences and symbolic imagery. These manifestations, reflect an essence of the time and place in which they were conceived. Re-presenting and re-framing ideas within a fluctuating period of time is the crux of human development. As a society at large, we are in a contemporaneous discourse with the past, present, and future. Conceptual ideas and aesthetic imagery can be interpreted many different ways, therefore it is important to maintain a constant sense of exploration, discovery, and insight throughout our creative endeavors.

In the educational realm, challenging students to re-present their ideas through a variety of different mediums and via a multitude of self-directed processes, can bolster their confidence and visual vocabulary. Having students explore the nearly limitless gamut of their creativity by prompting differentiation and flexible thinking takes bold leaps towards their understanding of how to take on ambitious tasks in all aspects of life. Having the ability and understanding of communicating similar viewpoints through an extensive range of processes enables us to be better understood and get our message across to a collective of people who all think and perceive differently.


“More and more, I think about the role of the arts, and as an artist, I think that it’s important that I share the love and peace.” – Yayoi Kusama

The arts are an essential discipline for exhibiting empathy and expressing messages of hope, love, perseverance, and togetherness. Artists do not work in a vacuum, rather, they are highly contributing members of the culture at large. Art is a communication tool, which helps us to connect to one another in uniquely personal ways. Works of art help us understand and relate to the world around us and assign value and meaning to various modes of experiences. A good work of art impacts the viewer on a visceral and rational level. Art education is therefore essential because it combines social, emotional, intellectual, and experiential learning. Learning through art helps us become well rounded human beings who can think both concretely and abstractly.


“What does the artist do? He draws connections. He ties the invisible threads between things. He dives into history, be it the history of mankind, the geological history of the Earth or the beginning and end of the manifest cosmos.” – Anselm Kiefer

Making connections is one of the studio habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) that we hone through artistic engagement. The artist is a synthesizer and an alchemist of experiential life, prior knowledge, and innovative new concepts. Artists delve into their subject matter in a manner akin to the way a scientist utilizes the scientific method, or a historian makes use of primary and secondary sources. Artistic thinking means being critical, inquisitive, and seamlessly bridging the gap between the past, present, and future.

“There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.” – Helen Frankenthaler
Artists make judgements in the absence of rules (Eisner, 2002), which means that they are adept at thinking outside of the box. Art education should inspire student’s abilities to improvise and embrace ambiguity. They should realize that mistakes can be turned into art and that they should look at failure as a motivating principle to try alternative angles to the same problem in order to find what the American philosopher Nelson Goodman described as “rightness of fit.” Artists do this by using their intuition and trusting in themselves, paying attention to the subtleties of their process, and assessing or reflecting upon the consequences of their actions. Employing these steps inform them as to whether their results are successful or if they need to revise their process and make new choices.

Do you have a favorite quote on art, which also can relate to learning? Comment below or contact me.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Eisner, Elliot W. (2002). ‘What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?’ The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. http://www.infed.org/biblio/eisner_arts_and_the_practice_of_education.htm

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Quotes from the Field v.2

Making a list, checking it twice, going to receive some artistic advice

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Jerry Saltz’s 33 lessons for being an artist, 2018. via @jerrysaltz

The influential New York based art critic, Jerry Saltz, recently published a list of thirty-three ‘lessons for being an artist.’ Saltz’s teachings range from being lighthearted, frank, sensible, and mysterious. They are roughly open-ended guidelines with lots of room for the reader’s interpretation. For example, Lesson 14 Compare Cats and Dogs appears confounding and esoteric, however, it can be comprehended in many ways. Cats and dogs are sometimes compared by pet owners and some might declare that they are either a ‘cat person’ or a ‘dog person.’ Saltz is possibly suggesting that debate, discourse, and creating art around topics that are out of your comfort zone or out of the ordinary is an important part of the artistic process. The Greeks invented the expression cata doxa, which translates as ‘contrary to experience of belief.’ One of the studio habits of mind that we learn through the arts is to embrace ambiguity (see: Educating Through Art), which means that artists are aware that at times they will need to make judgements in the absence of any clear-cut solutions. The arts teach us to explore, discover, and make insightful symbolic expressions. If an initial process doesn’t pan out, artists understand that issues are complex and can likely be discerned and attempted in several other ways.

Realizations that resolutions to complex problems require patience and multiple steps and endeavors, is reflected in lessons 5, Work, Work Work; 21 Define Success (what is an achievable and meaningful goal in your mind?); and 25 Learn to Deal With Rejection (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again). The arts enable us to take direct action through creatively assessing/reflecting upon our work and accept risks based on syntheses of what we’ve experienced and learned in prior explorations.

Not everyone will agree with everything on Saltz’s list, which is OK because it is meant as a motivational prompt and conversation starter. It might even be accepted as a work of art in its own right (Saltz certainly takes ample creative liberties). The idea behind these types of lists is to get people to start thinking like an artist. Being an artist means not simply accepting things at face value or making something ‘aesthetically’ pleasing to view. Artists question (studio habit of mind) existing aesthetic, social, and cultural structures and push the limitations of their own media in order to communicate symbolically within society at large. Being an artist encompasses (among other things) lessons 10 Find(ing) Your Own Voice; 15 Understand(ing) That Art is Not Just for Looking At; and embracing the idea that Art Is a Form of Knowing Yourself (Lesson 29).

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Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life, 1967-68.

Saltz’s recent list is in the good company of prior lists from champions of artistic learning such as the late artist, educator, and nun, Sister Corita Kent, who created ten rules for students, teachers, and life in 1967-68. The list has been popularized the composer/artist John Cage, however, while Cage did contribute to the list (see: Rule 10 in the image above), Kent created this list as part of a class project while teaching at Immaculate Heart College, a former private Catholic college in Los Angeles, California.

Kent’s list serves as sagely and flexible advice for living life in a more creative capacity. It incorporates the trials and tribulations, as well as the joys of being an artist (or being artful) and/or an educator. Advice such as Rule 1: Find a place you trust and try trusting it for a while, reflects studio habits of mind like noticing deeply, and identifying patterns. In other words, spend time with your concept, trust the process, and plan for long term interactions and relationships with intricate layers of details, recognizing that is may change over the course of time. This aforementioned methodology is also significant of Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment, which additionally ties into studio habits of mind such as creating meaning, living with ambiguity, taking action, and making connections. Artistic learning, growth, and development is dependent upon explorations leading to a plethora of unique discoveries and insights. Rules 2 (General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students) and 3 (General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students) are in line with educational philosophies such as Paulo Freire’s ‘problem-based learning’ model, where students and teachers are active collaborators throughout the learning process. In fact, Corita Kent’s rules were exhibited around the same time as Freire’s seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) was published.

In the educational sphere, teachers utilize lists as key visual elements and influential tenets that motivate and support learning. Many art classrooms have lists meant to inspire students to be active participants in class and trust their own creative instincts. A common rule among art educators is that ‘artists turn mistakes into art.’ In addition to being Corita Kent’s rule #6, this philosophy was made famous throughout the world by Bob Ross, the renowned television art educator whose show The Joy of Painting aired from 1983 to 1994. Ross said “we don’t make mistakes, we make happy accidents.”

Joy is a key component of Kent’s list too. Kent’s Rule 9 states “be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.”

Perhaps you are an educator who has adorned your classroom with inspirational lists by others or yourself. Or maybe you are a creative professional (or just love creating for fun) and keep influential lists and notes in your studio. These notes and lists might include mental images, which you have not had the chance to record on paper. I am interested in knowing what kinds of tenets are included within your existing lists OR if you have not created one yet, what would some of the core items be if you were to create a list focused on artistic growth, creativity, or artfully learning?*

 

* Please feel free and inspired to answer the prompts in the comments


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Popova, Maria. “10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent.” Brainpickings. 10 Aug. 2010. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/08/10/10-rules-for-students-and-teachers-john-cage-corita-kent/

Saltz, Jerry. “How to Be an Artist: 33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).” Vulture. 27 Nov. 2018. https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/jerry-saltz-how-to-be-an-artist.html

Making a list, checking it twice, going to receive some artistic advice

Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language

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Barbara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989, photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 112 x 112 inches. collection of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California

When used as both object and subject (objectively and subjectively), written words open our minds to an endless array of meaning. All letters in every written language have an aesthetic quality to them. They can add substance and context to a work of art, such as in the work of Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein (who used text in his comic strip inspired paintings to make socially conscious statements and satirize popular culture), or become works of art in their own right such as the New York City subway car graffiti murals by Lady Pink and others. Text carries archetypal and personal significance depending on an array of factors, not limited to how they are arranged, accented, or inflected.

Artists including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Lorraine O’Grady, Yoko Ono, Shadi Harouni, Linda Herritt, Meg Hitchcock,  JF Lynch, Tim Rollins and KOS, and Howard Schwartzberg, have each created visual artworks by literally and figuratively using letters and words. These letters and words hold significance to the maker, however, the viewer ultimately becomes an active and crucial participant in reading, comprehending, and interpreting the piece in their own way.

