The Fein Art of Artistic Development

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Sylvia Fein, The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012.

Sylvia Fein has had the type of career most artists would covet, and she is still going strong at age 100. Her artwork has been exhibited widely since the mid-1940s, and she is considered a key figure in the American Surrealist movement, although she personally doesn’t identify with the artistic mode. Fein’s art combines historical and mythological imagery that reference her lived experiences in a fantastical and profound manner. One of her many compelling paintings is The Painting Told Me What to Do (2012), which portrays a forest where the wispy forms and textures of the trees are rendered as roaring flames. This imagined composition is an all too familiar scene in light of the epidemic of worldwide forest fires. Fein has lived in California, which is an epicenter for some of the worst fires, so this is evidently a very personal expression, made by channeling her experience and emotions through the medium of the paint.

Despite all of her achievements, Fein remains under-recognized. Although she has received some acknowledgement for her vision and talent, her notoriety has paled in comparison to her male counterparts and even other women artists who are often associated with Surrealism. I admit that I had only recently heard of her through an informative post on The Women’s Studio (see: Probst, 2020). Beyond Fein’s incredibly imaginative and genre bending imagery, I am drawn to her ongoing interests in documenting artistic development. In her decades long career, there is plenty of evidence depicting her manifestation of ideas, exploration of materials and evolving painterly style.

In addition to her own artful trajectory, Fein is renowned for her insightful contribution to the research of children’s artistic development. She actually took a long hiatus from painting to dedicate her time, energy and creativity to studying and advancing the field of art education. She attended Berkley and studied with the acclaimed –albeit under-recognized– art teacher Henry Schaefer-Simmern, whose theories on art education are as influential as more widely known educators like Viktor Lowenfeld (see: Abrahamson, 1980). Schaefer-Simmern’s ‘visual conceiving’ theory that people possess an inherent ability to transform their perceptions into holistic formations expressed as works of art (Abrahamson, 1987), inspired Fein to study the way children utilize the kinesthetics of drawing to find and express their place within the world. Over the course of 18 years, Fein collected and catalogued her daughter Heidi’s drawings. The culmination of her documentation can be seen in two essential art education themed books she published: Heidi’s Horse (1976), which observed her daughter’s art from age two through fifteen; and Drawings: Genesis Visual Thinking (1992). The latter book expounds upon her mentor’s work in connecting the earliest known art forms (cave paintings) with the evolution of pictorial communication strategies. It gives examples of motifs and patterns that appear in art that spans time and geographical locations. Through her research and writing, Fein attempts to posit answers as to why seemingly disparate forms of art including children’s art and prehistoric art have common ground in regards to elements of art (shape, space, value, form, texture and color) and principles of design.

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Still from “Sylvia Fein, Heidi’s Horse, and children’s first drawings” via YouTube.

Drawing is how children work out significant visual problems and learn to communicate symbolically in conjunction with other forms of language (i.e. written and oral). The documentation of children’s drawings over time is important in helping educators understand and scaffold how children develop cognitive and skill based approaches to pictorial communication. Theories by Schaefer-Simmern, Lowenfeld and others have evolved over time, as we collectively realize more about cognition and epistemology. Thanks to the tangible explorations by Fein et al, further advances have been made in the field of art education, which provide new ideas about how children’s image making influences their use of art materials and media in an artful manner. For example, Linda Louis has been studying how young children’s changing understanding of symbolic graphic representation leads them to use paint in ways that might be designated as being “artistic.” Louis has observed that children’s desire to communicate, is supported by a multidimensional model of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005), which identifies how they learn through an experiential and parallel movement throughout three independent realms: representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials. Louis’ model recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The beautiful and confounding thing about education is that it is always in flux. It is a work in progress that changes gradually over time. As Sylvia Fein’s decades long work has proven, taking the time and making the commitment to be flexible and keep learning is a worthwhile endeavor.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern: His Life and Works.” Art Education, vol. 33, no. 8, 1980, pp. 12–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3192404. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s Concept of Gestalt Artistic Forms and Cultural Interferences with the Clear Expression of Such Forms.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 45–62. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20715638?seq=1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. Creative and Mental Growth. Macmillan Co., New York, 1947.

