Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning

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Mary Mattingly, A Technological Abyss, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

The Universe and nature are such vast and complicated concepts, but that has not stopped creative people from scrutinizing them through works of art. Visualizing the cosmos and our own Earthly phenomena has been a hotbed for artistic thinking and learning since the earliest forms of human expression. From making representational associations of celestial bodies (constellations) to designing sustainable interactive environments (Eco-art, land art, etc); art has been a key element to the exploration and understanding of our natural and metaphysical world. Through a combination of imagination, resourcefulness, experimentation and technology, massive and mystifying issues like cosmology and the Anthropocene are contextualized into a tangible visions that have potential to impact viewers on a social and emotional level.

Stars Down to Earth is a two-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Library (in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and More Art), featuring work by Mary Mattingly and Dario Robleto. Both artists visually scrutinize scientific issues, and pose essential questions around events simultaneously happening light-years away and in our own backyards. In their respective art practices, Mattingly and Robleto adapt theories, knowledge and traditions from a spectrum of disciplines and apply them to their work in a manner that transforms abstract thoughts and occurrences into empirical methodologies. Stars Down to Earth and future iterations of this Eco-based exhibition, include experiential STEAM learning through interactive works of art, artist talks and workshops focused on the integration of art and science.

Robleto’s sculptures are carefully researched cabinets of curiosity, which artfully re-frame objects and events from the past into a futuristic vision of mortality and human nature. He achieves this by creating hybrid forms out of unlikely combinations of artifacts and experiences. One of his early works of art is titled You Make My World a Better Place to Find (1996-1998). From a glance, it resembles a spool of thread, but overall, the work is indicative of a performative sculpture that literally threads a spectrum of human beings together. The artwork was created by discreetly acquiring pieces of lint and other small strand-like materials from friends and strangers. Upon collecting these materials, Robleto fashioned them together into one long string, which he spooled. With the newfound material, he tailored and sewed things like loose buttons and ripped clothing back together. From a symbolic standpoint, it suggests that fixing our broken world lies within the collective engagement of finding restorative ways to be united. As a species, we have the ability to mend overarching issues if we combine individual forces and discover the power in supporting each other’s diverse qualities and experiences.

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Installation of Dario Robleto’s work in Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Robleto is currently collaborating with scientists as an artistic consultant to a project called “Breakthrough Message,” a multi-national endeavor that seeks to determine how and what humans should communicate to extraterrestrial beings. Perhaps two of his archival prints Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I) and Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun II) would be apt. The prints are inspired by the ethereal elements of 1960s and 70s arena performances. Robleto culminated photographs taken by fans at Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Doors, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Janis Joplin, Charlie Parker and Elvis Presley concerts; and arranged them so that they represent gradient beams of light, akin to atmospheric and celestial glows. The imagery would be at once recognizable to all beings who shared the same night sky. However, our musical subcultures might be less familiar to an intelligent being from beyond Earth. It could be a nice and poetic way to explain to an alien life form how the creation and immersion of art illuminates our cultural realms.

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Dario Robleto, Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I), 2012. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Mattingly’s artistic focus is rooted in ecological development and issues of sustainability on our planet. She creates works of art that illuminate the growing climate crisis, as well as the unsustainable use of organic materials and natural resources for economic and political purposes. Her magnum opus is Swale, an ongoing floating ‘food forest,’ which provides sustainable and healthy nutrition, and raises consciousness about building self-sufficient food communities within urban environments. Additionally, she has created and/or co-created sustainable public habitats, such as the Foodway in Concrete Plant Park, and the Waterpod Project.

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Mary Mattingly’s Cobalt and Nature Morte photographs. Installation photograph of Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another project by Mattingly, is an inquiry into the reaping of cobalt, a natural Earth material that is used to make highly profitable products. There is both a creative and destructive impetus for mining cobalt, as evident from its extensive uses, including powering energy turbines and making paint and weaponry. Cobalt-based blue pigments are well known and valuable to artists, while cobalt ore is beneficial to expanding the military industrial complex. The harvesting of massive amounts of cobalt involves  extraction practices that are contributing to climate change and displacement. Mattingly’s material-based explorations, discoveries and insights into Cobalt (2016), reveal stark contrasts involving our reliance on natural resources. Artifacts from Cobalt and her aerial landscape photographs depicting extractive industries, are on display at the Brooklyn Library. Also on view is Mattingly’s A Technological Abyss (2020), a spherical living sculpture that displays and nurtures plants that were growing over 50 million years ago (during the Eocene Epoch) in the region that is now New York. The Eocene was a period of warm oceans and balmy, humid temperatures throughout the globe (the world was practically ice-less from pole-to-pole). The sculpture also holds plants that would survive in New York, if the current rate of expedited global warming continues. Both sets of plants are of the tropical tolerant variety. The parallel between the volatile climate of the Eocene (which led to an extinction event) and the Anthropocene, reinforces the idea that we are heading into a very dire moment in our Earth’s history.