According to educator and reading specialist, Gail E. Tompkins, comprehension is a “creative, multifaceted process” dependent upon four language skills: phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (Tompkins, 2011). In addition to understanding the formal aspects of the text, the viewer gives new meaning to the work through their engagement with the text based upon a myriad of different facets including education, experience, spirituality, and culture. Visual art and visual culture (such as comics and graphic novels, see: Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture) can strengthen comprehension skills through an experiential application of the studio habits of mind, multiple intellegences, Socratic seminars, and critiques. In visual art, comprehension is both an individual and interpersonal activity. According to Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, and Baker (2001), there are several strategies for comprehending a text. Seven of these strategies are:

  • Making Inferences: In everyday terms we refer to this as “reading between the lines”. It involves connecting various parts of texts that aren’t directly linked in order to form a sensible conclusion. A form of assumption, the reader speculates what connections lie within the texts.
  • Planning and Monitoring: This strategy centers around the reader’s mental awareness and their ability to control their comprehension by way of awareness. By previewing text (via outlines, table of contents, etc.) one can establish a goal for reading-“what do I need to get out of this”? Readers use context clues and other evaluation strategies to clarify texts and ideas, and thus monitoring their level of understanding.
  • Asking Questions: To solidify one’s understanding of passages of texts readers inquire and develop their own opinion of the author’s writing, character motivations, relationships, etc.
  • Determining Importance: Pinpointing the important ideas and messages within the text. Readers are taught to identify direct and indirect ideas and to summarize the relevance of each.
  • Visualizing: With this sensory-driven strategy readers form mental and visual images of the contents of text. Being able to connect visually allows for a better understanding with the text through emotional responses.
  • Synthesizing: This method involves marrying multiple ideas from various texts in order to draw conclusions and make comparisons across different texts; with the reader’s goal being to understand how they all fit together.
  • Making Connections: A cognitive approach also referred to as “reading beyond the lines”, which involves (A) finding a personal connection to reading, such as personal experience, previously read texts, etc. to help establish a deeper understanding of the context of the text, or (B) thinking about implications that have no immediate connection with the theme of the text.

If you compare these strategies with the studio habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) it becomes evident how nicely they align. Additionally, applying Feldman’s Model of Art Criticism is essentially using literary comprehension strategies for visual works of art. The overarching artistic experience enables us to process a work of art, analyze and interpret its meaning, and integrate the aforementioned processes with our prior knowledge and lived experience. The artists featured in this post present us with challenging compositions, which can be deciphered in novel ways based on our ability to comprehend visual and written language and make associations to what we are already familiar with in regards to text and imagery.

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Shadi Harouni, MOSADEGH, 2017, plexiglass, light, fixtures, 16 x 40 x 2.7 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon.

Shadi Harouni’s artwork scrutinizes the history of resistance in marginalized communities and the creative strategies that individuals and groups use to resist erasure. She uses linguistics in an expressive way to symbolize the social and emotional relationship between communication, people, and the culture at large. For example, her sculpture MOSADEGH (2017), illuminates the narrative of Reza Nik, a shomemaker from Hamedan, Iran who named his shop Mosadeqh (the name of the first elected prime minister of Iran who was overthrown in a CIA coup) several days after the Revolution. Harouni’s poignant adaptation of the neon sign (one that is very familiar to commercial establishments throughout the world) installed by Nik, plays with the way the original letters that in Farsi read as ‘MSDQ’, were changed over time due to orders from the local authorities. After he was told to change his shop’s name, so that it wouldn’t bear likeness to the deposed prime minister, Nik dropped the first letter. The sign then spelled out the word “Sedqh,” which in Farsi means “truth.” As fate would have it, the light in the ‘S’ burnt out after a few years and the sign spelled “Deqh,” which means death by heartbreak. While there is a substantial amount of unpacking and prior knowledge that is needed (especially if you are not familiar with Arabic linguistics), the imagery of a neon sign with burnt out letters is a familiar sight within cities and towns throughout the world. We have likely encountered a sign advertising or describing something that is missing letters, thereby altering the meaning.

Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger’s oft-monumental conceptual artwork, utilizes words and phrases that address modern clichés, stereotypes, and proverbial ideas about identity and materialism. Kruger generally applies bold lettering (typically using the typeface Helvetica) with black and white photography, which raise our awareness about the ways in which commercial advertisements, news and mass media information affects the decisions we make (such as the products we buy, the way we act towards each other, the ideologies we hold as truth, etc). Kruger’s application of pronouns (ex: “you”, “your”, “I”, “we”, and “they”) give weight to her tabloid-esque satire of patriarchal systems and other social, political, and economic hierarchies.

While Kruger’s most iconic work (see: I shop therefore I am, 1987; and Your body is a battleground, 1989) fuses text with imagery, both she and Holzer suggest that the words themselves are aesthetic. The bold letters form engaging sentences, which interact with the public space or environment (such as a gallery or museum) where they’re displayed and implore us to comprehend them in conjunction to out prior knowledge and personal experience.

Holzer’s Truisms (1977-79) are a series of slogans and maxims addressing the “usual baloney they are fed” in daily life (Tate Modern, “Jenny Holzer,” gallery label, October 2000). Holzer constructed her Truisms in a manner akin to subversive popular advertisement so that they reach and captivate a large and diverse audience. A close attention to the detail of Holzer’s work by the public, reveals that these dictums are in fact, works of creative provocation. Holzer makes reading comprehension a fun, humorous, and engaging activity.

Another artist who mines through mass media information and profoundly changes the way it is comprehended is Lorraine O’Grady. Her Cutting Out the New York Times (from 5 to November 20, 1977) series combined disparate sentences from New York Times headlines in order to make relevant connections to her lived experiences. Through an artistic process of employing the cut-up poetry technique, this body of work makes uniquely introspective statements derived from public information. These works of art humanize headlines and other mass media buzzwords, which are generally used to captivate and attract viewers (to sell papers or generate online ad revenue via ‘clicks’) by sensationalizing the human experience. Cutting Out the New York Times largely commented on her intersectionality as a woman of color within the arts scene.

Yoko Ono uses words in an expressive and symbolic manner to encourage participation between the artist and viewer and raise awareness about ourselves, each other, and the collective environment we share. In artworks such as her Instruction pieces, Ono presents written instructions for us to comprehend, synthesize, and engage with in a meaningful manner, which requires deeply personal connections to be made from Ono’s often open ended sentences. These text based works place creative responsibility on the viewer and are intended to be visualizes as “paintings to be constructed in your head” (Persse, 2010).

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Meg Hitchcock, Mantras & Dragons, Letters cut from “The Confessional: A Full and Free Inquiry into the Right, Utility, Edification, and Success of Establishing Systematical Confessions of Faith and Doctrine in Protestant Churches,” holes are burned in paper, 26 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

While artists like Holzer, Ono, O’Grady, and Kruger alert our sensibility to the way linguistical phrases affect our social and emotional lives, Meg Hitchcock explores the way that written words influence religion and spirituality. Hitchcock creates awe-inspiring artwork using letters, phrases, and mantras, which she cuts out from major religious texts and appropriates in order to reveal a similar thread between the world’s major religious faiths. Hitchcock’s interpretation and appropriation of passages deconstructs the exclusivity it was originally intended to be representative of. She does this by selecting words from the Christian bible and arranging them into a passage from the Koran, or the Torah, and vice versa. Hitchcock’s arrangement of spiritual verses from sacred texts exposes the commonality that exists between religions, which are often perceived to be at odds with one another due to social, geographical, and political issues. In addition to the conceptual poignancy in Hitchcock’s work, her intricate designs draw a strong visual recollection to ornamental and sacred objects and patterns that are central to all the major faiths.

Linda Herritt, JF Lynch, and Howard Schwartzberg utilize the aesthetic properties of letters and words to form insightful connections with regards to the artistic process. Through this endeavor, they assume the role of a narrator who playfully and poignantly engages and confounds viewers.

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Linda Herritt, Seafoam Spectra, 2016, Handmade paper and photo transfers; Text lists wall paint color names, 30 x 40 inches. Produced as part of the Workspace Residency, Dieu Donné, New York

Herritt uses written language as an element of art and principal of design, as well as a means of conceptual expression. Herritt’s text-based work builds upon subject matter that ranges from lineups of bands playing shows in Brooklyn, a compendium of traditional Chinese brushstrokes, or a catalog of common side-effects from pain medications (to name a few). She composes these elements as a shorthand, a method of rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols, to talk about specific cultural phenomena. The way that Herritt arranges and distorts the form of each letter confounds a simple reading of the text and challenges the way we perceive the combination of image and text. Additionally, the unique juxtaposition of words creates the effect of traditional drawing techniques such as cross hatching and shading.

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J.F. Lynch, Beautiful (Full of Beauty), 2017, Courtesy of the artist.

J.F. Lynch also arranges letters and words in a manner that is indicative of language’s dual aesthetic and conceptual possibilities. To J.F. Lynch, words are everywhere. They exist alongside other sensory information as memories of stored information that amplify what we see, and stay with us when we travel. Lynch’s subtle word paintings and drawings play off of Surrealistic biomorphisms as well as the tromp l’oeil text found in contemporary graffiti and Medieval illuminated manuscripts. He combines these decorative lettering constructs through a dramatic value scale that calls to mind the tonality in the work of contemporary artist Robert Longo. Similar to Longo, Lynch uses graphite to ‘sculpt’ his letters to give his paintings and drawings the illusion of being three-dimensional. They appear and disappear within his black-and-white charcoal works. They give a conflicting emotional sensations appearing both beautiful and foreboding. Despite the conflicting feelings, there is an overall playfulness within his typographic expressionism. The letterforms in his work are often jumbled or distorted, blurring the line of legibility and enticing the viewer to try and decipher them. Lynch gives some hints within the titles of his artwork for those painstakingly searching for the message. One example is Beautiful (full of beauty), 2017. In this drawing, Lynch creates a portrait of the word “beautiful” by pulling each letter apart and arranging them throughout the picture plane. His dramatic chiseled treatment of each letter makes them feel like they’ve come into our realm. As word-portraits, Lynch’s primary objective is to establish these words as tangible objects for us to engage with.

