Artful Nurturing

Nature has an organic way of creatively carving out its path and presenting images of unique aesthetic proportions. Examples can be seen via the intricate lines, shape and harmony of the spider’s web, or the heavy impasto texture and abstract sculptural form of mound building termite’s hills.

Although humans have learned by observing natural phenomena for centuries, our ability to design beyond the limits of our genetic construction has led to the creation of cultural movements such as visual art, music, film and literature. While our collective culture has developed artistically and created a whole new world through new media like the internet and virtual reality, some artists have reflected back upon natural phenomena and explored patterns between our materialized environment and the innate behaviors of the animal and plant kingdoms.

The artist Martin Roth created work in collaboration with wildlife. Through a process that combined laboratory science and studio art, Roth nurtured living organisms in sterile or manufactured settings. Roth studied painting for his MFA, but came to realize that the pigments on the canvas weren’t enough of a vessel for the potent energy he desired to create. So he chose organic matter as his medium. He asserted that “by working with something that was living, changing, growing, I felt like there was actual energy in the work” (Rachel & Roth, 2017).

For example, one of Roth’s works is a ‘drawing’ that is simultaneously a habitat for worms. The worms have taken residency inside of a glass frame and as they move through the soil lines, shapes and values manifest. While Roth turned the traditional technique of drawing on its head, his work still adheres to the enduring aesthetic notions of artistic composition. Roth painted, sculpted and drew by employing a push and pull between artificial and natural materials and subject matter. Roth’s work grows over time, its properties change and it either evolves or comes to an end. It imitates life itself.

 

Roth played with the grid, a time-honored compositional framework in Western art, with his installation titled In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. The basis behind this work was that a basement (inside the Austrian Cultural Forum New York) full of lavender plants arranged in a compact grid, would grow as a result of Twitter rants from Donald Trump and other inflammatory agitators. As Trump and other blowhards angrily tweeted (and were re-tweeted), the intensity of the fluorescent lights got brighter and the plants grew bigger. The artwork provided a cathartic release from the tenseness of current events and sociocultural turmoil. The lavender plant symbolizes a direct contrast to the vitriol of the ferocious rants. Lavender is used in horticultural therapy to offer relief from anxiety and depression. The burgeoning rows of lavender, with their colorful hues and sweet fragrance, offered a counterbalance to the stressful and bleak moments society manufactures. 

The concept of nurturing human cognition and emotion through creative play with materials is also a major concept of Kindergarten pedagogy. The foundation of Kindergarten, which was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, combines children’s innate and learned abilities, in order to scaffold their growth into the adult world. Fröbel’s Kindergartens combined both organic activities such as gardening and dancing with human manufacturing and technology, which culminated through his series of ‘gifts’ (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This methodology is largely incorporated today, especially in Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools.

The duality between inborn knowledge and experiential learning was significantly addressed by two of the foremost figures in developmental psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. These are the two contributed fundamental insights into how our minds develop. Piaget asserted that cognition comes about through set stages, while Vygotsky proclaimed that development is continual.  If you have ever heard the phrase ‘nature versus nurture,’ it is basically an abstract that describes the differences in both phychologist’s theories. We now have come to largely accept that these theories are both valid and should be fused together to develop educational curricula and make judgements regarding social, emotional and cognitive learning.

Art educator Judith Burton (2000), argues that young minds develop through both individual and cultural experience. She suggests that art is an effective method of communicating the complex nature of the living environment. We all have an inclination to make our mark on the world. Without any prior references, the earliest humans developed an archetypal visual vocabulary, where similar marks and symbols have been found in locations thousands of miles apart. This shows how expression and symbolic communication is a natural response to the human condition.

Through combining a personalized artistic style and using their culturally formed and learned experiences, a child can create their own profound mark within humanity. Burton claims that this reason is why both the child-centered notion of mind informing art education and the belief in laissez-faire teaching are inadequate. It is not ‘nature versus nurture,’ but rather both working in tandem that lets the child be liberated to think and create compelling visual narratives. The research of Piaget and Vygotsky and its updated scrutiny by Burton, signify that it is a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ that account for a person’s development. In other words, while we all have the natural ability to learn and develop, how we perceive the world largely depends on our experience, environment and education (Zucker, 2018).

