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

Artists as Illustrators: Promoting Visual Literacy

Visual art and literature have a great symbiotic relationship of supporting and influencing each other in profound ways. When visual artists collaborate with writers, they illuminate certain areas of a written narrative. Whether an artist takes a more literal aesthetic approach or interprets the plot more abstractly, the juxtaposition of text and image can be a powerful means of symbolic communication.

In a previous post (see: Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language), I describe how artists incorporate literacy and language into their work via the written word. This post will explore the work of specific artists who have taken direct inspiration from literature. Some artists are influenced by previously published literary works, such as Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Nina Katchadourian, or Joan Mitchell.  Other visual artists, like Benny Andrews and Faith Ringgold have created illustrations for several books, particularly within the children’s literature genre. This post will focus on the latter two artists, and the significance of making imagery in conjunction with a literary narrative.

Ringgold has written, illustrated and published 17 children’s books and received the prestigious Ezra Jack Keets New Writer Award for her debut book, Tar Beach (1991), a book based on her quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). Tar Beach 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.

Quilts are relevant as an illustrative medium because of their history as a vehicle for telling stories. Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to a traditional American craft movement, which has strong associations to the collaborative labor of women and African aesthetics. 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. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980).

Tar Beach is an empowering work of art and literature that sends a whimsical message of self-liberation, agency and intersectional feminism. Within the totality of Ringgold’s Women on a Bridge quilts, the patriarchy is deconstructed through strong and influential women who take control and confront towering infrastructure such as a bridge, which according to Ringgold, is symbolic of masculinity (see: Spector, n.d.).

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A selection of books illustrated by Benny Andrews.

As an artist whose work expresses the individual and communal American Southern experience, Benny Andrews was a good choice to illustrate books such as Sky Sash So Blue (1998 by Libby Hathorn, Simon & Schuster, New York), Pictures for Miss Josie, (2003 by Sandra Belton, Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York), Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (2005 by Jim Haskins, Candlewick, Cambridge) and John Lewis in the Lead (2006 by Jim Haskins & Kathleen Benson, Lee & Low Books, New York); which feature subjects and themes relating to the African-American experience in the American South.

Most of the books Andrews illustrated have a socially engaged focus, which is befitting of Andrews’ legacy as an activist for the equal and equitable representation of black culture within American society. In 1969, Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), which protested museum exhibitions over the whitewashing of African-American themed exhibitions (see: Cotter, 2015), and the lack of consideration for black artists by curators, critics and museum professionals. In 1982, Andrews became the visual arts director of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he personally was instrumental in providing valuable resources and support to contemporary black artists.

As a result of Andrews’ own captivating art and his socially engaged activism, he was clearly a strong candidate to illustrate books that are geared to inspire understandings and expressions of community, creativity and empathy. In addition to illustrating books on renowned Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis and W.W. Law, Andrews’ own life is the subject of a book by Kathleen Benson titled Draw What You See (2015). Andrews was the illustrator of course, represented posthumously through his paintings.

In education, storytelling is an important means for incorporating multicultural learning and inspiring students to make connections. Illustrating or responding visually to literature is beneficial for students of all ages. Utilizing illustrative texts is a helpful way of scaffolding multidisciplinary learning, because it incorporates multiple intelligences such as visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal abilities. The first two modalities are fairly self-evident because picture books offer the benefit of descriptive words and imagery. The presence of descriptive imagery accompanying written language is very beneficial to students who have difficulties expressing themselves linguistically and students who are emerging bilingual learners. Storytelling is both a personal and collective means of communication and therefore it requires an understanding of archetypal imagery, signs and symbols that can express both individual and collective relevance.

Images and text offer different ways to convey a story, and because everyone learns differently, there are enormous teachable moments resulting from reading and comprehending illustrated books. When reading illustrated book, it is important to scrutinize the images in a similar manner as the written words (see: Robertson). When reading as a class, the teacher should make sure students can see the illustrations clearly, and ask questions (i.e. What do you see? What is happening in this illustration? How can you tell?). Personally, I alternate between showing students the illustrations before and after I read the text. In either case, the students are encouraged to make their own observations and make inferences based on what they see, what they’ve read/heard and what prior knowledge they have.

As Robertson notes, discussing the subjective and descriptive significance of formal elements of art and principles of design, is another way to strengthen reading comprehension, especially with young learners and emerging readers. A way of doing this is asking students to make associations between colors and feelings; and relating texture, lines and shapes to movement, actions and relationships.