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Howard Schwartzberg, from “The Muse ic Series,” 1995-96, pen and dirt on paper.

Howard Schwartzberg incorporates specific words, sentences, and organic materials such as dirt, wax, fish scales, and dust within his drawings. Similar to Lynch and Herrit, the line, shape, and placement of the words represent formal elements of art and are used as the focal point for these aesthetic compositions. Schwartzberg’s drawings symbolize the process of making art and give us an introspective view of the thought process he engages with inside his studio. Words are repeated as if re-occurring in thought or rubbed and crossed out as if it were a mistake. Furthermore, the phrases depicted in each drawing suggest a play on words, which enables the viewer to construct their own visual imagery by interpreting and deciphering their multiple meanings.

These previously discussed contemporary artists are several of many visionaries whose work provides varying examples of how viewing text and imagery together can lead to an enjoyable and profound engagement with particular messages, themes, or vocabulary. While some of the work would be challenging for emerging readers and language learners, the aforementioned artists and artworks can help students with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, sentence construction/cohesion, reasoning and background knowledge, working memory, and paying attention (being active and observers. See: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

All of the strategies for reading and comprehending text can be supported in creative and unique ways within the educational sphere. In the art classroom, students can start the year by creating fanciful text based artwork. This not only helps assess where they are at artistically, but also what their comprehension skills are. Additionally, it is a great way to learn names and get to know the students in a meaningful way. For inspiration and motivation, students can look at examples of graffiti from the 1980s (see: Style Wars) through the present, as well as illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. After scrutinizing these aesthetic movements, they should compare and contrast the two text-centered art forms, decode symbolic meanings, and make inferences about the content. After discussing the properties and analyzing the contents of each art form, students should be prompted to make connections between these works of art and their own lives. They can then create a work of art focusing on the embellishment of their name (nickname, or initials) that is self-aware and cognizant of their relationship to the world around them. This project challenges students to relate what they learned about text based art by employing several different comprehension strategies. It is a fun way to introduce visual vocabulary (the elements of art and principals of design), and strengthen students’ understanding of written language.

Another idea is a unit inspired by the cut-up poetry technique of Lorraine O’Grady, Barbara Kruger’s juxtaposition of words and media imagery, and the truisms of Jenny Holzer. This unit might be well served in collaboration with the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum when students are learning about strategies for reading and writing poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Students should analyze the work of the aforementioned artists, and discuss how they each re-present mass media stereotypes, clichés, and contemporary narratives within their artwork. Students should research several different newspaper, magazine, and journal articles (appropriate for their reading levels), follow the strategies for reading comprehension, and suss out important information from the publications, which they can use to create an aesthetic response to an issue that holds significance to them.

An additional way of strengthening literacy and critical thinking via visual art is by connecting art projects to literature that students are reading in other classes. Again, such a unit/learning segment can be designed and implemented in coordination with the ELA curriculum. The work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S is a prime example of how contemporary art practices can bolster reading comprehension skills (see: Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy and What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017) ). Starting in the 1980s, Rollins and his middle-school aged collaborators (who named themselves K.O.S.) started to make work in response to the books they were reading for class. By focusing in on common tropes, themes, and important passages, K.O.S. synthesized literary narratives into abstract works of art, replete with sociocultural symbolism.

There is a current traveling exhibition called Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, which showcases the work of contemporary artists who re-imagined themes from fairy tales. The realized works comment on stereotypical treatments of gender and power dynamics in several traditional fairy tales. This exhibition is emblematic of how developing strong reading comprehension techniques enables us to understand and digest problematic themes in existing literature and expose them in novel perspectives for renewed evaluation.

Students can comprehend, analyze, and critique a text they’re reading in class in terms of whether it conveys pertinent and/or problematic issues, as well as the ways it might hold significance to specific contemporary social, political, and cultural issues that they are aware of.  Several visual responses can be implemented to exhibit what the students have comprehended from literature. A few of which include: producing graphic novels that are adapted from their assigned reading; re-imagining a story line or dialogue through performance; and creating a mixed-media typographic portrait of a character in relationship to their intersectional identity (ex. using key passages from the book and media sources to form a symbolic image of key character traits of literary figures).

Literature, language, and the visual arts are all essential modes of expressive communication and therefore can be creatively synthesized in order to sincerely portray and contextualize the human condition. Understanding text and written language in terms of aesthetics and visual culture is beneficial to professional artists and educators alike. The examples of how visual artists utilize written language and are inspired by literature, provide ample opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration within a pedagogical framework. It would benefit the scholastic community if art departments and literary departments work towards incorporating strategies and habits of mind in each discipline in order to make developing literacy (both visual, oral, and written) relevant and engaging for students.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). “Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research.” Review of Educational Research, 71, 279–320.

Lee, Andrew M.I. “6 Essential Skills Needed for Reading Comprehension.” Understood. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/reading-issues/6-essential-skills-needed-for-reading-comprehension

Persse, Jason. “From a Whisper to a Scream: Following Yoko Ono’s Instructions.” Inside/Out. 10 Jul. 2010.

Quinn, Chase. “How Lorraine O’Grady Has Challenged a Segregated Art World.” Hyperallergic. 3 Dec. 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/473547/lorraine-ogrady-rom-me-to-them-to-me-again-scad-museum-of-art/

Tompkins, Gail E. (2011). Literacy in the early grades: A successful start for prek-4 readers (3rd edition), Boston: Pearson. p 37

 

 

Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language

We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits

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Froebel Gift #3

In the book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (2017), Mitchel Resnick asserts that the playful and choice based curriculum typically employed in early educational settings should be the foundation for life-long learning. He says that educational models should focus on a materials based exploration and student-driven projects that employ creative problem solving skills. He argues that a great way to do this is by strategically incorporating digital manipulatives and computer programming into the curriculum. Resnick is a distinguished educator, computer scientist, and researcher who is currently the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, Director of the Okawa Center, co-founder of the Computer Clubhouse, and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, the latter of which contributes insights into ways that technological progression can benefit pedagogy.

Resnick is optimistic regarding the embrace of technology as the catalyst for teaching to the whole child. He has first hand insight of the benefits gained from creative play within collaborative technological environments because of the positive results he’s experienced creating and implementing the Computer Clubhouse and the programming language Scratch. In 1993, Resnick and Natalie Rusk co-founded the Computer Clubhouse in order to provide a safe and collaborative space for youth living in underserved communities to learn programming and explore original ideas for tech based projects. The Computer Clubhouse empowers 25,000 youth each year to build their computer skills, become creative innovators, and develop self esteem and efficacy through their work.

Scratch is a child-centered visual programming language, which makes it easier for kids to develop their own animated stories, video games, and interactive artworks. Scratch programming has inspired ambitious child-centered initiatives (many good examples are mentioned in Lifelong Kindergarten) and the creation of a global community where new ideas for projects are posed, creative templates and technical strategies are shared, and peer-to-peer critiques offer constructive support. Through a playful and interpersonal embrace of technology, Scratch and the Computer Clubhouse are educating and emboldening the future innovators of the world.

The arts, science, engineering, mathematics, and education are just some of the many domains that have been affected by technological progression. In the visual arts, the advent of different types of paint significantly influenced the way individuals communicated and even profited. During the Northern Renaissance (15th century Europe, north of the Alps), the embrace of oil paint on a wooden substrate (oil on wood panels), signified a technological revolution (see: paint technology) because it enabled artists to explore techniques like glazing and layering paint. In the later half of the 15th century, canvas was introduced as an alternative to the portable but still expensive and cumbersome wooden panels. The advent of canvas as a surface for oil paint was a strong boost to the artist/patron relationship and by around the 16th century, oil painting was established as a commodity (see: Berger, 1972).

Traditional oil painting was a stable form of aesthetic technology that artists used to depict the world around them until the introduction and embrace of photographic medium and processes in the mid-19th century. As a result of photography, some artists who remained devoted to painting, developed new techniques and explored subject matter that was indicative of contemporary technological interests such as industry, scientific theory, the machine, and the sequence of movement (i.e. Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and Viennese Kineticism). American painters such as Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, and Elsie Driggs, were incredibly enthusiastic about the technological advances during the early 20th century, and subsequently invented an aesthetic mode called Precisionism, which championed modern technology such as factories, bridges, and skyscrapers. Art in the 21st century includes digital video, interactive games, sound sculptures, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

As evident from prior history, the idea that education, the arts, and technology should compliment each other is not solely a novel objective that reflects our digital age. It is true that we are experiencing an increased interactivity (far more than ever before) with digital technology throughout the world, which makes exploring, learning, and enjoying the possibilities of technology all the more beneficial. However, technology has a longstanding relationship with learning and the two disciplines have largely been symbiotic partners, enabling many important breakthroughs in each field. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary, and university settings. In previous posts, I have described the way the arts were seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Even before machinery dominated the American landscape, Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education, specifically drawing, to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Drawing programs in schools were often centered on technical rendering skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools were established for industrial laborers and the curriculum incorporated artistic techniques and artisan principals that celebrated craftsmanship and good design. In fact, vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and developed a mutual (albeit on and off again) relationship up until the end of World War II (Sterling & Burke, 1997).