After its display at the library, Mattingly’s living sculpture is going to be installed in nearby Prospect Park (April – June, 2020). While on view in the park, the sculpture will be a setting for additional experiential art programing focusing on issues of clean water. Produced by More Art and in collaboration with local community groups, Public Water is a multisite public art and educational project addressing the ways citizens of New York are connected through complex watersheds that provide drinkable/functional water to upstate and downstate residents. These projects are intended to prompt us to enact ecological ways of learning, making and being, in order to improve our contemporary commons so that facets of biological life that are currently threatened stand a chance of survival.

Mattingly is intrigued by the idea of the commons, which are resources that are accessible to the collective society and are not owned by one single entity (i.e. water, air and soil). Commons are generally maintained by a community of benefactors who develop institutions and systems that have value and offer benefits for multiple users. Swale, Foodway and the Waterpod Project are good examples of commons, because they make healthy soil, clean water and organic food available to the public; and also provide equitable access to an ecological-centered education, so that groups and individuals (of all ages and backgrounds) can utilize common natural resources in a sustainable and ethical manner. A Technological Abyss and Public Water is also based on the idea of the commons. The sculpture is currently located in front of the Info Commons at the Brooklyn Library, which hosts free space and opportunities for the public to access an array of multimedia and professional services. When Public Water arrives at Prospect Park, it will reinforce and build upon (the parks architect) Frederick Law Olmsted’s socially engaged vision of making natural resources and communal recreational space abundant to urban populations. Throughout the course of the project, visitors will participate in dialogues that reflect their personal narratives related to ecological commons and raising concerns about the quality of water and preservation of common waterways. In tandem with artists, educators and environmental advocates, the public will discover innovative ways to collectively build awareness around environmental justice.

As we have begun to see from the aforementioned examples, Mattingly and Robleto’s art reveals how art, science and engineering can successfully interrelate with one another. Each artist’s work poses essential questions such as: how can the artistic practice transform and evolve through working outside of the art field? How can art be harnessed to change the way science is performed?

Developing lifelong inquiries and ethical innovations is a major objective of combining the arts, science and technology into an insightful and participatory-based educational framework (STEAM). The arts give us the permission and tools to think boldly and manipulate materials in a manner that adds an emotional and unique human element to the scientific method. Echoing a quote by astronomer Carl Sagan (from his publication Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980), “imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere,” Mattingly and Robleto have employed their artistic skills to contribute to disciplines such as ecology and astronomy, with actual scientific results to show for it.

Aesthetic Alphabets

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Paul D’Agostino, PD (Initial Self-Portrait), 2017 acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

The language of art is rooted in a variance of archetypes and experiential knowledge that are assigned or convey specific social meanings. Artistic style might be considered a form of sociolinguistics (see: Labov, 1966) due to the ability to interpret it through indexicality (Eckert, 2008), stance-taking (Johnstone, 2009) and linguistic ideology (Irvine, 2001). Art historians are typically able to tell when a work was made and assign it an attribution, by connecting stylistic elements and patterns that are indicative of a specific movement, artist, ideology and/or culture. While the origin of language is still being debated, the earliest prehistoric art found in caves throughout the world suggests a common zeitgeist was in situ for communicating material life and supernatural ritual.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all exhibit social, emotional and cognitive responses to the elements of art and principles of design. The formal qualities of a work of art such as line, shape, balance and color can be used to describe emotions or add emphasis to a work’s meaning. A jagged line might suggest nervous and anxious tension, while a painting predominately colored red might evoke feelings of anger or passion. A good strategy to perform with students who are linguistically developing and/or learning a second language, is to use color and shape to develop conversational vocabulary.  Vazquez (1981) states that works of art are replete with good examples for teaching linguistics via aesthetic principles: “one of the first skills taught to the learner of a second language is color. Teachers usually point out various objects in the classroom that are of the specific color being taught. I intend to eliminate that extra burden of looking around the room and then trying to decide whether that strange word that the teacher is saying is the name of the object or the name of the color of the object(s). By carefully selecting four or five paintings the names of ten to twenty colors can be taught with ease.”

After learning to describe colors, students can move on to identifying and elaborating upon geometric shapes. Shapes have further interdisciplinary vocabulary benefits, because they connect to STEAM learning (see: Artful Equations). Vazquez suggests introducing students to modern and contemporary artworks “with the purpose to develop vocabulary only.” This way, “it will be non-threatening to the student because we will not go into deep analysis, which is not what is important at the moment. Unconsciously, the student can have his/her reactions and if s/he wishes will be free to express them and possibly ask for meaning or an explanation of the piece of art before him/her. The works are mostly non-objective and are those which I feel are most useful in achieving the purpose of the lesson” (See: Vazquez, 1981, “Teaching a Second Language through Art” for specific examples of artworks used to supplement linguistical development). Eventually, the goal is to have students assign syntax to convey meaning by utilizing the vocabulary they have developed through observing works of art.

