Activating Art and Education for Activism

“Art isn’t functional.” Too often, I hear this statement (or a variation of it) when I engage in a conversation with someone who is outside of the art field. Of course, this statement doesn’t paint a representative image of art’s contribution to our culture. In an era of alternative facts and attacks on culture and education, it is even more important that we set the record straight about how the arts have profound benefits on our development as lifelong creative learners, leaders, and members of democratic communities.

In prior posts, I have explained how in past and present civilizations, art has had a utilitarian role that influences our history, cultural identity, labor, and the ways we communicate and collaborate together. Throughout these posts (see the five links in previous sentence), I have given examples of how artists such as Pablo Helguera, Tanya Aguiñiga, Chloë Bass, Vik Muniz, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Krzysztof Wodiczko (to name a few…refer to previous posts for more!) create works of art that address and engage with communities and diverse populations.

The artist as activist or better yet, the artist as ally, uses a variety of artistic processes to facilitate progressive and pragmatic solutions to complex issues. Mel Chin is one of the most prominent artistic ally’s for environmental and social justice causes. Chin’s multi-disciplinary work has always had political intent, however, he truly began to combine art and activism with Revival Field (1990-1993 and ongoing throughout the United States and Europe), an ecological land artwork realized through a collaboration with agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney. Revival Field is notable for the interdisciplinary collaboration between an artist and scientist on a major environmental project, which yielded significant scientific results.

The first Revival Field was built within Pig’s Eye Landfill, a State Superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota that has been severely contaminated by hazardous waste. The soil in the affected area became replete with heavy metals that are detrimental to the natural ecology. The environmental artwork installed at Pig’s Eye Landfill consisted of a partitioned off ‘control area’ encapsulated by a circular chain linked fence where Chin and Dr. Chaney planted hyperaccumulators, a type of plant that absorbs heavy metals and revitalizes the soil. In addition to allowing for the natural ecosystem to rehabilitate itself, Chin and Dr. Chaney discovered that the toxic heavy metals absorbed by the plants were being soaked up through the leaves and stems in their purest forms. Through a process known as “phytoremediation” or “green remediation,” the metal soaked plants were harvested and incinerated in order to recycle the metals.

Revival Field is a great example of how art cannot be neatly defined or declared to be without function. Artists and scientists have many like-minded interests, and the scientific process and artistic process have many similarities. For example, both disciplines seek to explore and represent the human experience in relation to natural phenomena. They each start with a big question or a problem that needs solutions and are not afraid to make bold choices when confronted with the unknown. Scientists and artists both engage in empirical processes and experimentation, whether it is in a studio or a laboratory. Art is a potent way to transform the systematic empirical investigation of observable phenomena (which is quantitative science) into a compelling human experience that makes us feel strongly about issues and reflect upon our values. Chin’s collaboration with Dr. Chaney reflects Joseph Beuys‘ philosophy that everyone can be an artist. So many of today’s problems require thoughtful social and empathetic responses, which are not easily realized by teaching pre-set standards and using quantitative analysis. Artful learning is the key to unleashing the creativity and ingenuity that is needed to make judgements in the absence of rules and be flexible to take on the unexpected circumstances in life. In the educational environment, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) needs to become STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics), because of these aforementioned reasons (and more!).

Another project that Chin initiated called Flint Fit, transforms an ecological crisis into a thriving business and community building initiative. The project was started to address pollution, an overarching issue that strongly affects the daily lives of residents of Flint, Michigan. Flint’s watersheds are extremely devastated due to inadequate water treatment, which resulted in incredibly high levels of lead in the drinking water. As a result, Flint residents have been instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. This reliance on bottled water has created another environmental crisis: plastic pollution. Flint Fit addresses this issue by organizing groups within the community to collect empty plastic water bottles (residents collected 90,000 bottles over the course of six weeks in the Fall of 2017!), which are then transported to a factory in Greensboro, North Carolina and turned into fabric.


Flint Fit installation view at Queens Museum, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Michigan native, Tracy Reese, a well-known fashion designer working in New York City, designed an inaugural collection of garments that inspired by water (it’s life-giving properties and power), Flint’s industrious history, and the strength and vitality of the Flint community. The fabric from the recycled plastic bottles was then used by individuals from the commercial sewing program at St Luke N.E.W. Life Center in Flint. The Flint Fit model can provide a sustainable enterprise for the communities as Chin explains:

“A new enterprise can be developed through recycling, design, manufacturing, and retail. As an artist, I see Flint Fit as an art project with diverse engagement as its medium; but it can grow into a design and marketing enterprise on a national level providing a new source of identity, income stream, a shared pride and notoriety of a positive kind for all the players involved.

