Are we there yet?

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Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (detail), 2018. Installed and on view at the Brooklyn Museum

“Are we there yet?”

To answer this question, we might respond with several questions of our own, such as: “who is WE?” or “where is THERE?” It is a question that can be either simple or loaded. We might think about career or personal milestones that we have set (and whether we have been successful in checking them off the list); places we have gone to (perhaps as a child you consistently asked this question to the adults on long car rides); or social, emotional and cultural viewpoints. The answer to “are we there yet?” is completely subjective and largely depends on individual and/or group experiences and perspectives.

On Saturday, March 23, my wife and I joined the artist, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and several others on an ‘artist’s walk’ between the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Central Library. We began our discussion on the steps outside of the museum, where Rasheed’s I AM POROUS. TODAY, I LEAK PREPOSITIONS. SO, I WILL ASK AGAIN, DO YOU HAVE A SIEVE? (2018) is installed. The installation is composed of several vinyl propositions affixed to the concrete steps, which read (to name a few) ‘after’ ‘before’ ‘above’ ‘along’ and ‘below.’ Rasheed prompted us to pick a word that spoke to us and our relationship to others and stand next to it. We then partook in a conversation with the other people who chose the same word. My wife and I choose the word ‘after’ and along with three other strangers, we engaged in a discussion regarding the language functions of the word. Our cohort came up with definitions, syntax, concepts and intersectional relationships for ‘after’. We then regrouped with Rasheed and the others and discussed how all the prepositions have multiple meanings in regards to how we think about past, present and future narratives and constructs.

We then went into the museum and gathered around Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (2018), which consists of four textile banners, on view within the museum’s entrance. The artwork’s intent is to prompt individuals of all ages to elicit responses to problem posing questions (Freire, 1970) including: “Are we there yet?” “After hope, then what?” “Is this the last time?” and “Did you think it would get easier after this?”

We were invited to congregate around a question that we felt was most pertinent to our own lives and discussed it with others in our group who chose the same question. The responses ranged from personal to collective and addressed themes that are social, emotional and political. We spoke about what we thought the future might hold in relationship to our sense of self, collective identity and the environment. In times of flux and ambiguity (which largely define our contemporary culture), it is helpful to come together and share feelings, aspirations, assessments and ideas about how we can address pertinent societal issues going forward.

After several people shared their responses to the questions, we walked roughly six minutes down Eastern Parkway towards the Brooklyn Central Library, where Rasheed’s interactive project Scoring the Stacks (2019) is installed in the main lobby. The participatory installation instructs visitors to select cards (possibly referencing card catalogues of yesteryear) with ‘scores’ that direct and elicit specific actions. For example, one card tells the holder to go to the reference ‘Society, Sciences & Technology’ section and choose a blue book, read the last page and choose a word that you would like to use in future conversations. The participant answers their prompts and deposits a carbon copy (they take home the original in a folio) into a box, which is then utilized for other participatory projects, which include: collaborative flash fiction writing, songwriting and choreography.



An example of one of my responses to a prompt from Scoring the Stacks.

Scoring the Stacks is symbolic of how we can learn through noticing deeply and making connections to past and present information, while thinking ahead to the future. While going through the library on the de facto scavenger hunt, I became more aware of other things, such as the library’s special collections; other interactive exhibitions on view; and the diversity of the people who utilize the library’s breadth of resources. Sharing my own insights and hearing the insights of others made the experience incredibly fulfilling and efficacious. Throughout the two-hour artist’s walk, I enjoyed listening to all of the thoughtful responses from each individual and opening my mind to new perspectives and information.

Participatory-centered artwork has major benefits on the way we construct knowledge and experience in a collaborative environment. Rasheed’s installations at the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Library are the crux of inquiry based learning, where questions and actions, rather than statements, become the impetus for the creation of knowledge. Rasheed’s practice embodies a constructivist form of pedagogy, centered on formulating knowledge through socialization and collaboration. In fact, prior to becoming a full-time artist, Rasheed was a high school history teacher.

Rasheed’s artistic practice combines progressive pedagogy, history and literacy, focusing on the intersection of these elements with multicultural identity and placemaking. Scoring the Stacks is both an engaging activity and a teachable moment, where we co-create new knowledge in collaboration with the artist, in order to make insightful realizations about our unique relationships with history and public spaces. The Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Library are ideal environments for an artful activation of public space, because they function as pedagogical institutions for the community at large.

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Installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed at the Brooklyn Central Library. Photograph by Kelly Kimura (@pageonesixtyone).

On the atrium of the library is a quote from Rasheed, which reads like a mantra for self-discovery and interconnectivity with the world around us: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, i decided to wander.” This quote brings to mind the idea of playful exploration and experiential learning, which makes building knowledge a worthwhile lifelong process. When we allow ourselves to let go of convention in favor of exploration and embracing ambiguity (both studio habits of mind that the arts teach us), we gain a wide range of metacognitive and critical thinking skills, while exhibiting empathy and expressing ourselves through multifaceted means. American educational philosopher, Maxine Greene (1995) states that the arts empower our minds to examine and interact with the unknown and uncertain. Therefore, I don’t think the question “are we there yet?” can ever be repletely answered, because we are always learning and creating new personal and communal experiences each and every day.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. Pg 12.

Greene, Maxine. 1995. Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Springgay, Stephanie, Irwin, Rita L., and Kind, Sylvia Wilson. “A/r/tography as Living Inquiry Through Art and Text” Qualitative Inquiry. 2005 11: 897.

Artfully Mapping

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Nancy Graves, Untitled #127 (Drawing of the Moon), c.1972, watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Nancy Graves’ art explores the connections between art, science, technology and geography. Her early 1970s conceptual paintings and drawings inspired by technological progressions in cartography, such as satellite imagery of the Earth, Moon and Mars, are currently on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash‘s Chelsea location in New York City through April 6, 2019.

Graves’ compositions featured in the exhibition (titled Mapping), combine the aesthetic qualities of maps with scientific inquiry, in order to investigate both the aesthetic and informative nature of mapping. Her artistic process was akin to the way scientists research data, test theories and utilize technology and matter in revelatory ways. Through combining qualitative and quantitative information, Graves portrays maps as both formal abstractions and figurative representations of human explorations, insights and discoveries.

Graves’ map inspired work prompts us to think about the legibility of information, patterns in nature and our own personal bias regarding geography and technology. While science is an essential discipline for explaining the world, the arts humanize and intuit the essence of the world in ways that give gravity and symbolic meaning to scientific data.


Nancy Graves, Mars, 1973, acrylic on canvas 4 panels, overall: 96 x 288 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

One of the centerpieces in the exhibition is the mural-sized acrylic on canvas painting titled Mars (1973). The painting references NASA satellite imagery of Earth’s planetary neighbor, which was first being made public during the time that she was painting this 24 foot long composition. Graves’ painting reveals the topographic elements of Mars in a fragmented and abstract manner. This recalls the nature of how visual information is sometimes disseminated through arbitrary signals. The artist’s rendering of the satellite image, shows that data can be read both literally and figuratively.

Graves’ work is a perfect example of why STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) curricula is important within the educational sphere. With so much focus being put into learning science and technology, it is necessary at times to transcend literal authenticity and think symbolically in terms of our physical and metaphysical connection with the world. Art gives us a platform to incorporate subjectivity into objective knowledge. The inclusion of arts with other disciplines also enables us to develop and implement well rounded characteristics that can increase our ethical, social and emotional well-being. When artists make connections between art and science, they create novel ways of observing and expressing material and impressionistic views of the world. This ability to think and work within and beyond the physical and metaphysical realms can result in a springboard for innovative and empathetic undertakings.

Full STEAM ahead!