Artistic content can be quite literal, or it can prompt the beholder to connect the contextual dots, similar to how a poem or a piece of music may influence an imaginative narrative within our minds. While interpretations will vary among viewers, many artists have specific intentions for what their aesthetic style should communicate, even going so far as to create their own form of language. One of these artists is Paul D’Agostino, who is well versed in linguistics, literature and conversation. D’Agostino is fluent in Italian, German, French, Spanish and English, and has translated numerous literary works. He created his own painterly syllabary by transforming paint into decipherable vowels, consonants and word constructions. His 26 panel Chromatic Alphabet (2013-2015) is interpreted through color (red, orange, yellow and blue) and geometric shapes (circles, rectangles, squares, triangles and diamonds). Consonants are smaller than vowels in scale, and are defined by their color and shape against a grey background. The larger vowels, are painted as circles against a white background and each letter is given a chromatic assignment: red = A, orange = E, yellow = I, green = O and blue = U. Every letter is painted exclusively by D’Agostino’s hand, without the use of tools such as a ruler or a compass. This gives the series a gestural feeling that is uniquely expressive to the artist. His own dialect if you will. By employing his chromatic alphabet to individual paintings, D’Agostino spells out words and phrases, which are oft-humorous and astute references to the fields of linguistics and visual art.

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Paul D’Agostino, The People’s Art School, 1-3, 2019, gouache, acrylic and watercolor on gessoed heavy brown craft paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Titles such as Quadro (2015) literally mean ‘painting,’ while Homages to The People’s Art School, 1-3 (2019) refers to language relevant to the individual and collective work and creative cognition of Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky and Kazmir Malevich. It was inspired by D’Agostino’s research related to Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922, an exhibition at The Jewish Museum in 2018. D’Agostino elaborates: “I had the honor and pleasure of giving an artist talk and leading an exhibition tour while the show was up, so all the research I did with relation to it invariably fed into my artwork. The individual titles for these are basically the words painted on each one according to my Chromatic Alphabet. Left to right they are Haus und Garten (for Chagall), Proun (for Lissitzky) and Arkhitekton (for Malevich)” (D’Agostino, 2019). 

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Paul D’Agostino, Jar Jars Jar Ajar, 2019, acrylic on canvas. Courtney of the artist.

Puns are also a tactic D’Agostino frequently employs via his arrangement of the Chromatic Alphabet. For example, the painting Jar Jars Jar Ajar (2019) repeats the same letters J, A and R, to spell out the word ‘jar’ twice. However, the word on the right is manipulated both in scale and balance, which changes its inflection and expression. As D’Agostino (2019) explains: “the ‘large jar’ at left is ‘jarring’ the ‘small jar’ at right, leaving the smaller one ‘ajar’. So the title of the painting is “Jar Jars Jar Ajar”. Ha ha! Har har!”  

Thomas Micchelli interprets D’Agostino’s paintings as “a code of sorts, but one that distills speech into a conflation of sight and sound, visualized vocalizations that are as musical as they are linguistic….D’Agostino is using abstract painting to convey elemental sounds — the building blocks of both music and speech — in a visual/aural end run around the evolution of written language” (Micchelli, 2016). It has been theorized that music is older than speech or language and some even suggest that language evolved from music, art and crafts (Angier, 2016; James, 2018). Whatever the case may be for the origins of human linguistics, it can be said that the language of art has been a consistent tool for building knowledge and establishing our place within the world around us.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Angier, Natalie. “New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room.’ The New York Times, 8 Feb. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?rref=collection%252Fsectioncollection%252Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfron Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “I posted individual pics of this triptych of Chromatic Alphabet paintings…” Instagram, 3 Aug. 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/B0tgzeLlkgr/. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “The two vertically configured formations on this new Chromatic Alphabet painting look very similar…” Instagram, 7 May 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/BxK48TplRfQ/ Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Eckert, Penelope. “Variation and the indexical field.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2008, 12: 453–476.

Irvine, Judith. “Style as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation.” In Penelope Eckert and John Rickford (eds.) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 21–43.

James, Ben. “A Sneaky Theory of Where Language Came From.” The Atlantic, 10 June 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/toolmaking-language-brain/562385/ Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Johnstone, Barbara. “Stance, Style, and the Linguistic Individual” Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Stance,. Ed. Alexandra Jaffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Labov, William. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1966.

, Thomas. “Paint as Language, Language as Paint: Paul D’Agostino’s Chromatic Alphabet.” Hyperallergic, 13 Feb. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/275429/paint-as-language-language-as-paint-paul-dagostinos-chromatic-alphabet/ Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

Vazquez, Doris. “Teaching a Second Language through Art.” Yale University: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1981. http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/ Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

The Fein Art of Artistic Development

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Sylvia Fein, The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012.

Sylvia Fein has had the type of career most artists would covet, and she is still going strong at age 100. Her artwork has been exhibited widely since the mid-1940s, and she is considered a key figure in the American Surrealist movement, although she personally doesn’t identify with the artistic mode. Fein’s art combines historical and mythological imagery that reference her lived experiences in a fantastical and profound manner. One of her many compelling paintings is The Painting Told Me What to Do (2012), which portrays a forest where the wispy forms and textures of the trees are rendered as roaring flames. This imagined composition is an all too familiar scene in light of the epidemic of worldwide forest fires. Fein has lived in California, which is an epicenter for some of the worst fires, so this is evidently a very personal expression, made by channeling her experience and emotions through the medium of the paint.

Despite all of her achievements, Fein remains under-recognized. Although she has received some acknowledgement for her vision and talent, her notoriety has paled in comparison to her male counterparts and even other women artists who are often associated with Surrealism. I admit that I had only recently heard of her through an informative post on The Women’s Studio (see: Probst, 2020). Beyond Fein’s incredibly imaginative and genre bending imagery, I am drawn to her ongoing interests in documenting artistic development. In her decades long career, there is plenty of evidence depicting her manifestation of ideas, exploration of materials and evolving painterly style.