While literacy is a major focus in educational environments, visual literacy is just as important. Both the written word and the visual image play an important factor in how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. The arts teach us to read visual cues, by acutely interpreting the aforementioned aesthetic and emotional facets in a manner that takes account of our experiences and prior knowledge. Besides the clear benefits on learning, visual imagery is a great way to captivate the attention of students and inspire thoughtful participation in class and beyond.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cotter, Holland. “What I Learned From A Disgraced Art Show on Harlem.” New York Times. 19 Aug. 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/arts/design/what-i-learned-from-a-disgraced-art-show-on-harlem.html

Morris, Laura. “Joan Mitchell and the art of painting a poem.” Poetry Magazine. 1 Feb. 2013. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/articles/69917/introduction-56d2499348f8a

Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publishing.

Robertson, Katrin Oddleifson. “‘Read’ Illustrations to Improve Literacy Skills.” PBS Parents. http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/reading-language/reading-tips/read-illustrations-to-improve-literacy-skills/

Spector, Nancy. “Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series).” Guggenheim Online Collection entry for Tar Beach. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/3719

Zucker, Adam. “Benny Andrews: Illustrator.” Rhino Horn. 1 Mar. 2019. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2019/03/01/benny-andrews-illustrator/

If you’re bored, try living artfully

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Nina Katchadourian, Bananafish, 2013 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-
ongoing), C-Print, 15.25h x 19w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark
Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

I am certain that we all have experienced a fair share of dull moments throughout our lives. Whether it’s dragging our feet while going on errands, waiting on lines, routine doctor’s visits (and the accompanying time spent in waiting rooms), trips to the DMV, long periods of travel, or just sitting around with nothing to do; there are many times where banal moments leave us with much to be desired.

As a teenager, I remember pausing at a specific line within the lyrics to the song Flagpole Sitta (1997) by the band Harvey Danger: “But if you’re bored then you’re boring.” This posed one of the earliest existential crises for me. How could I combat the doldrums of my own boredom? I realized that me being ‘bored’ was largely a result of my own self imposed fears and negative attitude. I had crippling social anxiety and low self-esteem, which led me to avoid certain situations that I would likely have enjoyed experiencing (and thrived at too).

I still have social anxiety, however, I am more or less able to get over it through creative thinking and action. The real transformative moments begin when I immerse myself in artistic explorations and playful creative endeavors.

It is my personal philosophy that everything and everyone has artistic potential. Many individuals including John Dewey and Joseph Beuys have expounded upon the idea of art as a way of life, intrinsic to our personal and collective consciousness and culture. Within art, external and internal stimuli are presented and expressed in a profound manner by combining aesthetic principles and social and emotional symbolism. Through viewing the world as a canvas or a stage on which to engage with, I am constantly thinking about translating everyday moments, objects and images, into works of art. Even walking to work or riding on the subway becomes part of the artistic process, because I am carefully observing, paying attention to details, making connections and gaining insights into the creative potential that consistently surrounds me. I see both everyday objects and interactions as mediums, materials and themes for making art.

Art offers a profound and fun way of liberating ourselves from the seemingly static nature of boring tasks and situations. For all the negative associations that boredom has, it is a major source of inspiration and a vehicle for artists to convey deep sociocultural concerns. The arts teach us to welcome boredom and use it as a channel for powerful means of communication and symbolic expression. Boredom is largely connected to major facets that artists need to make work. These characteristics include being able to find value and purpose in repetition and responding to subconscious thoughts and daydreams, which come about when the mind is left to wander. Artists need to have the patience to perform many routine and precise steps in order to achieve their vision. They also need to allow their minds to be active and think big. Harnessing boredom enables artists to re-frame and re-present their reality in a novel and exciting perspective.

Nina Katchadourian is one of the most seminal contemporary artists versed in embracing and transcending issues of banality. I have previously mentioned Katchadourian’s work in a post titled Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art. She was recently the subject of a traveling museum retrospective called Curiouserand is currently showing a concise survey of her work at Fridman Gallery, in New York, in a solo show titled Ification. The well curated work within Ification is a great example of how Katchadourian finds efficacy in conventionality via a multidisciplinary art practice that is as playful as it is poignant.

Instead of accepting monotony and mundaneness as a matter of circumstance, Katchadourian utilizes artistic behaviors in order to find a myriad of ways to transform boredom into something captivating and significant. She infuses humor and irony within artwork that makes due with the materials and situations that are relatively universal.