Artful Arithmetic

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Jennifer Bartlett, Air: 24 Hours, 5 P.M., 1991-92, oil on canvas. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993. © Jennifer Bartlett

When confronted with a mathematical problem, have you ever thought to yourself ‘if only I could see an image (instead of numbers and symbols), this equation might make more sense?’ If so, then you are someone like me, whose method of learning is more inline with visual-spatial abilities than logical-mathematical modalities (see: Gardner, 1983).

That is not to say that if you are more inclined to perceiving things visually/spatially then you can’t also be logical. In fact, these two ways of thinking and reasoning (along with six other multiple intellegences, explained by Gardner, see: ibid) are actually complimentary to logical reasoning and are both bolstered through artistic engagement.

Through employing the theory of multiple intellegences, learners are empowered to combine and/or hone in on problem solving methods by utilizing one or more of eight modalities. The eight modalities are: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

The systems-centered artwork of Jennifer Bartlett is a great example of how art can combine multiple intellegences in order to arouse responses from a diverse array of viewers, who each bring different abilities and prior knowledge to the viewing experience.

Bartlett’s paintings are inspired by systems based processes, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style. For example, within her series titled Air: 24 Hours, Bartlett created twenty four paintings to represent each hour of the day. She arranged her square canvases by painting a grid-based system that always adds up to the number sixty. While she has implemented the structure of a grid, a comment on a trope within Modernist painting, Bartlett contrasts the logical-mathematical system by overlaying imagery and formal elements that are at once absurd, mysterious and intimate. Bartlett makes logical structures more personal by including symbols and vignettes from her personal life. The scenes, while not overtly telling, represent moments and happenings around Bartlett’s house at a specific hour of the day.


Jennifer Bartlett, Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536, 1973-74, Enamel over silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates, 77 inches x 9 feet and 8 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Alex Katz Foundation Gift and Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Another work of art by Bartlett, which combines mathematical systems with formal aesthetics is the painting Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536 (1973-74). This painting consists of black enamel paint applied over a silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates. The title is a literal description of Bartlett’s self-imposed mathematical formula for cumulatively squaring the number two. The mathematical function was also Bartlett’s artistic process, because for each solution, she composed the precise number of hand-painted dots within the grid to represent the whole numbers: 2, 4, 16, 256 and 65,536. The resulting painting juxtaposes logic with subjectivity. The perspective changes depending on how you view the painting (i.e. from closer up you can clearly see the dots within the grid, but from afar they seemingly amass into an abstract form or blend together into obscurity).

The work of Jennifer Bartlett is an exemplary intermediary between mathematical and aesthetic thinking and doing. Incorporating visual art with mathematical systems is a great way to gain a well-rounded grasp on math formulas, while also expressing a personal element to problem solving, which makes overcoming challenging tasks efficacious and relevant.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Gardner, Howard 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences , New York: Basic Books

Gardner, Howard. 1999. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017,, accessed 17 March 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences.” Artfully Learning. 11 Jun. 2018.


Street Smarts


Elvira Leite, Photograph of Pena Ventosa, Porto, 1976-77, giclee print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

‘Street smarts’ is a term most often used to signify knowledge that is gained outside of traditional classroom and school settings. To be ‘street smart’ means to have “the experience and knowledge necessary to deal with the potential difficulties or dangers of life in an urban environment.” This post explores the work of two contemporary artists (several generations apart), working both locally and globally, whose street-centered work prompts the creation of knowledge and profound experiences within diverse communities.

Elvira Leite is an artist from Porto, Portugal, whose influence is invaluable within her community and the fields of socially engaged art and education. Leite is academically educated in visual art, having graduated from Escola Superior de Belas Artes do Porto (ESBAP) in 1964. During the 1960s, she enjoyed success showing her work, however, despite her blossoming studio art career, Leite chose to earn an additional degree in education and embarked on a career teaching high school.

In 1977, she collaborated on public artworks with children from Porto’s Pena Ventosa community. The 1970s were a pivotal era for Portuguese culture, and artists like Leite were among the many seminal activists to advocate and participate in socially engaged initiatives such as public education, affordable housing and placemaking. Leite’s work in artistic pedagogy and social practice came right after the Carnation Revolution (1974) and the SAAL Bouça social housing project (1973-77). Both of these endeavors manifested through liberal ideologies, discourse and civic engagement. SAAL Bouça, albeit short lived – it was actually abandoned for 30 years, but finally completed in 2007– inspired the citizens of Porto to come together collectively in hopes for a universal and democratic system of housing that prioritized communal values and cooperation.

After SAAL Bouça ended, the streets of Porto became the setting for sociopolitically charged activities. There were protests, rallies, discussions around making the community a more equitable place to live. The streets within the urban community also became a safe-space for the youth to playfully engage in profound forms of social, emotional and cognitive expression. The children of Pena Ventosa engaged in role-playing games and performances, painting sessions, sidewalk chalk drawings, puppetry and more. Overall, Leite’s work with the children of the community was a response to the progressive and social-democratic zeitgeist that was emerging across the country. She fostered a child-centered environment, where children had the same agency as the adults to communicate and actively define their place in society.

Leite’s pedagogical methodology supports a constructivist theory of education where emphasis is placed on the development of knowledge through collaboration within a social, cultural and emotional framework. The children of the community were keen observers of what their parents and the other adults in the community had concerns about. As a result of the children’s astute observation and awareness, issues of unity, equality, equity and social justice, were some of the themes they conveyed in their artwork.


Photographic documentation of Leite’s art and art educational collaborations with youth from Porto c.1977. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Photographic and archival documentation of Leite’s art-centered collaborations with Porto’s youth is exemplified in the exhibition Pedagogy of the Streets: Porto 1977, currently on view (through May 9, 2019) at Baruch College’s Mishkin Gallery.

Like Leite, the artist Caledonia Curry a.k.a Swoon, utilizes the streets for socially engaged placemaking and interpersonal communication. Swoon currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York and is renowned internationally for her public artwork and installations.

Swoon became famous for wheat-pasting fanciful portraits of local people on walls and structures within cities across the globe. Her portraits celebrate multicultural identity and make unifying statements about culture at large. Through her participation on the streets, Swoon began to collaborate with local communities on placemaking and other socially engaged initiatives. In response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she embarked on the Konbit Shelter project. Through constructive discourse and collaboration, Swoon and her team built homes and other facilities alongside Haitian citizens, to address their need for housing and community spaces.

In 2015, Swoon launched the Heliotrope Foundation in order for local communities to design a more equitable and desirable shared space. The foundation provides classes and opportunities for hands-on learning in the community, aimed at inspiring creative re-use and re-imagining of neglected urban spaces and resources. After the projects are complete, the spaces become sanctuary sites for people to meet, organize and celebrate their strength and diversity.

The work of Leite and Swoon demonstrates art’s significant impact on lifelong learning. Each artist has a great track record of fostering artful opportunities and scenarios for individuals of all ages to learn new skills and develop social and emotional responses to cultural and environmental events.

In 21st century pedagogy, there is a popular theory that ‘teaching to the whole child’ is a good way to prepare students for the complexities of contemporary life. This theory is not new, as Noddings (2005) notes, however, in recent years, many schools have shifted focus away from moral and social aspects in order to focus on ensuring academic proficiency. Educating the whole child means that educational settings should promote moral and social practices in addition to academic subjects. Implementing these practices within the educational curriculum benefits students’ development and well-being.

Teaching the whole child can be exemplified and interpreted through eight objectives, which the National Education Association listed in its 1918 report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: health; command of the fundamental processes; worthy home membership; vocation; citizenship; worthy use of leisure; and ethical character (Kliebard, 1995). To this aforementioned list of aims, Noddings (2003) adds the principle of happiness, which is a fundamental necessity for making learning enjoyable, relevant and meaningful (socially and emotionally speaking).

Some of the social and ethical aspects we all should address in order to experience a fulfilling life are: mindfulness (healthy mind and body), engagement, support, safety and challenge. Socially engaged collaboration through art making is largely beneficial to our development of practicing a healthy lifestyle; engaging positively and proactively with our peers; challenging ourselves and others to address big ideas; and creating safe-spaces where ideas and actions can flourish among diverse groups.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Block, India.New photos explore Álvaro Siza’s 1970s social-housing project SAAL Bouça. Dezeen. 29 Mar. 2018.

Kliebard, Herbert. 1995. The struggle for the American curriculum. New York: Routledge.

Noddings, Nel. 2003. Happiness and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership 63.1 (2005). pps 8-13.

Scherer, Melissa. “The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education”

Quotes From the Field v. 6

This edition of Quotes From the Field (see previous posts) scrutinizes quotes from artists including Carolee Schneemann, Fred Tomaselli and Allan Kaprow. The common thread that I’ve drawn from each of these quotes is the idea that the arts are not just necessary for artists, but rather, a universally important discipline for building well-rounded social, emotional and cognizant behavior.

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Carolee Schneemann, a detail from Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963/2005)

“Be stubborn and persist, and trust yourself on what you love. You have to trust what you love.” Carolee Schneemann

Art is one of the most important disciplines for communicating uniquely personal issues and subjects that have significant social and emotional relevance. The arts teach us that being passionate and confident are valuable lifelong traits.

The arts also teach us to be determined in following our passions and realizing that our self-expressions are valuable and worthwhile cultural contributions. Thinking like an artist, enables us to focus deeply (internally and externally) on ourselves and the world around us.

Living an art-centered life should empower us to ‘think big’ and take risks that will allow us to develop a socially engaged mindset. The arts, like every other discipline, takes time to develop efficiently, however, the efficacious feeling as a result of all the hard and challenging work we put in, is worth the effort. Art offers an array of benefits, which are pertinent to everyone. For example, art can be a source of respite, entertainment, catharsis, self-discovery (and of course learning!) and healing. When we think and act artfully, we employ creativity in all other aspects of our lives.

“We don’t necessarily need so many artists. I recommend that many of the people who think they want to be artists should go into the American Friends Service Committee, or do government outreach to communities that don’t have water, or that need seeds or ecological assistance. It would create a system in which people with engaged sensibilities and potential insight assist instead of imposing. I think it could leap right out of the art world into wonderful community action.” – Carolee Schneemann

While this quote may sound like the antithesis of a blog based on art and education, it is actually one of the most relevant quotes in regards to how artfully learning extends far beyond the art world and/or classroom.

Throughout this blog, I suggest ways that thinking and doing things through an artistic lens can facilitate well-rounded and mindful sensibilities. Having an artistic sensibility means being able to make cross-cultural connections, think outside of the box, embrace ambiguity and exhibit empathy (to name a few). Each of these habits of mind are transferable to any and all factors of life.

There are many informed opinions, as well as research stating that professionals in other disciplines should embrace the arts in order to bring a more personal and humanistic element to their work. Skorton (2014) describes how the arts make conveying complex scientific research more relatable to the masses. He mentions that having artistic knowledge and experience is very helpful in making esoteric principles utilitarian, compelling and relevant:

“What we really need is a much broader humanistic education for scientists (and nonscientists), beginning in K–12 education and continuing through the undergraduate/graduate and professional years. It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide (Skorton, 2014).”

Many professionals would benefit from the studio habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) taught to us through art. For example, the ability to exhibit empathy while synthesizing very important socially engaged policy into a personal and affecting manner, is something that the arts do well (see: Activating Art and Education for Activism). Making deep and meaningful connections between quantitative data and the communities that are impacted and being able to communicate information repletely, is another skill that is gained through artistic modules. It takes just as much creativity to be an influential activist as it does to paint a picture. Being able to generate change is the crux of art and community service, each require creative problem solving, the development and expression of empathy and the ability to make authentic connections (all studio habits of mind).

Furthermore, if your job is a source of high stress, studies have shown that just 45 minutes of creativity can lower cortisol, a stress-related hormone (Drexel University, 2016). In fact, United Kingdom Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, wants doctors to start prescribing artistic experiences (such as museum visits and art classes/workshops) to their patients (see: Jones, 2018).

“I think what great art does is it makes you pay attention.” – Fred Tomaselli

Whether you choose to become an artist or a surgeon, having exposure to the arts and artistic development is a key ingredient to acquiring essential skills, which are beneficial to many different subjects, disciplines and practices.

In fact, there was a recent article published revealing how artistic habits of mind can impact medical students. The article cites a study showing how “looking at artworks can help future doctors hone their observation skills, maintain objectivity and cope with moments of uncertainty” (Lesser, 2018).

I’ve written extensively about ‘studio habits of mind,’ which are indicative of the profound experiences and knowledge that we gain from participating in creating and viewing art. Because artistic engagement is an embodied and experiential process, it requires us to be deeply connected with what we see, hear, feel, etc. Noticing deeply and paying attention to details is a skill, best honed through art that is transferable to all other disciplines. In the instance of the medical students, reflecting upon works of art helped them to strengthen their observational skills, recognize personal bias and embrace ambiguity (another studio habit of mind).

“The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct as possible.” – Allan Kaprow

This quote by Kaprow and the aforementioned quotes from Shneemann and Tomaselli, affirm the thought that art is intrinsic to the human experience. As Dewey (1934) states, art should not be detached from the objects and experiences in everyday life. Making art intrinsic to the human experience gives it the potential to be transformative throughout society. If we understand that everything and everyone has the ability to experience and partake in artful moments, then we can all be more aware of our shared spaces and be creatively bold in our interactions with the world around us.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019) who lived an artful life and inspired countless others to do so as well.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Drexel University. “Stress-related hormone cortisol lowers significantly after just 45 minutes of art creation.” PsyPost. 15 Jun. 2015.

Jones, Josh. “British Doctors To Prescribe Arts & Culture to Patients: “The Arts Are Essential to our Health and Wellbeing.” Open Culture. 12 Nov. 2018.

Lesser, Casey. “Looking at Art Could Help Med Students Become Better Doctors.” Artsy. 27 Nov. 2018.

Rist, Pipilotti. “Carolee Schneeman’s art is not made for your comfort.” Interview. 16 Oct. 2017.

Samet, Jennifer. “Beer with a Painter: Fred Tomaselli.” Hyperallergic. 19 Jan. 2019.

Skorton, David, J.” Why Scientists Should Embrace the Liberal Arts” Scientific American. 16. Jan. 2014.

Artists as Illustrators: Promoting Visual Literacy

Visual art and literature have a great symbiotic relationship of supporting and influencing each other in profound ways. When visual artists collaborate with writers, they illuminate certain areas of a written narrative. Whether an artist takes a more literal aesthetic approach or interprets the plot more abstractly, the juxtaposition of text and image can be a powerful means of symbolic communication.

In a previous post (see: Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language), I describe how artists incorporate literacy and language into their work via the written word. This post will explore the work of specific artists who have taken direct inspiration from literature. Some artists are influenced by previously published literary works, such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Nina Katchadourian, or Joan Mitchell.  Other visual artists, like Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold have created illustrations for several books, particularly within the children’s literature genre. This post will focus on the latter two artists, and the significance of making imagery in conjunction with a literary narrative.

Ringgold has written, illustrated and published 17 children’s books and received the prestigious Ezra Jack Keets New Writer Award for her debut book, Tar Beach (1991), a book based on her quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). Tar Beach tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Quilts are relevant as an illustrative medium because of their history as a vehicle for telling stories. Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to a traditional American craft movement, which has strong associations to the collaborative labor of women and African aesthetics. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980).

Tar Beach is an empowering work of art and literature that sends a whimsical message of self-liberation, agency and intersectional feminism. Within the totality of Ringgold’s Women on a Bridge quilts, the patriarchy is deconstructed through strong and influential women who take control and confront towering infrastructure such as a bridge, which according to Ringgold, is symbolic of masculinity (see: Spector, n.d.).


A selection of books illustrated by Benny Andrews.

As an artist whose work expresses the individual and communal American Southern experience, Benny Andrews was a good choice to illustrate books such as Sky Sash So Blue (1998 by Libby Hathorn, Simon & Schuster, New York), Pictures for Miss Josie, (2003 by Sandra Belton, Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York), Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (2005 by Jim Haskins, Candlewick, Cambridge) and John Lewis in the Lead (2006 by Jim Haskins & Kathleen Benson, Lee & Low Books, New York); which feature subjects and themes relating to the African-American experience in the American South.

Most of the books Andrews illustrated have a socially engaged focus, which is befitting of Andrews’ legacy as an activist for the equal and equitable representation of black culture within American society. In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested museum exhibitions over the whitewashing of African-American themed exhibitions (see: Cotter, 2015), and the lack of consideration for black artists by curators, critics and museum professionals. In 1982, Andrews became the visual arts director of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he personally was instrumental in providing valuable resources and support to contemporary black artists.

As a result of Andrews’ own captivating art and his socially engaged activism, he was clearly a strong candidate to illustrate books that are geared to inspire understandings and expressions of community, creativity and empathy. In addition to illustrating books on renowned Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis and W.W. Law, Andrews’ own life is the subject of a book by Kathleen Benson titled Draw What You See (2015). Andrews was the illustrator of course, represented posthumously through his paintings.

In education, storytelling is an important means for incorporating multicultural learning and inspiring students to make connections. Illustrating or responding visually to literature is beneficial for students of all ages. Utilizing illustrative texts is a helpful way of scaffolding multidisciplinary learning, because it incorporates multiple intelligences such as visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities. The first two modalities are fairly self-evident because picture books offer the benefit of descriptive words and imagery. The presence of descriptive imagery accompanying written language is very beneficial to students who have difficulties expressing themselves linguistically and students who are emerging bilingual learners. Storytelling is both a personal and collective means of communication and therefore it requires an understanding of archetypal imagery, signs and symbols that can express both individual and collective relevance.

Images and text offer different ways to convey a story, and because everyone learns differently, there are enormous teachable moments resulting from reading and comprehending illustrated books. When reading illustrated book, it is important to scrutinize the images in a similar manner as the written words (see: Robertson). When reading as a class, the teacher should make sure students can see the illustrations clearly, and ask questions (i.e. What do you see? What is happening in this illustration? How can you tell?). Personally, I alternate between showing students the illustrations before and after I read the text. In either case, the students are encouraged to make their own observations and make inferences based on what they see, what they’ve read/heard and what prior knowledge they have.

As Robertson notes, discussing the subjective and descriptive significance of formal elements of art and principles of design, is another way to strengthen reading comprehension, especially with young learners and emerging readers. A way of doing this is asking students to make associations between colors and feelings; and relating texture, lines and shapes to movement, actions and relationships.

While literacy is a major focus in educational environments, visual literacy is just as important. Both the written word and the visual image play an important factor in how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. The arts teach us to read visual cues, by acutely interpreting the aforementioned aesthetic and emotional facets in a manner that takes account of our experiences and prior knowledge. Besides the clear benefits on learning, visual imagery is a great way to captivate the attention of students and inspire thoughtful participation in class and beyond.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cotter, Holland. “What I Learned From A Disgraced Art Show on Harlem.” New York Times. 19 Aug. 2015.

Morris, Laura. “Joan Mitchell and the art of painting a poem.” Poetry Magazine. 1 Feb. 2013.

Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publishing.

Robertson, Katrin Oddleifson. “‘Read’ Illustrations to Improve Literacy Skills.” PBS Parents.

Spector, Nancy. “Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series).” Guggenheim Online Collection entry for Tar Beach.

Zucker, Adam. “Benny Andrews: Illustrator.” Rhino Horn. 1 Mar. 2019.