Unfortunately, as Sterling and Burke (1997) described, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. The school curriculum gradually shifted towards a heavy focus on common core subjects (in preparation for colleges and universities and corporate jobs), standardized tests, and quantitative assessments, which resulted in art and vocational programs being cut and underfunded in schools. While this is still a major issue today (see: The State of the Art…In Schools), the arts have been making a steady comeback as a key educational component in tandem with other academic areas of study.

The utilization of technology via the artistic process has led to educational curricula that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) learning. STEAM signifies the importance of fluidly combining creative and collaborative endeavors, which stem from our desire to understand and interact with the world in a more meaningful and productive manner. Contemporary artists have been at the at the forefront of collaborative projects with scientists and engineers (see: E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights), therefore it makes sense that STEAM learning is employed in educational settings because it combines rational thinking and scientific processes with inventive and mindful uses of technology. This combination can be beneficial in designing and implementing expressive, empathetic, and sustainable approaches to address major aesthetic, sociocultural, environmental, and economic issues (see:Activating Art and Education for Activism). Some educators have even suggested the addition of R (reading and research) so that STEAM becomes STREAM. This addition is appropriate because literacy and research methods are essential in the arts as well as in science and technology.

Perhaps the most important breakthrough in education was the advent of Kindergarten, a sociocultural revelation, which foresaw the importance that play and materials based exploration has on innovation. The contemporary version of Kindergarten (and Pre-Kindergarten) was the design of German educator Friedrich Fröbel. Fröbel was a mentee of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional, and embodied approach to teaching. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity, and cognition. Fröbel realized that the best way to educate the whole child is through activities and play. He stated:

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.” (Published in an issue of his magazine Ein Sonntagsblatt für Gleichgesinnte (A Sunday Paper for the Like-Minded) (See: http://www.froebeldecade.com/sonntagsblatt/)

Fröbel was especially devoted to early childhood education and opened a school for young children in Bad Blankenburg, Germany in 1837. He recognized that children from infancy to age three experience dramatic cognitive development, although prior systems of education had been lacking for this age group. In 1840 he invented the word ‘Kindergarten’ to describe his school’s curriculum. The methods of embodied learning taught at Fröbel’s inaugural Kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening, and playing with a new technological breakthrough he created called Froebel Gifts. Froebel Gifts are educational tools that inspire active learning through play and choice-based projects. Each of the Froebel Gifts was given a numerical value by Fröbel, which signified the order in which they should be introduced to the child. The gifts build upon the child’s prior knowledge and experience and enable the child to create and understand spatial relationships through artful activities.

The original gifts are still produced and used in classrooms and are the link to digital manipulatives such as LEGO Mindstorms, as well as other digitally programmed building toys that inspire self-directed play, which Fröbel coined as ‘Freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Froebel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design (see: Intro to Froebel Gifts), they are highly advanced in the way they promote social, emotional, and cognitive development. Froebel Gifts were one of the most revolutionary innovations for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with a means to playfully explore, manipulate, and make insightful connections to the world around them. The influence of Froebel Gifts is highly noted by the visionary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set of Froebel blocks as a child and has stated the influence that playing with these blocks had on his work as one of the most innovative architects of the modern era. Wright stated: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (George, 2000).

Individual artists and art collectives such as Antonio Ballester Moreno, Meow Wolf, and Get Your Life!, take art and play very seriously in their multidisciplinary work. Many of their ongoing projects and creative endeavors embrace the idea of playful explorations leading to insightful lifelong learning and other benefits.

Antonio Ballester Moreno is a Spanish born contemporary artist and curator whose current artistic philosophy and practice is similar to Fröbel’s 18th century pedagogical philosophy and methodology. Both individuals explore(d) the interconnection between creativity and activities, as informed via an understanding and engagement with the natural world. Moreno’s Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) (2018) is a literal ‘garden for the children,’ which is the actual German translation of Kindergarten. The sculptural installation consists of ceramic mushrooms and fungi sculpted by school children in São Paulo, Brazil, which Moreno arranged on the floor in the form of a mandala. It references Moreno’s ongoing aesthetic, social, and pedagogical interest, which manifests itself in his oeuvre of abstract geometric artwork.

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Antonio Ballester Moreno, Mountains #2, 2016, acrylic on jute, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Christopher Grimes Projects, Santa Monica, California.

Within Moreno’s body of work, the concept of building on prior knowledge and experience is established through explorations that lead to insights within the framework of abstraction. For example, his large paintings such as Sol (2018), and Mountains #2 (2016) utilize an essential visual vocabulary from the elements of art (shape, line, color, balance, and form) to create archetypal imagery out of rudimentary geometric relationships. These paintings employ the aesthetics of geometry and abstraction to create new meaning and make connections to recognizable forms that already exist in nature. They illuminate how both natural and synthetic forms are all interrelated in our collective lexicon. This is akin to the way the Froebel Gifts build upon each other and enable young children to expand their vocabulary, cognition,  and creativity through activities involving play with building blocks and manipulatives.  The link between pedagogy, nature, and abstract artistic discourse was even more evident in ‘common/sense,’ a group show that Moreno curated for the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo. The exhibition featured his own work – such as the aforementioned Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) – alongside a display of objects from Froebel’s Gifts and mathematical games conceived by Fröbel.

Meow Wolf is a large multidisciplinary collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The group consists of members who have a wide range of unique personal experiences, academic knowledge, and professional backgrounds. Some of the members include artists, architects, computer scientists, designers, film producers, performers, and writers. With such an expansive creative team, Meow Wolf is able to create immersive projects where visitors can interact and fully experience the work of art in a personal and memorable manner. A work of art is meant to be experienced repletely and not just passed over with a quick fleeting glance. The summation of the artistic experience consists of the artist(s) conceiving the work and the viewer’s sensory responses to viewing and interfacing with the work. Because we each perceive things uniquely, Meow Wolf’s work enables an open-ended set of responses from the viewer. In the video above, each of the visitors describes their experience within Meow Wolf’s site-specific installation differently. It is like ‘being inside a Salvador Dali painting’ for one individual, while another person described it as ‘a big mystery’ where you have to put together clues, and yet another person interpreted it as ‘different levels of experience depending on your degree of consciousness.’ Several people aptly said that ‘it’s so cool,’ and mentioned that mere words wouldn’t do the total experience justice.

Overall, there is a unifying element to the installation, which reminds us that art, technology, and life are intrinsically connected. While we each have our own individual experiences, we also share in the collective experience that is possible through art and a cognizant embrace of technology. Meow Wolf’s installations are fun to view solo, but arguably even better to enjoy with a large group.

In his book Art as Experience (1934), Dewey stated that there is a continuity between works of art and everyday life. Engaging a work of art from an experiential and socially relevant  point of view is more fulfilling than bestowing it as an idealized object of “high art” (art for arts sake) placed behind a glass frame or high upon a pedestal. In other words, Dewey is arguing that art should serve a utilitarian purpose through its relative usefulness in reflecting and supporting our daily lives and activities. This philosophy makes even more sense when viewing Meow Wolf’s work, which can be summarized as a type of ‘art for the masses.’ Meow Wolf’s work is complex, however, it is open, inviting, and stimulating to viewers from all walks of life.

Dewey’s idea of democracy and socialization through the arts is elevated in the fun, playful, and socioculturally conscious work of Get Your Life! (GYL!) This youth-led collective/production company is made up of middle school students who harness art’s ability to empower individuals and communities. GYL! utilizes both traditional and digital materials to make a variety of art work that speaks to the current experience of the student artists. They reflect upon topics that have significance in their lives, as well as overarching themes (like consumerism, technology, education, politics, sports, etc.) that are experienced throughout the society they are a part of. The students collaborate with a wide range of professional studio artists and art organizations to realize multidisciplinary and multimedia driven projects. The consistent adult in the collective is Lee Heinemann, an artist and educator who helped develop the concept along with youth participants at 901 Arts in Baltimore, Maryland’s Better Waverly neighborhood.

One of the central projects that GYL! focuses on is video production, which is an in demand skill for today’s professional environment. The videos that GYL! creates address issues that are both highly personal as well as significant of a collective conscious among the middle school age collective. The themes in the videos are topics that are largely of interest to young adolescents, such as fashion, games, phones and electronics, and television programs like Empire (see: KARISMA: The Karisma Daniels Show). They also delve into some deeper concerns such as equality, equity, and social justice, which is playfully expressed in the video NIA: Queen Chastity Chrystal Enchantment II.

While viewing the recent Get Your Life! exhibition, titled Commons Collaboration: Get Your Life! at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I happened to have my copy of Dewey’s Art as Experience in my shoulder bag. The enchanting student art work was aptly reflective of the statement on page 132 (page number might vary depending upon the edition):

“Whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.”

The exhibition was a refreshing way of validating that artwork within institutions remains connected and committed to the human experience.

Overall, the use of technology by artists, educators, and students (of all ages) in mindful ways can be extremely beneficial to their social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. The keyword in the previous sentence is ‘mindful.’ Technology for technology’s sake and art for art’s sake isn’t the answer. We all need to focus on incorporating these disciplines into our daily lives in a productive and egalitarian manner. As evident in the theories and work of Resnick, Fröbel, Dewey, Moreno, Meow Wolf, and GYL! experiential learning through engaging social and meaningful processes empowers artists, techies, and laypeople to maximize their creative pursuits and enjoy a fulfilling life. As our collective society becomes more dependent on technology, we need artists and educators to reveal the enormous learning potential that technology can have when it is utilized in a both a utilitarian and highly expressive manner.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Brosterman, Norman. (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Adams Inc.

Butler, Richard. & Oldham, Elizabeth. (2007). Digital Manipulatives as Froebel’s Gifts in the 21st Century? Pre-Service Teachers Report on their Experience of Using Lego Mindstorms with Children in Irish Schools. In R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2007–Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1417-1424). San Antonio, Texas, USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/24762/.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Efland, Arthur D. (1990). A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hersey, George. (2000). Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 205.

Pietrowski, Amy. “The Differences of STEM vs. STEAM Education (and the Rise of STREAM).” EdTech. https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2017/08/history-stem-vs-steam-education-and-rise-stream.

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

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits

Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture

Throughout his 70 year-long career, Stan Lee (1922-2018) created many of the major comic book superheroes that are known throughout the world. He introduced us to a diverse array of characters with varying degrees of superpowers and complex personal narratives, such as Spider Man, The Black Panther, and the mutant collective known as the X-Men.

Lee’s work in comics impacts our collective culture in a manner that goes above and beyond mere entertainment. Through the many comics that he published under his company, Marvel Comics, Lee has inspired generations of children, adolescents, and adults to think critically, develop their literacy skills, and expand their imaginations. His comic books are embedded with real life issues, which makes his otherwise superhuman characters appear approachable and….well, human. In Lee’s comic book universe, traditional linear storytelling and simple dualities are turned upside down and revised to reflect a more Humanist form of fiction. His comic book stories surpass the obvious, tried and true (but stale) tale of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong, i.e. the bad guy commits a crime that good guy then has to solve and bring them to justice. Instead, the Marvel characters and their associated problems represent similar multifaceted issues that we all face in our daily lives. Issues such as race, gender, violence, corruption, and authoritative governments, are common causes for the characters in Marvel Comics to grapple with. The typical ‘good-guys’ and ‘villains’ are actually well-rounded individuals with traits that are both admirable and destructive. This is because Stan Lee incorporated very humanizing elements into each character that he introduced into the realm of visual culture.

For example, Magneto, the main adversary that the X-Men faced, was once an ally and collaborator of Dr. Charles Xavier (Professor X), the founder of the school for mutants that supports the X-Men. Both individuals are portrayed as influential leaders who stand up for the rights of marginalized groups, however, their methods of working towards achieving this goal are in stark contrast with one another. While they are each important advocates for mutant rights (which can be interpreted as being symbolic of all marginalized groups within society), Professor X calls for a diplomatic approach of integrating mutants and non-mutants together, while Magneto calls for the use of force against non-mutants, who have treated the mutants as second-class citizens. Parallels to historical and current events and figures can be made using the two ideologies to express different forms of activism and sociopolitical organization. For example, some critics have suggested that they are both inspired by historical Civil Rights leaders. Dr. Xavier is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, while Magneto has been compared to Malcolm X (Godski, 2011). Lee’s narratives regarding the relationship between Magneto and the X-Men tread carefully as to not express moral superiority of one ideology over another, rather, the characters are portrayed in an open-ended manner, which is indicative of multiple social, cultural, and political thoughts. Lee himself stated that he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.”

Blurring fiction and non-fiction is something that makes Marvel Comics a socially engaged form of art and literature. Stan Lee and his collaborators kept their comics relevant with the times, which is poignantly evident in the creation and development of Captain America. Captain America is a patriotic hero, introduced during WWII, who initially defeated Fascist regimes, and embraced the progressive idea of multiculturalism. However, over the course of the comic’s ongoing story line there have been ominous warnings that patriotism could lead to the same oppressive ideologies that Captain America opposed. At one point, Captain America represented zealous Nationalism and right-wing propaganda. This happened when Captain America’s original alter-ego, Steve Rogers, had taken a hiatus (he was thought to have been dead) from society and Captain America’s persona was taken on by an admirer named William Burnside. Through Burnside, Captain America embodied a darker side of patriotism. Burnside represented all that could go awry when blindly led by specific dogmatic ideologies in lieu of facts, critical thinking, and empathy.

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Stan Lee’s ‘Soapbox’ on bigotry and racism.

While Captain America addressed Fascism, Lee’s character, The Black Panther, took on racism. The Black Panther character was introduced in 1966, which makes him the first black superhero in mainstream comic book culture. The complex and compelling narrative of the Black Panther was inspired by the Afrofuturist genre, where the culture of the African diaspora is combined with fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, and non-Western metaphysics. Afrofuturism envisions a world that overcomes White Supremacy and oppression of Africans by Western forces. In the Black Panther series, the protagonist is T’Challa, the king and guardian of a fictional African nation called Wakanda. Wakanda is a thriving nation where scientific advances go above and beyond the scope of the science introduced by Western civilization. Most significantly, Wakanda is a place where blackness is celebrated and issues such as discrimination and racism are confronted directly. When the comic book character was adapted into a film in early 2018, an educator by the name of Tess Raser, designed and implemented a curriculum around the major themes (multiculturalism, feminism, racism, scientific progress, etc.) of the Black Panther narrative.

In addition to encouraging social justice, diversity, and critical thinking, Lee was an advocate of visual literacy. In 2010 he formed the Stan Lee Foundation in order to bring attention to the integration of literacy, pedagogy, and the arts. The mission of the foundation is to support programming and methodologies that expand student’s access to literacy resources that promote cultural diversity.  The fact that Lee was a strong supporter of literacy is not surprising, considering that comic books and graphic novels provide an excellent framework for developing and strengthening reading and creativity. Because comic books combine visual and written language, they’re a prime resource for learning to make associations between language and other forms of expression. This can be especially beneficial for students who are emergent language learners (or developing bi-lingual learners) because the sequential narratives within comics are presented in an accessible manner that uses symbolic and descriptive imagery to bolster the written dialogue.

As a result of the wide range of themes and symbolism present in comic books, several contemporary artists have been attracted to them. Artwork by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Linda Stein, Raymond Pettibon, Chitra Ganesh, re-present comic book imagery in order to address contemporary sociocultural themes.

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“Slave Traders” (Captain America), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983.

When assessing his prior artistic experiences, Jean-Michel Basquiat stated “I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist…really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.” Despite this claim, Basquiat developed a highly personal database of symbolic imagery, which is as iconic as the Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters that inspired him. While comic book superheroes make up a relatively small part of his prolific oeuvre, it is obvious that Stan Lee’s creations represented an important part of Basquiat’s artistic development.

Basquiat’s use of superheroes in his paintings make connections and create new meaning around issues of intersectional identity. Basquiat’s incorporation of different sources from popular culture, visual culture, and history, reflected his poignant responses to the pandemic of bigotry and violence against black individuals. The superheroes in his paintings included both fictional Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters, as well as real-life African American influences such as Mohammad Ali and Charlie Parker. Basquiat’s heroes are both triumphant and tragic and embody the many trials and tribulations of black culture within the American landscape.

While satire and political critique have ancient roots (see: Elliot, 2004), the origin of the comics as a socially engaged visual artform dates back to the 18th century in England, where individuals like William Hogarth and James Gillray created the precursor to the modern comic strip. Hogarth’s series of politically inspired satire was called “modern moral subjects,” his most famous of which included A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode. Gillray was a renowned caricaturist, who famously created burlesque criticisms of authoritative figures such as King George III (see: Farmer George and his Wife) and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1841, Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells founded a magazine called Punch, which mass produced politically charged comics by a variety of artists. The magazine was highly successful and lasted until 1992.

Hogarth, Gillray, Mayhew, and Landells’ work inspired many other artists to take a socially conscious approach to their work. For example, Thomas Nast, one of the seminal American satirists of the 19th century used the power of visual imagery to make sweeping statements about corruption. His 1874 wood-engraving Jewels Among Swine, which depicts the police as swine with batons, engaging affably with gangsters, while arresting women activists that were protesting against the lack of enforcement against crime. This graphic style of shocking and captivating satirical narration is evident in the work of many contemporary artists such as Spain Rodriguez and Raymond Pettibon.

Rodriguez’s inspirations came from underground comix scene (see: Estren, 1974), motorcycle culture, and progressive politics. His 1969 comic strip Manning, is a film noir inspired narrative of a crooked detective who takes little issue with using his authority to lie, cheat, steal, and brutalize innocent civilians. The graphic nature of Rodriguez’s art is reminiscent of  modern comic book artists such as EC Comics‘ Wally Wood.