In addition to her own artful trajectory, Fein is renowned for her insightful contribution to the research of children’s artistic development. She actually took a long hiatus from painting to dedicate her time, energy and creativity to studying and advancing the field of art education. She attended Berkley and studied with the acclaimed –albeit under-recognized– art teacher Henry Schaefer-Simmern, whose theories on art education are as influential as more widely known educators like Viktor Lowenfeld (see: Abrahamson, 1980). Schaefer-Simmern’s ‘visual conceiving’ theory that people possess an inherent ability to transform their perceptions into holistic formations expressed as works of art (Abrahamson, 1987), inspired Fein to study the way children utilize the kinesthetics of drawing to find and express their place within the world. Over the course of 18 years, Fein collected and catalogued her daughter Heidi’s drawings. The culmination of her documentation can be seen in two essential art education themed books she published: Heidi’s Horse (1976), which observed her daughter’s art from age two through fifteen; and Drawings: Genesis Visual Thinking (1992). The latter book expounds upon her mentor’s work in connecting the earliest known art forms (cave paintings) with the evolution of pictorial communication strategies. It gives examples of motifs and patterns that appear in art that spans time and geographical locations. Through her research and writing, Fein attempts to posit answers as to why seemingly disparate forms of art including children’s art and prehistoric art have common ground in regards to elements of art (shape, space, value, form, texture and color) and principles of design.

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Still from “Sylvia Fein, Heidi’s Horse, and children’s first drawings” via YouTube.

Drawing is how children work out significant visual problems and learn to communicate symbolically in conjunction with other forms of language (i.e. written and oral). The documentation of children’s drawings over time is important in helping educators understand and scaffold how children develop cognitive and skill based approaches to pictorial communication. Theories by Schaefer-Simmern, Lowenfeld and others have evolved over time, as we collectively realize more about cognition and epistemology. Thanks to the tangible explorations by Fein et al, further advances have been made in the field of art education, which provide new ideas about how children’s image making influences their use of art materials and media in an artful manner. For example, Linda Louis has been studying how young children’s changing understanding of symbolic graphic representation leads them to use paint in ways that might be designated as being “artistic.” Louis has observed that children’s desire to communicate, is supported by a multidimensional model of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005), which identifies how they learn through an experiential and parallel movement throughout three independent realms: representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials. Louis’ model recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The beautiful and confounding thing about education is that it is always in flux. It is a work in progress that changes gradually over time. As Sylvia Fein’s decades long work has proven, taking the time and making the commitment to be flexible and keep learning is a worthwhile endeavor.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern: His Life and Works.” Art Education, vol. 33, no. 8, 1980, pp. 12–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3192404. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s Concept of Gestalt Artistic Forms and Cultural Interferences with the Clear Expression of Such Forms.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 45–62. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20715638?seq=1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

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, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. Creative and Mental Growth. Macmillan Co., New York, 1947.

Probst, Kate. “Sylvia Fein.” The Women’s Studio, 12 Jan. 2020. https://thewomensstudio.net/2020/01/12/sylvia-fein/

Strengthening Cultures & Literacy through Art for the 21st Century

In a previous post titled Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education, I described contemporary artist Pablo Helguera’s use of the written word and storytelling as a means to explore language, immigration and identity. Through projects like The School of Panamerican Unresta four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway that documented a myriad of indigenous spoken dialects, and Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore for Spanish language literature and events; Helguera devotes a large part of his artistic practice to create multidisciplinary portraits and living archives of language and culture.

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Ceramic sculptures by Stephanie H. Shih. Photo by @brandicheyenneharper for @gasworksnyc. Courtesy of the artist.

I recently learned about Stephanie H. Shih‘s ceramic sculptures, which embody culinary items in Asian-American homes. Shih’s sculptures are social, emotional and cognitive reflections of Asian-American diasporic culture. They are representative of what it is like to immigrate to far away places and incorporate both new and traditional concepts that signify a unique cultural and communal identity. Shih makes connections with other members of the 20 million (and counting) diaspora through many overlapping culinary memories, which represent personal significance and collective experiences. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, enshrining heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share similar cultural heritage. In her artist’s statement Shih says:

“Through the lens of the Asian-American pantry, my ceramic sculptures explore how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora. For first-generation Asian Americans, the finite collection of imported grocery brands from our youth has become shorthand for parallel childhoods raised by immigrant parents. To meet strangers who have memories of eating the same can of fried dace –a small fish preserved with salted black beans– is to discover a sense of belonging. Replicating these kitchen staples in clay immortalizes both the shared memories and the feeling of finding the nonexistent homeland of Asian America” (Shih, n.d.).

These are just two of the many examples of how contemporary art is created, presented and contextualized in a manner that reflects globalization and migration. Ideas, images and works of art travel far and wide, due to artistic discourse being spread more fluidly throughout the world. Advances in technology and the proliferation of museums, galleries, biennials and residency programs is making art more accessible to heterogeneous audiences. As a result of these aforementioned factors, artists (and other cultural producers) who are separated by borders are more easily able to collaborate and partake in collective art making (see: Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran and Transcending Boundaries).

Art has its own forms of language that facilitate the exchange of visual information and act as a liaison between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. Visual art can also be a catalyst for developing speech and literacy skills that support multilingual learning in the educational system. This is especially beneficial for communities with large immigrant populations who can harness the expressive and dialectic values of visual art, in order to strengthen their social and cognitive skills in their native and emergent languages.

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CALTA21 Classroom. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Some art institutions are embracing their role in teaching language and literacy skills to immigrant students through contemporary art. The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is expanding its programming for English language learners, conducted in partnership with the Elizabeth Public School District. Their program, which has been implemented for 8th and 9th grade students, was created with help from Cultures & Literacies through Art for the 21st Century (CALTA21), a national initiative focused on creating a dynamic environment where museums provide authentic, meaningful and engaging learning experiences to immigrant communities. CALTA21 is rooted in professional development for English language teachers. Educators partnering with the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey are given training that helps them create literacy curricula in support of their diverse students who are learning English as their second (or third, fourth etc.) language. Through a dialogic method of participatory art-based discourse, students are empowered to share their narratives of immigration. Essential questions that are needed to effectuate and sustain this kind of pedagogy are: “how can art museums create space for the exploration of linguistic and cultural diversity and what role can they play in strengthening the immigrant voice?”

CALTA21 uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a methodology to encourage the development of  observation and speaking skills. There are many ways to scaffold learning by taking the time to carefully look at artworks in galleries. Embodied learning is one learning approach (see: Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant) where students physically engage with works of art in order to build personal and collective understandings about the work’s form, function and content. This type of participatory learning strengthens observational and communicative skills because it includes a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm (Zucker, 2018). Developing an art vocabulary is important, not only in the discussion around works of art, but also for applying that language to other subjects and aspects of life experience. Talking about art is beneficial to building language skills, because observing art requires a command of descriptive words that support critical thinking and noticing deeply. As students develop their own evidence-based interpretations about art, they learn to trust their eyes and the value of their own opinions while building collective knowledge via gallery visits and artmaking exercises.

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CALTA21 participants discussing a mural by Kevin Blythe Sampson at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Communicating thoughts and observations with others through CALTA21, has been proven to strengthen the literacy and critical thinking skills of participants. Anamaria Llanos, one of the lead Elizabeth School District teachers in the program, has seen firsthand how incorporating CALTA21 into her curriculum and lesson plans has increased student engagement and efficacy of language and literacy:

“CALT21 cultivates language and free thinking. It nurtures a dynamic environment where students are guided through thought provoking questions to engage prior knowledge and their imagination; develop and strengthen their voice; and promote language thought process. There is nothing more intimidating than talking about art, yet with CALTA21, a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere is created by the students themselves. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to participate and facilitate their own CALTA21 session at the museum is a teacher’s dream. The program encourages students to think outside of the box, be creative; and become more assertive in the way they look at the world” (Llanos, 2019, quoted in a press release from the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).

Making art accessible to multilingual viewers should be at the top of every museum and cultural center’s mission. By incorporating CALTA21 in their programming, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey –the state’s largest largest institution dedicated exclusively to  contemporary art– is providing a valuable opportunity for the 22.1 percent of the state’s immigrant population (as of 2015) to engage in viewing, making and learning through art. Other cultural institutions such as The Hudson River Museum have programs that support young docents who represent a spectrum of international backgrounds. Their junior docent program consists of students from each of the City of Yonkers’ public high schools, representing the city’s culturally, economically and socially diverse communities. Many of the docents are first generation Americans or recent immigrants to the United States. Participants in the program speak many different languages and have a variety of interests including art, science, dance, history and fashion. Having informational guides who speak multiple languages and have experiential knowledge about specific cultures, makes museums and their collections more accessible and relevant to more communities. Global Guides, Penn Museum’s docent program, employs refugees from the Middle East as gallery guides who lead visitors through thematic tours of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection of art and artifacts. Because these docents have lived in many of the regions where the art originated, they offer visitors unique insights and personal connections to the objects on display.

As people move from place to place to seek better opportunities or asylum, the incorporation of immigrant and refugee narratives into art and art education is necessary to reflect the diversity of our multicultural communities. Programs like CALTA21 and the aforementioned museum docent initiatives, give immigrants much needed authority to communicate and present their experiential knowledge in their own voices. What they have to say is also beneficial for developing empathetic understandings of the world at large.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Shih, Stephanie H. (n.d). “Artist’s Statement.” https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/32dc1-cv_public.pdf

Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “Visual Arts Center of NJ Receives IMLS Grant to Partner with Elizabeth Public Schools.” Visual Arts Center of N.J. Press Release, 20 Nov. 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant.” Artfully Learning, 27 Apr. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/embodied-learning-makes-the-classics-relevant/

The Educator Who Changed How We Think About Art

John Baldessari was the type of artist who made whatever he was doing feel critical and fun. Achieving both weighty and playful qualities within a work of art is not an easy task, but Baldessari made it work. He taught generations of young artists to consider and create art differently, allowing for the expansion of artistic concepts within everyday life. Baldessari is renowned for his seminal work as a contemporary artist, his cameo in The Simpsons and perhaps most significantly, his ability to motivate and inspire artful learning as an educator teaching both high school and art school students. He got his first teaching job at a juvenile detention center, where he realized that the tough attitudes of the students in his program would change when they were engaged in artmaking. His transition into university teaching set the tone for generations of artists who employed mass media imagery, wit and critical re-framing of everyday life into aesthetic and performative concepts.

