Art for Education’s Sake

Any work of art can be interpreted as an educational resource, because it informs us of our connections to culture and the world at large. Examples of humans using visual imagery with both expressive and pedagogical intent spans as far back as the history of homosapien life itself.

Although we have been teaching prehistoric art as a part of the art historical survey curriculum, the intent behind the earliest paintings, drawings and sculpture is still largely subjective. This is due to the fact that written records from the early humans who made paintings in caves are nonexistent. We do our best to make educated guesses about the meaning of these artworks using artistic habits of mind, such as making connections and noticing patterns within the work’s formal aesthetic elements. It has been widely acknowledged that art is a language and the earliest types of written language derived from pictorial shapes and forms. From this knowledge, discoveries have been made which continue to suggest that the first known art forms had a utilitarian purpose: to educate.

The latest revelation that supports this thesis was put forward by Bennett Bacon, a furniture conservator who also enjoys studying ∼20,000 year old cave paintings by Ice Age cultures in Europe (both his craft-based profession and interest in archeology necessitate the use of studio habits of mind). Bacon, along with several members of the academic archeology community, determined that these works of art contain detailed information about the physiology and life cycles of the animals around them. The study that the trio published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, focuses on deciphering recurring markings that have been found throughout examples of Ice Age cave art.

They found that a proto-writing system was uniformly represented in images created by Ice Age painters throughout the European continent. The system was used and understood as a way of recording information such as marking time (i.e. a calendar). The lexicon these prehistoric painters used consists of sequences of dots, shapes and other gestural markings, which are parallel to the renderings of species of native fauna. The research team found that the markings associate these animals with timekeeping records to communicate information about their behavior and habits throughout the year. They note that “a specific way in which the pairing of numbers with animal subjects constituted a complete unit of meaning—a notational system combined with its subject—that provides us with a specific insight into what one set of notational marks means” (Bennette et al, 2022).

The aforementioned study also makes sense when we consider the already documented patterns and connections between works of art and educational experiences. Art has been intrinsic to educational breakthroughs, such as Fröbel’s kindergarten. Alongside his pedagogical framework based on child-centered exploration and play (Fröbel Occupations), Fröbel introduced educational manipulatives (Fröbel Gifts), which are objects that are combined and arranged in ways that reflect how artists think, plan and carry out their work. I have written about how Fröbel’s manipulatives and curriculum for early childhood learning is not only art-centered, but has actually extended beyond primary education into continuing education and professional development. Formative art schools, such as the Bauhaus school in Germany (see: “Art Education: The Gift That Keeps on Giving”) and Black Mountain College (see: “Weaving Art with Life”) in the United States, have notably cited Fröbel and his Fröbel Gifts and Occupations as being a major impetus for innovations in modern and contemporary art theory and practices.

Today’s art curriculum makes notable efforts to explore and portray the multi and interdisciplinary benefits of making art. STEAM, which is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, art and math,” is a popular buzzword used by educators, artists and employers alike. STEAM is just a catchphrase, it is nothing new considering that art has always been associated with applied sciences. However, the contemporary popularity and demand for STEAM paves the way for artists to continue branching out and thrive in many different fields.

Richard Dolan, Chicxulub, 2020, acrylic on cedar wood.

Richard Dolan is the epitome of an artist who has applied his artistic training to advancing the way we teach and learn natural sciences. Dolan went to art school where exposure to formalist art education methods led to his affinity for abstract and color field paintings. Working at the New England Aquarium where he was responsible for leading whale watching tours, led to a major artistic transformation. Surrounded by marine biologists and marine life, Dolan had ample opportunities to learn and observe, which inspired him to make his own contributions to the field.

Dolan creates interactive sculptures based on his observations of whale species, most specifically, the humpback whale. These sculptures combine the painterly formalism and abstract art he explored in art school with the very fine and accurate details that constitutes each individual whale. Haptic qualities are not often discussed alongside works of art, but touch and kinetics are essential to viewing Dolan’s sculptures. His breakthrough moment came while he was giving whale watching tours to a group of visually impaired individuals. In order to make their experiences more replete, he decided to make scale models of the types of whales they would be encountering on the tours. These models made it possible for the visually impaired visitors to get a better overall sense of the form of the whales. They make it possible for anyone on a whale watch to study these large enigmatic creatures up close. Through the universal language visual art, Dolan makes learning about whale physiology and behavior a diverse and hands-on experience.

The idea that a work of art can be experienced beyond sight, reflects prior research by Viktor Lowenfeld, a major figure in the progression of art education; as well as the artistic philosophy of modernist sculptor Chaim Gross and conceptual artist Lenka Clayton (see: “Seeing is Feeling” and “Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning”). Before his landmark book Creative and Mental Growth (1947) and work at Pennsylvania State University, which made him synonymous with progressive art educational theories and methodology, Lowenfeld was director of art in the Blind Institute in Vienna. He published two books Sculptures by the Blind (1934) and The Nature of Creativity (1938), which reference the experiences he had as an art teacher to visually impaired and blind students. Lowenfeld proposed that creativeness and symbolic expression goes beyond sight using other sensory perceptions like touch. He stated that there are two types of creative activity “visual” and “haptic.” Visual is a result of what is seen, while haptic is formed through physical interaction as well as through making value judgments.

Left: Richard Dolan, Flame, 2022, acrylic on sandwood.
Right: Richard Dolan, Breccia, 2023, acrylic on sandwood.

Dolan’s sculptures are great examples of Lowenfeld’s concept of haptic learning because they signify the form, textures and identity of whales through sight and touch. Although these sculptures are clearly representative, his training in formalism and abstraction is evident in the many intricate black, white and gray forms across the fluke (tail) which make each humpback whale identifiable to scientists and astute observers. Markings and patterns on the fluke are like fingerprints that signify the whale as an individual. No two humpback whales look alike.

Dolan’s multidisciplinary dual practice in art and marine biology has afforded him an opportunity to connect with both the art world and scientific community. Dolan rarely shows in galleries, although he does take part in traditional types of exhibitions every now and then. His art is actually more accessible to audiences because it has a place beyond the gallery walls, including being viewed and discussed on boats and scientific conferences. His whale paintings and sculptures have been acquired by other educators affiliated with museums and whale watching companies, including the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation. He has also presented his art to the Society for Marine Mammalogy, World Cetacean Alliance, Center for Coastal Studies and National Marine Educators Association.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Richard Dolan about the connections between visual art, education and marine biology, and the many contributions that artists have made within the STEAM community. The conversation was recorded and is episode eleven of my ongoing Artfully Learning Audio Series. You can tune in and listen below:

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bacon, B., Khatiri, A., Palmer, J., Freeth, T., Pettitt, P., & Kentridge, R. (2023). An Upper Palaeolithic Proto-writing System and Phenological Calendar. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1-19. doi:10.1017/S0959774322000415.

Hentz, Daniel. The Ocean Science-Art Connection,” Oceanus, 7 June 2021.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.


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