Probst, Kate. “Sylvia Fein.” The Women’s Studio, 12 Jan. 2020. https://thewomensstudio.net/2020/01/12/sylvia-fein/

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.

Underground Education

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Providers (left panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The subway seems like one of the least likely places to be inspired in all of New York City, especially with apparently endless service delays, cuts and overcrowded conditions. However, if you allow yourself to look past the bureaucratic incompetence and exercise  a flair for discovery, you will notice that the subway system is a living museum where New York City’s youth have had a major role in creatively communicating their place within the urban environment.

One of the aspects that keeps the subway system from feeling like a dystopia is its abundance of public art in stations throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There is work by some of the most influential Modern and Contemporary artists like Sam Gilliam, Nancy Spero, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl , Faith Ringgold and William Wegman (who recently contributed mosaics of Weimaraners in human clothes). There is a concise Subway Art Guide, where you can view images and find out the locations of art within New York City’s subway stations.

While all of these great works by well known artists might inspire joy and contemplation during the hectic commute, it is the art of the city’s children that arguably provide the greatest sense of hope and inspiration. The city’s transit system is full of artwork that was realized by the imaginative and insightful nature of kids, both working on their own and collaborating with working artists. A previous Artfully Learning post, Collaborating with Kids: Problem-posing Models for Profound Works of Art, describes how the ‘Four Cs’ of 21st century learning: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration and Communication, are strengthened when contemporary artists and kids collaborate on projects. These social, emotional and cognitive skills are highly visible in the following examples of youth-centered artwork.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals (providers panels), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

The Greenwich Village Murals by Lee Brozgol, located on the platform of the Christopher St.-Sheridan Square subway station (serviced by the 1 train), is an example of how, with the guidance and expertise of an artist, children learned to break down and synthesize complex ideas into symbolic images. Nine students in the 5th and 6th grade from P.S. 41 were selected to partake in this project with Brozgol. The students were prompted to make composite drawings that addressed the topic of identity by illustrating subjects that reflect iconography and actions that shaped the West Village.

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Lee Brozgol, The Greenwich Village Murals: Bohemians (center panel), 1993, ceramic and mosaic.

Choosing who to depict was a challenge. The history of such a vibrant community is a vast and multifaceted topic, therefore the figures depicted in the mural are diverse, spanning time, cultural backgrounds and ideologies. The murals are organized by themes, in which each of the figures are assigned. There are the ‘founders’ who include a member of the Lenape people and the 17th-century Dutch land developer Wouter Van Twiller, which considers the Village’s indigenous and colonial habitation. The ‘providers’ include Mary Simkhovitch, an early 20th century social worker, city planner and  co-founder of Greenwich House, which was initially developed to provide services to help the influx of immigrants adapt to life in the City. The ‘bohemians’ feature cultural icons like Mabel Dodge, a noted art patron who hosted a renowned weekly salon in her apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue. Lastly, there is the ‘rebels’ mural, featuring Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, a political pamphlet that fueled America’s War of Independence. Paine lived at what is now 309 Bleecker Street.

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Ceramic tile from Westside Views by Nitza Tufiño and 17 adolescents. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another large underground display of student-centered art can be seen if you take the 1 train uptown to 86th Street. There you will find a station-wide collaborative art installation titled Westside Views (1989), by Nitza Tufiño and 17 young New Yorker’s, mostly from the Grosvenor Neighborhood House‘s school equivalency and educational program (The Grosvenor Neighborhood House was a local organization that began serving the community as a settlement house in 1916). The installation consists of 40 ceramic glazed tiles, each depicting an adolescent artist’s visual perspective of the Upper West Side. The tiles feature vibrant neighborhood scenes that celebrate diversity and community spirit. They portray prominent landmarks like the Hayden Planetarium (at the nearby Museum of Natural History), and intimate scenes such as two fathers strolling with their babies, three generations of women sharing food on a bench and children playing on the playground. Westside Views weaves together the colorful myriad of people, places and things that make a neighborhood flourish.