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John Baldessari, The Cremation Project, 1970. Via WikiArt

Baldessari’s pedagogical method was deceptively simple, as he described it: “I set out to right all the things wrong with my own art education. But I found that you can’t really teach art, you can just sort of set the stage for it” (Baker, 2003). His breakthrough moment was when he averted his attention from traditional art and art education, which led to the creation of one of his landmark conceptual artworks titled The Cremation Project (1970). This performative artwork consisted of the burning of every painting and drawing he previously had made, placing the ashes into an urn, memorializing each artwork with a plaque and baking cookies using some of the ashes as ingredients. His diversion from formalist art was the catalyst for a conceptual approach to artmaking, where ideas and re-framing of existing imagery became serious materials and methods at the artist’s disposal. Artists who followed his prompts to creatively engage with appropriation, re-cropping and editing of mass media pictures and objects include: Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Jack Goldstein, Mike Kelley and Sherrie Levine.

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John Baldessari, Wrong, 1967. Via WikiArt

Baldessari taught us that art can be highly regarded without being stodgy or gimmicky. He leveled the playing field for making art and communicating symbolically by exploring myriads of ways for high art to coexist with popular culture. In doing so, he inspired artists and educators to loosen their grip on traditional forms of artmaking and seek alternative methods and materials to make art with. His approach makes him the antithesis of the renowned modernist teacher Hans Hofmann, who inspired generations of artists like Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock. Hofmann abided by formalist principles and rules, such as his patented ‘push and pull‘ method for creating an illusion of depth and space using an arrangement of abstract forms and color. Baldessari began as a painter exploring similarly formalist concepts, but eschewed that methodology with the creation of the aforementioned The Cremation Project. Being in California instead of New York City also had a likely impact on the way he viewed art and cultural production. He didn’t have a close affinity to the Hofmann-esque New York School that was the dominant force of institutional art and culture throughout the 1950s and 60s. Instead of following rules, he often purposefully broke them, while sardonically acknowledging that fact. His ‘wrong‘ series juxtaposes photographic portraits of people standing directly in front of trees with the caption ‘wrong’ printed underneath. The impetus for this conflation of text and imagery comes from a chapter in a book of photography rules and guidelines, which mentions that positioning a subject that way makes it look as if the tree is growing out of their head. Therefore, according to the photography experts, it is a blatantly wrong and bad photograph. However, with Wrong (1967), Baldessari shifts the negative value and judgement from the photographer to critic/institution/academy. He is suggesting that the very activity of documenting and depicting oneself is an honest and valiant endeavor that benefits personal expression and celebrates life. He stated: “you don’t want anyone to say ‘You can’t do that!’ But you do get a lot of that in New York. One of the healthiest things about California is – ‘Why not?’  (Drew et al, 1981).

Baldessari’s philosophy that art should be informative, flexible and accessible is evident within his work. He utilized text, sometimes appropriated quotes from films and found photographs, in order to create open-ended dialogues with his viewers. This method is not so dissimilar from the way that a good writer fills a page with words that a reader can then visualize. Baldessari’s work challenges us to decipher meaning via utilizing our own social and emotional observations and cognition. As an educator and an artist, he was never dogmatic in his opinions and methods about the proper ways to create, interpret and teach art. He merely coached his students and viewers along the way, letting them connect the dots between works of art, mass media imagery, text and personal narratives.

Baldessari was a great teacher because he encouraged playful discovery and critical thinking. He asked more questions than he answered and approached teaching as a creative process that is embedded with humor, transparency and a means to reach people wherever they are at. He opened the door to a type of art education that allows students to feel efficacious for their ideas and helps them to realize they are creative and artistic through informal applications of artistic concepts. You don’t have to be a skilled draughtsman or master painter to be considered an artist, John Baldessari set the stage and pushed the boundaries for individuals and groups to express themselves through a myriad of alternative material and concept-based approaches. In doing so, he changed the course of art and art education.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Baker, Kenneth. “Formalist’s informal education,’ San Francisco Chronicle, 29 Apr. 2003. https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Formalist-s-informal-education-2619632.php

Tomkins, Calvin. “No More Boring Art,” The New Yorker, 11 Oct. 2010. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/18/no-more-boring-art

Tucker, Marcia, Drew, Nancy and Pincus-Witten, Robert. John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, New York: New Museum, 1981. Accessed on 6 Jan. 2020: https://www.libraries.wright.edu/corescholar_files/flippingbook/john_baldessari/files/assets/common/downloads/John%20Baldessari.pdf

Shaping Minds: Form follows Function

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Installation view of monoprints made by middle school students (left), along with a sculpture by Leo Rabkin (right). Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

One of the most precious aspects of visual art, is its ongoing dialogue. Generations upon generations have been inspired by the visual motifs and ideas that have preceded them. Via their work, artists engage in conversations that re-present and re-frame aesthetic concepts from earlier times, into compositions that are symbolic of the present artistic experience.