In the current exhibition Mel Chin: All Over The Place, The Queens Museum poignantly chose to display documentation and the fashion line realized from Flint Fit within a gallery that houses the long-term exhibition From Watersheds to Faucets: The Marvel of New York City’s Water Supply System. The exhibition features an impressive relief map of New York’s water supply system, which was designed for the 1939-40 World’s Fair in order to educate New Yorkers about where the water they use in their homes comes from. This was clearly an astute curatorial decision aimed to increase our environmental awareness and consider the necessary role water plays within our community and in our own personal lives.

Flint Fit is a great example of how art (and fashion) makes bold statements about the human condition and develop mindfulness, positivity, and empathy amongst members of a community. In the educational sphere, students and educators can collaborate on a multidisciplinary art project (bringing together a collective of different departments such as science, math, foreign language, phys ed, etc.) that addresses a school-wide issue in order to develop a collective identity, raise awareness, celebrate a communal pride for the school, and perhaps even fundraise for a charitable cause (such as better/more nutritious lunches, cultural and team-building field trips, or new resources for learning).

So for those of you who were in doubt, do you see now how art and art-centered education is not only functional but a necessity?

Mel Chin: All Over The Place is on view at the Queens Museum through August 12, 2018.

Artful Assessment: Depicting the Problem, Visualizing the Solutions

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Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Education is intrinsically an art form in practice. There is no single way to instruct, teach, or learn. As discussed in the previous post, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the way students learn and the way educators should teach and instruct in the classroom. Traditionally, schools have focused on quantitative analysis of the student body to structure curriculums and plan lessons that will ensure students meet the educational requirements determined by a governing authority such as the state or federal government. This highly impersonal method of assessment relies on standardized tests, which treats students more like research subjects than actual human beings. “Teaching to the test” limits students’ autonomy to ask big questions and explore a wide range of relevant topics. Instead, students are subjected to repetition of pre-determined information and isolated skills, which limits their ability to think outside of the box and develop creative problem solving abilities. In short, the amount of student choice and personal relevance within the subject matter being taught is far more important than the amount of students who can pass a uniform test.

Measurable data such as the number of students from a particular socio-cultural or background is important in determining what resources might be needed in the classroom and school in order to provide an equal and equitable learning environment. For example, the number of black students living in New York City that are enrolled in Pre-K (which is free) is negatively disproportionate to the amount of Caucasian students. Another alarming quantitative statistic is that beginning in pre-school, black and hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students (almost three times more likely…). This is true even when the punishable infraction is the same. These aforementioned quantitative statistics are certainly helpful for encouraging educational activists to resolve the blatant equality and equity gap in schools and ensure that all students have the right to schools with excellent facilities and are treated the same regardless of their ethnic, racial, and economic background. However, when it comes to learning, teaching, and classroom management, it is the qualitative factors such as creativity and mindfulness that should take precedence throughout the educational environment.

Learning is most successful when it is practiced and assessed on a personal level, focused on differentiated instruction, in order for students to develop holistically and for everyone in the classroom (students AND teachers) to be passionate about learning. Of course, this qualitative form of assessment alludes the neat, cookie-cutter evaluations that standardize tests provide. However, just because something is harder to account for statistically doesn’t mean that it isn’t a better method of measuring and assessing students’ learning. When creativity and personalization are key components of teaching, students are better prepared to take on the world at large. Art-centered education provides enormous opportunities to measure students’ personal development and their ability to connect experience and education in a way that promotes life-long learning. The arts teach us to frame the world in the context of our personal and collective experiences. The arts promote empathy, positivity, diversity, and mindfulness among other progressive things. Education isn’t meant to be contained and compartmentalized just as what is considered art is entirely open ended. Creativity teaches us to embrace ambiguity and that is an essential mindset for students to carry with them throughout their lives.

