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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quotes from the Field

Throughout the posts on this site, I have contextualized the work of modern and contemporary artists within an educational framework. I approach subject matter through the lens of an artist, art historian and educator, therefore, the views expressed within my writing reflects my prior and current experience in the art and education fields, as well as my evolving knowledge of both disciplines. During the course of my research for past and future content to write about, I became curious as to how artists might describe their own enduring understandings of art’s relationship to education. Below is a concise list of quotes from artists and aestheticians on the topics of education, cognitive development, emotional development, and the benefits of art-centered learning. Underneath each quote I have added a brief contextualization of how I see it relating to the field of education.

“A good teacher is like a good artist. They go right to the most difficult part of whatever’s going on.” —Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) is a pioneer of playfully exploring symbolic interconnectivity through visual metaphors and wordplay in order to provoke our responses and heighten our attention to social, cultural, and emotional themes. Nauman’s work is evident of the studio habits of mind that the arts promote such as “living with ambiguity” (or making judgements in the absence of rules) and “noticing deeply.” Visual artists like Nauman create open-ended work that challenge us to notice details in multiple layers and to embrace difficult situations creatively, while acknowledging that solutions might not be clear-cut. Actively employing these studio habits of mind is how individuals like Nauman make innovative contributions to society.

“Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” –John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an influential art critic (and an artist in his own right) who understood that the inclusion of the arts within society would encourage habits of mind such as “exhibiting empathy.” Art embodies the humanity and the spirit of the human condition. In other words, art adds symbolic meaning to life experiences and has the ability to enhance our understanding of one another in a social, emotional, and intellectual manner. The above quote likely resonated with progressive educators such as Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) who promoted an educational system bolstered by the arts that would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce because they had pride in what they were creating (see: Making Our Space/Documenting Our Place).

“…pedagogy and education are about emphasis on the embodiment of the process, on the dialogue, on the exchange, on intersubjective communication, and on human relationships” – Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera (b. 1971) celebrates multicultural social and emotional interactions within participatory art projects that incorporate habits of mind such as “making connections,” “taking action,” “exhibiting empathy,” “creating meaning,” “embodying,” and “questioning” (See: Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education). His work reflects progressive educators like John Dewey and Paulo Freire who advocated for a democratic and experiential approach to learning.

“Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking and structures that shape and inform our lives.” – Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a major inspiration for the idea of ‘Artfully Learning.’ Beuys’ work as an artist and educator embodied the theory that every act of consciousness can be an artistic process and that everyone can be an artist if they embrace the habits of mind related to artistic thinking, creating, and reflecting (see: Everybody is an Artist). In a 1960 interview with Artforum magazine, Beuys, reflected upon his career as an artist and stated that “to be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”

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Luis Camnitzer, A Museum is a School, 2009–ongoing. Site-specific installation, media variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift of the artist in honor of Simón Rodriguez on the occasion of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, 2014

Luis Camnitzer’s (b. 1937) site specific artwork A Museum is a School (2009-ongoing) addresses several habits of mind including “making connections,” “taking action,” and “reflecting/assessing.” Camnitzer’s work is steeped in what he calls “art thinking,” which is to say that education and creativity are inseparable and the creation of knowledge is an artistic process realized through both cognitive and expressive actions. Museums are important public institutions that serve as a liaison between the artist’s work and the viewer. It is the museum’s job to present works of art in a meaningful way that is both indicative of the artist’s intent and the public’s personal knowledge and experiences. Museums should inspire us to be lifelong learners with inquisitive minds.

“I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at – not copy it” – Georgia O’Keefe

Georgia O’Keefe’s (1887-1986) work inspires us to “notice deeply,” ask questions, “identify patterns,” and create new meanings. The quote above communicates the crux of artistic learning, which is asking big questions, exploring, making discoveries, and synthesizing experiences into insightful symbolism (see: Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences). O’Keefe’s artistic practice combined astute observation and transformative experiences with personal expression. Her aesthetic style is one of the most unique and iconic in Western Art.

“Art is the easiest thing in my life, and that’s ironic. It doesn’t mean I’ve worked little on it, but it’s the only thing I never had to… I have no fear. I could take risks.” – Eva Hesse

Taking risks is important in both art and educational settings because it opens us up to new possibilities while building skills and confidence. By taking risks we are addressing ambiguity, making judgements in the absence of rules and allowing for flexible purposing (a ‘Deweyian’ habit of mind, which means developing an ability to creatively improvise and seek new solutions to navigate around any potential ‘roadblock’). Eva Hesse (1936-1970) took many risks throughout her short yet prolific career, which accounted for her pioneering style of art. Hesse’s artistic process involved revelatory explorations with materials, many of which (latex and plastics) were not typically considered art related until Hesse transformed them within her sculptures and paintings. Hesse kept consistent journals where she recounted feelings regarding her personal and professional life. Throughout these entries, Hesse’s struggle and perseverance with creative problems were evident. For example, in an undated entry from November 1960, she stated:

“Only painting can now see me through and I must see it through. It is totally interdependent with my entire being. It is source of my goals, ambitions, satisfactions and frustrations. It is what I have found through which I can express myself, my growth—and channel my development. It affords the problems which I can think through, form ideas which I can work with and arrive at a statement. Within its scope I can develop strength and conviction.

Taking risks allows for both order and chaos to exist simultaneously during the creative process. In other words, taking risks allows us to address failure and learn to utilize failure as a means to build confidence to make difficult decisions throughout the creative process when things don’t go as planned. We become stronger emotionally and cognitively when we develop a solution for a difficult problem.

“An artist’s job is to articulate what might otherwise be incoherent.” – Nancy Spero

One of the most important roles of an art educator (or any educator) is to make the implicit explicit. As art educators, we are well versed with artistic mediums and techniques and find that creating works of art becomes second nature to us. We don’t often have to break our process down into steps once we’ve mastered certain styles and skills within the creative process. However, this tacit knowledge (our expertise as creators) cannot simply be transferred to our students because they haven’t acquired the necessary skills and techniques that are required to be fluent visual communicators. This is especially true with beginners and those whose artistic development is at various phases (see: Louis, 2013) but are still learning to become symbolic communicators. Educators use several methodologies such as instructional scaffolding, differentiation, and multiple intelligences (see:Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences), to make knowledge that is difficult to transfer to others by means of verbalization or writing more straightforward and understandable to a diverse group of people. The above quote by seminal feminist and political artist, Nancy Spero (1926-2009), exhibits several artistic habits of mind including “making connections,” “creating meaning,” “embracing ambiguity,” “taking action,” and “reflecting/assessing.” Having students articulate their artwork in a social, cultural, and/or emotional framework is a good assessment and reflection of learning. A successful artist is conscious of whether they’re being understood by the viewer who might not be versed in artistic vocabulary, art history, or theory.

Do you have a favorite inspirational quote from an artist that relates to artistic learning, cognitive and emotional development, or educational topics in general? The aforementioned quotes are just some of the many words of wisdom, so please share some of the quotes you find to be inspirational as an educator and an artist (comment below or reply via the contact form)!

Want to Make Art and Education Great? Start with Community.

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Two children at the Harlem Community Art Center in 1939. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Harlem Community Art Center: II, 290 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1939. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4ea1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The traditional K-12 classroom setting or school environment is sometimes the be-all end-all location for resourceful learning opportunities in student’s lives. This unfortunate reality is due to a myriad of alarming factors, including the a lack of resources for public education and after-school or community-based learning programs, the segregation of schools (yes, even in 2018, decades after Civil Rights), and a lack of pedagogical knowledge among some influential policy makers. These policy makers range from business leaders who invest in for-profit and non-profit Charter Schools, to the proponents of standardized testing and quantitative data that supports proficiency over growth. Some of these major policy makers have very little experience with the public education system, so how can they possibly bring about profound and practical reforms when they haven’t spent the time educating themselves on what is actually happening in these schools on a daily basis?

When you get to the crux of many of the issues affecting education today, it is largely because classrooms and schools are at a greater disadvantage if they are homogeneous, which means that the student body isn’t socially, culturally, or economically diverse enough. For example, if you look across the board in New York City, it is clear that educational settings with a more diverse student body have access to more of the support and resources students need for a successful experience in school. Diversity in schools is immensely important because it enables an equal, equitable, and justice based education, which is essential in developing each individual student’s understanding of social responsibilities and what it means to be part of a strong heterogeneous community. Students are more likely to understand and relate better to each other if they realize that everyone is unique and comes to school with personal experiences, prior education, and cultural backgrounds that are different, however, just as valuable and significant as their own. Students need interpersonal skills and experience in dealing with diversity in order to be successful in the world outside of the classroom, which is growing more and more diverse by the day.

In addition to the lack of diversity in student population, there is a lack of diversity in the content that students are being taught. Even though there is arguably more recognition of diversity in the topics taught throughout the curriculum today than ever before, it is apparent, through studies and assessments (see: Kim, 2016Teeple, 2013Washington, 2018) that more work needs to be done. In school districts where a majority of the student population is made up of individuals who identify as black, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, or any other minority group, schools should be focusing on making the curriculum relevant to the student population. This means that topics and learning segments throughout the curriculum should support the students’ own experiences and cultural backgrounds in order to include them in an open-ended dialogue of what it means to be a part of the culture at large. This is not to suggest that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by censoring or removing certain topics from textbooks. Rather, we as educators need to be conscious about how we present themes and subjects in the curriculum so that students never feel like outsiders within their school, their community, and the world around them. Furthermore, we need to empower the voices of students who have been marginalized (many from the day they were born), so that there is a paradigm shift in this country, which gives everyone a chance to succeed and be a part of the collective culture. Students should never idly sit in a classroom and soak up canonical knowledge, which was selectively interpreted from the views of a biased historian (Hamblen, 1985; Carr, 1961) or curriculum developer. An equal, equitable, and justice centered approach to learning is exemplified in the methodology of Paulo Freire (1921-1977; a frequently cited individual on this blog. See: archives), where students and teachers construct knowledge through inquiry, praxis, and democratic collaboration.

Learning does not end when the afternoon school bell rings, in fact, the classroom should be a catalyst for praxis in social engagement, critical dialogue, and activism. In other words, school should be just one of the steps to effective learning. The school environment should give students a thirst to learn throughout their lives. Successful learning is expressed and realized when students actively engage in debates that challenge the status quo when necessary and are inspired to participate in socio-cultural events outside of the classroom. Real learning happens as a response and a reaction to the real world, as well as the multitude of past and present conditions that affect our intersectional identities. In order for real learning to take place, students need to be engaged in a curriculum that takes into account their perspectives and gives them the platform to construct and apply knowledge in a meaningful and personally relevant way.

While some schools are struggling to address the aforementioned issues, there are progressive initiatives within the arts and cultural community that should serve as inspiration to astute educational administrators and curriculum developers. These projects include Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects (Chicago, IL), Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses (Houston, TX), The Black Lunch Table (New York and various locations), and The Black School (New York, NY). All of these projects combine activism, community building, collaboration, and critical inquiry, through pedagogical methodologies and creative practices that support lifelong learning.

Houston, Texas is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. As the fourth most populated cosmopolitan in the United States, it is made up of communities with deep multicultural roots. One of these neighborhoods is called the Third Ward, which is located in Southeast Houston. According to sociologist Robert D. Bullard, the Third Ward is “the city’s most diverse black neighborhood and a microcosm of the larger black Houston community.” The Third Ward’s citizens have persevered through racial segregation and poverty and organized community building initiatives including a chapter of the Black Panthers called The People’s Party II, which was founded by Carl Hampton (1948-1970). During the late 1960s, Hampton was especially successful in uniting the different social, cultural, racial, and ethnic groups in the community to work together in support of each other’s quest for equality, equity, and social justice. Hampton organized a chapter of the Black Panther’s Rainbow Coalition (not to be confused with the organization that Jesse Jackson appropriated from the Black Panthers) in the Third Ward. In addition to African American activists from the People’s Party II, the Rainbow Coalition consisted of The Mexican American Youth Organization (The MAYO Group) and The John Brown Revolutionary League. The MAYO Group was organized by Chicano activists, who utilized mass demonstrations and political action to address the civil rights of Mexican Americans. The John Brown Revolutionary League, named after the abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), were a group of white activists who aligned themselves as allies of the Black Panther Party and MAYO. The Houston chapter of the Rainbow Coalition notably stood up against the epidemic of police brutality, systematic racism, and violence perpetrated on black and latino citizens. Carl Hampton was assassinated by the Houston Police on July 26, 1970. He was only 21 years old when he was killed.

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Row Houses used as Artist Studios. Photo by Hourick

Project Row Houses is a contemporary community building model, supporting cultural diversity within the Third Ward through art-centered placemaking. Founded in 1993 by Rick Lowe, a contemporary artist from Alabama, Project Row Houses supports the local community by offering creative solutions to social, economic, and educational issues within the Third Ward. When Lowe developed the idea for Project Row Houses (in collaboration with artists James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith), he incorporated several specific projects that would uniquely address the needs of Third Ward residents. Project Row Houses provides local artists with studios; safe and affordable housing for those in the community; support for young single mothers; an incubator for small independent businesses; and tutoring/mentoring services for students. In light of ongoing gentrification in many diverse working class and low-income neighborhoods, the need for affordable housing, job training, student-centered education, and economical workspace is at an all-time high. Lowe realized that providing creative space could be a catalyst for other socially engaged projects that incorporate studio habits of mind in order to create much needed social, economic, and educational improvements.

The role of an artist working with the community, instead of an artist working on a public work of art within a community, is a distinction that must be made. The artist who works with the community brings an open mind and a primary goal of finding answers to problems that are defined by local residents. The community is already very aware of the problems that need to be fixed, so an artist who solely creates a work of visual art visualizing (making prevalent in a grandiose manner) these issues is not doing justice to the community where the work is displayed.

Project Row Houses grew from a realization that art can provide powerful transformative meaning within a community where art-centered solutions are incorporated into everyday life.  Lowe’s willingness to listen and accept criticism played and instrumental role in his shift from being an artist making public art to an artist making work in tandem with the public. In fact, according to Lowe who was quoted in an article by Michael Kimmelman for The New York Times, it was a high school student in the community that inspired his artistic transformation:

“I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

Because of Lowe’s process of addressing community service through the arts, he was able to successfully design an art-centered community that benefits those outside of the art world. Solutions for affordable housing, quality education, extra-curricular activities, and socio-cultural empowerment are universally needed in every community, and therefore, the successful implementation of Project Row Houses’ public arts programming, education, and social services, can serve as framework for communities across the country. It is important to have a place where people can go to feel safe and be among their peers, while developing skills, knowledge, and experiences to make long-lasting contributions to their community.

Similar to Houston’s Third Ward, Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood is a historical and culturally significant setting for the Windy City’s African-American community. In 2009, Theaster Gates, a contemporary artist native to Chicago, developed vacant neighborhood buildings into cultural centers focused on celebrating rich cultural history, while maintaining a growing dialogue and community action within the African-American community. The artistic development, called Dorchester Projects is made up of several components including the Stony Island Arts Bank, the Black Cinema House, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Archive House, and Listening House. Within the Archive and Listening Houses, Gates has preserved the history and cultural legacies of important and beloved Chicago businesses that closed down due to economic hardship such as Dr. Wax Records Store and Prairie Avenue Bookshop. By purchasing the remaining stock of these stores, a venerable academic archive now exists in an equitable and egalitarian environment for the citizens of Chicago’s South Side to utilize.

Other endeavors within Dorchester Projects include youth art making workshops; a communal neighborhood dinner (See: Food for Thought on how sharing meals can be an art form); and a theater that hosts film screenings and discussions of films from the African Diaspora. Additionally, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative offers affordable housing and workspace for contemporary artists in exchange for their participation in community building initiatives and art-centered education programs.

As both Project Row Houses and Dorchester Projects exemplify, teaching students and adults about their cultural history should be an embodied experience, which is also the foundation for two artist run collectives called Black Lunch Table and the Black School. Both artist collectives celebrate the progressive education theories and artistic contributions of artists from the African diaspora through communal discussions, interactive workshops, archives, and exhibitions.

The Black Lunch Table, which takes its moniker from the literal and figurative school lunch tables raises awareness around the void of African Americans in the Western Historical cannon. In addition to increasing the voices and visibility for African American artists and cultural leaders, the collective creates a welcoming environment for a diverse range of individuals to discuss issues affecting contemporary communities such as systemic racism, income inequality, gentrification, and sexual violence. These group discussions take place throughout the United States and abroad and are archived online for the public to access. The Black Lunch table also organizes ‘Wikipedia Edit-a-thons’ where volunteers collaborate on adding articles about black artists or editing existing articles on black artists. The need for this edit-a-thon is apparent, as stated on the Black Lunch Table’s website:

“91% of Wikipedia editors identify as White and 77% identify as men. We artists of color working in the field of mainstream contemporary art are still marginalized within our field. Much of our history is omitted from broader art historical narratives and from vernacular arts studies. We endeavor to create spaces, online and in person, that mirror the creativity present in sites where Blackness and Art are performed.”

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Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture Realization, created as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Identification on verso (handwritten and stamped): Art Service Project; 137 E. 57th Street, New York City; Location: 137th St. and Edgecombe Ave.; DAte: 6/10; Negative No. 1060I; Photographer: Herman. Identification on accompanying note (typewritten): Augusta Savage

Because of communal edit-a-thons, we are able to learn more about the lives and work of black artists whose contributions to the field have been monumental, albeit largely underrepresented in the academic discourse. Augusta Savage (1892-1962) is one of the many historical black artists that deserve a larger chapter in the art historical narrative. Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida on February 29, 1892. Her father was a Methodist minister who discouraged Augusta’s early interests in making art. Thankfully, Augusta Savage persevered and dedicated her life to art and teaching others to live artfully as well.

Savage began achieving accolades as an artist in 1919 when she won the prize for the best exhibition at the Palm Beach County Fair. In the Fall of 1921, Savage was accepted into Cooper Union ahead of 124 men who were on the waiting list. Her talents as a sculptor were obvious to her teachers and contemporaries. She received commissions to sculpt busts of seminal African-American activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), and William Pickens Sr. (1881-1954). In 1929, Savage travelled to Paris to study sculpture at the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière and won two awards for her art when she exhibited it in two Paris Salons. When she returned to the United States in 1931, she became the first black woman to be inducted into the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

During the Great Depression, when spirits were low, Savage opened an art school in the basement of her West 143rd Street home in 1932. The school was open to anyone from the community who desired to learn how to draw, paint, and sculpt. Savage’s school grew into the Harlem Community Art Center, which received funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Savage was the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, which served students of all backgrounds and was an inspirational  environment for African-Americans to learn about their culture through the study of visual art. Some of Savage’s students included the renowned artists Gwendolyn Knight (1913-2005; who later succeeded Savage as the director), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), and Norman Lewis (1909-1979). Many of Savage’s students achieved widespread notoriety in the fields of art and social justice, including Kenneth B. Clarke (1914-2005) who along with his wife Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) was instrumental in providing research to Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.

Despite all of her acclaim and notoriety, Savage was largely forgotten when she passed away in March of 1962. However, Savage’s legacy as a very important artist, activist, and educator who inspired many individuals is rightfully re-presented in this era.

The contributions artists and educators like Savage, Lawrence, and John T. Biggers (1924-2001) made to socially engaged black art education is reflective in the Black School’s contemporary practice. The Black School is also influenced by community schools such as The Harlem Community Art Center, The Civil Rights era Freedom Schools, and the The Black Panther Party’s Liberation Schools. Guided by revolutionary black educators and progressive black pedagogical theory, The Black School designs and implements experiential learning opportunities as a means to social justice and activism. Through discussions, selected readings, and creating works of art, The Black School seeks to empower individuals to become lifelong learners and community activists.

Listen to an in depth interview of The Black School founders (and principals) Shani Peters and Joseph Cullier III in conversation with Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian here.

School leaders should consider applying the beneficial principles and methodologies described in the work of the aforementioned artists to the curricula of their schools in order to make learning equal, equitable, just, and relevant to a wide range of students. If we truly want to make education great again, it needs to begin with community and the celebration and deeper understanding of diversity.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Carr, E.H. What is History? Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1961.

Crichton, Ayana & Jodi Grant. “Lack of federal funding for afterschool programs will hit home.” Warwick Beacon Online, 22 Mar. 2018. http://warwickonline.staging.communityq.com/stories/lack-of-federal-funding-for-afterschool-programs-will-hit-home,132548

Greene, Peter. “How to Profit From Your Nonprofit Charter School.” Forbes. 13 August 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2018/08/13/how-to-profit-from-your-non-profit-charter-school/#7a0749de3354

Hamblen, Karen A. “An Art Education Chronology: A Process of Selection and Interpretation.” Studies in Art Education, v26 n2, 1985.

Huggins, Ericka. “The Liberation Schools, the Children’s House, the Intercommunal Youth Institute and the Oakland Community School” http://www.erickahuggins.com/OCS.html

Kim, Audrey. “A culturally rich curriculum can improve minority student achievement.” Flypaper, 18 Feb. 2016. https://edexcellence.net/articles/a-culturally-rich-curriculum-can-improve-minority-student-achievement

Kimmelman, Michael. “In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is.” New York Times, 17, Dec. 2006.

Strauss, Valerie. “Why strong afterschool programs matter.” The Washington Post, 15 Dec. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-strong-afterschool-programs-matter/2011/12/14/gIQAvtUpuO_blog.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0c1fde8a036f

Teeple, Joseph, “A Void to Fill: Recognizing a Lack of Diversity in the High School Social Studies Curriculum” (2013). Education Senior Action Research Projects. Paper 31. http://scholar.valpo.edu/sarp/31

Washington, Samantha. “Diversity in Schools Must Include the Curriculum.” The Century Foundation, 17 Sept. 2018. https://tcf.org/content/commentary/diversity-schools-must-include-curriculum/?session=1

Wong, Alia. “Where Are All the High-School Grads Going?” The Atlantic, 11 Jan. 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/where-are-all-the-high-school-grads-going/423285/

Wood, Roger. Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Shifting the Paradigm: Indigenous American Art and Multicultural Art Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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

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

Saccaro, Matt. “This is What Modern Day Discrimination Against Native Americans Looks Like.” Mic, 20 Oct. 2014, https://mic.com/articles/101804/this-is-what-modern-day-discrimination-against-native-americans-looks-like#.7TW9vXJGj

Dunbar-Diaz, Roxanne. “The Miseducation of Native American Students.” Education Week, 28, Nov. 2016, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/11/30/the-miseducation-of-native-american-students.html

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

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