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Ben P. 24th Street Unmasked, 2019, box construction. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

Artists’ inclinations to quote and recontextualize visual motifs, is why showing an array of works by artists that span across time and place can be a pivotal part of art educational curricula. Within curricula guides, such as the New York State Learning Standards for the Arts, criteria for artistic development are organized in 4 action-based learning categories: creating, presenting, responding, and connecting.  Throughout the standards (which range from Pre-K through 12th grade), students are prompted to engage in creative practices and make aesthetic judgements that reflect traditional use of materials and processes in a personalized and/or collaborative manner. Students are also asked to scrutinize the work of other artists throughout history and form understandings and make inquiries about how the arts convey meaning. After observing and analyzing works of art, students are challenged to find their own personal voice. In order to increase students’ aesthetic and contextual vocabulary and insight, it is important for educators to introduce diverse artistic modes and artists.

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Violet Blum Levine, Juddified, 2019, a/p. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

The exhibition Shaping Minds at the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation‘s art gallery features the work of 11 middle school artists from Lincoln Middle School in Portland, Maine, who spent time looking at artworks by Rabkin and several other Modernist artists. All of the historical artists they explored made use of abstract forms in their work. The exhibition is apt for the foundation’s gallery because it reflects the passion and dedication Rabkin had for teaching art to students of all backgrounds and welcoming art students into his studio.

Leo Rabkin was part of the Post-WWII New York art scene. He spent his formative years in Greenwich Village, studying art at New York University with renowned Abstract Expressionist painter William Baziotes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rabkin was a middle school teacher employed at a local New York City public school. He designed a visual arts curriculum to engage these students in a highly personal manner, while also teaching typing skills. When Leo and his wife Dorothea moved to Chelsea, he had a large studio and hosted art students from Drew University and Rutgers University, giving them first-hand career advice and insight. His lifelong commitment to arts education became a founding principle of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation. The foundation is open to the public, with a special focus on sharing their collection, archives and resources with students, such as those whose work is currently on display there.

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Oscar Wolff, Since When?, 2019, a/p. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

After the students immersed themselves in both observing and interpreting artwork by Rabkin and others, they entered their classroom studio and began to plan their original works of art.  Their teacher, Louis-Pierre Lachapelle, asked each young artist in his class to choose a modern artist they especially admired based upon their prior research and viewing experience at the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation. Each of the students created a monoprint or edition and a mixed media construction that referenced elements of their chosen artist, such as making allusions to that artist’s process, color palette or symbolic expression. By prompting the students to be careful observers and interpret the works of other artists, they gained a strong concept of how artists make aesthetic decisions and explore forms and materials in order to convey meaning and express emotions. What was realized by the young artists, is how to respectfully mine visual imagery for inspiration, and how to generate and develop works of art in a self-directed fashion.

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Installation view of mixed media constructions made by middle school students. Courtesy of the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation.

It is inspiring to see works of art by young artists that make reference to the ongoing dialogue of art, while adding unique inquiry-based moments of self-discovery and personal insight. The personal journeys that artists take to make their art is consistently in flux, with ideas and styles that change from one moment to the next. Art education is beneficial for building an understanding that creating art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it a sacred discipline. Good works of art often inspire us to consider and critique what is both visually and conceptually working and not working all at once. Throughout their education (which is always occurring), artists learn to accept failure (see: Artfully Failing) and apply praxis, a cycle of ‘reflective thinking,’ which is enacted by employing cognitive, social and emotional actions throughout the artistic process. A print by the young artist Oscar Wolff, asks us to consider “since when has art been perfect?” It is both an essential question and an enduring understanding that helps us to take art off of the pedestal and into the real world. The real value of art lies in both its form and function as a way of developing lifelong habits of mind and skills that prepare us for contemporary living. Through learning to explore materials and convey meaning via artistic processes, we are creatively and critically shaping our minds and giving meaning to the human condition and the global world we are a part of.

Underground Education

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Providers (left panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The subway seems like one of the least likely places to be inspired in all of New York City, especially with apparently endless service delays, cuts and overcrowded conditions. However, if you allow yourself to look past the bureaucratic incompetence and exercise  a flair for discovery, you will notice that the subway system is a living museum where New York City’s youth have had a major role in creatively communicating their place within the urban environment.

One of the aspects that keeps the subway system from feeling like a dystopia is its abundance of public art in stations throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There is work by some of the most influential Modern and Contemporary artists like Sam Gilliam, Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl , Faith Ringgold and William Wegman (who recently contributed mosaics of Weimaraners in human clothes). There is a concise Subway Art Guide, where you can view images and find out the locations of art within New York City’s subway stations.