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Installation view of Beautifying Briarwood in the Briarwood/Van Wyck Boulevard station,  2006. Photo by Brian Weinberg on www.nycsubway.org. (c) Brian Weinberg, 2006.

In Queens, students from Briarwood schools made statements on the theme of identity, through a series of mural paintings collectively titled Beautifying Briarwood (displayed at the Briarwood-Van Wyck Boulevard station, serviced by the F train). One of the most unique aspects about this project was that the murals represented the different phases of K-12 artistic development (see: Louis, 2005) because students of Archbishop Molloy High School, M.S. 217Q (middle school) and P.S.117Q (elementary school) all contributed to the paintings. Unfortunately the paintings were removed during station renovation in 2014, although some are archived through installation photographs. From the documentary photographs, it is apparent that these student realized works of art brightened up the dimly lit and monotonous corridors of the station. It also must have been efficacious for students to see their work in such a public setting and to share their symbolic works of art with the community.

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Jimmy James Greene, Children’s Cathedral, 1996, ceramic mosaic. Courtesy of MTA Arts & Design NYCT Percent for Art.

“They were the soloists, I was the orchestra leader,” Jimmy James Greene says about his monumental monumental mosaic mural Children’s Cathedral (1996) in the Utica Avenue station (Brooklyn, A train). The mosaic was created through a discourse that Greene had with local students regarding their modes of playing, learning, faith and cultural celebrations. Then Greene prompted the students to draw pictures based on the dialogue they had. The result is a whimsical and inspiring range of imagery including a mother nurturing her children, a teacher in class, and a large variety of activities performed by children (jumping rope, singing in choir, reading and more). Greene arranged and used the children’s drawings to create his final composition, which adorns the passageways leading to the train platforms.

Besides being great works of art for straphangers to enjoy, these aforementioned artworks reveal the benefits of artists collaborating with young people. The creative process involves many important habits of mind and skills such as making connections between art and daily life, interdependent learning and socialization. These habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art and Costa and Kallick, 1996) have lifelong benefits for developing creative and critical thinking. All of these projects required a cooperative and non-hierarchical structure that fosters teamwork and empowers young people to realize their abilities to communicate symbolically. Their visions provide both a respite for weary travelers and a way to express their place within the City they are a part of shaping and progressing.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bloodworth, Sandra, Ayers, William. 2014. New York’s Underground Art Museum: MTA Arts & Design. New York: The Monacelli Press.

Costa, Arthur L. and Kallick, Bena. Habits of Mind: A Developmental Series, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow Education Pty Ltd, 2004.

Landrum, Susan. “Subway Station Art: The 1 Train’s 86th Street Station,” Finding NYC, 29 May 2017. https://findingnyc.com/2017/05/29/subway-station-art-20/

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761.

National Education Association. An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs.” http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/A-Guide-to-Four-Cs.pdf

 

The Fourth Grade Project

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Installation view of archival pigment prints from The Fourth Grade Project by Judy Gelles, in the exhibition Overlap: Life Tapestries on view at Pen + Brush, New York. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Students from around the world are the subjects and co-collaborators of an ongoing participatory artwork and educational experience titled The Fourth Grade Project. The project was initiated by Judy Gelles, a contemporary artist who works as a photographer. Gelles travels internationally to visit with students in their schools, and have a dialogue about their life experiences. The students are only a decade old but they have incredible insight about the world around them. Gelles photographs the students in rear perspective view, so that they remain anonymous. The final prints include verbatim text juxtaposed with each student’s portrait. The text tells their personal narratives, which were prompted by three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

