Creating Refuge by Living, Loving and Learning Artfully

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A painting entitled It’s Not in the Ghetto by Dority Weiser, painted in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Pandemics, social and political upheaval and climate change have all poignantly shown us how unpredictable life is. The lack of communal empathy and not taking responsibility for our past and present mistakes, is a major reason for the continual degradation of our moral compass and the rise of despots, oppressive forces and loss of our natural resources. In the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of tragic events and egregious displays of corruption, art is as essential as ever. The arts are one of the key social and cultural disciplines, known as the humanities, which help us develop sensory, emotional and cognitive skills that can utilized to cope and respond to significant moments in our individual and collective lives. Art has exceptional pedagogical and psychological benefits that strengthen how we understand and communicate complex emotions and make profound connections between our own experiences and the experiences of others.

Art is effectual in both building empathy (see:Exhibiting Empathy) and turning mistakes into solutions (see: Artfully Failing). Public arts administrator and curator, Micaela Martegani, writes that  “empathy is a good place to start as a strategy for human connection: it works to break down the barriers between us and the perceived “other,” and identification moves us towards kindness and social care. This is how we can start to collectively heal” (Martegani, 2020). As Bob Ross, Sister Corita Kent (see: Rule #6 on her 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life), Franz Cižek and many other influential educators have stated: “There are no real mistakes in art, just happy accidents” (a mantra that can be found in the form of a poster in many art classrooms). Unfortunately, the world is a mixture of happy accidents and malevolently negligent actions, so we need art to expose both the positive and negative aspects of the human condition. Art’s intrinsic response to the human experience, explicitly and subtly expresses ideas and actions that can spur social, cultural and political change. In the words of Humanist artist and educator, William Kelly, “Art can’t stop a bullet, but it can stop a bullet from being fired.” In my previous post, Education and Empowerment via Entertainment Justice, I discuss the social practice of ‘entertainment justice,’ and how artists and artworks (in this case songs and performances) are encouraging unity and advancing social action towards environmental, economic and racial justice.

Even in the bleakest environments, such as internment and refugee camps, art has had significant impact on the well-being and social and emotional development of displaced and marginalized groups. Examples include Austrian artist and educator, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who packed a suitcase with art supplies and taught art to hundreds of traumatized children in the Theresienstadt ghetto, a hybrid Nazi concentration camp and Jewish ghetto in the Czech Republic. Realizing that making art affected her own outlook and fortitude, Dicker-Brandeis selflessly shared artistic materials and her creative passion and knowledge, in order to help children cope with the unsettling and uncertain reality of the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on the elements of art and principles of design, Dicker-Brandeis prompted her young students to utilize their imaginations. Her compassionate coaching gave students the means to create artwork that expressed hope, joy and an overall emotional transcendence from the miserable realities of life inside Theresienstadt. Regarding Dicker-Brandeis’ approach, which combined art pedagogy and therapy, a former student named Eva Dorian recalled, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Wix, 2009).

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Young artists from the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement stand in front of a mural they painted to symbolize peace and diplomacy between cultures throughout the world. Courtesy of Bidibidi Artolution.

Decades later, Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is bringing art supplies and art-centered activities to displaced people around the world, such as the Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp. Starting in 2013, Bergner and a team of resident Syrian artists developed a series of art education workshops and public art projects for the children of Za’atari. Young artists paint murals on buildings and objects like kites and wheelbarrows that reminded them of home and celebrate their vibrant cultural identities. They also utilize art making to address social and environmental issues that are important in the camp, such as access to clean water and hygiene. The wide range of artistic subjects liven up the oft-bleak reality of their current situation and the collaborative nature of these artful projects strengthens the community at large. From the look on the children’s faces (see the photos on Bergner’s website), it is evident that they are proud of the work they have made. Inspiring communities to take collective agency for their work and cultural experiences is the basis of Bergner’s artistic advocacy. Through his nonprofit organization, Artolution (in partnership with The United Nations Children’s Fund), Joel and a collective of artists continue to design and teach art making workshops and placemaking activities for children and families living in refugee settlements in Bangladesh, Uganda and Jordan. Each Artolution location is managed by refugee artists and educators within the community.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Loro (Them), a 2019 multimedia performance in Milan, Italy. Courtesy of More Art and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Current physical and geographically imposed borders can be transcended by artwork, such as ongoing projects by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Tanya Aguiñiga. For decades, Wodiczko has been presenting video projections that express a plurality of voices from marginalized populations. Ustedes (Them) and Loro (Them) are anthropomorphized drone performances that project the experiences of a diverse group of immigrants. Only the eyes of the participants are visible, which is deliberate to protect their identities. The mobile nature of the drones and the remote and adaptable aspects of digital media, make this project easier to implement for the public, while adhering to physical distancing regulations in response to COVID-19. As More Art founder, Micaela Martegani mentions in a recent op-ed, Wodiczko’s project takes on a heightened meaning as a result of the pandemic.

“With the pandemic raging, many of those unsung immigrants we have been talking to are the very people now on the front line—they are the essential workers who have risked their lives to keep our city clean, delivering packages and food to people sheltering at home, they are the ones working at grocery stores, post offices, hospitals. They are the ones who have kept the city alive, but they are also the ones who continue to be laid off or furloughed en masse, who are food insecure, who get sick in higher numbers. We can’t wait to tell their stories.” (Martegani, 2020)

When Aguiñiga, an artist and designer from Tijuana, Mexico, was in grade school, she traveled several hours each day across the San Ysidro border into California to go to school and became well accustomed to life between and along the Mexican-American border. Aguiñiga works in a variety of media, but generally with textiles and techniques that combine traditional craft-making with contemporary design. Her work is largely rooted in intersectionality of identity, which examines social and emotional connections through the act of “Performance Crafting,” where two or more individuals engage in a creative activity together. The results are dependent upon strong communication and empathy for each other. Seeing art as a means to overcome the ambiguity and conflict emerging from political borders, Aguiñiga founded AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides), an art and activist project that focuses on interconnections between people in border regions. Many times, people who live in these areas feel a great sense of belonging to both the United States and Mexico. Whether they cross the border for work or to visit their families, it is an essential part of their daily lives. Through creative processes like weaving, individuals on either side of the border partake in a profound placemaking experience. They are transcending the physical boundary that separates them by engaging in the collaborative realization of an artwork and documenting how their lives are affected by imposed separation.

In an effort to present views on how humane messages via the arts are a global zeitgeist, William Kelly embarked on a discursive journey to find out what more than 30 prominent international artists, activists and cultural producers think about art’s role in cultivating social and environmental justice. The project culminated into a recently released documentary called Can Art Stop a Bullet? William Kelly’s Big Picture.

It is indeed possible for art to stop the initiation or continuation of violence, as well as the oppression and marginalization of diverse individuals and groups. By incorporating the lessons and skills that the arts teach us, such as thinking outside the box, collaboration and placemaking, making cross-cultural connections and developing empathetic understandings; we can become creatively adept at handling the nasty curve balls life throws at us and expressively advocate for social, cultural, economic and environmental justice for all.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Elsby, Liz. “Coping through Art – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Theresienstadt.” The International School for Holocaust Studies, 6 June 2016. https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/coping-through-art-brandeis-theresienstadt.html

Martegani, Micaela. 2020. More Art in the Public Eye. Durham: Duke University Press.

Margegani, Micaela. 2020. “Artists Are Finding Inspiring Ways to Adapt Their Work to a World in Crisis. Arts Organizations Must Do the Same.” artnet news, 29 July 2020. https://news.artnet.com/opinion/micaela-martegani-op-ed-1897492?fbclid=IwAR3yJX_hb9FjVncYLP1xg9QcDqvn3-Up2AGG1lAeZKrtU1zNpcJM-jzMGUc

Wix, Linney. “Aesthetic Empathy in Teaching Art to Children: The Work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezin.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26(4), 2009. pp. 152-158

Nature’s Classroom

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Mark Dion, installation view of Neukom Vivarium, 2006. Photo by Vmenkov

Forest schools are a popular pedagogical method and physical educational environment throughout Scandinavian countries. Beginning in Sweden and Denmark during the 1950s, Forest Schools provide students and teachers with the means and experiences to develop strong bonds between themselves and nature. The typical forest school curriculum involves a series of outdoor instruction where students learn how to interact with nature and sustainably become independent and holistic providers for themselves and others. They build knowledge around different types of ecosystems, which is simultaneously incorporated into multidisciplinary learning situations (i.e. learning math, science and language arts from natural phenomena). When I was in eight grade, my class took a trip to Nature’s Classroom, a remote outdoor school where we transcended the traditional classroom setting and worked collaboratively as students and teachers to foster a greater awareness for nature and the role we have in sustaining, preserving and improving our unique world. Hands on inquiry-based experiences supporting food sovereignty, communal living and orienteering, have had an enduring impact on my love and devotion for the great outdoors. To this day, I consider myself to be a lifelong learner outside of traditional classroom walls.

While there are ample opportunities to engage all students and communities through outdoor enrichment, inequity is at the crux of the issue. Sadly, the use of public space and natural environments feels like a privileged discussion to have, due to the fact that so many communities are excluded from utilizing safe outdoor spaces. Browsing maps of urban settings reveals the disparity between availability to public space and socioeconomic class systems. Furthermore, simply having access to parks nearby doesn’t address the fact that there’s implicit and explicit bias around the use and understandings of ecosystems. We need to find a way to make this a human right. Incorporating forest schools as a collaboration between public parks (or community nonprofit green spaces) and public schools is a real possibility if education at large would get the funding it deserves.

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Ana Mendieta, Tree of Life, 1974, color photograph. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York and Paris and Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

In regions of the world that face serious consequences with regards to resuming in-person learning, forest schools present one viable option that can uphold physical distancing and promote better health and wellness. Being outdoors has proven to be a more effective and safer environment for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Besides the health benefits, forest schools have enormous impact on scaffolding students’ appreciation for themselves, each other and the natural world at large. Educating present and future generations to respect, love and care for natural resources is vital in the face of accelerated climate change and habitat loss cause by human’s political, economic and social behavior.

Outdoor learning is replete with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) benefits, which are important for preparing students to become innovators and critical thinkers both professionally and personally. STEAM is recognized because these disciplines work well concurrently. In the wilderness, natural objects provide myriad ways to explore, discover and make insights that support STEAM subjects. As this blog has consistently argued (see: previous STEAM themed posts), the ‘A’ in STEAM is the binder that holds the other subjects together. Art is everywhere in a world that rewards sensory qualities and social engagement. Art is at once tangible and conceptual. It encompasses both abstract concepts like formalism (the way art is made in terms that are purely visual and/or material) and social and cultural experiences (the artistic process). Nature is full of aesthetic and contextual properties and occurrences that coincide with theories and methodologies in visual art.  Art allows for personal expression and the envelopment of processes that reveal the humanitarian nature within science, technology, math and engineering.

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Susan Hoenig, Red Oak Leaf Sculpture, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

I have frequently written about artists who make work that coexists with ecology, while also seeking to educate others about the beauty, as well as the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of understanding the natural world. These artists include Susan Hoenig (see: The Artful Environmentalist), Maren Hassinger (see: Tree of Knowledge), Michael Wang, Alan Sonfist (see: Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness), Agnes Denes, Joseph Beuys, Mel Chin (see: Activating Art and Education for Activism), Mark Dion (see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art) and Ana Mendieta (see: Chutes and Scaffolds). Each of the aforementioned artists represent practical and expressive ways of re-imagining and heightening our senses to issues concerning the global environment. Beuys (7000 Oaks), Chin (Revival Field), Denes (The Living Pyramid), Dion (Neukom Vivarium), Sonfist (Time Landscape) and Wang (Extinct in New York) each created works of art that seek to recuperate and re-imagine contemporary (largely urban) landscapes in a manner that reflects thriving wildernesses of the past. Hassinger (Pink Trash), Mendieta (Tree of Life) and Hoenig (Ecological Leaf Sculptures) collaborate with existing natural structures by including their own aesthetic flair. In Mendieta’s case it is her own body and in Hassinger and Hoenig’s practices, it is a light manipulation or transformation of found objects to create site-specific installations that bring awareness to the prowess and complexity of natural forms.

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Mary Mattingly, Core, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Artful explorations towards addressing issues like climate change, deforestation and pollution, result in insights that have ramifications on multidisciplinary learning (the STEM subjects). When Mel Chin collaborated with Dr. Rufus Chaney, USDA’s senior research agronomist, they discovered a breakthrough in the practice of soil remediation. When Mary Mattingly created Swale and Core (see: Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning), she utilized techniques and principles from engineering, mathematics and science to address food sovereignty and soil and water safety. Education via the outdoors is a way for individuals to acquire a multitude of social and professional skills, while partaking in embodied experiences that help shape their perception about themselves, their peers and their environment. We all are subjected to the effects of climate change, which include the rise in pandemics. It would behoove educational policy makers, school boards and administrators to consider safe alternatives to physical school environments, especially by advocating for scenarios that involve collaborative opportunities where students can achieve positive outdoor experiences. The outdoor environment should be seen as a place that encourages, motivates, engages and inspires playful and serious learning, relationships and insights. We should all have opportunities to safely enjoy the fruits of natural knowledge that blossoms in nature’s classroom.

‘Funktional’ Art Education

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Xenobia Bailey, Funktional Vibrations, 2014, glass mosaic. Courtesy of  the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York.

I’m not a religiously observant Jew, but my Jewishness is a large part of who I am today. My realization and embracing of my Jewish identity came at a very early age, thanks largely to my extended family introducing me to a wide range of cultural, historical and social narratives around Judaism and the Jewish diaspora. I learned about the joys and sorrows of my ancestors through literature, songs, plays and arts and crafts. Balancing the good times and the bad times and feeling a communal sense of pride for overcoming obstacles is something that I discovered through observing and experiencing Jewish folk lore, community gatherings (both religious and cultural) and current events. My Jewish identity is a large part of my whole self, and has influenced everything from domestic skills (ask those who have tried my Hanukkah latkes and borscht!) to social and professional developments.

One of the most important principles that I attribute to my Jewish upbringing is the idea that we are simultaneously unique and interconnected as a human race. It is painful to see the fission existing within our culture at large, which pits people of similar and different religious, ethnic, physical, social and emotional experiences against one another. While I have experienced a fair amount of antisemitism, my white skin tone provides me with many privileges that are blatantly not afforded to my Black and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) brothers and sisters. Judaism has taught me several lessons involving going beyond tolerance and finding insightful and pragmatic ways to bolster empathy and build bridges between seemingly desperate faiths and cultures. It has also taught me something that along with (and similar to) contemporary art has shaped my pedagogical philosophy: we are not final products, we are works in progress and learning is our greatest asset to fostering personal and collective value, empathy and progress. Lifelong learning through experience, observation and active listening are all elements of a good art education. And as I’ve been expressing throughout this blog, art education is essential for inspiring much needed ingenuity, empathy and critical thinking.

I recently had the chance to learn from interdisciplinary artist Xenobia Bailey, which led me to reflect and assess my own experiences and education regarding intersectional identity, self-purpose and communal value. Bailey was presenting via Black Lunch Table‘s Instagram live event on June 7th, and through the course of her non-linear discussion she shared incredible insights about her interests and experiential knowledge of art, design, Black history, education, nutrition and the supernatural. Her message of advocating for Black children to have an all encompassing childhood and become both interdependent and independent under a contemporary Black aesthetic, is central to the tenets of ‘whole body learning.’ In order to repletely impact one’s desire to learn; physical, emotional and mental engagement should scaffold and inform how students’ and educators collaborate via the learning cycle (see: Swindall, McGee and Leyden, 2014). The contemporary Black aesthetic Bailey was referring to is constantly in flux just like our constantly expanding notions of culture, identity and epistemology. It is an art form, philosophy and pedagogy that incorporates extensive cultural narratives and promotes physical and emotional well-being in tandem with the African diaspora and the plurality of all Black individuals. She mentioned the importance of play, lullabies and folktales centered around Black experiences (both real and fantasized) in order to foster imagination and ingenuity. Bailey explained that reprising and creating folktales, lullabies and games uniquely centered on uplifting Black experiences will inspire young generations to shape their present and future through an equal, equitable and justice driven lens. A Black aesthetic includes examples of art, literature, fashion, design, music, healing and spirituality that rhizomatically connects ancestral Africa to contemporary Black life (see: Tree of Knowledge).

Black culture at large, is linked to polyphonic thinking. The history of Black civilization and Africa involves transdisciplinary approaches to living and learning. The utilization of mathematics in Ancient and present day Africa is intrinsic to daily life. The oldest games inspired by numerical and logical systems were developed by Sub-Saharan civilizations, and mathematical insights continually envelop many different aspects of culture throughout the continent. Rhythms from music and dance, colors from art and clothing and healing properties from food, are all connected to holistic Earthly and other phenomena that is observed and experienced (see: Bangura, 2011 and Wright, n.d.).

Bailey’s art-centered pedagogy supports developing domestic skills and industrious mindsets to strengthen social and emotional well-being. One of the aims for a contemporary Black aesthetic is to build a world for future Black generations that is largely devoid of racism and inequity. Through exploring, discovering and sharing insights around Black experiences and African diasporic cultures, Bailey hopes that individuals have the chance to live their best lives and feel pride in expressing themselves. She mentioned that under a contemporary Black aesthetic education life skills would be learned through play and imagination. Fables, fairy tales, lullabies and works of art will have Black protagonists, inspirational themes and celebrate Afrocentric perspectives in an open-ended manner (see: Abraha, 2020 and Grady, 2020). There will be a fusion of traditional and contemporary Black craft making, holistic healing practices and nutrition, which will enable people to realize their creative ambitions and autonomous financial goals while feeling efficacious about themselves and others.

Bailey’s personal creative oeuvre is influenced by functional and esoteric African-American and Pan-African aesthetics. She calls her utilitarian practice ‘Funktional’ because she marries the vibrant, groovy and syncopated styles associated with Funk, with time honored African American industrial arts (i.e. weaving, quilting, embroidery and wood carving). In 2014, Bailey was commissioned by the socially engaged public arts organization, Creative Time, to participate in an exhibition called Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. The exhibition featured four community-based installations that were accessible by walking through Brooklyn’s historic Weeksville neighborhood.

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Funktional Design Vanity Table created by students at Boys & Girls High School and fabricated at Weeksville Heritage Center for Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. Photo: Xenobia Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and A Blade of Grass.

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Student, designing furniture from found cardboard boxes at Boys & Girls High School as part of Funk, God, Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn. Photo: Xenobia Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and A Blade of Grass.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Bailey collaborated with sixty students from Boys & Girls High School in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to design and fabricate furniture to decorate one of Weeksville’s Historic Hunterfly Road Houses. The prompt that inspired Bailey and the young artists was to envision three pieces of furniture made using recycled materials, for an imaginary couple moving into an apartment in modern day Bed-Stuy. She explained that she “asked these juniors and seniors to draw from familiar designs — ones that were in their own homes — to outfit one of the historic Hunterfly houses. My goal was to cultivate their innate design aptitudes through visualization, play and fabrication. Our tools and materials were nothing but X-Acto blades, glue and recycled cardboard boxes” (see: Bailey, 2014). During her Instagram live talk, Bailey mentioned how inspirational it was to work with and learn from the students. She described how each student incorporated their own personal styles to the creative process, which were based on their cultural backgrounds, interests and life experiences. The amalgamation of the students’ uniqueness formed cohesive furniture design concepts that expressed the plurality and profundity of contemporary Black aesthetics.

Towards the end of her talk, Bailey mentioned something that I’ve also been contemplating a lot lately, which is how we will seize this current moment and turn challenges into something mutually beneficial that will continue to resonate throughout the course of human history.  She used the notation systems BC (Before Coronavirus) and AC (After Coronavirus) to riff on the the year-numbering system used by the Gregorian calendar to record moments in time; and implored us to consider how we will utilize our time to improvise on a better world, one that is transcendent from the glaring social and cultural problems of present day life. While we acknowledge that Black Lives Matter and act to dismantle systemic racism, we need to simultaneously work towards uplifting Black voices, Black experiences and Black aesthetics. Bailey’s own words, repeated in the captions of her recent Instagram posts, signify the perfect mantra for our collective consciousness: “We all have Super Powers, Learn Them•Practice reciprocity with the Earth•You Must Tap Out To Tap In•Operate In Love, (not fear) Love Wins. No Fear” (Bailey, 2020). 

This is a chance
To dance your way
Out of your constrictions
(Tell suckah!)
Here’s a chance to dance our way
Out of our constrictions
Gonna be freakin’
Up and down
Hang-up alley way
With the groove our only guide
We shall all be moved
Ready or not here we come
Gettin’ down on
The one which we believe in
One nation under a groove

From One Nation Under a Groove (1978) by Funkadelic


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abraha, Magdalene. “Publishing has ignored and pigeonholed black authors for too long.” The Guardian, 9 June 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2020/jun/09/publishing-has-ignored-and-pigeonholed-black-authors-for-too-long

Bailey, Xenobia. “Teaching Brooklyn Kids ‘Funktional’ Furniture Design.” Marthastewart.com, 24 September 2014. https://www.marthastewart.com/1084922/teaching-brooklyn-high-school-kids-sustainable-funktional-furniture-design

Bailey, Xenobia. (@xenba_xenba). “(Exposing) “False Evidence Appearing Real•We all have Super Powers, Learn Them•Practice reciprocity with the Earth•You Must Tap Out To Tap In•Operate In Love, (not fear) Love Wins. No Fear” (…or Foolishness)Instagram, 27 June 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CB7t3sAl7U3/.

Bangura, Abdul Karim. African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers. University Press of America, 2011.

Gerdas, Paulus. “On Mathematics in the History of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Historia Mathematica. Volume 21, Issue 3, August 1994, Pages 345–376. Accessed 26 June 2020 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0315086084710299

Grady, Constance. “The need to read black literature that’s not just about black struggle.” Vox, 20 June 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/6/20/21295761/black-literature-black-struggle-racism-pride-book-link-roundup

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

Wright, Calli. “13 Interesting Facts About Math in Ancient Africa.” MIND Research Institute Blog, n.d. Accessed 26 June 2020 https://blog.mindresearch.org/blog/math-facts-ancient-africa

 

Conference of the Animals & 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City

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The Panorama of New York City at the Queens Museum of Art. Courtesy OptimumPx

“FOR a long time the animals had been watching the strange doings of people, and the day finally came when it was just too much for them!”The Animals’ Conference (1949)

The Queens Museum’s best known artifact is a panoramic model of New York City, which was built to honor the Big Apple’s iconic municipal infrastructure. The metropolitan replica (the largest architectural scale model in the world)  was initially displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair and became a sensation with visitors from all over the world. The subject of the ’64 World’s Fair was “Peace Through Understanding.” Concepts of globalization and cultural innovation were highlighted throughout the fair’s many exhibits and attractions. The building that is now home to the Queens Museum was the New York Pavilion for both the 1939 and ’64 World’s Fairs. It was also the temporary home of the United Nations General Assembly from 1946-50, during which time the UN facilitated major diplomatic and humanitarian actions such as the creation of the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the partition of Korea and the authorization for the creation of Israel.

Themes of diplomacy, collectivism and sociocultural development are the foundation of two site-specific exhibitions, The Conference of the Animals and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City. Both of these installations will eventually be on view at the Queens Museum (currently on pause due to New York City’s shelter-in-place regulations), adorning and encasing the 45 foot walls of the gallery where the panorama of New York City resides.

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Digital sketch of Ulrike Müller’s The Conference of the Animals for the Queens Museum’s Large Wall, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Queens Museum.

The Conference of the Animals is an in-progress mural by Ulrike Müller and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York City is an exhibition, curated by Amy Zion, of children’s drawings responding to social and cultural themes related to New York City over the past 120 years. Müller’s mural takes its name from The Animals’ Conference (1949), a post-WWII satirical children’s book by German author Erich Kästner. In the book, a faction of animals form a union to save the planet. The book’s premise was inspired by the ineffectiveness of international diplomacy in the wake of the devastating global war. The mural utilizes a combination of geometric shapes and organic forms to suggest a stylistic portrayal of animal figures.

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Ponies by Mario Petrucci, Einstein-Hof, Vienna. Courtesy Herzi Pinki

Large semi-abstract murals became a popular form of public art in the aftermath of WWII. Müller’s The Conference of the Animals is reminiscent of the modernist aesthetic that artists from the The Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Arts Project employed to liven up civic infrastructure and boost morale throughout the American cultural landscape. Additionally, The Conference of the Animals is in historical dialogue with the unique democratic socialist urban planning of Post-WWI Vienna, known as ‘Red Vienna.’ In 1923, Vienna’s socialist municipal government replaced dilapidated and depressed working class slums with well funded and aesthetically pleasing modernist housing structures, which rejuvenated public confidence and the economy, both of which needed a revival after the war. These residential buildings featured avant-garde designs, ample space for communal recreation and shared facilities like cooperative stores, libraries, childcare centers and schools (Day, 2018). Another element that defined these structures were public artworks, including sculptures that featured realistic and anthropomorphic animal motifs.  Animal imagery has been a staple of public housing design from Vienna to Chicago (see: Bruegmann, 2018) to Pasir Ris (see: Voon, 2019). Each of these spaces combine form and function to foster a sense of collective identity and pride within their respected locations. Journalist, Claire Voon, writes about how Singapore’s seminal playground designer, Khor Ean Ghee, created jovial environments that reflect constructive feelings of self and collective value. “Playgrounds, often strategically built at the heart of each estate, became one way to foster a new sense of belonging, as sites where neighbors, regardless of race and age, could congregate” (ibid, 2019).

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Ulrike Müller, Assorted, 2020, collagraph, 17 x 13.25 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Müller’s art installations develop a lively interaction within the architectural space by prompting the viewer’s eye to follow along with the curvilinear, diagonal, vertical and/or horizontal lines of the substrate on which her art hangs. At large, Müller’s oeuvre of wall installations, prints and enamel paintings have a playful flair and are reminiscent of the pre-cut shape collages, building blocks and Froebel’s gifts that many young children engage with in the initial phases of their artistic education (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This formal analysis is evident in her collograph print Assorted (2020), which resembles two animals (one avian and one canine) in profile view. By breaking down her imagery into simpler forms and shapes, Müller stresses the clear legibility of her subject matter and allows for us to read her figures in a pronounced manner.

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Tove Jansson’s Who will comfort Toffle? 1960.

Another analogy that can be made from Müller’s work is its reference to the art of classic children’s book illustrations. Beyond appropriating the title of her mural from a children’s book, her color palette for The Conference of the Animals is inspired by Tove Jansson’s Moomin series of picture books. While planning out her mural, Müller built her palette around Jannson’s use of colors in Who will comfort Toffle? (1960) .

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Louise Berliawsky, (no title), c. 1905. Courtesy of the American Art Collaborative.

The children’s artwork in 120 Years of Children Drawing New York includes some very early examples of works from artists who grew up to become renowned in the fine art world. One example is an interior scene by a young girl named Louise Berliawsky, who grew up to become renowned for her modernist monochromatic, wooden sculptures under the name Louise Nevelson. Children’s artwork had an important influence on modernism, especially in post-World War eras when artists like Jean Dubuffet and Karel Appel were influenced by the effervescent, yet carefully considered treatment, scale, perspective and details of childhood drawings. Müller was inspired by the collection of children’s drawings selected for the exhibition (a portion of which are from the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Arts New York). In a recent online artist’s talk, she mentioned the effectiveness that children’s drawings have within our culture at large. The context of 120 Years of Children Drawing New York provided Müller with a deeper understanding of how children’s art was employed to support diplomatic and socially conscious efforts across society. Similar to the way governments incorporated the art and design of professional artists into everyday life between the World Wars (WPA, Red Vienna et al); the display of children’s art was a strategy governments used to enhance social and emotional welfare. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) lobbied for aid to support displaced and orphaned children by using children’s artwork to stir emotions and enlist empathetic responses from the public. These efforts paralleled the rise of progressive art education, where the pedagogical focus is on student-centered learning and experiential development, rather than didactic instruction (see: Grieve, 2018). Instead of having children copy from reproductions or schematics; educators “encouraged children to develop at their own pace, explore a variety of materials and methods and favor process over product” (ibid, 2018). It is evident that children use mark making as a way of processing events and reflecting their place and experiences in the world around them.

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Tony Bonada (age 12, American). Collection of the Children’s Museum of Art, CMA0688.FR. Courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Art, New York.

The Conference of the Animals and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York surmises that all children’s art has something important to communicate and that we should be paying serious attention to what they are saying. The way children symbolically convey their observations and insights about the world changes as they build artistic skills and conceptual knowledge. Art education scaffolds the progression of children’s artistic development through phases of representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials (see: Louis, 2005). A multidimensional model of artistic development, proposed by art educator and teacher of teachers, Linda Louis, 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 crux of education and diplomacy is to foster a better framework for current and future generations to thrive in equal, equitable and justice centered environments. The anthropomorphic protagonists in The Animals’ Conference understood that intergovernmental policies needed to change, in order to support the world’s children who were “caught in the web of wars, strikes and famines” (Fischer, 1953). Successful works of public art and communal design projects teach us that it is possible to create something that is both beautiful and beneficial to collectivist culture. A good art education centered around nurturing experiential learning, empathy and imaginative innovation is a means to achieve “peace through understanding.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bruegmann, Robert. 2018. Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Day, Meagan. “We Can Have Beautiful Public Housing.” Jacobin, 13 Nov. 2018. https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/beautiful-public-housing-red-vienna-social-housing

Fischer, Marjorie. “A Better World: The Animals’ Conference.” New York Times, 12 July 1953, Section BOOK, Page 18.

Grieve, Victoria M. 2018. “Little Cold Warriors: American Childhood in the 1950s.” London: Oxford University Press.

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.

Müller, Ulrike. “The Conference of the Animals: An Artist’s Talk with Ulrike Müller.” Zoom, 29 April 2020. Presented by The Queens Museum and The Cooper Union School of Art.

Voon, Claire. “In Singapore, Playgrounds Are Capsules of National Identity.” Atlas Obscura, 11 June 2019. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/singapore-playgrounds

Zhuang, Justin. Mosaic Memories: Remembering the Playgrounds Singapore Grew Up In. Singapore: In Plain Words (eBook). https://www.singaporememory.sg/data/res27/mosaic_memories.pdf

Sewing and Growing: Communal Quilts for Education and Liberation

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Emma Civey Stahl, Women’s Rights Quilt, c. 1875. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Quilt making is a powerful art-centered form of collaborative learning and communicating that has significant roots in shaping many social, cultural and political movements throughout history. Quilts are a traditional kind of crowdsourced creativity, which can honor and raise awareness about local and global issues and causes such as ongoing pandemics, intersectionality of identity and civil rights. In American culture, the longstanding history of making quilts is woven into the fabric of indigenous culture, women’s liberation movements, African-American identity and LGBTQ pride.

Emma Civey Stahl’s Women’s Rights Quilt (c.1875) is a testament of the narrative value that the textile art form has. Her quilt features a series of circular vignettes that communicate two significant contemporary accounts from her era: the experiences of Civil War soldiers and the women’s rights movement. A century later, quilt making was conceptualized by feminist artists like Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago to promote an equal and equitable playing field for women in the arts (see: Feminist Art Education).

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The AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a seminal example of the poignancy and catharsis behind making and viewing quilts. The idea for the project was formulated in San Fransisco, California during the mid-1980s by LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones, as a way to memorialize residents of the city who died from AIDS-related complications. The quilt began to take shape during a march Jones helped organized to honor and support LGBTQ civil rights. Jones prompted marchers to write the names of personal contacts who had died from the virus on their placards, which were then affixed to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. Realizing that the arrangement of the names resembled the qualities of a quilt inspired Jones et al to continue paying tribute to the lives of people affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (most commonly known as The AIDS Memorial Quilt) was officially launched in 1987, and the organizers (Jones, Mike Smith, Joseph Durant, Jack Caster, Gert McMullin, Ron Cordova, Larkin Mayo, Steve Kirchner, and Gary Yuschalk) began to solicit community members to create 3′ x 6′ panels (roughly the size of a burial plot) using materials and techniques of their choice, in order to express a heartfelt connection to a particular individual they want the public to recognize and remember. The aesthetically striking panels are replete with symbolism addressing and transcending the stigma around HIV/AIDS and visualizing the magnitude of the pandemic, which impacts the lives of over 37 million people. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest communal quilting project in the world with over 48,000 individual squares by contributors from more than 35 countries (Fee, 2006).

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Helen Dear’s contribution to the Corona Quilt. Courtesy of the artist.

Right now we are experiencing an additional pandemic in the form of COVID-19. The Corona Quilt is a communal art making project that utilizes the traditional aesthetics and socially engaged process of quilt making to address the fears, anxieties and stresses related to dealing with COVID-19 and living in quarantine. The idea of the project is that these individualized expressions will be viewed through a collectivist lens and tell an open-ended story of how the pandemic impacts us on both local and global levels. The quilted squares from participants can be created with whatever materials they have at their disposal due to the fact many people are living in a state of quarantine. Examples have included drawings, paintings, collages and photographs. The only requirement is that participants crop their work to fit a roughly 8 inch square. Each completed design is uploaded to social media, forming a patchwork narrative that seeks to help cope with personal feelings of anxiety, while building empathy for other’s experiences.

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Women of Gee’s Bend working on a quilt in 2005. Photograph by Andre Natta.

In addition to the outstanding toll on mental and physical health, the COVID-19 crisis has made it a hardship for medical professionals and vulnerable populations to receive and maintain an adequate supply of PPE (personal protective equipment). The renowned Gee’s Bend Quilters have adapted quilt making’s sociocultural purpose to address this problem by sewing masks for all citizens of their close-knit Alabama community (see: Dafoe, 2020). As one of the most influential artisan collectives in American history, Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers have extended and carried on the legacy of African-American quilting, an art form that symbolizes physical and spiritual protection and empowerment for both individual artists and the community at large (see: Wahlman, 1993).

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Faith Ringgold, Woman On A Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach, 1988, acrylic paint, canvas, printed fabric, ink, and thread. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. New York. Gift, Mr. and Mrs. Gus and Judith Leiber, 1988. © Faith Ringgold.

Through their storytelling and collaborative properties, quilts continue to inspire and teach diverse generations about social and cultural topics. For example, Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) is often incorporated as a popular learning segment for teaching young students about Black history, community and the art of storytelling. Tar Beach is a book based on Ringgold’s quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). The book tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to the mediums significance among African-American women. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem, New York. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980), which rhythmically depicts distinct facial expressions and perspectives of African-American individuals. Collectively, the faces are a symbol of Harlem, a cultural epicenter for African-American culture and community.

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Bisa Butler, Life Like It’s Golden, 2015-2016, denim. Courtesy of the Byron Nelson Family Collection.

Bisa Butler crafts larger than life figurative quilts that celebrate her Ghanaian heritage and signify the plurality of African-American culture, history and identity. Using vintage photographs as sources, the representational images that are portrayed in her quilts reveal both intimate and formal perspectives of Black America. Butler transforms the archival images she works from by using a vibrant palette and fabric patterns that recall quilting traditions to create entirely new compositions reflecting communal memories and sociocultural experiences from Black History and contemporary life. Her current exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art can be viewed virtually.

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Amanda Browder, Future Phenomena, 2010, sewn fabric installation, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Browder typically eschews the institutional presentation of art, in favor of displaying her large-scale fabric installations within the community. She often works with local communities to realize and create vibrantly colored tapestries that are usually so large that they cover building facades, walls and other public architectural structures. Members of the public participate in the creation of these works by helping to source materials (most of the fabric is upcycled from within the community) and sew large swatches of fabric together. The fruits of this cooperative labor is best represented in her prior quilt-like installations such as Future Phenomena (2010, Greenpoint, Brooklyn), Spectral Locus (2016, Buffalo, New York) and City of Threads (2019, Arlington, Virginia).

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Communal sewing day in Buffalo, New York for Amanda Browder’s Spectral Locus installation, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Her current project, Metropolis Sunrise is commissioned by ArtsWestchester and will transform the art organization’s 9-story historically landmarked building in White Plains, New York. In preparation for the transformation of the building’s facade, Browder invited the community to participate in Metropolis Sunrise‘s fabrication by hosting community sewing days. Working closely with Browder, people of all ages pinned and sewed fabric shapes together, in order to form the monumental textile-artwork that will be displayed prominently in the community. Unfortunately due to the coronavirus, the remaining communal sewing days had to be canceled. The public artwork is currently scheduled to be displayed when it is deemed safe to do so.

Metaphorically speaking, life resembles a quilt. The lived experience is made up of a patchwork of events and an exploration of materials, meanings, patterns and forms that influence how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. When we piece together our experiences, backgrounds and multifaceted identities, we learn about our rich cultural narratives and develop deeper understandings and connections to one another.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Dafoe, Taylor. “The Famed Quilters of Gee’s Bend Are Using Their Sewing Skills to Make a Face Mask for Every Citizen in Their Small Alabama Town.” artnet, 13 April 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/gees-bend-masks-1831854

Fee, Elizabeth. “The AIDS Memorial Quilt.” American Journal of Public Health, 96(6), p. 979. 2006 June; 96(6): 979. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2006.088575

Wahlman, Maude Southwell (1993). Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts. New York: Penguin. 

Children’s Games

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Francis Alÿs, Children’s Game #12, 2012. Courtesy of the artist on Vimeo

Francis Alÿs’ immersive eighteen screen video installation, Children’s Games (1999-prsent), is an exceptional example of art as an uplifting expression of the human condition, specifically in relationship to our social, emotional and cognitive development.

Children’s Games conveys how play is a consistent universal human element across disparate geopolitical environments. To create Children’s Games, Alÿs traveled the globe to film scenes of children engaging in unfettered play. Each segment in the video is from a unique location in the world, however, the games are largely archetypal and should be familiar to nearly everyone, like musical chairs (Children’s Game #12) and rock, paper scissors (Children’s Game #14). The common thread between all of the videos is the artful manner in which the children imaginatively activate routine objects (like rocks, coins and mirrors) and embark on a whimsical collaboration with their peers and the surrounding natural and synthetic settings. The scale, composition and symbolism of Children’s Games makes an immediate impact on the viewer entering the exhibition space (most recently on view at Contemporary Art Museum of Montréal/MAC).

Children’s Games use of visual and auditory signifiers heightens our senses and prompts us to personally respond by reflecting upon how explorations and discoveries are transformed into insightful and informed meanings. The artwork implores us to bring our own experiences and cultural backgrounds into the interpretation and analysis of the piece. Familiar sounds within each video, such as the chirping of birds, shuffling of feet, whoosh of wind, smack of a ball and laughter, are all sensory qualities that have common meaning and significance in regards to constructing playful memories.

In his art, Alÿs frequently examines serious sociopolitical, economic and environmental turmoil by employing whimsy and cautious optimism. This is exemplified through the children of the world in Children’s Games, who utilize play to transcend the grim realities that exist within many of their communities. In times of intense worldwide disruption, whether due to politics or pandemics, it is important to retain an audacity of hope and exhibit empathetic connectivity with others. Serious problems do not necessarily have to be met with solemn and firm reactions. It might sometimes be helpful to apply the invaluable explorations, discoveries and insights inspired by play to address certain issues that do not always have a simple solution. Play gives us agency to construct sincere social, emotional and constructive experiences. When imagination is liberally applied to daily life, we start to realize that materials are everywhere and compelling subject matter is simply dependent upon our playful and artful interaction with each other and the environment.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bélair, Suzanne. “Children’s Games Exhibition by Francis Alÿs.” Enviroart. 26 Dec. 2019.  https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/2305212/posts/2067

Elkind, David. 2017. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books. 

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.”  American Journal of Play, v3 n4 p443-463 Spr 2011.

Londoño, María Wills and Johnson Maude.  “Francis Alÿs: Children’s Games.” Magazine of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, vol. 30, no. 2, Fall 2019. pp. 4-5.

Zucker, Adam. “Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art.” Artfully Learning, 10 Aug. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/08/10/learning-through-play-playing-through-art/

 

Tree of Knowledge

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Tree of Knowledge, Peal City, Boca Raton, Florida. Courtesy of Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Nature and nurture are the fundamental principles of the human condition. The debate about whether our biological disposition or our experiential knowledge defines us is an oversimplification. It isn’t one or the other, it is both. Our genetic structure embodies the evolutionary processes of prior populations. It provides the framework for cognition. Our flexibility to respond and develop in regards to our environment and nurturing stimuli, enables us to adapt and adjust to changes and be lifelong learners.

Before we developed large and crowded metropolises, we lived in communities among the trees, rocks and waterways, and many of us still do. Trees and mountains were the first skyscrapers, and they inspired civilization after civilization to develop cultural narratives about the world around them.

The Tree of Knowledge in Pearl City, Florida, is an example of the symbolic and pragmatic impact of nature and nurture within a longstanding community. The tree, a banyan, is the oldest living thing in Pearl City, a historic neighborhood in Boca Raton that was initially developed for working class Black laborers who worked at nearby farms.

Banyan trees are notable for their cluster of aerial prop roots, which are roots that exist above the ground and are able to spread out and anchor themselves wherever they touch the soil. The deep and widespread roots of the banyan tree could be seen as a metaphor for the rhizomatic learning processes that are integral within diverse communities like present day Pearl City.

Rhizomatic learning is a concept that was coined by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to describe the organic nature of cultivating knowledge in a fast paced and multifaceted world. From a rhizomatic learning perspective, knowledge is negotiated via socialization under the premise that pedagogical goals are constantly in flux (Cormier, 2008). Therefore, learning requires constant contact and communication among diverse individuals, with emphasis that there is no one expert in a given field and perspectives and methodologies are liable to change and evolve over time. This viewpoint is similar to the philosophy of constructivist education theorists like John Dewey (we learn through sensory and social experiences) and Paulo Freire (who advocated a discursive learning environment where students are encouraged to actively solve problems using prior knowledge to form new frames of mind and being).

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Maren Hassinger alongside children from Pearl City, during a workshop for the Tree of Knowledge. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

The rhizomatic learning process is indicative in Maren Hassinger’s monumental art installation Tree of Knowledge, which she created in dialogue with Pearl City and its oldest living resident of the name. The tree symbolizes a living link between Pearl City’s past and present. From the first residents to today’s population of citizens, Pearl City and its famous tree have been the catalyst for innovation, communal spirit and perseverance. The tree’s deeply implanted roots are expressive of generational social, emotional and experiential learning. Besides being an ideal place to get refuge from the sun, the tree has been a sanctuary for the community to rally around, tell their narratives and relay important cultural knowledge to one another. It has been a place where learning happens naturally and is not bound by one specific set of guidelines. This is where rhizomatic education is best practiced.

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Newspaper coils made in a collaboration with Maren Hassinger and the local community in Boca Raton. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Hassinger, who lives and works in New York, was moved by what she learned and experienced about the Tree of Knowledge and its role in facilitating intergenerational relationships. During community-based story-telling sessions, Hassinger worked with diverse groups of the public to roll newspapers that represent the aerial roots of the renowned banyan tree. The coiled newspapers were then hung from the ceiling of the Boca Raton Museum of Art, where they currently envelop the museum’s main gallery (on view through March 1st). The installation represents an additional outlet for generational confluence and communal learning. Community members of all ages had the opportunity to learn directly from Hassinger during workshops to create the newspaper roots. She scaffolded instruction and artistic processes to fit the participants’ developmental phases. For example, she realized that young children were having a hard time physically and conceptually realizing square knots, so the artist decided to utilize the more familiar and developmentally appropriate method of twisting the paper in a manner that alludes to vine-like structures (Uszerowicz, 2020).

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Installation view of Tree of Knowledge by Maren Hassinger. Courtesy of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

The intertwining of materials, backgrounds and experiences during the creative process is indicative of Pearl City’s communal curriculum of rhizomatic and non-hierarchical learning. Through gathering around the Tree of Knowledge (both the actual tree and the symbolic representation), stories and ideas about labor, the environment and identity are transferred and expanded upon in a democratic form of negotiation. The maintenance of our environment is dependent upon moments of equitable and mutual making, learning and growing.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Cormier, Dave. “Rhizomatic Education : Community as Curriculum.” Dave’s Educational Blog, 3 Jun. 2008. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Félix (1993). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Uszerowicz, Monica. “A Maren Hassinger Installation Blossoms From a “Tree of Knowledge” Rooted in a Majority Black Florida Town.” Hyperallergic, 17 Feb. 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/542947/a-maren-hassinger-installation-blossoms-from-a-tree-of-knowledge-rooted-in-a-majority-black-florida-town/

Expressing our inner childlike nature…again

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Christina Freeman, digital film still from this is not a home movie, 2009-2020, film stills and audio. Courtesy of the artist.

“Do we possess an “inner child,” our supposed original or true self? Are we the same person we were as a child? Do we carry our child selves around with us, or is childhood left at the door upon entering the adult world? The work in this show contemplates aspects of youth, transformation and regression, exploring themes of the childish and childlike.”

Those are the essential questions that artist/curators Jenn Dierdorf and Robert Goldkind and a group of 11 additional artists would like us to consider as we experience the multidisciplinary works of art in the exhibition Regress at ABC No Rio’s Bullet Space/292 Gallery.

Growing up is a desirable trait, because it grants us a particular sense of autonomy, which we didn’t have while we were young children and adolescents. Being independent and developing self-confidence and awareness, is paramount to developing as a whole person. We learn a great deal via experience, so the more of it we have, the more knowledge we are likely gaining. We apply this knowledge to our multifaceted backgrounds/identities and other social, emotional and cognitive qualities, in order to build cultural understandings and exhibit expressive responses to the world around us. Experiential learning is a lifetime-based process that begins during our earliest stages of development. Unfortunately, one of the notable changes in our journey from youth to adulthood is the decline of playful learning and untutored creativity…and sometimes memory too.

I have written several prior posts (see: No Room to Play, If you’re bored, try living artfully and Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art) concerning the necessity of maintaining a playful attitude and approach to living and learning. I hope that through these posts, it has been made apparent that the arts are beneficial to our minds, bodies and spirits, as a result of unfettered exploration, discovery and play. In addition to play, memory is another important process that can be harnessed for artful production. Making art is a great way to recall our memories and express them to others. Good motivating questions to inspire the creative process include: “when was a time when you felt proud?” “when was there a moment that you felt strong?” “who would like to tell us about a time you helped someone in need,” and “what is one thing that you can’t live without?” These questions open the door for personalized reflections that are rooted in each student’s memory. The results will be empowering because recalling specific memories enables deep connections to be made in relation to the students lives (see more in an earlier Artfully Learning post: Expressing Memory Through Art – Experiential Living/Learning). This art pedagogical methodology is highly beneficial for people of all ages. For individuals with Alzheimer’s, artistic immersion (both viewing and creating art) has noted success in increasing mood and (in some cases) stimulating memory (see: Chancellor, Duncan and Chatterjee, 2014; and Neighmond, 2019).

Memory is a hot topic among artists in general. We often re-create and re-present imagery that has familiarity to us. Our understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time and personal artistic development, as we seek ways to present our experiences and background insights to others. As we get older, our recollection of the past, especially childhood/adolescence, becomes a reflective process that helps us understand our complex (and transformative) personalities.

One of the artists in Regress is Christina Freeman (previously featured on Artfully Learning in the post #$^& Censorship), whose project this is not a home movie addresses themes of childhood memories, and how certain events in our timeline are carefully curated through the lens of the camera (ex. home movies and snapshots in photo albums). Freeman, who often utilizes archives and repositories in her work, synthesized footage from her family’s home videos as a source to access and assess information about her childhood. this is not a home movie is concerned with documenting a familial experience via both a lineal and abstract relationship to memory. While the footage that is edited together is representative of Freeman between ages 2 and 7, she has conflated the original audio and video with contemporary audio, consisting of interviews of her parents who reflect upon their memories of her childhood, as well as their impressions of documenting that time period. The expressive way that Freeman splices and re-presents past documentary footage with current recollections from the documentarians, is indicative of the variability of our memory. Freeman shows us how the experience of an original event is transformed when re-examined years later. This is because we add layers and layers of new experiences and assign additional values and meaning to past events in order to continue relating them to our lives. A voice in one of the clips exclaims “you’re going to see this forever and ever,” but the real intriguing notion is how will our associations of this event (its imagery, meaning, social or emotional context) change over time?

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Ianthe Jackson, Wood Pile, 2019, sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

Ianthe Jackson’s art also investigates childhood memory and her work in the exhibition, titled Wood Pile (2019), signifies her upbringing in Buffalo, New York. A pile of cut wood logs is a common thing to see outside and inside of houses up north, where the winters can be snow-filled, long and harsh. Many of the city’s historic houses are drafty, which means that heating them takes a lot of money and energy. Jackson recalls, “my family decided to heat our house with a wood stove to save money, and every year we would have these humongous wood deliveries on our lawn right in the city! We would invite friends over to haul and stack wood in trade for hot chocolate and it would often take 2 to 3 days to finish. It was such a strong memory and an experience that really shaped me.”

I asked Ianthe how her thoughts on childhood have shifted as an adult, and how she personally connects ideas about childhood in her artwork. She replied:  “I think a lot of my work relates to my childhood in various ways. There are so many ways we are conditioned as children and those aspects of who we are live on in our work and adult life and perspective. For me the shift of play and memory changes as we age. I think play for me is creating art and pursuing ideas. As children play they are creating an understanding of the world, synthesizing the senses of their body in the world and imagining things that could be. For many people this is seen as a period of childhood. I think artists and many other people hold on to these aspects and keep the creative mind moving. Some people however, not so much. School and expectations can really squash a person’s wonder.”

Jackson’s statement resonated with me, because a large portion of my childhood involved performing imaginary games with friends. These memories still influence my creative practice and my educator’s philosophy that play is essential for self discovery, socialization and building empathy. However, childhood isn’t all fun and games. There are many rules and structures that we are expected to learn as children, which are traditionally seen as being necessary in preparation for adulthood. Of course, some are and some aren’t. Traditions that are shattering include employing boy-girl formations (sitting or standing in boy-girl-boy-girl order), and reinforcing gender binarisms through ‘teaching’ gender roles. While schools are making an effort to embrace gender fluidity, this is sadly not a universal practice in the educational system.

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Rebecca Bird, Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The latter part of Jackson’s quote regarding societal expectations quashing a person’s sense of wonder, is confronted in Regress through two paintings by Rebecca Bird, titled Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. The paintings are from Bird’s Women series, featuring sociocultural scenes of groups of women and girls. In Cohort 1 and Cohort 2, the subjects are kindergarten aged girls in matching uniforms learning to stand in line. According to Bird, she has been contemplating “how we become what we are defined as in society and how such a broad category as ‘female’ describes or assigns a role to me.” An essential part of educating children, is building platforms where they are empowered to express their unique identities, and exhibit empathy for others.

Returning to the theme of play, artist Courtney Childress explores childlike activity as a participatory artwork. Her work in the exhibition, is an interactive combine (painting and sculpture hybrid) that gives viewers permission to add their own mark to the piece. The result is very similar to the scribbles and automatic mark-making of children’s art. How many of us felt the impulse as children to extend our scribbles off the page and onto the wall? Childress’ work invites this seemingly natural and universal behavior, which is refreshing in both an art environment and as a commentary on social, emotional and cognitive development.

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Courtney Childress’ interactive artwork. Courtesy of the artist.

Childress’ main medium of crayons is also very down-to-earth and reminiscent of youthful creative endeavors. I asked Courtney to recall some memories or moments from her childhood that influenced her current profession in the arts, and she replied: “One I’ve been told about my mom and aunt on a road trip with my grandmother from TX to CO in the summer of 1960. They left crayons in the backseat when they stopped for lunch. These melted into puddles in the back of the rental convertible. My mom laughs when she tells the part about throwing fistfuls of crayon out the window as they drove down the highway.”

About the influence of play in her current art practice, she stated:

“Play and playfulness have always been a part of what I make and the work I am drawn to from other artists. In my work, I amassed a great collection of crayons, that I peeled and melted down, layering colors into painted-desert inspired rock crayons. For this show I have given the audience space to draw and make marks with a hand-sized rock crayons and a large swath of canvas. Giving the viewer permission to do something ‘bad.’”

Through art, we all have the ability to address our uninhibited selves and communicate in a playful, yet poignant manner. The works in Regress suggest diverse viewpoints regarding our creative development, and make thought provoking statements about youth in general. They might even make you feel young again…


Regress is on view through February 23, 2020 at Bullet Space/292 Gallery, 92 East 3rd Street, New York, NY. Exhibited artists: Yasmeen Abdallah, Rebecca Bird, KS Brewer, Courtney Childress, Jenn Dierdorf, Christina Freeman, Robert Goldkind, Kamryn Harmeling, Ianthe Jackson, Will Kaplan, Mark Power, Sarah Schruft and Ashley Yang-Thompson.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Chancellor, Bree, Duncan, Angel and Chatterjee, Anjan. “Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementia.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Vol. 39, 2014.

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

Neighmond, Patti. “Her Mom Was Lost In Dementia’s Fog. Singing Christmas Carols Brought Her Back.” NPR, 24 Dec. 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/12/24/790806366/her-mom-was-lost-in-dementias-fog-singing-christmas-carols-brought-her-back

 

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.