For instance, her ongoing Seat Assignment (2010-) series is made up of imagery created while Katchadourian travels on airplanes. In this day and age, airline travel has gotten more restrictive and complex for passengers, while the airlines themselves offer fewer inflight forms of leisure. Seat Assignment is an antidote for the long and dull process of commercial air travel. Being subjected to long periods of stationary sitting, with limited supplies such as inflight magazines, travel guides, carry on (or meager complimentary in flight) snacks and occasional trips to the lavatory (when the captain has turned off the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign), inspired Katchadourian to turn an otherwise uninspiring moment into a captivating artistic experience. Using a mobile phone and whatever she can find around her seat, she creates surreal and fantastical scenes and narratives that comment on themes such as travel, consumerism, culture, ecology and art history.

Lavatory Self Portraits Flemish8

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in Flemish Style #8, 2011 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-ongoing), C-Print, 13.33h x 10w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment series includes a whimsical group of bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. These portraits are humble modern day re-presentations of the high art portraiture, painted in the Low Countries, especially The Netherlands during the 15th – 17th Centuries. In a witty fashion, Katchadourian demystifies the work of Old Master painters by showing us how good art can be made from simple materials and repetitive processes combined with a big imagination.

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Nina Katchadourian, Talking Popcorn, 2001, Popcorn machine, black pedestal,
red vinyl base, microphone, laptop with custom-written Morse code program,
printed paper bags, popcorn, dimensions variable. Installation view at the
Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark  Gallery and Fridman Gallery.

Two other bodies of work that exemplify Katchadourian’s astute skills for noticing deeply, recognizing patterns and incorporating everyday objects into awe-inspiring artworks, are Talking Popcorn (2001) and Songs of the Islands (1996). Talking Popcorn features a working movie theater popcorn machine and the sound of the kernels popping gets translated into Morse Code, which, a computer-generated voice reads aloud. Katchadourian has coined the resulting popcorn messages as “popcornese.” In an effort to further investigate and legitimize “popcornese,” she has solicited the expertise of a diverse group of professionals including: linguists, poets, translators, an astronomer, a Zen Buddhist and an anthropologist. For the making of Songs of the Islands, Katchadourian collected discarded audio tape that she noticed throughout New York City during the 1990s and painstakingly rearranged the loose audio tape to reveal a cacophony of sounds. The resulting compositions included music from a wide variety of genres, spanning across the globe (from heavy metal to Vietnamese pop), and even a taped episode of “All in the Family.” Combined as a soundtrack, the audio depicts a sociocultural portrait of New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world.

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Nina Katchadourian, Songs of the Islands: Concrete Music of New York (detail), 1996/1998, found audiotape between Plexiglas, paper board, ink, audio player with headphones, 40h x 30w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

In the educational realm, boredom can be harnessed through methods that influence students’ thirst for knowledge and inquiry. Some of these methods might include dropping ‘learning objectives’ in favor of ‘learning questions’ (see: Warner, 2014) and promoting playful learning. Both of these pedagogical methodologies give students agency in their own learning by supporting the co-creation of knowledge (between teachers and students).

Like artists, students should develop skills that will allow them to synthesize big ideas (hopes, aspirations, dreams) into realistic goals and tangible actions. Routines and consistency are important in developing a student’s cognitive, social and emotional development, however, the art of education is finding ways to make this repetitious practice relevant and appealing. If a student is feeling unfulfilled and uninspired, one solution might be shifting the pedagogical approach towards asking more student-centered prompts rather than predetermined learning objectives. By starting off learning segments with student driven questions, educators can be sure that they are setting up proper modes of instructional scaffolding, activities and assessments that are meaningful and influential to the experience and education of each student.

 


Nina Katchadourian’s Ification will be on view through March 31, 2019 at Fridman Gallery.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Straaten, Laura van. “The Artist Behind the Famous Bathroom Selfies.” The Cut. 22 Feb. 2019. https://www.thecut.com/2019/02/interview-with-ification-artist-nina-katchadourian.html

Warner, Andrew. “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.” andywarner78. 24 Oct. 2014. https://andywarner78.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-big-question-raising-challenge-by-dropping-objectives/

 

Seeing is Feeling – Art & Experience for Visually Impaired Individuals

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Unknown photographer, Rebecca Soyer touching Chaim Gross’ Sculpture Young Girl, 1926, archives of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation.

Contemporary culture is permeated with sensory experiences that envelope our daily lives. Educational reformer, John Dewey (1938), stated that knowledge is formed by assigning meaning to the sensory experiences that bombard us. We learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and can attach language to these experiences so we can store them for later recall and sort them into categories so we can see connections between this experience and other experiences. Since just the act of living causes us to experience qualities (sensory information) we are often oblivious of it. It is only when we act upon, assign feelings and react to the information that we form a learning experience.

Learning is not a passive event, therefore we have to actively participate with the incoming information and do something with it in order for this information to hold meaning for us. We draw upon our past history of experience with these sensory qualities and over time form habits, which connect these experiences with feelings and act and react to these sensory qualities. Moreover, Dewey and other Constructivist and progressive thinkers uphold the theory that knowledge is derived from social interactions with others.

Taking this into account, I wanted to investigate how the field of art education addresses pedagogy of active learning that is inclusive of individuals who are either legally blind or visually impaired. These issues have always been of interest to me as an artist, art historian, curator and educator, because I believe that everyone should have accessibility to the visual arts. Art enriches people’s lives and gives them an expressive means for communicating symbolically.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) by the artist Lenka Clayton, utilizes sensory, inquiry and collaborative learning techniques to re-present the work of Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920) in a manner that is accessible and relevant to viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

The aforementioned post also discusses the work of seminal art educator Viktor Lowenfeld and psychologist John M. Kennedy, whose experiential and multisensory pedagogical processes can be utilized to prompt aesthetic responses from visually impaired individuals. Through innovative methods, theories and techniques, artists, art students and art appreciators who have trouble seeing, can immerse themselves in both the creation and viewing of art in profound and personal ways.

Because the arts are so important to our social, emotional and cognitive development, many significant programs have been introduced to make art accessible to the population that is most vulnerable to being left out of aesthetic experiences. It is entirely possible and necessary to include resources in museums and in educational settings that can be accessible by sighted and visually impaired people alike. In fact, including more sensory based learning and viewing opportunities is beneficial for everyone, because as Mitchell (2005) asserts, there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. Mitchell argues that painting is associated with other forms of language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all. He states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258).

Major museums, like the Cooper Hewitt and  Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) have implemented programs for the public that include ‘touch tours’ where visually impaired visitors are able to feel the works of art while lecturers give detailed aesthetic descriptions of the piece. Ideally, these descriptions and proceeding discussions paint a picture in the ‘mind’s eye’ of the visitor.

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Visitors are engaged in tactile observations of a sculpture by Chaim Gross. Courtesy of The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, New York.

One recent example of an educational curriculum being developed and implemented for blind and visually impaired individuals is the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions,” a public educational program that is in conjunction with their current exhibition Teaching Through Touch: Works By Chaim Gross, curated by Sasha Davis and Brittany Cassandra.

During his illustrious career as one of the preeminent American Modernist sculptors, Chaim Gross (1904-1991) implored viewers of his sculptures to engage with them in both a visual and tactile fashion. As a part of his artistic philosophy, Gross wanted viewers to be able to interact with his art through touch, in order to learn first-hand about sculpture and connect to it in a more personal way.

Because sculpture exists in the same dimension as we do, touching sculptural works enables us to experience its three-dimensional form in a profound and engaging way. Additionally, Gross made many of his sculptures using natural materials such as wood, which he hand carved. Therefore, the surface areas of many of his sculptures are brimming with exquisite texture and other elements of art. You can literally feel the artist’s hand and tools that he used for making all of the intricate marks and forms. Allowing all viewers to touch these works of art, provides an intimate hands-on experience that gives insight into how Chaim Gross worked in his studio.

Along with teaching artists (Nitza Danieli, Pamela Lawton, Annie Leist and Deborah Lutz), participants in the at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions” workshops analyze sculptures and drawings by Gross through multisensory activities and then create their own tactile works of art based on a specific theme (the topic is different each session).

Another seminal organization for developing curricula and technology to facilitate artistic learning for visually impaired students is Art Education for the Blind (AEB). AEB was founded in 1987 by museum educator, Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel, as a reaction to the lack of widely available programs and resources for blind and visually impaired individuals to access and appreciate the fine arts. AEB has published many resources to rectify this issue, including a comprehensive multimedia package titled Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The publication combines audio narrative with an interactive book on the history of art that uses tactile diagrams to guide the reader’s recognition of specific works of art. AEB’s resources and materials are widely used in museums and institutions throughout the world. AEB also works within school environments.

Psychologist John M. Kennedy has also been highly influential in developing contemporary practices for integrating tactile and other sensory explorations within visual art making and appreciation. According to Kennedy, “blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” However, with instructional scaffolding and proper sensory resources, the blind and visually impaired individual’s experience with visual art can be just as replete as it is for sighted people.

Kennedy’s (in Bird, 1991) work with blind individuals creates an equal learning situation for them in the classroom. He used malleable rubber drawing boards, which allowed students to touch their drawings that they carved into the rubber sleeve. Using a simple ballpoint pen creates enough pressure to create a raised line on the board. Through this process, students learned about many of the important formal elements of art (line, shape, texture, pattern) and also formulated a comprehension of symbolic meaning, i.e. the changing shape of a car’s wheel to suggest motion (Bird, 1991).

Using raised line drawings and/or three-dimensional models enables blind students to experience the qualities (sensory information) of a work of art or architecture. This also can be helpful in providing context if for example, when learning about the Gothic cathedrals, the students can feel the shape and outline of either a drawing or model, which along with a historical and detailed description from their teacher will provide a vivid aesthetic sensibility in the student’s mind. The haptic experience coupled with a trip to a cathedral and/or the student’s previous encounter(s) inside of a church or place of worship, provides conditions for the type of perception that Dewey (1938) described as assigning meaning to an experience.

Pompano (2007) described how tactile learning, such as touching an object like a chair, allows visually impaired students to understand an object’s formal qualities as well as its essence. Her research with blind students explored the possibilities of learning through tactile and systematic approaches while studying the design of chairs. In other words, teachers can guide the students through the physical experience by describing the different parts of the chair while the student’s hands are touching it. In addition to the physical experience, the teacher will impart historical and technical knowledge upon the students regarding the chairs. While the students are engaging in the tactile discovery of the chair, the teacher can have them think about the common parts of the chairs they are engaging with and then list them. Teachers should coach the student along in their discoveries by asking the students questions about what they’re observing so that the experience of sensory perception and formal analysis become learned habits.

Art educators can make the leap from their students’ recognition of an object to their perception of an experience through social interaction and situated learning in the classroom. Verbal communication from the teacher is a key component to both recognition and perception. It can be equally helpful for sighted and blind students in the same classroom to hear the teacher describe an aesthetic object in terms of its features, which include but are not limited to physicality, location, history and narrative.

According to Castellano (1996), the goal is to have the blind student become a full participant both inside school and in their community. She suggests an increased verbal communicative approach in the classroom, wherein the teacher describes what is going on in the classroom in great detail so that the student can get as clear a picture of the lesson plan as the sighted students. Paying attention to details can help the visually impaired student construct a mental picture within the art classroom. It is through instructional scaffolding that the arts educator can help the blind student associate certain aesthetic qualities of an artwork with their own life experience.

Kuell (2009) describes a case study of a blind student named Melissa who was encouraged by her art teacher, Verna O’Donnell, to create art in the same capacity as sighted students. O’Donnell’s methodology came through trial and error, but she always had several backup plans if one method wasn’t working or engaging. She came up with a way that Melissa could explore art making through sensory perception such as focusing in on the smell and feel of the art materials. O’Donnell also organized her art classroom with very tactile objects (vibrant masks etc.) that both her blind and sighted students would appreciate. She also chose art units that would tap into the student’s personality and creativity such as mask making and imaginary landscapes. Through encouragement of both the teacher and her classmates, Melissa built up her confidence in addition to developing artistically along with the rest of her classmates. In fact, the other students asked O’Donnell about ways they could make their artwork more tactile, so that they would be appreciated and become accessible to everyone in the class.

In conclusion, it is definitely possible for blind individuals to comprehend visual media similarly to those who can see it. Classroom teachers and museum educators should understand how they can create an atmosphere in the classroom or museum that will support and prompt students/visitor’s awareness of the sensory information we are often oblivious or refrained from employing when interacting with art. Every museum collection can be combed through in order to find works of art that would be stable and captivating enough to be handled and expressly interpreted in a tactile manner.

Through both classroom/gallery conversation, tactile exploration and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. As educators, we can enhance the experience by asking engaging questions, passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images and encouraging students to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning. This will give a wide range of people the confidence and joy that art and art education should have on their lives.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art Education for the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind . Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 1998. Louisville: Optical Touch Systems Publishers.

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York: MacMillan.

Grimm, D. (2010) Teaching art to the blind student. Art Education Daily. Retrieved from

http://arteducationdaily.blogspot.com/2010/12/teaching-art-to-blind-student.html

Kuell, C. (2009). Tapping the Creativity of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Dialogue, 45 (2) Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr28/3/fr280307.htm

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

Mitchell, W.J. 2005. “There Are No Visual Media.” Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Pompano, J. (2001). Teaching Art to the Blind / A Study of Chairs. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved from http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2001/2/01.02.07.x.html