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Judy Gelles, Lived Closer: USA California Private School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The eloquent responses to these questions reflect the students’ sociocultural understandings. Each student has a unique perspective regarding how they see themselves in the scope of the human condition. While there is diversity in their responses due to the different geographical regions they represent, the stories they share signify several commonalities. They worry about themselves and their family; feel stressed about their performance in school and/or in social and athletic settings; and contemplate the future. They also express their aspirations for happiness and success. All children deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools, families and communities. The Fourth Grade Project makes it clear that this is not the case for all school aged children around the world. Too many students are worried about violence and sociocultural woes affecting them, their classmates and their families. An essential question for us to collectively address is how to bridge the social, cultural and economic gaps that create inequitable situations within society?

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Judy Gelles, Be Murdered, South Africa: Public School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The Fourth Grade Project is being utilized as a way for students across the globe to feel empowered expressing themselves and learning about one another. In doing so, they will make connections between their own stories and those of other students. Gelles is working with educators and administrators in Philadelphia to create a curriculum that can be implemented in schools throughout the world. What Gelles and the classroom teachers have noticed, is that giving students the agency to express themselves via the three aforementioned queries, benefits their participation and involvement in school. Students were struggling to make connections between their lives and the required reading, which impacted the development of their literary and writing skills. By making stories relatable to their social, emotional and cultural experiences, students were passionate about reading and writing. As a result of participating in the project, both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the students’ work supported their individual growth in English Language Arts (ELA). Furthermore, by reading the students’ stories, teachers and administrators gain significant insight into the myriad of social issues affecting their students. Due to overcrowded schools and large class sizes, it is often difficult for educators to spend enough time with each student to have dialogues about their lives outside of school. This project enables teachers to learn more about what personal concerns might be affecting a student’s performance in class. In addition to this dialogue being beneficial for educators to gain greater understandings about their students, classmates also gain insight into their peers’ innermost feelings. These compassionate responses build a more empathetic environment where everyone in the school works together and is supportive of each other’s physical and emotional space.

Understanding one another and being able to show empathy for what others are enduring is a major lesson that the arts can teach us (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Educating Through Art). Through social and emotional learning and reflections on personal and collective experiences, The Fourth Grade Project has the potential to help students grow academically and personally.

 

Process of Play: confronting systems of inequity through art

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Chantal Feitosa, English Lessons (2017), performance still. Courtesy of the artist.

What are some of the most poignant memories from your childhood? I am sure that if we each assessed our past social and educational experiences, we would be able to come up with several times that we felt marginalized, ignored or misrepresented. In fact, we may still carry the trauma of that exclusion with us. When was a time you felt unsafe, and conversely, when was a time when you felt like you had the support of your family, peers, teachers, guardians and/or mentors? These are some essential questions to keep in mind when thinking about how our experience and education shapes the way we view the world. Where we were born, who our ancestors are and the way we were raised becomes the fabric for how we perceive ourselves and others.

We all deserve to feel empowered to participate in social, cultural and pedagogical settings. In the perfect setting, we would learn from each other’s experiences and build new knowledge and experiences collectively. This progressive ideology has been advocated by educational philosophers such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire, and it is the aim of many contemporary curricula and social justice initiatives. Creating equitable and justice-driven learning spaces should be a priority within any educational setting. However, obtaining the aforementioned environment is difficult in reality.

Schools can be a sanctuary for us to connect and explore with our peers and teachers. . However, schools can also stifle our individuality and make us feel insignificant and embarrassed for being ‘different.’ Either way, these experiences will have great impact on how we engage with the culture at large. The rigors of testing and assessments, as well as curricula that still espouses colonial histories, negatively influences our ability to express ourselves. Furthermore, there are too few moments of incorporating play into school days when the focus is uniform benchmark standards for proficiency (I have addressed many of these topics in prior posts). These issues make it harder for the school to function as a community where students can grow and feel valued.