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Raymond Pettibon, No Title (We destroy the), 1983. Private Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Raymond Pettibon’s artistic origins manifested within the punk rock music scene during the late 1970s. He made artwork, zines, and album covers for punk bands such as Black Flag. Pettibon’s unique style of brash line drawing combined with symbolic text, poignantly connect fine art with popular and underground visual culture. His drawings establish a contemporary dialog with the socially charged political cartoons of Thomas Nast and the expressive art of Goya (among others). Pettibon frames his imagery in a novel way that references both past and present narratives while consciously leaving room for interpretation. As an artist whose inspiration frequently is derived via comic book culture, Pettibon uses the comic strip format to deconstruct certain sociocultural frameworks (see: Zucker, 2017). For example, comic book icons depicted as homosexual lovers (Batman and Robin), or his 1983 drawing No Title (We destroy the), can be interpreted as a mocking rebuttal to Fredric Wertham’s condemnation of comic books as being degrading to culture because of sexually suggestive themes (see: Wartham’s Seduction of the Innocent, 1954).

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Linda Stein, Justice for All 698, 2018, collage/archival inks, paper, wood, 79 x 24 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Linda Stein and Chitra Ganesh each implement comic book styles and themes into their artworks, which focus on the intersectionality of identity and systemic marginalization. Linda Stein portrays archetypal superhero symbolism and iconic characters to comment on the strength, audacity, vitality, and perseverance of ‘the other’ throughout history. Steins Knights of Protection series (2002-) is inspired by armor and uniforms worn by superheroes and other powerful figures throughout time. These “androgynous sentinel-like figures” are intended to stand guard against oppressive and demeaning forces. Stein also creates wearable sculptures, which she calls Body Swapping Armor (2007-) that embody guardian-like qualities and give the wearer a sense of self and collective value. Some of the symbols on these protective suits resemble insignia affixed to the outfits worn by comic book heroes. In addition to her sculpture, Stein’s ongoing mixed-media series Superheroes, Icons, and Fantasy Females (2007-), appropriates the likeness of women from comic books to question what makes a hero and address stereotypical gender references in popular culture.

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Chitra Ganesh, Forever Her Fist, 2006, digital c-print on archival inkjet paper, 21 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon, New York.

Chitra Ganesh’s artwork articulates new meanings from both personal and recorded history and mythology in order to address gaps in collective storytelling. Similar to the Afrofuturist movement, Ganesh’s work envisions alternative multicultural scenarios, where gender, sexuality, race, and spirituality are re-presented in a nonlinear fluid state that is devoid of preconceived identity constructs and hierarchical structures. Many of her artworks take the recognizable format of comic books, although Ganesh is much more interested in creating open-ended dialogue than with presenting a sequential narration. She stated:

Much of my visual vocabulary across media engages the term ‘junglee’ (literally ‘of the jungle’, connoting wildness and impropriety), an old colonial Indian idiom (still) used to describe women perceived as defiant or transgressing convention. I’m deeply indebted to and inspired by feminist writing that dismantles traditional structures in favor of radical experiments with translation and form including that of Clarice Lispector, Anne Carson, and books like Mrs. Dalloway, and Beloved. In layering disparate materials and visual languages, I aim to create alternative models of sexuality and power, in a world where untold stories keep rising to the surface.

Because of the previously described social, emotional, and cultural connections within comics (and the work of visual artists inspired by comic culture) and their strong ties to literacy, comic culture should be recognized, studied, and widely utilized in the educational sphere. In 2001, Michael Blitz organized The Comic Book Project, which supports curricular connections between the visual arts and language arts. When the project was initially implemented at a public elementary school in Queens, New York, many of the students responded to the task of making a personal comic strip by depicting specific social issues that they experience on a daily basis within the urban environment. The benefits of the students’ engagement with the comic book genre included a noticeable increase in artistic and literacy development, as well as a strong sense of efficacy, social awareness, and empathy (Blitz, 2004).

Additionally, comics and graphic novels (a comic inspired long-form book) are a great accompaniment to history and social studies curricula. The aforementioned Marvel comic book characters such as the X-Men (Civil Rights and Holocaust studies), Captain America (immigration and Fascism), and the Black Panther (multiculturalism, the African diaspora, and Racism), each provide elements of historical fiction that can be analyzed and discussed as students learn about related historical accounts. Additionally, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, is an essential graphic novel that tells a social and emotional story about the Holocaust; while John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s graphic novel March, expresses a jarring and uplifting account of the Civil Rights era. Like Spain Rodriguez, Spiegelman got his start in the underground comix scene. After listening to primary accounts of his father’s experiences during Holocaust, Spiegelman created a moving tale of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival during the Nazi regime’s reign of terror. In Maus, Spiegelman symbolically represented the Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats. In March, John Lewis tells his own biographical story as an activist during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Stan Lee’s legacy lives on in everyone who opens up a comic book and feels empowered to live, love, and learn through the socially engaged content. While we’re unlikely to develop superhuman powers, it is our human elements (which happen to also be Studio Habits of Mind) such as exhibiting empathy, thinking critically (self-reflection and assessing our actions), and taking bold actions to confronts difficult situations, that might just save the day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Blitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: The Lives of Urban Youth.” Art Education, 57 (2), 33-39.

Bitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (7), 574-588.

Dittmer, Jason. (2013). Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Elliott, Robert C. (2004). “The nature of satire”, Encyclopædia Britannica.

Estren, Mark James. (1974 and 1992). A History of Underground Comics. New York: Straight Arrow Books/Simon and Schuster, 1974; revised ed., Berkley: Ronin publishing, 1992.

Godoski, Andrew. (2011). “Professor X And Magneto: Allegories For Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X”. Screened. Archived from the original on 2011-06-18. Retrieved 2018-11-16.

Johnson, Jason. “How Stan Lee, Creator of Black Panther, Taught a Generation of Black Nerds About Race, Art and Activism.” The Root. 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.theroot.com/how-stan-lee-creator-of-black-panther-taught-a-genera-1830406797

Taylor, Paco. “Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artwork Reveals Powerful Superhero Influences.” 28 Sept. 2018, Medium. https://medium.com/@StPaco/artist-jean-michel-basquiats-artwork-reveals-powerful-superhero-influences-811a1c6673e7?fbclid=IwAR0khXZe5UCcUzJlpsfsUfNY1ZIX27Tm6slItFKLapECOc3Lspf8F9vOS1g

Zucker, Adam. “Raymond Pettibon: Visual Vehemence.” Rhino Horn. 20 Feb. 2017. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/raymond-pettibon-visual-vehemence/

Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture

Mosaics and Murals, Celebrating the Plural

Murals and mosaics have a unique place in the collective culture of a society. Like all forms of art, the purpose of public art is to communicate, however, the mural and mosaic speak in an especially elaborate manner due to their size and where they are displayed. Since these works of art are intended to be highly visible in the public space, the design and implementation of a successful public artwork should incorporate elements of the environment where it will be on view. These details might include (but are not limited to) honoring historic moments or figures, addressing public health concerns (see: Keith Haring’s Crack Is Wack, 1986), raising environmental awareness, or celebrating particular achievements of the local community.

Some examples of community focused public art projects include murals, mosaics, and site-specific relief sculpture created by artists and arts organizations such as Mural Arts Philadelphia, the Chicago Public Art Group, John T. Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Pedro Silva and CITYarts’, John Ahearn, Rigoberto Torres, and various contributing artists to the Audubon Mural Project. These projects illuminate ideas/hopes/dreams, important community personalities, inspirational achievements, pertinent issues, and other relevant topics. 

Murals and mosaics are a vibrant source of enjoyment and efficacy for cities across the world, which is why you’re likely to encounter them nearly everywhere you go. Besides being a destination and attraction for art aficionados, murals and mosaics celebrate diversity and multiplicity of identities and heighten our consciousness to complex conditions in our social and cultural environments. 

The desire for public art’s beneficial role within society was evident during the Great Depression (1930s-1940s) when the United States government introduced the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The majority of the WPA’s focus was to provide jobs for the large percentage of unemployed individuals by initiating ambitious projects that included the construction and expansion of infrastructure and housing. The ambitious program also included the Federal Art Project, which provided financial stability for artists who were commissioned to design and implement public artworks. The idea was that having art in public spaces would increase pride, optimism, and civic engagement throughout the population. Besides giving artists a stable income, the Federal Art Project livened up municipal buildings such as hospitals, schools, and public spaces. There was also an important educational component to the Federal Art Project that employed artists from the Art Teaching Division in settlement houses and community centers where they taught classes to nearly 50,000 children and adults.

Community-based art projects remain a key element to providing inspiration and creative collaboration among diverse individuals and groups. One of the longest operating public arts organizations in the United States is in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, also known as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia’s rich history as a major hotbed during the 1970-80’s graffiti movement, makes the city an ideal place for collective mural-making, which strengthens inner city relationships and enhances economic opportunities for local communities. Mural Arts Philadelphia was founded by Jane Golden in 1984 with a mission to ignite change through the collaborative production of murals throughout the city. The organization’s work ” is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness, and progress across all of society.” Through a wide variety of public art-centered programs, Mural Arts Philadelphia empowers individuals to be agents of change through the cathartic and educational avenues. Major contemporary artists such as Kent Twitchell, Hank Willis Thomas, and Meg Saligman, have worked with Mural Arts to create public artworks that address local themes of unity and provoke progressive social, economic, and political dialogue. Restorative justice is a major focus of Mural Arts’ creative force. Through a transformative creative process, members of the community, victims of violence, and formally incarcerated individuals work together with an “aim to restore and rebuild communities affected by crime, to maintain inclusivity and sensitivity for victims, and to reduce the current recidivism rate.” The program realizes art’s important role as a therapeutic medium that brings people from all facets of life together to create symbolic meaning on a myriad of issues, exhibit empathy for one another, take action to make transformative changes, and reflecting/assessing (see: Educating Through Art).

Another influential and longstanding community focused arts organization is the Chicago Public Art Group, which was founded in 1971 by a group of artists who desired to incorporate the artistic process of making murals and mosaics alongside residents from Chicago’s urban communities. Each public art project that the Chicago Public Art Group takes on is informed through a democratic discourse and participation with professionally trained artists and local residents within many of Chicago’s multicultural neighborhoods. These projects are prominently displayed in public spaces such as on the walls of buildings, highway underpasses, or railway viaducts. Among the organization’s core members is Olivia Gude, an influential and renowned contemporary artist and arts educator. Gude is also a founder of the Spiral Workshop, an experimental art education program, which provides art programs for teens, as well as a research platform for art educators to hone and develop contemporary visual arts curricula. In addition to working with the Chicago Public Art Group and teaching (she is currently a professor of art education at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Gude wrote a comprehensive survey on Chicago’s public art scene, which is titled Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures. Gude’s book is an in depth resource for the powerful usage of public art as a form of placemaking, social engagement, and education.

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Wall of Respect (1967-1971) corner of 43rd Street and Landley Avenue, Chicago, IL.

One of the major sources of inspiration for the city’s public artists like Gude and the Chicago Public Arts Group was the Wall of Respect. The Wall of Respect was a mural painted in 1967 on the side of a building at the corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. The project was organized by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and fourteen visual artists contributed to the mural’s formation. The subjects of the landmark mural were inspirational figures from the African American past, present, and contemporary history including Martin Luther King, Jr., Nat Turner, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Aretha Franklin, and Harriet Tubman. The mural’s fate was ultimately sealed in 1971, after a fire damaged the building’s structure and it had to be torn down. However, the mural’s status has been largely cemented into the hearts and minds of Chicago’s citizens and efforts were taken to create resources that make the mural’s imagery accessible to current and future generations. According to Gude, the Wall of Respect largely catalyzed the creation of a community mural movement throughout the city.

Like Philadelphia and Chicago, New York City has developed an impressive past and present narrative in regards to public art. Between 1972 and 1974, visual artist Pedro Silva and architect Phillip Danzig worked in conjunction with the Cityarts Workshop (an organization incorporated in 1971, which is now known as CITYarts, Inc.) to empower local children in the design and implementation of mosaic scenes for a 400 foot bench (titled Rolling Bench) encircling the tomb of Ulysses S. Grant (W. 122nd St & Riverside Dr, New York, NY). Silva and his young collaborators created both fictional and fantastical imagery that symbolically represented their individual and collective personalities.  The juxtaposition of the whimsical bench with Grant’s stark Neoclassical tomb presents a valuable discourse between the past and present in the context of America’s distinctiveness as a melting-pot of cultural identities. Grant was a Civil War General who led the Union Army to victory against the Confederacy. As a result of the war, the enslavement of African-Americans was legally abolished. While the war ended slavery, the fight social justice and Civil Rights for minority citizens such as African Americans and Latinx is still ongoing. Many of the youthful participants who worked on the mosaic with Silva lived in upper Manhattan (and Bronx) neighborhoods predominantly consisting of black and Latinx individuals. This project provided an opportunity for them to become involved in the world around them through realizing their artistic potential and transforming their community.

 

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Marthalicia Matarrita, Black Vultures, 2014, Located at 3627 Broadway, New York, NY, 10031. Photo courtesy of Audubon Mural Project.

A recent and ongoing public art project based in upper Manhattan is the Audubon Mural Project, which utilizes contemporary art to raise awareness of the natural environment, which is often obscured within urban settings. The project, a collaboration between the National Audubon Society and Gitler &_____ Gallery, commissions artists to paint murals of 314 species of North American birds that are threatened by climate change. The location of these murals are within the neighborhood where famed ornithologist, naturalist, and painter, John Audubon lived. While New York City has a diverse ecology, it is often overshadowed by towering buildings and covered by concrete pathways. The Audubon Mural Project places vibrant depictions of these vulnerable birds in a manner that is unmistakably visible to all members of the community. Seeing beautiful and uniquely rendered bird species painted on the sides of bodegas and apartment buildings, breaks up the urban aesthetic uniformity. The project embraces art’s ability to build empathy towards environmental awareness, prompt us to reflect on how we can make a difference, and inspire us take action in making transformative changes to preserve our ecosystem at large. Marthalicia Matarrita, an artist born and raised in Harlem, New York painted a mural of the black vulture, a species of scavenger birds that are enduring significant habitat loss. Regarding the social and emotional connection between the species of vultures and the world at large, Matarrita stated:

“I found that this particular bird gets many negative reactions from people. Not many people understand that its natural survival methods are not predatory—they’re scavengers. They are ones that have the leftovers. Every animal has a role to play and the vulture plays an intricate role in the cycle of life. Helps me sympathize to other beings that struggle daily to live.”

Another important New York City based organization is Groundswell, which was founded in 1996 by a contingent of artists, educators, and activists. Groundswell fosters artistic collaboration and learning by means of visual literacy, in order to improve relationships and cooperation, as well as inspire activism among youth from neighborhoods throughout the city’s five boroughs. Groundswell’s team of teaching artists work directly with school-age groups on projects that aim to empower their voice and develop pride in order to make transformative changes in their community.

In addition to dedicated public arts organizations working in the urban environment, municipalities are involved with commissioning public art projects for permanent or long-term display within the metropolis. For example, Chicago’s Public Art Collection includes over 500 public artworks exhibited throughout more than 150 municipal facilities across the city (its most iconic work is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, located in Millennium Park).

In 2017, the city of Chicago produced its first “Year of Public Art” with proposals for new public artworks, a Public Youth Corps, a Public Art Festival, city-wide exhibitions, performances, and tours. The city commissioned several major public art projects including a mural conceptualized by Kerry James Marshall, which was funded by Murals of Acceptance. Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary artist that recently transferred his successful studio practice to the street by creating a monumental mural titled Rushmore (2017), which adorns the west side of the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E Washington St, Chicago, IL). Marshall grew up in South Central Los Angeles and now lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. His work is widely exhibited and collected and he is considered among his generation’s most renowned painters. Marshall’s paintings are typically very large, however, the 132-foot-wide, 100-foot-tall Rushmore represents his largest work to date. The mural pays tribute to twenty women from Chicago’s past and present, who have made vital contributions to the city’s cultural scene.

Marshall’s aesthetic composition  resembles the formation of Mount Rushmore, which is a massive stone monument in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, depicting the carved faces presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. In Marshall’s painted version of Rushmore, the faces are carved out of the trunks of gargantuan trees while cardinals carrying white ribbon fly around them. In the background is Chicago’s city skyline with its notable architecture. Overall, this mural offers the public an enlightening perspective that shifts away from the mainstream patriarchal paradigm. In a monumental way, Rushmore addresses the gender gap in the subject matter of public art, where women are not represented as equally or equitably as men in works of public art.

Marshall’s devotion to the city he calls home is a sentiment felt by many other artists such as John T. Biggers, John Ahearn, and Rigoberto Torres. These artists have contributed public artworks in order to raise the collective consciousness of their local community and celebrate its multicultural identity.

The murals of John T. Biggers address a myriad of issues affecting the lives of black Americans in domestic settings. Biggers was not only a brilliant muralist, as a professor of art education, he taught generations of artists and art educators. His devotion to community engagement and creating works of public art that are symbolic of African American history, was influential in Rick Lowe’s development of Project Row Houses in Houston (See: Want to Make Art and Education Great? Start with Community). Biggers’ public artwork responded to racism, patriarchal structures, and social inequality, and  represented uplifting domestic and spiritual scenes inspired by symbolism from African myths and legends. Realizing the importance and the need to portray women more prominently in society, his murals often featured seminal African American women such as The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education (1952), which depicts vignettes of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Phillis Wheatley. The painting envelops the wall of a room at the Blue Triangle Multi-Cultural Association‘s headquarters in Third Ward, a historic and culturally rich African-American community in the southeast Houston management district.

Another iconic Houston mural by Biggers’ is History of the International Longshoreman’s Local 872. Biggers painted this massive mural in 1957 to celebrate the labor contributions by African American longshoremen working on Houston’s docks and ports. It was initially dedicated to the International Longshoreman’s Local 872, a predominantly black worker’s union.  For years it covered a wall within their union hall until black and white unions were integrated. The painting is currently displayed on a wall in the second-floor auditorium of the ILA Local 24‘s headquarters. It is an awe-inspiring testament to the endurance and pride of black local laborers.

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John T. Biggers, History of the International Longshoreman’s Local 872, 1957, casein on Masonite panels, 48 x 288 inches.

Collectively, Biggers’ Houston murals, which he painted in historically black neighborhoods, make up an important part of Houston’s multicultural fabric. They express and symbolize the spirit, strength, compassion, and ingenuity that African American groups and individuals had in shaping the American landscape.

John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres have devoted the majority of their artistic careers to representing the South Bronx community in a personal and unique manner. After meeting at Fashion Moda, an influential community center and art gallery in the South Bronx, Ahearn and Torres collaborated throughout the 1980 and 90s and occasionally still work together, although Torres relocated to Florida.

Ahearn and Torres frequently worked outside of their studio on the sidewalk where they interacted with passersby and invited members of the neighborhood to pose for their relief sculptures, which were created using a lifecasting process. Ahearn and Torres made two copies of each cast and gave one of the sculptures to the sitter. The duo also created large scale murals, which are affixed to the facade of neighborhood tenement houses, which makes them an integral part of the community’s landscape. These murals, made between 1981 and 1985 are: We Are A Family (Layman, Victor and Ernest, Kate, Towana and Staice, Felix and Iris, and Smokey) located at 877 Intervale Avenue; Life on Dawson Street (Thomas, Barbara, Pedro with Tire, and Pat and Lelena at Play) located on Dawson Street at Longwood Avenue, Bronx, NY; Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street I (Frieda, Javette, Towana and Stancey) located on Intervale Avenue at Kelly Street, Bronx, NY; and Back to School (Maggie and Connie, Kido and Ralph, Jay with bike, Titi in Window) located on Walton Avenue at 170th Street, Bronx, NY.

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John Ahearn, Ismael Ismael (Tire Shop)  2017
epoxy enamel on fiberglass
(L) and Monxo BX  2017, acrylic on plaster (R)

In 2017, Ahearn teamed up with a local South Bronx business and a local college professor to create two relief sculptures that are installed on the facade of the Marwa Tire Shop (250 E. 139th St., Bronx, NY). The figure on the left is a local mechanic named Ismael. Ismael works at the tire shop that his likeness presides over. He holds an impact wrench for changing tires and wears a yellow Superdry t-shirt. To Ismael’s right is a relief of Monxo Lopez, a Puerto Rican born professor who resides in the Bronx and teaches Latinx culture at Hunter College. The two sculptures are part of a dialogue about the unique and diverse nature of the neighborhood, which is mix of small businesses, industry, residential housing, and academic institutions. Through the subjects he has depicted, Ahearn’s public artworks highlight the importance of keeping local businesses thriving and honoring the essence of the neighborhood’s diverse residents.

In the educational sphere, murals are a popular school placemaking project across the country because of their overarching benefits such as expressing unifying messages, diversity of identity, and pride. Planning murals involves organizing students and faculty in a democratic decision making process, which eliminates the banking model of education in favor of problem-posing pedagogy. Mural making embraces studio habits of mind such as making connections, creating meaning, taking action, and assessing/reflecting. The initial discussions, research, and delineation of teamwork is as equally important as the final product. The fruits of the creative and collaborative labor are generally exhibited in a highly visible location in order to engage the school community, creating a public display to rally around (see Andrea Mastrovito’s Kickstarting project: Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art). Murals might also inspire further inquiry and activism into important themes and issues that affect student’s lives both in school and in their neighborhoods. Overall, public art in schools is elementary, my dear readers!

Do you have experiences creating murals or public art within a particular community? Are you an educator that has collaborated with your students on the creation of a mural? I’d love to hear about it so please comment below or send me an email.  


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Capps, Kriston, “The Gender Gap in Public Sculpture.” 24 Feb. 2016. CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/design/2016/02/the-gender-gap-in-public-sculpture/463170/

Chan, Yuki. “5 Ways School Wall Graphics Build Community and School Pride.” 27 Oct. 2016. RainMaker Blog. https://www.rainmakersigns.com/blog/5-ways-school-wall-graphics-network-with-students-and-stimulate-morale

Cohen, Michele. 2009. Public Art for Public Schools. New York: Monacelli Press.

Goodyear, Sarah. “Can Murals Change a Neighborhood?” 2 Jul. 2014. CityLab. https://www.citylab.com/design/2014/07/can-murals-change-a-neighborhood/373831/

Gude, Olivia (2000). Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Kennedy, Roger G.; Larkin, David (2009). When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy.  New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.

Miss Rosen. “A Portrait of love, life, and community in the South Bronx.” 30 jul. 2018. huck. https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/art-2/a-portrait-of-love-life-and-community-in-the-south-bronx/

Mosaics and Murals, Celebrating the Plural

A Neighborhood Divided Will Not Stand: An Artfully United Neighborhood For All

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Bob Clyatt, “Greencastle Indiana,” July 2018, hydrocal and Carrar marble, 18 x 35 x 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist

In the renowned television program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers blended cognitive behavioral psychology with social and emotional storytelling to create a unique and unexpected brand of children’s television. Rogers had a novel and inspiring message for his school-age viewers, which he posed in the form of a question each episode: “won’t you be my neighbor?” This simple question packs a great amount of symbolism that resonates strongly within the divisive world we live in. Fred Rogers truly understood that empathy, play, and making meaningful connections with each other and our environment is a key component of healthy development.

Rogers believed that everyone is special because they are unique. He expressed this sentiment consistently through the artful narratives of his show, as well as in the community where he advocated for progressive, ‘whole child‘ education and funding for the arts.

Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.

The enduring understanding that I gleaned from watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood during my formative years was that life can be very difficult, and there are times when we feel frustrated, anxious, afraid, and uncertain. However, we must retain our love for ourselves and others. When we truly value ourselves then we value others in the same regard, and that process creates a community of caring, compassion, and collaboration, just like in Mr. Rogers’ fictional Land of Make-Believe.

The Land of Make-Believe is not unlike the real world. In fact, the diverse characters, their unique personalities, and the issues they dealt with are all realities within our own society. The Land of Make-Believe was ruled by King Friday XIII, a monarch who exhibited a wide range of emotions and often provided the foundation for Rogers to address complex social, cultural, economic, and political issues. For example, in one episode, King Friday XIII was overcome with a severe case of xenophobia and built a wall to keep the neighborhood ‘safe’ from outsiders (note: this was in February of 1963, shortly after the Berlin Wall but decades prior to the current border walls and Nationalist rhetoric of contemporary political despots). The citizens of the Land of Make-Believe took on King Friday XIII’s irrational decree through heartfelt and symbolic gestures, epitomized by Lady Aberlin sending balloons with encouraging and empathic messages over the wall; which convinced the autocrat to tear down the wall. While King Friday XIII was frequently making rash decisions, he was surrounded by loved ones like his wife, Queen Sara Sunday, who represented rational thinking, balance, and sympathy within the royal court. Ultimately, the kingdom flourished because each member of the society found common ground and supported one another.

Educators are aware of the fact that their classroom is a diverse environment, populated by students with varying degrees of prior educational knowledge and life experiences. Students come from unique social, emotional, cultural, and economic backgrounds, which inform the ways they interact with the people and environment around them. This means that students will approach a singular issue with different perspectives. Some will align with the majority of the class or school, while other perspectives might not reflect the popular opinion. We see this outside of schools where adults are at great odds with one another over issues like global warming, healthcare, immigration, the types of media/information they consume, and gun control.

Because of the wide range of social and cultural influences throughout our society, it should come as no surprise to an educator if a student responds to a prompt with an answer completely opposite to the values of the educator. It is important to validate each student’s response in an open and respectful manner. Debate is a healthy discourse to have in a classroom as long as it remains civil and students are challenged to provide facts that back up their statements rather than blunt opinions. Unsubstantiated facts and hateful remarks should never be tolerated. Students and educators need to find ways to communicate and collaborate when they may not completely agree. Teaching community building skills and learning to work across our differences, prepares today’s students to be social justice leaders of the future.

Art does a great job of validating an individual’s personal expression, while allowing us to see what others value. Art presents a humane picture of reality when it is difficult to find common ground around certain social, political, or spiritual issues. Contemporary sculptor, Bob Clyatt is a Humanist sculptor who believes in art’s ability to unify a diverse group of people. His ongoing project, Shared Spaces, promotes multicultural art-centered learning by making insightful connections to what makes communities unique. Clyatt has been traveling throughout the United States to implement this collaborative artwork that is equal parts physical sculpture and Social Sculpture (See: Everybody is an Artist). Shared Spaces invites the public to collaborate with the artist and each other throughout the creative process. Each project begins with the artist asking individuals from the community to choose objects and materials and press them into clay to create a mold. The community members can choose from an array of object the artist has collected (that resonates with them), or they can bring their own personal objects with them. The amalgamation of images overlaps the stars and stripes of the American Flag (which Clyatt sculpted prior to the collaborative process) and results in a communal expression of the community where the work of art was crafted.

The sculptures that have been created thus far illuminate a wide range of viewpoints and interests that are present within the community. During the creative process, Clyatt engages with his collaborators in a participatory dialogue and develops a greater understanding of the diversity of interests and opinions within different communities outside of his own. Upon reflection and assessment of the final works of art, the beauty of diversity is enlightening and profound. Through art making (and viewing and reflecting upon works of art) we can find creative solutions to bridging divides. Shared Spaces provides a safe space for interpersonal dialogue and personal symbolism to be shared in hopes of building a unifying narrative that while we have a varying degree of ideological and sociocultural differences, we can all be brought together and work alongside one another.

A Neighborhood Divided Will Not Stand: An Artfully United Neighborhood For All