In 1973, contemporary artist and elementary school art teacher, Ana Mendieta, created a performative work of art called Parachute, in collaboration with Henry Sabin Elementary School Students in Iowa City, Iowa. During the 7 minute black-and-white video of the performance, we observe Mendieta’s young students working together to make a large parachute billow, forming a dome that ultimately envelopes them. The soundtrack is the children’s laughter and overdubbed dialogue of Mendieta prompting her students to ponder about what constitutes a human’s soul, which they do in a manner that encapsulates the wonderment of childlike imagination. Regarding the artistic and conceptual process, Mendieta reflected:
In her short, but prolific career, Mendieta made art to explore social, emotional and cognitive issues that connect humans to one another and the natural environment. While she is known largely for her contributions to the modes of conceptual and feminist art; her devotion to education had a profound impact on the development of interdisciplinary art-centered learning and the application of pedagogy as an art form. In both her solo art practice and her career as an educator, Mendieta utilized art making as a means to benefit the whole body and inspire a thirst for inquiry and understandings of other people’s feelings and perspectives. By creating artwork with students, Mendieta and her young collaborators investigated how time, place and identity are experienced through an intergenerational lens.
Parachute is an example of several types of progressive educational methodologies coinciding within a work of contemporary art: experiential learning, learning through play, embodied learning and social and emotional learning. As Mendieta communicated in the quote above, a major aim for her as an artist was to be consciously present throughout the time it took to perceive a work of art. In this approach to creativity, every work of art is an experiment that cannot be predetermined, and is valued through the act of making rather than a tangible art object. This is akin to how learning and development occurs in phases. Educators scaffold instruction by combining their students’ prior knowledge with the new information they are teaching them; and bolster both of these understandings with examples from the contemporary culture their students experience inside and outside of the classroom. The process of learning from experience, play and socialization was intrinsic to Parachute‘s success because students had to invent their own rules and make judgements as in situ, to keep the parachute and each other in sync.
Social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, asserts that we ‘think through making’ (Ingold, 2015), which is why art is a great way of learning about ourselves and the world around us. Through improvisation with materials and/or conceptual ideas, we web together a series of experiences that lead to mindfulness by focusing our awareness on the present moment, while also acknowledging and welcoming our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. When the act of experiential learning through making is supported by play and socialization, it benefits the group in a holistic manner (see: whole body learning). Mendieta’s students in Parachute work together to have fun, contemplate big ideas and learn from one another. Using the parachute as an art form and educational resource, they were refining their motor skills, cognition and dialectic language abilities.
Integrating contemporary art practices within educational environments and having contemporary artists work together with kids is a mutually beneficial experience. Mendieta’s seminal aesthetic explorations of gender identity were seemingly influenced by her understanding of childhood development and early childhood education. This is notable in Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) (1972), which consists of photographic documentation of the artist wearing an absurdly large fake mustache while admiring herself in the mirror. The work was relevantly exhibited at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art in a 2017 exhibition titled Ana Mendieta: Thinking About Children’s Thinking. The show’s curator, Amy Rosenblum Martín, chose to install a mirror next to the work of art (both of which were hung at a child’s eye level), so that the children viewing Mendieta’s work could participate in a similar process of self reflection and expression. Rosenblum Martín offered context for the relationship between Mendieta’s sophisticated work and the way children learn, noting that “This serious expression that Mendieta has while she’s trying on a kind of a silly mustache is very reflective of the real way that children play. They’re playing at identity, they’re playing at power dynamics” (Gotthardt, 2017). Children have a lot of worthwhile things to say about the world they are growing up in and the arts afford them a serious platform to express and reflect these things on their terms.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Gotthardt, Alexxa. “How Children Helped Ana Mendieta Make Her Radical Art.” Artsy, 26 Oct. 2017. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-children-helped-ana-mendieta-radical-art
Herzberg, Julia P., “Ana Mendieta, the Iowa Years: A Critical Study, 1969 through 1977” (1998). CUNY Academic Works. Accessed 6 July 2020. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/1431
Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.
Howard Oransky, Howard, Joseph Laura Wertheim et al. 2015. Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta. Berkeley: UC Press.
Swindall, Emily; McGee, Katherine; and Leyden, Jessie M., “Whole Body Learning in the Classroom” (2014). Georgia Association for Positive Behavior Support Conference. 21. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/gapbs/2014/2014/21