Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education

Wendy Red Star, Fall, from the Four Seasons series, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

While schools across the United States are typically closed today, the observance of Columbus Day is one of the most controversial holidays because of the horrific treatment of the native peoples at the hands of Columbus and his men. While historical reactions to Columbus have been mixed, the results of his 15th century voyages undeniably led to the colonization of what is now defined as the Caribbean, as well as North and South America. As we can learn from history and as we observe in the present era, indigenous people have been severely marginalized within American culture.

The oppression of Native Americans has a nefarious connection to the American educational system, when during the 19th century, Native American children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools. The ultimate goal of these schools was to assimilate the students into the white anglo-saxon culture, effectively ‘white-washing’ the rich cultural background and prior knowledge that the children had about their indigenous identities. Even today, schools aren’t doing enough to recognize and address the academic and cultural issues of Native American Students. As long as schools perpetuate dehumanizing myths about Native Americans (Dunbar-Diaz, 2016), maintain mascots and athletic team names that are derogatory to Native Americans, and close in observation of Columbus Day, the white-washing of indigenous culture will continue to marginalize generations of students.

One way that educators can shift the paradigm towards an equal, equitable, and just environment is through art-centered learning. The arts can illuminate the rich cultural diversity of historical, modern, and contemporary Native American life. Art helps us to synthesize our intersectional identities and look deeply and profoundly at the contributions of many different cultures within our society at large. Each of the ten studio habits of mind, described by Lincoln Center’s Capacities for Imaginative Learning program, have significant benefits to understanding and participating in multiculturalism. These habits of mind include questioning, embodying, making connectionsexhibiting empathycreating meaning, taking action, and living with ambiguity. While each of the ten habits of mind are relevant, this post will focus on these seven specifically in regards to a multicultural focus around Native American identities. When introducing Native American culture in the curriculum, it is essential for educators to impress upon students that this is a contemporary issue and not just a historical account. One way to do this is by introducing contemporary artists whose work makes connections to Native American issues (both culturally and aesthetically), contextualizes Native American experiences, creates a unique voice and new perspectives for understanding Native American identities, inspires us to positively participate in the discourse, and leaves us with enduring understandings about culture and diversity.

Making connections means that a student will activate prior knowledge and experience with newfound knowledge and experience in order to collaboratively participate in an ongoing cultural dialogue. Art is useful in uniting diverse individuals to represent the intersectionality of our culture at large. For example, the work of Jeffrey Gibson (previously featured on this blog), explores the interconnectivity between his Cherokee-Choctaw background and his contribution to the contemporary art scene. Gibson’s blending of these two seemingly different identities reveals the similarities between aspects of each community. Gibson incorporates Cherokee-Choctaw aesthetics (such as patterns from blankets and quilts) and traditional Powwow dances within an inquiry based practice that blurs the lines between traditional and contemporaneous meanings. Contemporary art embraces living with ambiguity, an important studio habit of mind, which teaches us that there are multiple meanings and perspectives that can be considered when viewing and creating works of art. The objects that Gibson creates are not so neatly defined as being from one particular interest or culture, which is because Gibson’s artistic influences manifest from different facets of his multilayered identity.

Another important contemporary artist who explores Native American identity through experimental and intersectional processes, is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Quick-to-See Smith’s body of work comments on a myriad of themes, which have personal significance to her as a Native American, a woman, and an artist. She works with abstraction, a visual language that is prevalent in all cultures, in order to make connections between Native American art and the canon of Western Art. Her paintings have been interpreted as incorporating elements of art from Native American crafts and Western art movements (such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop-Art, and Minimalism) to create new meaning, symbolic of the intersectionality of indigenous people and the universal dialogue that all forms of art encompass. About her aesthetic style, she has stated:

“I look at line, form, color, texture, etc., in contemporary art as well as viewing old Indian artifacts the same way. With this I make parallels from the old world to contemporary art. A Hunkpapa drum become a Rothko painting; ledger-book symbols become Cy Twombly; a Naskaspi bag is Paul Klee; a Blackfoot robe, Agnes Martin; beadwork color is Josef Albers; a parfleche is Frank Stella; design is Vasarely’s positive and negative space.”

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Untitled (Memory Map), 2000, mixed media on paper, 46 x 34 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Quick-to-See Smith also uses representational imagery that are indicative of stereotypical Native American depictions in order to signify the absurdity and malignant treatment of indigenous culture within colonial society. For example, her ongoing I See Red series incorporates images of Native Americans from popular and consumer culture to address the tokenism, objectification, and exploitation of indigenous culture for the benefit of colonial powers.

In addition to Gibson and Quick-to-See Smith, Brad Kahlhamer, Charlene Teters, and Wendy Red Star are important artists for students to know. There is a great deal of potential to enhance overall meaning, understanding, and relevance of indigenous cultures by incorporating the work of these contemporary Native American artists (and others, as this is just a short list of names) into the curriculum.

Brad Kahlhamer, Doll, Mixed Media, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Brad Kahlhamer’s oeuvre consists of a wide range of mixed media work that explores his ambiguous Native American roots, while making significant connections to Native American culture at large. Kahlhamer was born to a Native American mother, however, he was adopted and raised by German-American parents. Although he isn’t affiliated with any tribal nation, Kahlhamer has spent his career as an artist and musician engaging with tribes throughout the country in order to learn about their traditional and contemporary customs. This engagement along with his experiences living in avant-garde artist communities has informed his personal artistic practice. For example, Bowery Nation (1985-2012), was inspired by an inquiry-based approach to how Native American cultures relate to subcultures such as the New York City punk and underground art scene. Bowery Nation asked (hypothetically) ‘what if’ there was a tribe called the Bowery Nation? What would their rituals be? What objects might they create? Fusing his knowledge of Hopi katsina figures and his experience living and working on the Lower East Side (New York City), he realized Bowery Nation as an installation of 100 small figures constructed from materials scavenged throughout the urban environment. Bowery Nation can be interpreted as an embodiment of an alternative tribe, one that Kahlhamer is deeply connected with due to his intersectional identity, prior education, and life experiences.

While learning about the significance of Hopi katsina figures, students can simultaneously analyze Kahlhamer’s rendition of these figures, which signify objects of originality (each figure represents a deity who has unique characteristics), spirituality, and (through Kahlhamer’s critical lens) cultural appropriation for mass consumerism (hence the dubbing of them as ‘dolls’ by Westerners). After discussing the traditional and contemporary implications that these figurines embody, students can create their own Hopi inspired figure to represent their unique sense of self.

Wendy Red Star’s oft-humorous and surreal works of art make serious comments on traditional and contemporary Native American culture by satirizing Western depictions and appropriations of indigenous identity. For example, the romanticized ideology of Native Americans being ‘one with nature,’ is given an absurd and playful treatment in her Four Seasons series of photographic environments, which feature props such as inflatable deer or cut-out coyotes juxtaposed with traditional and archetypal Native American objects, costumes, and gestures.

Wendy Red Star also addresses the treatment of Native American men and women in the Western canon by calling attention to the idealized and impersonal representation of Native Americans in historical photographs taken by non-Native American photographers. Often, these photographs were presented with little to no information or background about the sitter. Through her own research symbolized through annotations on historical photographs of indigenous individuals, evident in her Medicine Crow & The 1880 Crow Peace Delegation series, Wendy Red Star points out how the tokenism and generic portrayal of the Native American by non-Native photographer influences the viewer’s perception. By adding her annotations, Wendy Red Star asserts the sitter’s unique cultural identity back into the photograph.

After looking at Wendy Red Star’s work, students can be assigned a project where they scrutinize and question the way imagery is used in popular culture. They can describe, analyze, interpret, and judge how specific individuals and cultures are portrayed through various forms of media (advertisements, TV shows, comic books, memes, etc.), and create a visual critique of the idealized presentations in order to show a more factual and empathetic perspective.

Charlene Teters’ work as an artist, activist, and educator has a significant cross-disciplinary focus on the intersection between indigenous art and the colonial culture that has neglected and sought to erase tribal identity. One of the major issues that Teters addresses is the negative perception of tribal imagery within athletic culture. The depiction of exaggerated caricatures of Native Americans as logos and names of sports teams is a racist practice, which Teters and other Native American activists seek to end. Through her artwork, teaching, and social practice, Teters educates the public on the dehumanizing effects that these mascots have in perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes of  indigenous culture and identity.

After learning about Teters’ work, students can reflect upon the mascot(s)/logo(s)/team name(s) in their own school through a critical lens. Are they part of a school environment that contributes to cultural appropriation or objectification? If so, what action can they take to ensure the removal of the negative mascot/logo/team name? For example, students can work collaboratively on a multi-disciplinary public campaign to change the mascot/logo/name to something that is both not culturally appropriate and relevant to study life on campus. They can start by raising the school community’s awareness to the existing  negative cultural appropriation and then begin to find a more common ground through surveying student’s interests in order to come up with a positive representation of the school, which embodies the rich multicultural diversity and interests of the student body. 

While each of these aforementioned artists approach their work from unique perspectives, altogether, they powerfully address significant issues affecting Native Americans today. Their work scrutinizes the past by presenting iconographic imagery and archetypes of Native American culture, which make poignant connections to the tokenism of indigenous people within the American narrative. These artists visualize multiculturalism by combining Native American and Western identities, which results in the creation of new meaning and awareness for contemporary social and cultural issues. Through the work of these contemporary artists we might begin to understand the complex nature of intersectionality and the need to shift the paradigm in order to represent cultural diversity in a celebratory and inclusive manner.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

In addition to the artists discussed above, a recent exhibition at Bronx Art Space called Humble (on view through October 13, 2018) curated by Cougar Vigil & Eva Mayhabal Davis features the work of 15 Native American artists.

Nelson, Talia, “Historical and Contemporary American Indian Injustices: The Ensuing Psychological Effects” (2011). Commonwealth Honors College Theses and Projects. Paper 6.

Saccaro, Matt. “This is What Modern Day Discrimination Against Native Americans Looks Like.” Mic, 20 Oct. 2014,

Dunbar-Diaz, Roxanne. “The Miseducation of Native American Students.” Education Week, 28, Nov. 2016,

Rose, Peter. “Eclectic Image-Maker’ Paints Contrast.” Arizona Republic, 10, Jan. 1982.

Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education

Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art

Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

The art critic Ben Davis (2018) recently described the artist curated works at the 33 Bienal de Sao Paulo (components of a show curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) as “eschewing spectacle in favor of a much more contemplative” experience, which is focused on using works of art to develop the viewer’s attention span. Davis stated:

“today’s endless slurry of bad news mixed with frenetic entertainment—which is replicated in the intellectual, optical, and spatial overload of a lot of international art shows—tends to render the mind frantic. It paralyzes extended analysis by the same measure that it overpowers any more-than-superficial aesthetic experience. And so, art’s use as a space to train attention may be less superfluous than it seems, and worth salvaging.”

In Pérez-Barreiro’s exhibition titled Affective Affinities, comprehensive scrutiny and deeply reflective assessments take priority over aesthetic convergence and art for entertainment’s sake. Pérez-Barreiro selected seven artist/curators to curate ‘mini-exhibitions’ that feature their own work along with work by other artists of their choice. This open ended concept allows for significant affinities to be realized amongst a group of diverse modern and contemporary artists (and the inventor of Kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel!).

Affective Affinities (on view through December 9, 2018), offers a respite to the banal, superfluous, abject, depressing, and perverse headlines currently dominating Brazil’s cultural landscape. While art alone cannot solve all of society’s problems, taking time to look at and engage with artwork helps us to become better focused, make qualitative relationships and judgements (Eisner, 2002), and be more in-tune with our critical thinking skills. Because of these aforementioned benefits, art makes us more attentive to the complexities of a world in flux and therefore enable us to make adjustments to life’s challenges by crafting innovative solutions in collaboration with other disciplines.

Spectacle is all around us. We have access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips, however, the amount of mis-information and sensationalized media we are collectively subjected to is at an all time high. Too often, our obsession with spectacle translates to moments in culture where entertainment or scandal overshadows the potential teachable moments and reflective outcomes that works of art can provide. Modern Museums (such as Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1677, and the Louvre Museum in Paris, founded in 1793) opened as public spaces where people of all social and economic statuses could go to learn about objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.  However, some contemporary museums seem to have lost sight of this democratic ideology and have become sites of divisive controversy and exhibitions for entertainments sake. Instead of focusing on blockbuster exhibitions, or populist exhibitions (exhibitions for entertainment’s sake), today’s museums should be designing shows that make viewing art relevant to the lives of the viewers and the diverse communities where the museums are located. Artworks and their curatorial incorporation into exhibitions should be culturally appropriate, serve an educational purpose, and all the while, their inclusion should remain open-ended enough to account for inquiry based viewing and mindful enduring understandings on the part of the gallery goer. In other words, artworks in museum exhibitions should hold our attention and leave us inspired to learn more about the content long after we’ve left the museum’s majestic galleries.

One of the many important ‘Habits of Mind’ that art offers us is the ability to pay close attention to details or ‘noticing deeply.’ Most artists scrutinize each and every aspect of a work of art during the creative process. Whether they are drawing sketches for a painting or writing a proposal for a large-scale public art commission, artists meticulously plan, revise, and consider many different facets and perspectives before their work is presented to the discerning public. Paying close attention to details continues to be an important aspect during the presentation of a work of art in the form of critiques by fellow artists, curators, art critics, and anyone else who finds themselves standing in front of the artwork. In fact, the Feldman Method for Art Criticism requires the critic to spend a great deal of time with a work of art in order to truly engage with its stylistic and symbolic elements. Multiple viewings are typically required to fully describe, analyze, interpret, and make judgements about an artwork.

Art education teaches us to pay close attention and to become adept ‘part to whole’ and ‘whole to part’ thinkers. A mastery of inductive (part to whole) and deductive (whole to part) reasoning is necessary to our participation in daily life. Mastery of anything requires education and experience. Similar to other areas of growth such as speech and movement, we develop artistically through “phases.” That is to say that a child’s (or older beginner’s) understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time with experience and education. A good framework for assessing artistic development is the ‘multi-dimensional model’ of artistic development, suggested by Linda Louis (2013). This model acknowledges a key fundamental element of artistic development, which is that exploration leads to discovery, which leads to insight. An earlier philosophy regarding artistic development came from Viktor Lowenfeld, who was a pioneering theorist on the way children’s art progressed through what he called “stages.” While his model of artistic development inspired the contemporary multi-dimensional model, the multi-dimensional model provided by Linda Louis is more apt because it recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages and can be both phase one and phase two (or three & four, and so on) learners at the same time…The six phases of artistic development are: 

  1. Explorers/Discoverers
  2. Deliberators/Planners
  3. Communicators
  4. Inventors
  5. Illusionists
  6. Expressers

In the multidimensional model of artistic development (Louis, 2013), young artists develop as inductive thinkers around phase number two (Deliberators/Planners). They create imagery and symbolic meaning by piecing together parts to form a whole. This is why you’ll generally observe them creating a figure that is depicted in multiple parts (separate shapes for each body part and confined shapes) rather than render a whole interconnected image. Additionally, Deliberators/Planners are becoming quite observant of their environment, therefore, attention to details are given significance within their artwork (skin tones, facial features, accessories, etc). As the child moves from phase two into phase three, they begin to think deductively, while shifting to inductive thinking as needed. The most important element in their work is their desire to be understood as a communicator of information and therefore, they focus on image making using conventions that serve depiction.

As the child receives more artistic education and experience, they become meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something significant. In other words, both the thematic concept and aesthetic experience informs their artwork. They consider their work to be a fluid body (series, period, style), which takes the viewer’s experience and perception into account. In fact, they are able to view their own work through a critical and reflective lens. They’re interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the art world (the history of art, as well as the current visual culture). Often times, they’ll appropriate works of art or iconography from visual culture to make a statement related to their experience within the cultural landscape. It is more important than ever to qualify this phase with prior artistic learning (throughout each phase, students are building skills and exploring materials in a developmentally appropriate manner), so that the students can utilize their combined artistic experience to create personally meaningful, expressive work. 

Professional artists seamlessly fuse inductive and deductive thinking in the planning, communicating, inventing, and expressing of their artwork. Making art is a multi-disciplinary process, which starts with a ‘big idea’ (a.k.a an inspiration, framework, theory, or thematic focus), and continues with essential questions, within which the artist must reflect the most important issues, problems, and debates related to their big idea. In other words, within a body of work, the artist poses significant questions, issues, and/or problems that they want their work to address and realizes the aesthetic and expressive strategies they will use to communicate these themes.

In educational settings, the ‘big idea’ directs the information and concepts that are included in a curriculum. It is followed by essential questions, which are open-ended, exploratory, and allow for student-centered inquiry. Finally, enduring understandings are what makes the big ideas and essential questions relevant in the lives of each student.

Both professional artists and professional educators have to hone in on the necessary details that are imperative to successfully express big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings to a diverse group of individuals. A successful work of art should have relevance and capture the attention of its viewers, while a successful curriculum should be relevant and engaging to students. This is why Ben Davis argues that utilizing art to train our attention can be a good thing. While all forms of art can be beneficial in strengthening our attention span, there are some artists whose work especially requires a high level of attention. Two of these contemporary artists are Mark Dion and Alisha Wessler.

Mark Dion’s work is the epitome of multi-disciplinary art-centered inquiry. Dion’s practice blurs the boundaries between art and science in an effort to explore the objective and subjective nature of our natural environment and human psyche. This is the case with his most renowned work of art titled Neukom Vivarium (2006). At first glance, a viewer will recognize this work as a fallen tree, covered in moss and other plants. Some might recognize the 80 foot tree as a Western hemlock, which is a native species on the West Coast of the United States. It is Dion’s intention for the viewer to inquire about the significant meaning of installing a giant tree at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington. Dion acknowledged this to be true when he stated:

“I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem—a dead tree, but a living system—and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system—an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water, and soil enhancement—to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does, emphasizing how, once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult, expensive, and technological to approximate that system—to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So, this piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense, we’re building a failure.” (See:

Apart from the overarching big idea of humanity’s impact on the environment, Dion wants us to pay close attention to the details that are not so obvious, such as the smallest elements of an ecosystem. These facets such as lichen, small insects, and microscopic bacteria, are often harder to discern via the naked eye, and are largely overlooked when gazing at the gargantuan specimen of Tsuga heterophylla. However, while the hemlock tree’s life came to an end, new life has formed and continues to grow on and around the fallen tree, albeit due to human interaction such as climate control in the form of the artist built greenhouse enclosing the tree, essentially keeping the complex ecosystem alive on life support. One essential question in Neukom Vivarium is “what makes up an ecosystem?” Dion’s answer to the essential question of “what makes up an ecosystem?” is revealed by providing visitors with magnifying glasses and illustrated field guides featuring the organisms that the viewer is likely to see while gazing at the tree through the lens of the magnifying glass. This is where an attention to details formulate significant meaning within the work of art. Dion engages us to explore and spend quality time with the thriving yet delicate ecosystem that he has preserved. We alternate between our magnifying glasses and our field guides and our attention becomes focused on identifying and observing the various specimens of animal and plant life. We can see the complex communities of insects, lichen, and bacteria living as if they were in their natural habitat. Our attention span is held steadfast by the wonders of the natural environment. Perhaps, during the elongated moment of careful and astute observation, we forget that we’re inside a human made environment and that everything we’re looking at would cease to live if removed from its life support. However, the moment we step back and put down our magnifying glasses, our awareness of the tragic situation comes to light.

If we hadn’t experienced this installation and we were just walking past a dead tree in the forest, would we consider the possibility that there is an abundance of life within the confines of this tree? If we didn’t take the time to scrutinize the tree’s nooks and crannies, we’d likely miss out on the thriving life within the fallen tree. And while it may seem like there is an abundance of other trees surrounding this deceased tree, would we realize that this complex ecosystem, which nature incredibly maintains, is in danger of vanishing before our very eyes due to our civilization’s polluting of the elements (air, water, humidity, and soil) that are needed to sustain all natural life on Earth? The enduring understanding in Dion’s installation is that life cannot sustain itself without the basic elements, which include healthy air, humidity, water, and soil. Once these elements are gone or negatively altered, it will be nearly impossible to get them back. Dion’s work raises our consciousness and awareness about nature’s intricacies and how fragile our natural resources truly are in our hands.

Alisha Wessler, detail of From Afar It Is An Island (Case 1), 2013,
aqua resin, pigment, cardboard, sodium chloride, wax, clay, fabric, thread, wood, bone, fur, leather, citrus peels, petrified carrot, bird feet, dried kelp, milkweed seed pod, modeling material, foam, glassine envelopes, polystyrene, tissue paper, found hardware, insect pins, iron and wood stands, museum vitrines. Courtesy of the artist.

Another artist whose work requires an elongated attention span is Alisha Wessler. Things are not always what they seem in her intricate constructs, which blur the lines between reality and fantasy, biology and cryptozoology, and fossil and artifact. In order to take in Wessler’s highly detailed work, a viewer needs to exercise a great deal of scrutiny.  For example, Objects and their Doubles (2017) presents tactile objects –such as aqua resin, a plastic umbrella handle, metal rod, wood, flattened pinecone, polymer clay, iron hook, rope, embroidered thread, dental mold, rusted wire, rock, water caltrop (devil pod), leather glove, leather glove tip, steel rod, cholla cactus skeleton, milkweed seedpod, human hair, pigment, dried plant, paper, methyl cellulose, fishing net, fabric, and thread– juxtaposed with the artist’s technical rendering of that same object in watercolor and ink. Similarly to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Wessler employs visual tautology, where representational objects appear the same but are manifested through different materials. At first glance, the eye is tricked into thinking that these materials are not what they seem.

Wessler is very skilled at manipulating materials to make graphite look like lace (Pictures on Surrounding Objects, 2013), and objects like citrus peels, petrified carrots, birds feet, dried kelp, and milkweed seed pods, to resemble ancient relics that could have likely been uncovered during an archeological dig (From Afar It Is An Island [Case I], 2013). If you casually walk by the pedestal or display cases containing her work, you’re likely to miss the hidden properties and characteristics latent within these seemingly inscrutable works of art. However, if a viewer pays careful attention to all the fine nuances, akin to the way a keen archeologist studies arcane antiquities, they will come to the realization that these ‘artifacts’ are in fact, ordinary objects imbued with novel taxonomies.

Wessler’s artistic process is also very detail and time oriented. In order to manipulate everyday objects into astonishing hybrids, she utilizes an alchemy-like art methodology where materials are ‘cured’ and chemically transformed through dehydration or crystallization (to name a few of the experimental processes Wessler employs), after which they’re further manipulated by more traditional artistic actions like painting, sculpting (additive and reductive), and sewing. Wessler’s big idea is that ordinary objects have extraordinary underlying qualities. Her essential questions include “how can I fuse two opposing elements together to create new and mysterious hybrids?” and “how can materials be manipulated in uncanny ways to express indeterminate dualities?” The enduring understandings are that things are not always what they seem and that artists can create symbolic new meanings and perspectives through an experimental transformation and repurposing of materials.

Throughout the course of this blog, the enormous benefits of creating art have been explored. The multi-dimensional phases of artistic development (mentioned earlier in this post) illustrates how explorations in creating art lead to discoveries and insights, which enable highly significant and personal modes of expression. Because artists always seek big ideas, ask essential questions, and synthesize important ideas and core processes (enduing understandings), creating art makes us life-long learners inside and outside of the classroom or art studio. From the cited examples of artworks by Dion and Wessler, it is evident that viewing art is also largely beneficial to our lives. Studies have shown that spending ample time identifying and articulating the intricate layers and details within works of art improves our cognition, our ability to think critically, and our emotional wellbeing. In an age of 24 hour news cycles and constant burlesque distractions, the benefits of creating, presenting, viewing, and responding to art are seriously needed.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. “What will art galleries look like in the future?” The Australian, 15 April 2016,

Davis, Ben. “The Bienal de Sao Paulo Makes a Bold Attempt to Change the Way We Look at Art. Can It Work?” Artnet, 17 Sept. 2018,

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR,


Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art

Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art

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Andrea Mastrovito, Kickstarting (2014). Courtesy of the artist

While Tim Rollins was arguably the most famous contemporary artist who collaborated with his students on interdisciplinary art projects, other artists such as Andrea Mastrovito and Joan Jonas, have also co-created significant works of art with students.

When professional artists work together with kids, there are many symbiotic social, emotional, symbolic, and practical benefits. The combinatory artistic process and creation of  a work of art exemplifies what Paulo Freire described as “problem-posing education,” a pedagogical methodology that supports critical thinking for the purpose of student-centered liberation. Freire’s theory is that knowledge is achieved through a democratic dialogue between the teacher and the students. The classroom hierarchy is smashed when both students and educators listen, learn, and collaborate together. The result is a strong social, emotional, and empathetic environment where students and teachers inspire one another and develop creative solutions to thinking critically about an issue or subject. This model is seen quite eloquently in projects involving contemporary artists and students such as Tim Rollins’ collaboration with K.O.S., Joan Jonas’ Lunar Rabbit (2011), and Andrea Mastrovito’s Kickstarting (2014).

Lunar Rabbit was a multimedia art installation created by Joan Jonas and students from New York City’s Clinton School for Writers and Artists. The students and Jonas developed the concept for the installation through discussing the symbolic relevance of the moon within certain cultures. In Chinese folklore, there is a tale of an old man who begged for food, and all the animals gathered, stole, hunted, or collected various types of food to offer the man. However, the rabbit, who only knew how to pick grass, offered the man itself as meat by jumping straight into the fire that the old man built. To the bewilderment of the rabbit, it was not burnt, and the old man revealed himself to be Śakra (the ruler of Heaven in Buddhism). Śakra was so taken by the rabbit’s kindness and willingness to sacrifice itself for another’s wellbeing, that he drew a portrait of the rabbit on the moon for the whole world to see. The Aztec culture has a folktale about a rabbit who saved the life of the god Quetzalcoatl, who thanked the rabbit by elevating her image onto the moon. The reason that these cultures perceived the image of the lunar rabbit is likely due to the moon’s markings, which resemble (to many cultures) the shape of a rabbit. Jonas and the students created drawings and Papier-mâché sculptures inspired by the myths of the lunar rabbit. These traditional forms of art became a part of a whimsical performance carried out in a wooded area alongside the Hudson River.

Storytelling is such an important aspect of education. It enables us to free our minds from the constraints of the synthetic world and enter a realm of unique personal and collective experiences. Storytelling is intrinsically collaborative and transcends geographical boundaries via interpersonal communication. This is why similar myths, like the ‘lunar rabbit,’ or the ‘man on the moon’ exist within many cultures far and wide.

Andrea Mastrovito’s Kickstarter (2014) fused art education and physical education together. It combined the Italian born artist’s love for soccer and visual art. The project kicked off at the Saint Francis Cabrini School and at the Youth Center of the Parish in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Children at the school brainstormed a list of hopes, dreams, and specific things that have personal significance to their lives. After discussing their list, Mastrovito asked the children to visualize the elements from their list through drawing. These drawings and suggestions from the children were interpreted by Mastrovito into life-sized stencils, which covered the walls of the school’s courtyard. The stencils were then painted through the playful engagement of kicking soccer balls (coated in tempera powder) into the walls, which filled in the stencils and created the brilliant imagery that the students had thought up.

Both Mastrovito and Jonas’ projects with students engaged in the 4 C’s of 21st century learning: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Communication. Because these four skills, which are best carried out through artistic engagement, have great implications on all aspects of an individual’s personality, they are essential for all of us to become adept in. Collaboration and Communication are critical skills to foster life long personal and professional relationships, while creativity and critical thinking are essential for present and future innovators. Like teachers, artists are invaluable members of society. A professional artist’s technical skills in the visual arts, combined with the energy and intrinsic creativity of children artists is always an inspiring and educational match. It has great benefits for both the adult artists and the children because each has something unique to bring to the collaboration. Picasso said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.” The seemingly obvious solution is the collaboration between grown up artists and children.

Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art

Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

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

The best known secret to learning is _____________.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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

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

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

Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

Tapping into who we are, what we know, and who we know for inspiration

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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

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



Tapping into who we are, what we know, and who we know for inspiration

Art and Education, Not Jails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

Gee, Mike. 2010. “Restorative Justice and Participatory Action!” Theater of the Oppressed NYC

Gonzalez, Jennifer. 2018. “Restorative Justice in School: An Overview.” Cult of Pedagogy.

Levosky, Alison. 2017. “Restorative Justice through Arts Programs.” Education Studies 
Art and Education, Not Jails

Putting Art Education on the Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. 2018. “Congolese Artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Most Ambitious Work Is an Intricate Dream City. Here’s How to Understand It.” Artnet

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

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

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


Putting Art Education on the Map