While all of these great works by well known artists might inspire joy and contemplation during the hectic commute, it is the art of the city’s children that arguably provide the greatest sense of hope and inspiration. The city’s transit system is full of artwork that was realized by the imaginative and insightful nature of kids, both working on their own and collaborating with working artists. A previous Artfully Learning post, Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art, describes how the ‘Four Cs’ of 21st century learning: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication, are strengthened when contemporary artists and kids collaborate on projects. These social, emotional and cognitive skills are highly visible in the following examples of youth-centered artwork.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals (providers panels), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The Greenwich Village Murals by Lee Brozgol, located on the platform of the Christopher St.-Sheridan Square subway station (serviced by the 1 train), is an example of how, with the guidance and expertise of an artist, children learned to break down and synthesize complex ideas into symbolic images. Nine students in the 5th and 6th grade from P.S. 41 were selected to partake in this project with Brozgol. The students were prompted to make composite drawings that addressed the topic of identity by illustrating subjects that reflect iconography and actions that shaped the West Village.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Bohemians (center panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

Choosing who to depict was a challenge. The history of such a vibrant community is a vast and multifaceted topic, therefore the figures depicted in the mural are diverse, spanning time, cultural backgrounds and ideologies. The murals are organized by themes, in which each of the figures are assigned. There are the ‘founders’ who include a member of the Lenape people and the 17th-century Dutch land developer Wouter Van Twiller, which considers the Village’s indigenous and colonial habitation. The ‘providers’ include Mary Simkhovitch, an early 20th century social worker, city planner and  co-founder of Greenwich House, which was initially developed to provide services to help the influx of immigrants adapt to life in the City. The ‘bohemians’ feature cultural icons like Mabel Dodge, a noted art patron who hosted a renowned weekly salon in her apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue. Lastly, there is the ‘rebels’ mural, featuring Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, a political pamphlet that fueled America’s War of Independence. Paine lived at what is now 309 Bleecker Street.

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Ceramic tile from Westside Views by Nitza Tufiño and 17 adolescents. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another large underground display of student-centered art can be seen if you take the 1 train uptown to 86th Street. There you will find a station-wide collaborative art installation titled Westside Views (1989), by Nitza Tufiño and 17 young New Yorker’s, mostly from the Grosvenor Neighborhood House‘s school equivalency and educational program (The Grosvenor Neighborhood House was a local organization that began serving the community as a settlement house in 1916). The installation consists of 40 ceramic glazed tiles, each depicting an adolescent artist’s visual perspective of the Upper West Side. The tiles feature vibrant neighborhood scenes that celebrate diversity and community spirit. They portray prominent landmarks like the Hayden Planetarium (at the nearby Museum of Natural History), and intimate scenes such as two fathers strolling with their babies, three generations of women sharing food on a bench and children playing on the playground. Westside Views weaves together the colorful myriad of people, places and things that make a neighborhood flourish.

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Installation view of Beautifying Briarwood in the Briarwood/Van Wyck Boulevard station,  2006. Photo by Brian Weinberg on www.nycsubway.org. (c) Brian Weinberg, 2006.

In Queens, students from Briarwood schools made statements on the theme of identity, through a series of mural paintings collectively titled Beautifying Briarwood (displayed at the Briarwood-Van Wyck Boulevard station, serviced by the F train). One of the most unique aspects about this project was that the murals represented the different phases of K-12 artistic development (see: Louis, 2005) because students of Archbishop Molloy High School, M.S. 217Q (middle school) and P.S.117Q (elementary school) all contributed to the paintings. Unfortunately the paintings were removed during station renovation in 2014, although some are archived through installation photographs. From the documentary photographs, it is apparent that these student realized works of art brightened up the dimly lit and monotonous corridors of the station. It also must have been efficacious for students to see their work in such a public setting and to share their symbolic works of art with the community.

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Jimmy James Greene, Children’s Cathedral, 1996, ceramic mosaic. Courtesy of MTA Arts & Design NYCT Percent for Art.

“They were the soloists, I was the orchestra leader,” Jimmy James Greene says about his monumental monumental mosaic mural Children’s Cathedral (1996) in the Utica Avenue station (Brooklyn, A train). The mosaic was created through a discourse that Greene had with local students regarding their modes of playing, learning, faith and cultural celebrations. Then Greene prompted the students to draw pictures based on the dialogue they had. The result is a whimsical and inspiring range of imagery including a mother nurturing her children, a teacher in class, and a large variety of activities performed by children (jumping rope, singing in choir, reading and more). Greene arranged and used the children’s drawings to create his final composition, which adorns the passageways leading to the train platforms.

Besides being great works of art for straphangers to enjoy, these aforementioned artworks reveal the benefits of artists collaborating with young people. The creative process involves many important habits of mind and skills such as making connections between art and daily life, interdependent learning and socialization. These habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art and Costa and Kallick, 1996) have lifelong benefits for developing creative and critical thinking. All of these projects required a cooperative and non-hierarchical structure that fosters teamwork and empowers young people to realize their abilities to communicate symbolically. Their visions provide both a respite for weary travelers and a way to express their place within the City they are a part of shaping and progressing.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bloodworth, Sandra, Ayers, William. 2014. New York’s Underground Art Museum: MTA Arts & Design. New York: The Monacelli Press.

Costa, Arthur L. and Kallick, Bena. Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education Pty Ltd, 2004.

Landrum, Susan. “Subway Station Art: The 1 Train’s 86th Street Station,” Finding NYC, 29 May 2017. https://findingnyc.com/2017/05/29/subway-station-art-20/

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, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761.

National Education Association. An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs.” http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/A-Guide-to-Four-Cs.pdf