An example of an artwork that combines both quantitative and qualitative assessment in a powerful, thought provoking manner, is How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette. In this installation (currently on view at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an imagined elementary school classroom, we are initially confronted with the expression “tread lightly” on the door. Upon entering the classroom, the symbolism of this phrase is blatant. Suannette has constructed a both a real and surreal classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore and engage. The word carefully is not to be taken lightly because the artist has installed bungie “trip wires” in a weblike construct several inches above the floor. This obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelveis a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that marginalized students (primarily students of color) experience in public schools. The installation features wallpaper made from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spell out stark statistics about the lack of equality and equity for students of color in the education system. While viewers are navigating through the classroom, a looped video is projected onto a wall featuring news stories and behind the scenes school board meetings discussing and debating the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools.


Duneska Suannette, How Was School?, 2018.

While I was taking in the poignant messages, I was greeted by the Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal and equitable education and what it means to give all students a safe, positive, and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations such as a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls, and other uplifting objects and materials that are more inclusive of a diverse student body. It is important for all students to feel represented in their schools, and examples of literature, toys, and art works that express diversity are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness, and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting.

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Suannette also set up an interactive activity where participants are asked to fill out a response on a star relating to what they associate Empathy, Being Positive, Mindfulness, and Implicit Bias to mean. This is a powerful form of assessment that prompts our recognition of the problems marginalized students face in schools and the artful and holistic actions we might employ to raise awareness and explore creative solutions for equity and equality in our schools.

You can participate in How Was School? and view other works that relate to educational issues in the exhibition Summer Break at the JCC Harlem (318 West 118th St, between Frederick Douglass Blvd & Manhattan Avenue) through December 2018.  

Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences


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Yoko Ono’s “Wish Trees for London” at the “Yoko Ono To The Light” exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London, june 2012. Photo by Michelebuzzi, 2012.

In the educational environment, differentiation of instruction is a vital methodology educators use in order to ensure that students are receiving an equitable education. In other words, teachers might explain something in several ways in order to account for the variance amongst learners. Students learn differently because in education, one-size doesn’t fit all. Therefore, it is essential that an educator is familiar with ways in which they can reframe or re-present a lesson, idea, process, produce, and/or learning environment that tailors to the needs of each student.

Differentiated learning is inline with Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which proposes that intelligence is constructed from a series of modalities rather than one single element. While each of us has these intelligences, we all learn differently and are more proficient in certain areas than others. The areas that Gardner framed in his research include the following intellectual abilities:

  1. musical-rhythmic
  2. visual-spatial
  3. verbal-linguistic
  4. logical-mathematical
  5. bodily-kinesthetic
  6. interpersonal
  7. intrapersonal
  8. naturalistic
  9. existential *
  10. moral *

For example, some students learn best if a lesson is shown to them in a visually stimulating way (of course, the arts are very helpful in this aspect), while other students understand things in a more tactile way or by listening and hearing things. Some students need more structure (mathematical/logic), while others need more choice. Everyone learns differently, so educators mustn’t teach information in a singular way. There are multiple perspectives that need to be accounted for in order to support every student’s understanding and engagement.

Artists create works of art by applying multiple intellectual abilities within their artistic process. The theory/statement which suggests that artists use the right side of their brain over the left (right brained being the creative, while left brained being more mathematical) is a myth. Art enables us to express and perceive the human experience, while utilizing the myriad of intelligences listed above. During the creation of an artwork, an artist might incorporate several different processes, materials, subjects, and themes in order to communicate with a wide-range of viewers who analyze, interpret, and value things differently.  The arts make the mundane things in life extraordinary. Gardner used an example of how writing can be transformed from a dull explanation of subjects to a work of art through the creative use of metaphors and other stylistic elements. Even the sounds of music would be banal without the creative implementation of rhythm, tone, chords, phrasing, improvisation etc. (Gardner, 1999).

An example of an artist whose work focuses on the creative differentiation of visual, naturalistic, existential, and linguistic intelligences, is René Magritte, who was a Belgian Surrealist and precursor to Postmodernism. Magritte’s work questions our perception of reality as well as how we understand and convey information. By re-presenting images and words, Magritte raised our awareness of how we think and react to the world around us. For example, in his seminal painting The Treachery of Images (1928-29), Magritte painted a pipe, traditionally used for smoking tobacco, with the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” French for “This is not a pipe.” below. When asked whether the painting is a pipe Magritte retorted: “the famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” Therefore, Magritte is challenging us to approach this painting through an understanding of linguistics, aesthetics, and the existential purpose of a painted object versus the actual object the painting re-presents. Without the bodily-kinesthetic ability to stuff the pipe with tobacco and smoke it, is it truly a pipe or just a painting of something that references a two-dimensional image of a pipe? One thing that can be said with a degree of certainty is that Magritte was differentiating an artistic object (a painting) from the object it represents (a pipe) by using multiple intelligences to compare and contrast the qualities of each object. For the visual and verbal learner, Magritte’s art work illustrates a visual and linguistic example of semiotics and the philosophical term mimesis. It can be a fun and rewarding activity to openly engage this work of art in both the ELA (English Language Arts) and Art classroom.