Chantal Feitosa makes art that communicates cognitive, emotional and social aspects of nature and nurture. Pedagogy is a major medium in her artistic practice, and she employs modes and archetypes of early childhood education and communal learning to address systemic social structures that affect equitable educational and societal experiences. Feitosa’s experience growing up between two cultures (Brazil and the United States) has had an impact on her development as both an artist and a citizen.  She utilizes her multidisciplinary-based art to gain insight into how multiculturalism and immigration affects the way we communicate themes of racial bias, body image and belonging.

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Chantal Feitosa, detail of two dolls from Happy Mulattos: Collectors Edition, 2018, human hair, polymer clay, hand-stitched assorted fabrics, polyester fiberfill. Courtesy of the artist.

In Happy Mulattos: Collector’s Edition (2018), Feitosa handcrafted a group of dolls with features representative of mixed-race individuals (a Mulatto is a derogatory term that has been used to describe a person of mixed white and black ancestry), which were then introduced to ‘focus groups’ of nursery school-aged children through a series of organized ‘playdates’ (see: Happy Multattos: Playdates, 2018). The children’s responses to each doll’s physical features expressed playful ingenuity, but also showed that at their early stages of social and cognitive development, they had already established specific notions about race, gender and beauty standards.

Growing up in a multicultural household has many benefits on one’s development. For example, being bilingual gives a person more opportunities to communicate in this globalized world, and they are exposed to a wealth of culture that extends beyond the oft-binary narrative of race and ethnicity. However, mixed-race and multi-ethnic individuals are generally viewed through a stereotypical lens and both their physical appearance and ancestral background(s) become points of contention. This is evident in both communal and educational settings, and reflected consistently within Feitosa’s art.

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Chantal Feitosa, Ela vai dar trabalho, 2018, Collage, fabric, polyester fiberfill, beads, yarn, bathing suit, human hair, acrylic, and Cantu Edge Control Gel on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Ela vai dar trabalho (2018), was inspired by a memory of a social interaction Feitosa had when she was a child. In her own words, the mixed-media collage refers to a time:

When I was younger, my mother often brought me to social gatherings with other adult Brazilians. People would always remark on my appearance, followed-up by the same statement:

“Ela vai dar trabalho” | “She’s gonna be trouble”

I laughed, not fully getting the joke or not realizing that there was no joke to be made in the first place. 

Her vibrant collage makes allusions to plushy ornaments that might adorn a child’s room, but the message is far from playful. It represents a moment when Feitosa was objectified. The statement ‘she’s going to be trouble’ relates to negative visualizations and narratives of the femme fatale and fetishization of ‘the other.’ It reinforces the hierarchy of the male gaze within many cultural settings, which is visualized in the exaggerated and explicit image of a woman in a seductive pose with ‘exotic’ physical features. This work of art speaks to the idea that nature and nurture can have a defining impact on self-perception.

English Lessons (2017) is a performative artwork exploring the physical and psychological implications of language acquisition in educational environments. The performance stems from Feitosa’s experiences attending school in Brazil and the United States. As a bilingual student, she was already fluent in English when her 2nd grade teacher made her class repeat the same English words and phrases. There was no differentiation between the students who were bilingual and second-language acquirers.

The lack of student-centered learning reinforces the didactic instructional atmosphere that Feitosa recreates in her performance. She created large pink cue-cards, akin to the smaller versions many of us are familiar with seeing as flashcards. Holding up the flashcards she recreates a classroom scene where a teacher has students follow very specific and rigid instructions to repeat the phrase ‘that girl is thick.’ In the second part of the performance, Feitosa revisits her experience in 9th grade (in a public New York City school) where her English teacher made the students  say ‘thank you’ when they were called on to speak. Students who forgot to give thanks for being asked to contribute were censored. This led to an anxious environment, where Feitosa felt that any agency to express herself was stifled by the hierarchical leverage her teacher had over the students. She recalls, “It became a privilege to express my voice and ideas. I slowly stopped speaking out of fear.”

English Lessons resembles the format of a Fluxus piece, which can be recreated by individuals other than Feitosa, simply by following the artist’s written instructions.

