Recognizing the importance artistic immersion has on learning, New Rochelle High School goes above and beyond providing traditional art education programming to its diverse student body. The school’s expansive arts program integrates visual art, music, dance and theater arts into its curricula, and gives students the option to major in the arts through its Performing and Visual Arts Education Program (PAVE). The faculty at the school is made up of exhibiting artists, professional dancers and recording musicians, who provide hands on mentoring to students in a state of the art arts wing, which houses a dance studio, music rooms, art and sculpture classrooms and a computer graphics lab. Students utilize the aforementioned infrastructure and guidance to build a multidisciplinary aesthetic vocabulary and portfolio that prepares them for studying the arts in college and beyond. In addition to being immersed in ample art making facilities and mentored by teachers who are also working in various art fields, the school has its own museum and cultural center on its campus, called The Museum of Arts & Culture. It is the only Regents-chartered museum inside of a school in the state of New York.
The Museum of Arts & Culture gives student artists the opportunity to experience how art is contextualized and displayed from an institutional standpoint. The museum also provides a unique chance for young emerging artists to encounter a spectrum of contemporary art practices, by exhibiting the work of established professional artists who also serve as artists-in-residence at the school. New York City-based artist Susan Luss, was recently the artist-in-residence at New Rochelle High School, and became a mentor to students in the PAVE program. On January 18, 2020, Luss’ solo show today, I am . . . opened to the public, featuring a site specific light-based painting and installation of found object assemblages, works on paper (from her paper light series) and dyed canvas grid paintings. Also on view with today, I am… are three student-led collaborative exhibitions that were inspired by participatory art activities, inquiry based explorations and classroom discussions.
Luss’ art involves the harnessing of natural light sources, architectural grids and found materials, in order to create fluctuating installations that refract, reflect and extend spatial and environmental conditions. When I met Susan at her exhibition, we spoke a lot about the different ways her art embodies everyday life. Luss’ work isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ blueprint. It changes, transforms and adapts to the environment that surrounds it. For example, her unstretched canvas grid paintings can be displayed as traditional paintings, ritually wrapped up as a bundle, worn as a cloak or installed outdoors where the wind’s force gives it a performative context. Luss’ relationship to her materials and the space that they are made and exhibited in represents her own experiential development as an artist.
In addition to her own works of art, Luss worked with PAVE students and their teachers, Alexi Rutsch Brock, Moira McCaul, Joanna Schomber and Scott Seaboldt, to distill and scaffold her complex and multifaceted process in a manner that became relatable and accessible to each student. While working with Luss, students developed their own personal understandings of art’s connections to science, math and the natural environment. Classes and individual students worked on site-specific installations that altered the typical layout of the school, and offered a contemplative interpretation about the potential for both natural and synthetic forms to be considered art. Collaborative artworks that the students created include #lightpaintings and #asphaltforensics. These installations were made after Luss visited students in their classrooms and showed them examples of her own #lightpaintings and #asphaltforensics. She then presented students with templates on which they drafted designs and worked with their peers to actualize their public artworks for the whole school to experience. Additionally, students were prompted to research Luss’ work and respond to specific cues provided by their teachers, so that they developed a vocabulary around installation art. This was the first time that conceptual installations and public art works were realized in the school.
#Lightpaintings are made by designing and arranging colorful translucent shapes over windows, which capture the sun’s light and project it onto adjacent architectural structures. During the day, walls and objects within New Rochelle High School are bathed in light paintings from both Luss and art students in the PAVE program. The refraction of vivid light shifts as the sun moves throughout the sky. Therefore, light can envelop the floors, walls and ceilings, depending on the time of day and season.
The students’ #asphaltforensic installation raises awareness around the potential of transforming everyday objects into aesthetic experiences. Luss has been making these installations using collected objects from around her home and studio. The methodology is similar to other contemporary conceptual processes like knolling, where different objects, which generally aren’t associated with art, are artfully arranged in a manner that is pleasing to the eye. Students were asked to carefully select ephemeral objects from the suburban and urban environment that encompasses their route to and from school. The items were then installed within a geometric design created by one of the PAVE students, so that each item had to be carefully considered within the confines of the manufactured space. Occasionally, light from Luss’ #lightpainting would seep into the room and interact with the #asphaltforensics installation, adding another dimension to the overall environment.
Creating site-specific art within a non-traditional art space like a school, teaches habits of mind (see: Eisner, 2002) such as flexible purposing and thinking outside of the box (in this case, outside the ‘white box’ or cube that is indicative of institutional art spaces). Installation art in particular is often rhizomatic, meaning that it can grow organically in a multitude of directions. The artist is guided by the art making process rather than a fixed result. Creating an installation requires reflective thinking, which is performed by exercising cognitive, social and emotional actions throughout the development of the piece. This is evident in the PAVE students’ collaborative efforts. Working as a group to realize their #lightpaintings, meant that they had to communicate well and collectively figure out new methods for making their artworks when initial concepts proved to be unsuccessful.
Displaying art outside of the gallery or museum, places it in a common environment meant be shared by everyone, no matter what a person’s prior knowledge about art may be. The more accessible art is to us, the more confident we become in interacting with it. John Dewey (1938), stated that knowledge is formed by giving meaning to the sensory experiences that surround us. We learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and are able to attach language to these experiences. In assigning vocabulary to these qualities, we store them for later recall and sort them into categories so we can see connections between that particular experience and other experiences. Since the act of simply living automatically causes us to experience sensory information we are often oblivious to it. It is only when we act upon, assign feelings and react to the information that we form a learning experience (Zucker, 2019).
Art’s symbolic impact is dependent upon the interpersonal relationship between the artist, the materials and the viewer. Each viewer brings their own social, emotional and cognitive experiences to the work, which extends the work’s meaning and significance. Works of art are synonymous with the lived experiences of the creators and viewers, and therefore are in flux just like the events and scenes of our daily lives (Dewey, 1934).
The crux of a good art educational curricula is a combination of creating, responding, presenting and connecting artwork to the culture at large. New Rochelle’s PAVE program ensures that students go from being proficient to advanced performers who are confident and bold visual conveyors and communicators. Having their work displayed for their peers to engage with is efficacious for the student artists. They have not only created a beautiful new set of sensory experiences in their school, but provided their classmates with ample opportunities to embrace art in their everyday lives.
today, I am… is on view at The Museum of Arts and Culture through February 14, 2020.
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
Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.
Dewey, John. 1938. Experience & Education. New York: MacMillan.
Zucker, Adam. “Seeing is Feeling – Art & Experience for Visually Impaired Individuals.” Artfully Learning, 11 Feb. 2019. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2019/02/11/seeing-is-feeling-art-experience-for-visually-impaired-individuals/