The American conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth, presents semiotic concepts of visual, logical, tactile, and linguistic intelligences through works such as One and Three Chairs (1965). In this conceptual work of art, a photograph of a chair, a dictionary definition of a chair, and the actual chair from the photograph are all on display together. Because the photograph depicts the chair as it is actually installed in the room, this work of art changes each time it is installed in a new environment. Like Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, One and Three Chairs compels us to consider what is real and what is re-presented in. This example of differentiation is helpful for students to understand how an object can be reframed through divergent processes and materials while still carrying the same meaning (essentially). Kosuth addressed this concern in 1970 when he stated:

“I used common, functional objects – such as a chair – and to the left of the object would be a full-scale photograph of it and to the right of the object would be a photostat of a definition of the object from the dictionary. Everything you saw when you looked at the object had to be the same that you saw in the photograph, so each time the work was exhibited the new installation necessitated a new photograph. I liked that the work itself was something other than simply what you saw. By changing the location, the object, the photograph and still having it remain the same work was very interesting. It meant you could have an art work which was that idea of an art work, and its formal components weren’t important.”

Arnaud Maggs’ work embraces the visual-spatial, logical-mathematical, and interpersonal intelligences. Maggs worked primarily with photographic processes, creating sets of images, catalogued, categorized, and arranged in a mathematical grid or sequence. For example, Joseph Beuys: 100 Frontal Views, Düsseldorf, 21.10.80 and Joseph Beuys: 100 Profile Views, Düsseldorf, 21.10.80 is composed of 100 photographic portraits of the artist Joseph Beuys from the frontal view and 100 photographic portraits of Bueys’ profile. At first glance, each set of photographic portraits appear to be the same, however, Maggs actually took 200 unique photographs of Beuys as the influential German artist tried to remain in the exact same pose (you can actually see Beuys begin to slouch a bit during the final few images). These slight differences contrast the mechanical and personal elements of photography and express the interpersonal relationship between the sitter and portraitist.

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Agnes Denes, The Living Pyramid, 2015. Socrates Sculpture Garden, Long Island City, New York. Courtesy Socrates Sculpture Park.

Agnes Denes is a contemporary conceptual artist who makes use of visual-spatial, logical-mathematical, and naturalistic intelligences. Denes combines mathematics, ecology, and philosophy to create awe-inspiring environmental artworks and intricate geometrical renderings. The Living Pyramid (2015) was a site specific environmental artwork created from several layers of planted grasses and flowers installed at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens from May 15 through August 30, 2015. The pyramid motif is highly symbolic for Denes as an ideal mathematical form alluding to a utopian society. The realization of the project was interpersonal, involving volunteer community gardeners who planted grass and wildflower seeds throughout the thirty foot tall pyramid’s stepped surface. While the ancient pyramids of Egypt were built as tombs, The Living Pyramid, was constructed as a monument to life and the natural world.

Yoko Ono, often recreates previous works of art using different materials, processes, and participants. In her conceptual works of art, Ono provides instructions in order for the viewer to recreate or participate in the artistic process and the realization of a product. Many times these instructions are subjective and rely on the viewer’s utilization of multiple intelligences such as bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, moral, musical-rhythmic, verbal-linguistic, and visual-spatial abilities. In some instances, Ono’s work lives on only in its documentation (photos, video, sketches, reviews, etc. from when it was performed or installed) or written instructions. Therefore, many of her works of art are meant to be revisited, analyzed, and interpreted by a variety of individuals, which ensures that each display and engagement of the art work is different from its prior presentation. For example, her Wish Tree (c. 1981-present) installation, where a native tree is planted and ornamented with wishes, has been re-presented in various locations and by a wide variety of participants. Ono’s work celebrates each viewer’s intellectual, social, and emotional experiences through its democratic and differentiated processes. Below are several examples of how Ono’s Wish Tree has been re-presented using a variety of concepts, materials, processes, and environments.

Ono’s project inspired Sanctuary, a recent (2017) collaboration between Art Education Graduate students at Brooklyn College and High School students from Flatbush, Brooklyn, in order to provide catharsis and positivity in light of the ominous social and cultural environment threatening the safety and dreams of many Americans. After group discussions (and viewing several of Ono’s Wish Trees), students created tags featuring positive wishes, images, or quotes that related to the theme of sanctuary as they interpreted it. The student’s affixed their tags to trees on Brooklyn College’s campus. During a one day event called RESPOND BC (April 26th, 2017), the High School students solicited the participation of the Brooklyn College community to create and hang tags on the trees. Students became educators by explaining the theme and process in an open ended manner to each participant they engaged with.

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High School students from Flatbush, Brooklyn created tags for the collaborative Sanctuary project at Brooklyn College on April 26th, 2017. Photograph by Art Educator, Amanda Vollers.

Because art requires the creativity of the maker and the participation of the viewer, it is a perfect discipline for the multiple intelligences to coincide. Furthermore, since art can be expressed and interpreted widely, it enables a wide range of differentiation. One activity that embraces this methodology is having students re-present a prior project using another medium (ex. making a sculpture of a drawing, or writing a song about a painting). By revisiting a concept they’ve addressed in one medium and thinking about it in different medium or material, students are developing additional multiple intelligences required for symbolic expression in that material/medium.

* these two multiple intelligences (Existential and moral) were added by Gardner after his initial research.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Gardner, Howard. (1999). The Happy Meeting of Multiple Intelligences and the Arts. The Harvard Educational Review, 15(6).

Transcending Boundaries

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San Ysidro: CBP San Diego Operations – From a roof top, vehicle traffic is seen crossing into the United States from Mexico through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the San Ysidro border port of entry. Photographer: Donna Burton

Art transcends borders, which is evident from a quick survey of Western and Eastern art history. Ideas, movements, techniques, and materials have traveled fluidly across the globe. Seeing Japanese woodblock prints was pivotal on Van Gogh’s stylistic development, especially with regards to his depiction of space and use of color. Before Abstract Expressionism became mainstream in North America, Abstract Expressionist painters were gaining avant-garde insight via the Mexican Muralist painters. For example, Jackson Pollock studied with David Alfaro Siqueiros in the Mexican Modernist’s Siqueiros Experimental Workshop. Siqueiros developed a technique of dripping and pouring paint onto the canvas, which no-doubt inspired Pollock later on when he created his famous Abstract Expressionist paintings such as Number 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950). In his piece for solo piano titled Music of Changes (1951), American composer John Cage applied the mystical cleromancy from the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes). The composition was realized through applying decisions from the I Ching, thereby, the piece was considered a major work of indeterminate music, a genre pioneered by Cage, where parts of a piece are left open to chance. These are just three of many examples of how globalization has had major influence on artistic progression.

Art teaches us that ideas, movements, signs and symbols, and the freedom to express ourselves, have very limited restrictions and are open for interpretation, transformation, and re-contextualization. In other words, there are a myriad of ways to convey meaning artistically. In visual arts education we have ‘guidelines’ in the form of the Elements of Art and Principles of Design and they are traditionally a good place to start so that a student develops skills and techniques in order to communicate symbolically in the materials of their choice. However, as the old adage goes, “rules are meant to be broken.” An educated artist (or a person educated through art) is able to come up with a multitude of ways to solve an aesthetic problem that may or may not involve the formal elements of art and principles of design. The essential value of art is the studio habits of mind that art-centered learning has on other aspects of an individual’s learning. Making judgements in the absence of rules is one of Elliot Eisner’s studio habits of mind that has relevance in all other facets of an individual’s life. Eisner explained this habit of mind best when he spoke at Stanford University in 2002:

“The arts provide the kind of ideal that I believe American education needs now more than ever. I say now more than ever because our lives increasingly require the ability to deal with conflicting messages, to make judgements in the absence of rule, to cope with ambiguity, and to frame imaginative solutions to the problems we face. Our world is not one that submits to single correct answers to questions or clear cut solutions to problems; consider what’s going on in the Middle East. We need to be able not only to envision fresh options, we need to have feel for the situations in which they appear.” 

Another lesson that the arts teach us is how to be flexible when outcomes don’t go as planned. Eisner called this habit of mind “flexible purposing,” and stated:

 “Opening oneself to the uncertain is not a pervasive quality of our current educational environment.  I believe that it needs to be among the values we cherish.” 

Habits of mind encourage inquiry based learning, which becomes prevalent throughout an individual’s life. Just like John Cage embraced the uncertainty of the I Ching to unlock incredible creative potential, we can all become more open and engaged by employing the artistic habits of mind in our lives. Scrutinizing problems and realizing that there are many different situations to be accounted for (as well as scenarios that we haven’t even thought of yet), opens ourselves to creative possibilities and solutions that we may have previously thought to be unfathomable.

One major conflicting problem that needs creative solutions within our lifetime is the issue of immigration. Heavily enforced political borders make it difficult for individuals and groups of people to travel from one place to another. The border between North America and Mexico is one example where travel is greatly restricted for many people on a daily basis. It can take hours to cross the border from the U.S.A into Mexico and vice versa, which makes for a stressful commute for many who need to cross the border for work. Another is the growing issue is the astonishing numbers of Syrian citizens who have been displaced from their homes and are living as refugees. There is a lot of discrimination around the issue of opening up borders or taking in refugees, which is the result of fear mongering policy makers and xenophobic groups that sadly have the authority to wreak havoc on individuals who are trying to obtain a better life for themselves (or in many cases, save their lives). It will take a lot of creative problem solving, collaboration, and placemaking initiatives to “envision fresh options and frame imaginative solutions” that will take on the issues of immigration and the growing refugee crisis. We must be open to exploring other possibilities when best-laid-plans go awry and we are faced with unfamiliar circumstances. The results are worth the effort, case in point, the inspiring work of Tanya Aguiñiga and the resident artists of the Za’atari Refugee Camp.

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Screen shot of Tensión by Tanya Aguiñiga (R) and Jackie Amézquita (L). The full video is now up at MAD as part of ‘Tanya Aguiñiga: Craft and Care’ 

Tanya Aguiñiga is an artist and designer from Tijuana, Mexico, whose craft-based work is rich in both materials and subject matter.  When Aguiñiga was in grade school, she travelled several hours each day across the San Ysidro border into California to go to school and became well accustomed to life between and along the Mexican-American border. Aguiñiga works in a variety of media, but generally with textiles and techniques that combine traditional craft-making with contemporary design. Her work is largely rooted in intersectionality of identity, which examines social and emotional connections through the act of “Performance Crafting,” where two or more individuals engage in a creative process together. The results are dependent upon strong communication and empathy for each other. Seeing art as a means to overcome the ambiguity and conflict emerging from political borders, Aguiñiga founded AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides), an art and activist project that focuses on interconnectedness between people in border regions. Many times, people who live in these areas feel a great sense of belonging to both the United States and Mexico, whether they cross the border for work or to visit their families, it is a part of their daily lives. Through creative processes like weaving, individuals on either side of the border partake in a profound placemaking experience. They are transcending the physical boundary that separates them by engaging in the collaborative realization of an artwork and documenting how similar lives are affected by the physical separation caused by the border.

While borders aim to keep people in their assigned countries of origin, what do you do when you’re forced out of your  homeland? That is the crux of the humanitarian crisis that is currently happening in Syria. Due to the ongoing violent Civil War, many Syrian refugees have been forced to relocate to camps such as the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. While they are far from their homes and living in a constant state of flux and trauma, refugees obtain catharsis by engaging in collaborative art projects within the camp. Through the support of aptART, ACTED, UNICEF, ECHO and Mercy Corps, artist Joel Artista travelled to the camp beginning in 2013, to collaborate with Syrian refugees. Artista and a team of resident Syrian artists developed a series of art education workshops and public art projects for the children in the camps. Young artists painted murals on buildings and objects like kites and wheelbarrows that reminded them of home, addressed issues (such as clean water and hygiene) that are important in the camp, and celebrated their vibrant cultural identities, which cannot be displaced. The wide range of colorful subjects liven up the bleak reality of their current situation and strengthens the community at large. From the look on the children’s faces (see the photos on Artista’s website), it is evident that they are proud of the work they’ve made. Art making in this capacity has a profound way of humanizing a crisis by coping with the conflicting messages and ambiguity of a situation that no human being should have to endure.

Life is unpredictable. There really aren’t any stable situations or predictable outcomes in the long run. By incorporating studio habits of mind, such as making judgements in the absence of rules and flexible purposing, we can all become adept at handling all of the curveballs life throughs at us.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Eisner, Elliot W. (2002). ‘What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?’ The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.