The effectiveness of Chantal Feitosa’s art is in her ability to combine many methodologies, materials and subjects into her creative practice. She uses humor coupled with archetypal cultural narratives and educational modules to symbolically communicate  complex issues. Through a playful re-imagining of her experiences in social and educational settings, she confronts a long-standing tradition of marginalization and the trauma that various forms of bias have on development. Assessing the messages in her work, we can also reflect on our own experiences with bias and how we can be more understanding about the way we might use language and actions to empower others.

 

 

No Room to Play

“There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads…wishing it would never get dark so we could continue to play. We chased freedom and joy every day. We learnt about fear, delight and laughter……but ended up running the race.

But there was a day when we weren’t told the truth.We didn’t know enough to understand the bad news.Others took our decisions, others took our strength. Welcome to earth. There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads……but then it became cold in the summer and hot in the winter. We were promised Neverland.That imaginary faraway place……but true happiness never came.We wander now in darkness and despair.” – Narration from No Room to Play by Minerva Cuevas (2019).

Minerva Cuevas’ video No Room to Play (2019) portrays a cautionary dystopian narrative, in which urban public playgrounds are left to decay. The inspiration for the video comes from Post-WWII Western civilization, where urbanization and increased competition, in such forms as organized sports, economic and social status often overrule the importance of free play.

No Room to Play is symbolic of the decline of play, public space and autonomy, which psychologist Peter Gray recognizes as a major contemporary issue that is harmful for children’s development. A primary reason for this, Gray asserts, is that there is an incredible amount of herding of young minds and bodies within today’s society. Whether at home or in school, adults are directing the activities that children partake in, and children are learning that their free-will comes at a price, such as rigid judgement and assessment from adults. With children spending longer hours at school (or organized sports/clubs) under the tutelage of adults, and less time engaging in self-directed actions with their peers, they are being stifled socially and emotionally. This also takes a toll on their ability to think creatively, because they are often not given enough agency to think outside of the box or make judgements in the absence of rules (see: Eisner, 2002).

Cuevas’ poignant video blurs the lines between science fiction, fantasy and the realistic outlook of Gray’s assertion that children are more anxious and depressed than ever (Gray, 2010), because their inclination to play is not being supported within our modern society.

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Still from Minerva Cuevas’ No Room to Play, 2019, video retro-projection on hanging screen, 6’29.” On view at Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College in the exhibition Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia.

As dark and moody scenes of an abandoned playground are featured on screen, the voice of a German girl narrates how the loss of playgrounds affect children’s sense of place and self. Some of the playgrounds have naturalistic elements that resemble plants and animals, which alludes to the idea of Kindergarten (literally meaning a ‘children-garden’), a pedagogical model that supports growth through playful learning and activities that build upon children’s experience, emotions and intellect (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the name Kindergarten, believed that children should be nurtured like plants in a garden. In a depressing turn of events, the public spaces for play in No Room to Play have fallen into a total state of despair, suggesting a metaphor for the loss of environmental resources and the ability to provide a nourishing setting for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Our current trajectory of creating massive urbanized and commercial environments stresses competitiveness and production (mass produced labor) over natural processes of human development.

Having agency to partake in unadulterated child-centered moments of play has significant benefits on children’s creative and cognitive development (see: Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art). Children learn dynamic lessons and skills such as cooperation, procedural knowledge, patience and empathy by developing and implementing their own frameworks of play. Furthermore, play has been recognized by generations as a vital element of the human condition, as evident in constructivist  pedagogical models such as the Reggio Emilia Approach. To strip current and future generations of ample playtime, is an affront on nature.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Eisner, Elliot. The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.

Feldman, Claire Alaina, Bogossian, Gabriel, Farkas, Solange and Press Clayton. “Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia, exhibition catalogue, Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York, 2019. https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/wsas/artsculture/mishkingallery/documents/MC_Disidencia_FINAL_LR.pdf

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today, 26 Jan 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders

Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf