Embodied Learning: Pedagogy of Performance

“The importance of the body is indisputable; the body moves, acts, rememorizes the struggle for its liberation; the body, in sum, desires, points out, announces, protests, curves itself, rises, designs and remakes the world… I think it’s absurd to separate the rigorous acts of knowing the world from the body.” -Paulo Freire, 1993

Movement is an experiential activity that makes us aware of our three-dimensional space. We move for convenience, labor, pleasure, or to explore new possibilities. Putting our bodies in motion can also be a symbolic mode of creativity, which is evident in its long-standing history as one of the earliest art forms.

Although it has been difficult to trace the exact origins of creative movement, we fathom, from archaeological and historical research, that the earliest humans incorporated gesticulation through dance, pantomime and theater (among other physically artful forms). Researchers believe that during the ice age, early Homo-sapiens and Neanderthals, utilized dance as a form of survival. For example, it is hypothesized that dance was likely an attractive way for a Neanderthal to gain the attention of a potential partner, which of course, was necessary to prolong the species (see: Mithen, 2006).

Movement such as dance, was prevalent in rituals (with spiritual and/or cultural intent) from the past, and remains a significant custom throughout the contemporary era. Performance (of which dance is a part of) is a type of embodied and experiential learning that enables us to communicate repletely through our gestures, contortions and physical expressions. When we engage in performative actions, we bring new meaning to the world we occupy through an exploration of time and space.

Acting out prior experiences or relating new knowledge in the form of ‘whole body learning,’ can make acquiring new knowledge and/or modifying existing knowledge more relevant and engaging. That is because it empowers the performers to connect significant meaning between their actions and the social, cultural, emotional and educational themes that envelop them on a daily basis.

In the educational sphere, students can be prompted to contextualize a lesson, by organizing a play, dance, or game, which makes the subjects that they are learning in the classroom more animated. Adding elements of excitement and collaborative participation is a very advantageous way to support students’ lifelong learning encourage them to build upon their social skills.

In past Artfully Learning posts, I describe how performative projects by Lionel Cruet, Tania Bruguera and Jefferey Gibson, take into account issues of identity, collective culture, the history of marginalized people and the utilitarian function of art as a means for empowering and inspiring critical thinking and creative activity.

In the post Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant, I discuss how Lionel Cruet’s application of embodied learning helped to make Henri Matisse’s The Dance (1910) more relevant to High School students in the Bronx, New York. Taking the impetus from the subject matter and title of Matisse’s early 20th century painting, Cruet incorporated the activity of dancing into his art history lesson. He prompted the students to re-present the theme of the painting by choreographing themselves in an interpretive dance pose. The students appropriated the modernist painting in a very personal and relatable manner, by physically incorporating the visual imagery into their own aesthetic and symbolic language.

Other works by Cruet, such as his current installation Reverb/Ensemble Space (2018), on view at Socrates Sculpture Park, invites the public to move about and interact with the sculpture in a multi-sensory manner. Visitors are encouraged to activate the space by moving their hands and bodies across a variety of materials, all of which are reminiscent of musical instruments. Moving across the sandbox styled floor and viewing the changing light, which gets refracted through the sculpture’s translucent roof, adds to the complete embodied, multi-sensory experience.

Another previous post (see: Performance of the Oppressed), focuses on Tania Bruguara, a Cuban performance artist, whose work is rooted in community involvement and pedagogical models similar to John Dewey and Paolo Freire. Bruguera considers her artistic discipline to be “Behavior Art,” which combines performance and pedagogy, and is more concerned with art’s sociopolitical ramifications than with aesthetic or material outcomes.

Bruguera’s performances are concerned with daily life and social interactions between groups of people within society. She is a steadfast and devoted advocate for art to be utilized for social reform, which gives marginalized voices a stage to be seen, heard and felt. Bruguera typically assumes a role as a choreographer, who is more interested in building relationships and co-learning experiences between participants and viewers of her work. Bruguera states:

“I believe that education is the solution to all problems. I know it sounds a bit grandiose, but I think it should be everybody’s priority. Education helps you deal with your feelings and it gives you options to act” – Tania Bruguera (Petrik, 2017).

Jeffery Gibson’s multicultural and multidisciplinary artworks (see: Tapping into who we are, what we know and who we know), incorporate movement as a way to express intersectionality. For example, Gibson’s Like A Hammer installation and performance combines club culture, Civil Rights era messages and a traditional Native American pow wow dance, which conveys his multifaceted identity as a Native American (Cherokee-Choctaw nation), an artist and a gay man.

Judson Dance Theater (Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, et al), Gerard & Kelly and FluctT, engage in a creative practices that combine dance, performance and visual art. Each of their unique styles address socially engaged issues by pushing the physical boundaries of aesthetic and symbolic representation.

Many of Judson Dance Theater’s founding members met in Merce Cunningham’s studio, while participating in a class taught by Robert Dunn. The group’s inaugural performance took place on July 6, 1962, and featured performances by Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Alex and Deborah Hay, Fred Herko, Elaine Summers, William Davis and Ruth Emerson. In addition to avant-garde dance, the collective frequently collaborated with experimental visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Rosemarie Castoro, Andy Warhol and Robert Morris.

Judson Dance Theater’s style of performance was largely based on interpretation, and gave preferential treatment to the artistic process over the actual aesthetic product. The idea of process over product is a very important concept in both art and education. While we can reflect and access the final product, it is through the process that the best learning takes place. Ingold (2013) states that we ‘think through making’ rather than projecting an idea onto a readymade material. Through artful improvisation and experiential activities, we web together a series of experiences that lead to mindfulness. Then, during that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena via an exploration of materials and techniques (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World).

Another unique contribution realized through the collective’s performances is the utilization of everyday actions and movements as dance steps. By incorporating daily routines and familiar activities into aesthetic and symbolic forms, Judson Dance Theater presented multi-media performances that were rooted in the day-to-day experience. In addition to developing dances based on commonalities, Judson Dance Theater was open and inviting to both trained and untrained dancers alike. For example, Yvonne Rainer’s seminal performance Trio A (1978), which emphasizes routine motions and gestures, was taught to “anyone who wanted to learn it – skilled and unskilled, trained and untrained, professional and amateur.”

The fundamental movements introduced through Judson Dance Theater’s performances, makes contemporary dance and avant-garde art relatable to the general public. By centering on individualized improvisation and rudimentary motions, artful forms of expression are accessible to a large audience, and can be performed (improvised or appropriated) by practically anyone. The broken down instructions, simplified techniques and improvisational mindset, which are required of the performer, is indicative of instructional scaffolding and differentiation within the educational environment.

The Judson Dance Theater’s influence can be seen in the work of Tino Sehgal, who incorporates both ordinary and intimate actions in his participatory based artworks.  Like Judson Dance Theater, Sehgal’s work is largely about the process over product. In fact, Sehgal’s art is ephemeral in that it is only realized in real-time through performance. While Sehgal sets up and designs the parameters and choreography for each work of art, the presentation and delivery changes each time because the performers and venues are interchangeable. Sehgal generally works with volunteer performers who he trains to act out the movements within his works of art. The pieces are also heavily reliant on the participation of the viewers within the venue where the work is performed (see: Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences).

The common theory that Judson Dance Theater, and similarly artists like Joseph Beuys, Tania Bruguera and Tino Sehgal imply, is that anyone can engage in creative activities, which, with the support of instruction and peer-to-peer learning, is the crux of art education.

Artist/choreographer duos Gerard & Kelly and FlucT, also implore us to rethink what we know about dance and art by blurring formal elements between the two disciplines, and using the body as a sensual harbinger of social justice. Within their compositions, each duo boldly confronts (and trounces) status quo characteristics of art and art history, such as the male gaze and the portrayal of femininity.

Gerard & Kelly was formed in 2003 by multidisciplinary artists Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly. The two collaborating artists work in a variety of media, which includes film, installation art and performance. They seek to examine, dissect and reconfigure the aesthetics of dance, subjectivity of personal memory, gender and sexual identity.

Gerard & Kelly’s work challenges binary relationships within Western dance and visual art. Their work includes playfully poignant appropriations of contemporary artist Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2002), where they critique the longstanding tradition of heteronormative  and gender roles within art history. While Sehgal’s original performance re-presented iconic kisses between men and women, as seen in canonical works of art, Gerard & Kelly’s Kiss Solo (2012) deconstructs the binary narrative with a performance featuring one solo performer enacting both male and female parts.

Kiss Solo reflects a somewhat similar discourse as Yvonne Rainer’s film The Man Who Envied Women (1985). Rainer’s experimental film turned the framework of the ‘male gaze’ on its head by completely removing the physical portrayal of the female protagonist from the screen, leaving viewers with just the sound of her voice. Rainer uniquely cast two actors to play the lead male character, a misogynistic and philandering Manhattan professor. The two-faced, fluctuating male profile, along with eliminating the spectacle of feminine imagery makes damning commentary on the film industry’s conventional chauvinism.

FlucT, which consists of choreographers, Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren, are steering a bold movement of empowering dance and visual art. Through an amalgamation of personal experiences, collective consciousness, social and emotional learning and current events, FlucT explores the balance of power and its affects on the human psyche.

Mirabile and Lauren’s aesthetic relationship imitates interpersonal relationships, in that their work is largely about the intimate interaction between two or more people. Sometimes they exhibit tender moments, while other times they express vicious turmoil. The performers, which include Mirabile, Lauren and occasionally a coterie of dancers, often build up momentum towards a climactic ‘freak out,’ where they gyrate and flail around in an improvised fervor. FlucT’s enthralling performances are acts of catharsis and self-care, that comment on abuses of power. Therefore, the success of the duo is reliant on close their knit relationships, trust and good communication.

The aforementioned artists all use their bodies in an experiential learning process, seeking to make connections to the world around them, and creating new meaning by exploring ways to make a profound sociocultural impact. To have self expression through sensuality is what enables us to have humanity. It is our “medium for having a world” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002).

While some schools have a unique dance curriculum, it would behoove all educators to consider the benefits of including movement such as performance and dance in their own curriculum maps. Creative movement can supplement more traditional visual art techniques like painting and drawing (i.e. the artistic processes of Yves Klein and Rosemarie Castoro, who incorporated gestural motions, inspired by dance, to realize the aesthetic forms and symbolic expression in their paintings and sculptures), or make art history lessons come alive.

Through embodied learning, students react to their world in a meaningful way, because they’re exploring, relating and making insightful connections to outside stimuli within their own physical realm. When students are empowered to make use of their unique corporeal and cognitive resources in tandem, understandings derived from educational subjects become more passionate and impactful.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Banes, Sally. “Judson Dance Theater”. International Encyclopedia of Dance.

Dally, Jenny. “In and Out of Line: Gerard & Kelly at the Farnsworth House.”  Modern Living: The Farnsworth House. 13 Dec. 2018. https://modernlivingfarnsworthhouse.wordpress.com/2018/12/13/in-and-out-of-line-gerard-kelly-at-the-farnsworth-house/

Darder, Antonia. “Schooling bodies: critical pedagogy and urban youth.” Fine Print. 35 (2) 2012. pp. 3-10. http://www.valbec.org.au/fineprint/archive/2012/fp_2012-02.pdf

Freire, Paulo. 1993. Pedagogy of the City. New York: Continuum.

Guenther, Mathias Georg. ‘The San Trance Dance: Ritual and Revitalization Among the Farm Bushmen of the Ghanzi District, Republic of Botswana.’ Journal, South West Africa Scientific Society, v30, 1975-76.

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Mackrell, Judith. “Choreography is Dead. Long Live Dance.” The Guardian. 27 Nov. 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/dance-blog/2013/nov/27/choreography-is-dead-long-live-dance

Merleau-Ponty, M. 2002. The Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge.

Mithen, Steven. 2006. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Petrik, Jeannette, “Education is always about the future: An Interview with Tania Bruguera.” Temporary Art Review. 20 Jul. 2017. http://temporaryartreview.com/education-is-always-about-the-future-an-interview-with-tania-bruguera/

Rainer, Yvonne (Winter 2009). “Trio A: Genealogy, Documentation, Notation”. Dance Research Journal. 41 (2): 16. JSTOR 27764529

Stosuy, Brandon. “Performance duo FlucT on using your body to tell stories.” The Creative Independent. 10 Sept. 2018. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/performance-duo-fluct-on-using-your-body-to-tell-stories/

Quotes from the Field v. 3

This is the third post featuring inspirational quotes from artists and art practitioners (see: Quotes from the Field and Quotes from the Field v.2). Similar to the previous posts, I examine, analyze and judge each quote within the framework of education.

This edition of ‘Quotes from the Field’ features citations from Rodin, Kara Walker and Irving Kriesberg. While selecting this round of quotes, I noticed a very strong commonality around the theme of discovery and artistic motivation, which includes being aware and accepting of cognitive and emotional stimuli during the creative process.

Each of the cited artists touch upon the idea that their creative impetus stems from making insightful and passionate choices, through an experiential process. This concept has clear links to the way we learn, which is through relating new knowledge to our prior experiences and backgrounds.

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The Thinker by Rodin located at the Musée Rodin in Paris. Photo by Andrew Horne

“I invent nothing, I rediscover” – Rodin

Good artists don’t simply copy directly from nature, they explore nature through an experiential learning process and re-present the essence of that engagement through their art. Art helps us to notice deeply, by prompting us to spend ample time observing and focusing on the intricate details of whatever the subject matter may be. Creating and viewing art enables us to make connections to the past and contextualize the world around us.

Artists research many different facets regarding the symbolism and meaning(s) that they wish to convey. When making any work of art we are synthesizing our prior knowledge and experience, with new research and observations. A good mantra for the artist, educator and art student alike, is that ‘explorations lead to discoveries, which lead to insights.’

“To be a truly conscientious artist, you have to look at what’s not working and challenge it. You riff on things.” – Kara Walker

Art is all about pushing the boundaries of discovery and re-presenting ideas, images, objects and symbols in novel ways. The arts teach us that there is more than one way to go about creating works of art. Artists reflect and assess their process through multiple avenues. They are adept at improvising many variations of an idea until they find the one that feels right (‘rightness of fit’ see: Eisner, 2002). Thinking artistically requires ‘embracing ambiguity.‘ In other words, understanding that there are many ways of  interpreting something and working hard to develop a resolution that fits within the context of the issue.

In the educational sphere, during both formal and informal critiques, students are often cued to look back on what went well and what could be improved. An ‘in-progress critique’ is a good way to get valuable feedback from their teacher and peers in regards to the direction of their work. Suggestions should describe what constitutes the strong elements of the piece and offer some questions or advice that might spur the creator to be even more successful going forward. This is an important way to strengthen critical thinking skills and restate artistic knowledge in a progressive manner. It benefits both the artist and their peer reviewer because they engage in a constructive dialogue and learn collaboratively from one another.

At the end of a project, students can fill out an exit survey, where they answer questions about their process, describing what their thoughts were prior to, during and after the project. Students should also be asked to describe what they thought went well and surmise a way that they might ‘riff’ on things and challenge what was less successful if they could do the project/work again.


Irving Kriesberg, Teaching, 1981, oil on canvas, 80 3/8 x 78 3/4 inches. Collection of Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Mississippi. Photo by Mark Geil

“Real paintings come into existence while the artist is not consciously thinking about rules and principles, just as in the art of dance the true dancer is not thinking about the steps to be executed during a performance, but is moved by emotion. Yet surely the dancer could not perform superbly without having very consciously developed a disciplined and capable body by means of exercises.” – Irving Kriesberg

Kriesberg’s quote echoes the famous adage that ‘rules are meant to be broken.’ Although it’s essential for all artists to learn the fundamentals of aesthetics, such as the Elements of Art and Principles of Design, it is the personal elements, which the artist brings to the work that fulfills the artistic experience.

Art is the creative construction of metaphors in order to communicate human experiences within a social and emotional context. Personal symbolism comes from within the artist as a response to their ongoing relationship with the world around them. In order to be fully understood by viewers, the creative impulse must be supplemented by the artist’s technical skills and visual vocabulary.

While artists develop throughout their artistic education (see: Louis, 2013), they learn to use materials, rules and principles in a more fluid fashion. In early childhood art settings, material based explorations are typically constructed to allow the children to openly explore materials in order for them to build familiarity with its affordances, properties and associations (i.e. textures made by scratching into paint with a comb might allude to hair/fur).

As children grow, art educators provide them with more structured instructional scaffolding (this is where the Elements of Art and Principles of Design come in handy), so that they learn, practice and reference new skills and techniques, while working with materials. Overall, it is important to make students understand why learning new principles and rules is relevant. One way to do this is by connecting learning exercises to self-directed projects (see: Teaching for Artistic Behavior), where students will need to incorporate cognitive, as well as social and emotional thinking processes.

The seasoned artist’s knowledge of traditional aesthetic principles, coupled with studio habits of mind, such as ’embracing ambiguity’ (see: Educating Through Art) and ‘making judgements in the absence of rules’ (see: Eisner, 2002), enables them to work through complex aesthetic and relational issues. As a result of combining skills, passion and intuition, artists are inventive in the ways in which they portray unique and potent visions to the world.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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.

Winter Reading List

As educators are preparing for their Winter vacation (maybe some are already there!), I have compiled a short reading list of books, because art and education never truly take a break! These engaging publications each address topics related to art, activism, education and overall ways to live life more creatively and collaboratively.

I’m constantly looking for additional art and education themed titles for my own personal reading list, so please feel free to share what you’ve been reading and/or recommend (comment below or contact me).

Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon Press (October 14, 2013)

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Art as Therapy explores the history of art and architecture by utilizing visual metaphors and representational imagery in pre-modern, modern and contemporary works of art, in order to make meaningful connections to social, cultural and emotional facets of our everyday lives.

Reflecting and assessing art’s purpose in a Deweyian tone, the authors, Button and Armstrong, envision ways to experience art that become intrinsic to the human experience.

Each chapter in the book represents a different social, emotional, or cultural theme, which the authors argue, can be bolstered and humanized through an application of artistic understanding and appreciation. For each topic (Love, Nature, Money and Politics), corresponding artworks exemplify how art can prompt us to deal with complex personal and societal issues in a cathartic and mindful manner. It is a good primer on how art should be enjoyable, enlightening and ultimately, a life-affirming experience.

Art as Therapy can be a helpful resource for artists and educators looking to create projects that express a deeper understanding of art’s sociocultural role within society at large. In the appendix, the authors provide an Agenda for Art, which I have personally found inspiring when writing lesson plans. The agenda breaks down the bigger picture of each chapter in the book, so that enduring understandings can be made between works of art life in general. This has been helpful for designing and implementing learning segments that connect creating and viewing art to students’ prior knowledge, what they are currently learning in other subjects and their relevant personal experiences. All of these elements incorporate the profound impact that art-centered experiences can have on our healthy development.

In summation, Art as Therapy‘s pragmatic approach to artistic immersion, is indicative of art’s benefits for teaching to the whole-individual. This means that our overall relationship with art should elevate beyond simply relaying fundamental skills (i.e. ‘teaching to the test’ or ‘art-for-art’s sake’), in order to create deeper holistic meaning and personal expression, by connecting artful experiences to the human condition.

Education for Socially Engaged Art:A Materials and Techniques Handbook., Pablo Helguera, Jorge Pinto Books (October 5, 2011)

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Education for Socially Engaged Art
is a practical guide and seminal text for anyone wishing to explore, discover and gain insight into the discipline of Social Practice Art.

As an artist and educator, Pablo Helguera breaks down the complex conceptual framework of socially engaged art into a useful tome for applying and relating art and pedagogy in a manner that resonates within diverse communities.

Helguera makes connections between contemporary art-driven activism and the influential philosophy and work of previous artists (visual and performance) and educators. By linking the past contributions of socially engaged art to present practices, Education for Socially-Engaged Art is a compendium of inspiring ideas based on both extensive research and empirical experience. Furthermore, this book presents the essential tools and techniques for those who aspire to work in creative cooperation with communities in the public realm. Helguera’s form of writing leaves things very open-ended, which is

Topics addressed include: documentation, community engagement, discourse and transpedagogy. The latter describes transferring ideas from progressive education within works of art that are intended to function as an alternative to the traditional classroom and/or the art institution. The artist as educator provides instructional scaffolding and creative prompts intended to a build communal partnership within the community (or the population they are working with) in order to co-create new works of art and experiences. This idea echoes Paolo Freire’s ‘problem-posing pedagogy,’ where knowledge is a collaborative process reliant on co-learning that happens through a dialectic between students and educators.

Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Claire Bishop, Verso (July 24, 2012)

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In this seminal theoretical text on participatory aesthetics, Claire Bishop scrutinizes key moments in the artist-viewer relationship over the course of the past 200 years. Bishop’s book (along with Helguera’s) is an essential read for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of how art can be utilized in a socially transformative manner.

Bishop provides many inspiring examples from the history of art, of artists who relied on the participation of the viewer during the artistic process. To illustrate her point, she drew from within the Italian Futurist and French Dada movements, the Situationist International, Happenings in Eastern Europe, Argentina and Paris, the 1970s Community Arts Movement and the Artists Placement Group. A good portion of the artists, artworks and art movements that Bishop features in her book are largely under-known within the framework of Western culture. Bishop’s focus on marginalized artists and under-recognized movements within Western art is a refreshing, bold and reflective take on critical theory and art history.

Bishop also writes about influential art projects that blend pedagogical and aesthetic practices, citing examples of work by artists including Paweł Althamer, Tania Bruguera, Paul Chan and Thomas Hirschhorn.

Overall, Artificial Hells presents a well argued thesis for a more fearless and analytical engagement with socially engaged art.


Happy holidays, happy reading and happy artfully learning!



Artful Autodidacticism: Art making for Well-being and Self-care

       Lizz Brady, To be confirmed, 2018, 9:03. Courtesy of the artist.


The self-taught artist has generally been contextualized within the canon of Western art as a reclusive individual who has had little to no contact with the academic or accredited art world. Another epithet for these individuals is an “outsider artist.” In truth, there is no such thing as ‘outsider art.’ That label is an oxymoron, which negates the highly personal and symbolic artistic process. Every artist is self-taught, which is evident from the moment they engage in a self-directed exploration of materials and symbolic imagery.

Our ability and drive to create works of art has been steadfast since prehistoric times. Art is a fundamental form of expression, which is why it is utilized as a favorable means for conveying deep meaningful narratives and as a therapeutic practice (i.e. art therapy and music therapy). There are many historical and modern examples of individuals who have harnessed art for self-expression and self preservation when other forms of communication have failed (see: Art as Therapy). Some of whom will be discussed in the text that follows.

Martin Ramirez is one of the most well known autodidacts in the art world. His work is currently exhibited in museums throughout the world and is highly sought after by collectors. From the aforementioned description it would seem like Ramirez lived the high-life as an art star, however, he spent the majority of his life inside of a California state mental institution. Furthermore, Ramirez had little to no connections to the art world during his lifetime. He wasn’t a part of a coterie of artists, nor did he attend any formal art school. Despite all of that, Ramirez clearly had a brilliant aesthetic and conceptual vision, which he recorded on brown paper bags, scraps of examining-table paper and book pages glued together with a paste made of oatmeal and saliva (Smith, 2007). The artwork Ramirez made indicated his vivid imagination and his cultural background. For example, his juxtaposition of avant-garde (ex. 20th century architecture and design motifs) and archetypal iconography (ex. the Madonna, cowboys, animals and trains), blurred the lines between Mexican folk art and modernist visions of society. Above all else, Ramirez maintained an autonomous artistic approach for contextualizing his unique perspectives.

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Martin Ramirez (right) with Dr. Tarmo Pasto at the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California, c. 1950s.

Fortunately, Ramirez’s vision and passion for creating works of art was recognized by Tarmo Pasto, a visiting professor of psychology and art at California State University. Pasto met Ramirez at the DeWitt State Hospital in Auburn, California. This was in the mid 1930’s, when Ramirez was a prolific artist. Pasto, moved by what he saw, became a champion of Martin Ramirez’s artwork. At the time, Ramirez was making intricate works using unconventional materials, which he found throughout the asylum. Pasto provided Ramirez with quality art supplies and carefully documented his oeuvre. The support that Pasto provided to Ramirez allows us to enjoy Martin Ramirez’s artwork in some of the world’s biggest museums and galleries today.

During the time period that Ramirez was making his self-directed artwork within a psychiatric hospital, an Austrian born artist and educator named Edith Kramer was in New York, developing the framework for what would be known as art therapy.

When Kramer was thirteen years old, she began studying fine art with a former Bauhaus student and faculty member named Friedl Dicker. At the age of eighteen, she followed Dicker to Prague where she served as her teaching assistant, teaching art to the children of political refugees. It was through this experience that Kramer realized art’s ability to nurture trauma and mental anguish.

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Edith Kramer working with a child in 1975. Watch the video here.

In the late 1930s, after immigrating to New York City, Kramer took a position as a faculty member for the Wiltwyck School for Boys, which was a boarding school and psychiatric care facility that served a population of boys with behavioral and emotional needs. Kramer realized that art making had a major impact on the boys’ ability to communicate their issues in a far more profound way than they had ever experienced. In prior instances, these boys would express frustration over not being able to communicate their problems, however, through engagement with art materials, they were given a positive and significant outlet to describe how and what they felt. She became the school’s de-facto ‘art therapist.’

Kramer’s lifelong work as an art therapist, blurred the lines between the humanities and behavioral psychology. By utilizing art as a means to better understand and treat mental health issues, she made significant contributions within the mental health community.

Recognizing the ways in which making art can benefit an individual’s mental well-being, Dr. Bolek Greczynki and artist Janos Marton created The Living Museum at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, in Queens, New York in 1983. The Living Museum presents patients in and outside of the hospital with a creative outlet to channel and synthesize their thoughts and feelings. Fountain House, a non-profit organization New York City, also provides a nurturing creative environment for individuals dealing with mental illness. In addition to operating a residency program where artists get much needed studio access, the Fountain House Gallery provides a high-caliber platform for artists living and working with mental illness to showcase their work.

Art as therapy is a significant form of mental health rehabilitation because it empowers individuals to communicate repletely. Individuals build self-confidence through independent art making activities, which helps them cope with their psychosocial conditions, perceive themselves apart from mental illness or trauma and value themselves as active and influential members of society (see: Lloyd, Wong, Petchkovsky, 2007). Additionally, analyzing artwork made as a result of art therapeutic sessions enables the art therapist to better understand the crux of social, emotional and neurobiological factors affecting their patients (see: Bednash, 2016).

United Kingdom based artist, Lizz Brady, founded an organization called Broken Grey Wires in order to harness the language of art as a means for cathartic responses and explorations into mental health related issues. While Brady collaborates and consults with established professionals and institutions in the art field to raise awareness around mental health, Broken Grey Wires mainly builds an expansive community for all individuals to “feel comfortable and participate in the project, for art to become a facilitator for recovery and to encourage people to make something special for themselves.” At its core, Broken Grey Wires is utilizing art to break the stigma of mental illness. Too often, the word ‘outsider artist’ (which as I mentioned previously is a misnomer) is used in reference to individuals who suffer from mental health difficulties.

Brady, who experiences severe depression and anxiety, as well as borderline personality disorder embraced art as a form of catharsis. In 2012, she graduated college with a degree in Fine Art, however, while she found some solace in her peers and professors, the severe struggle with her mental health issues culminated with her being an inpatiant in a psychiatric ward. For Brady, this was a seminal turning point, and she has henceforth devoted her artistic practice to addressing her own mental health issues, while also developing and maintaining a creative community alongside others who struggle with mental health related issues.

While Brady received artistic training via instructional scaffolding at a university level, she was an autodidact in relation to establishing her own studio practice. Initially, she felt isolated by the severe difficulties of living and working with mental illness. However, the drive to create art and address her issues through creative forces persevered and led to a unique enlightenment with regards to her work and personal life. She stated:

“I was living as an artist, and yet I couldn’t really find anything out there which explored mental health and creativity. I decided to form Broken Grey Wires, which initially would be one exhibition, showing work alongside other artists who inspired me. I wrote to David Shrigley, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Bobby Baker, Jeremy Deller…and to my genuine surprise, they were all interested in the concept I shared with them” (Rix, 2017).

This is how Broken Grey Wires came into fruition and it has since provided a therapeutic means for artists like Brady to assiduously communicate complex social, emotional and psychological subjects.

            Lizz Brady, Disappear here, 2018, 4:13. Courtesy of the artist.


Brady’s artwork explores and assesses her experiences with anxiety, alienation, feelings of doubt, rejection and the audacity of hope. Through a multidisciplinary practice that includes video, sound, installation and drawing; Brady reflects the temporary malfunction of the mind and expresses the emotional push-pull relationship, which affects mental health. Brady strives to create a symbolic link between physical ‘stuff’ and thinking ‘stuff’; through the creative process, to form as she describes, “‘The Moment’ where juxtaposed ideas permeates to fill the empty spaces, in the solid world or within our imagination.” The overarching statements that Brady expresses in her cerebral and stirring narratives address mental health as a realistic and debilitating issue. One that actually deters creativity rather than inspires it. This is a reality that Brady has had to overcome in order to make her highly personal work.

Although some cultural critics, Hollywood producers and news media outlets like to bestow creative people with the title of the ‘tortured artist, as creative genius,’ this is a dangerous ideology, which does more harm than good. Labeling grief and mental torment as a catalyst for making ‘good art,’ romanticizes mental illness as being intrinsic to creativity and adds to the stigmatization and stereotypes of certain creative individuals and groups.

The artists collaborating with Broken Grey Wires are working to address and dispel this harmful myth by presenting an honest and safe space for depicting mental illness. In addition to taking action against mental health stigma, their work centers around creating connections with others and exhibiting empathy for those who have boldly shared their experiences.

The communal fusion evident in the aforementioned descriptions, breaks another common myth about artists, which is ‘the artist as a enigmatic hermit.’ In truth, the majority of artists don’t live in a vacuum. They thrive when they have the support of each other and the community around them. Examples of Martin Ramirez’s relationship with Tarmo Pasto, The Living Museum, Fountain House Gallery and Broken Grey Wires, indicates that while the autodidact flourishes in self-directed projects, they may also benefit from instructional scaffolding and empathetic coaching from other individuals and organizations.

When we enter into the act of artistic creation, we employ a colorful blend of cognition and emotion. Artistic knowledge is influenced by experiential living and a yearning to communicate expressively within the era that the specific artist works. Aptitudes for using art materials and techniques develop over time in each individual who dedicates themselves to a continual involvement in the creative arts. Artistic learning is intrinsically self-directed, as in examples of autodidact artists, who independently select the themes they will engage in and the materials and mediums they will use. This knowledge can also be supplemented with formal education within primary, secondary and higher educational institutions, as well as through non-formal learning environments such as vocational apprenticeships.

A trained art educator understands the phases of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005) and sets up scenarios that prompt and support their students’ ability to become more self sufficient communicators and innovators. Art educators (and all other educators for that matter) should refrain from didactic and derivative instruction, because the crux of  symbolic expression comes from a uniquely personal journey. Instead, the educator should be a facilitator of self-directed student-centered learning. This not only helps learning become a more engaging activity in the classroom, it also supports an enduring drive to learn because students realize how they can connect education to other aspects in their lives.

Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is a contemporary pedagogical methodology where students are expected to direct their own learning processes in a similar manner to the ways artists work. TAB learning exposes students to multifaceted artistic practices where they come up with their own directives. In a TAB classroom, students either come into class with an idea that they want to address, or develop their ideas during a free play with materials, which are organized in stations. When they’ve affirmed their idea, the students will guide themselves through a series of aesthetic explorations in order to make insightful connections and create new meanings that stretch their imagination and expand their pragmatic skills. TAB learning is essentially autodidacticism, with the educator providing instructional scaffolding and coaching when needed.

TAB shouldn’t be the sole focus in the curriculum (and of course, it’s OK not to utilize it altogether). There needs to be a strong social element within these classroom environments, where students are learning to not only rely on themselves for insight, but to work cooperatively and embrace the ideas and discoveries of their peers. Having students build independence and interpersonal skills, while working through difficult problems, is what supports the types of inventiveness that shapes strong progressive communities.

Everyone has the ability to live a creative life where they can find the strength, courage and motivation to achieve mindfulness and practice self-care. If we embrace our inner artist and foster that artful seed with steadfast experiential artistic behavior, we will reap the many cathartic and insightful benefits that art can have on our social, emotional and mental health.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Andrews, Barbara Henriksen. “Art and Ideas: Reaching Nontraditional Art Students.” Art Education. 1 Sep.  2001.

Bednash, Ceccily J., “Art Therapy and Neuroscience: A Model for W ellness” (2016). LMU/LLS Theses and Dissertations. 297. http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/etd/297

de Botton, Alain and Armstrong, John. 2013. Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon.

Lloyd Chris, Wong Su Ren, and Petchkovsky Leon (2007). “Art and recovery in mental health: a qualitative investigation.” British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 70(5), 207-214.

Smith, Roberta. “Outside In.” New York Times. 26 Jan. 2007. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/26/arts/design/26rami.html?ref=museumofamericanfolkart&mtrref=en.wikipedia.org&gwh=D47B2E036B2930C836D2C199549A18CB&gwt=pay

Rix, Yasmine. Lizz Brady: Interview by Yasmine Rix. YAC | Young Artists in Conversation. Dec. 2017. https://youngartistsinconversation.co.uk/Lizz-Brady

Quotes from the Field v.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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

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

Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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

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

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

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

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