Shaping Minds: Form follows Function

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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