Through reflecting on the elements of nature and nurture in Roth’s art, we can discover a lot about ourselves and the ways we are both in-tune and out of touch with our natural environment and each other.


This post is dedicated to Martin Roth who passed away at the age of 41 on June 14, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. (2000). “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 17-32.

Rachel, T. Cole and Roth, Martin. “Martin Roth on collaborating with nature.” The Creative Independent, 30 Nov. 2017. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/martin-roth-on-collaborating-with-nature/

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Artful Qualitization: Ecotones

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Meghann Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes prints combine the physicality and symbolic nature of art making in conjunction with Mother Nature’s expressive forces. This collaboration is an awe-inspiring presentation of the clash between environmental cycles and humanity. The cyanotypes are reactions to changing environments due to human interaction and other forces. The prints are part artistic exploration and part scientific experimentation. They are qualitative interpretations of the quantitative data and scientific analysis that measure weather patterns, natural cycles and humanity’s environmental impact.

Riepenhoff’s choice of medium and materials are in dialogue with the past and present fields of aesthetics and science. Cyanotypes are well suited for studying the living environment, as well as producing works of art. Invented in the early-mid 19th century, the alternative photographic process was popularized by Anna Atkins, a botanist and photographer from England. Atkins utilized cyanotypes as a way to document the intricacies of plants and other natural objects by combining her astute eye as a photographer with her knowledge of plant taxonomy. She printed limited edition books of her prints, including Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (October, 1843), which is considered to be the first book illustrated with photographs.

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes offer a potent representation of the stress we put on our environment in an alluring and artful manner. For example, Littoral Drift #1170 (Polyptych, Great Salt Lake, UT 08.25.18, Lapping Waves at Shoreline of Antelope Island) was created by placing a sheet of paper prepared with cyanotype chemistry on the shoreline of the south side of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is experiencing record low water levels. The Great Salt Lake is divided by a causeway built in the 1950s by the Morrison-Knudsen construction company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The causeway has restricted the flow of the water between the north and south sides, making levels of salinity uneven and affecting wildlife such as the brine shrimp population. The two sides of the lake are notably different colors and altogether the lake is characterized as an ecotone, which is defined as a region of transition where two or more distinct biological habitats abut. Riepenhoff juxtaposed the south shoreline print with works made on the opposite side of the lake, to symbolize the aesthetic difference in each region’s water composition. This process is akin to the scientific method where systematic observation and measurement are used to test a theory, in this case: what is the difference in water quality on opposite sides of the Great Salt Lake due to its status as an ecotone?

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Erasure #4 (Bainbridge Island, WA 03.24.18, .23” Precipitation), 2018
Dynamic Cyanotype
Approximately 89” x 42” (226 x 106.5 cm)
© Meghann Riepenhoff, Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff also explores the aesthetic and vigorous qualities of storm water in another series of cyanotypes called Erasures. These prints are made when the storm runoff hits the prepared cyanotype paper. The length of the storm and the volume of water washing away large quantities of the cyanotype chemistry, results in a light tone with marks that recall painterly brushstrokes.

Data for weather and climate in the form of graphs and Doppler imagery is something that we rely on heavily each day. These data sets tell us about what to expect, but it is often hard to envision the environmental impact of the meteorological event until it is experienced. Art has a compelling way of making implied information relevant to our sense of visual perception, while leaving room for the viewer to interpret and include experiential elements.

Riepenhoff’s artwork visualizes the intricate force and physicality of storms and the variance of ecosystems in real time. The resulting engagement with nature is a subjective approach to capturing the essence of the biosphere and our individual interactions with nature. She can’t control the strength of a wave, the duration of the rainfall or the strength of the storm, but she makes a conscious effort to decide where to place her paper and how long to leave it out in the elements. The overarching result is a body of work that traces both the environment’s volatility and the artist’s deliberate choices.

This duality between consciousness and exploration is a crux of artful learning. The arts help us to develop critical thinking and flexible purposing skills that probe and conceptualize natural and cultural phenomena. The benefit of art-centered learning in scientific research and educational curricula, is that it adds an element of lived experience and personalization to a field largely engrossed in quantitative data and academic research. Art illuminates the ways that we interact with our environment and each other, and its captivating properties can raise awareness for issues affecting our shared natural resources. This is the case for Riepenhoff’s work, which subtly and discerningly depicts our interaction with the rest of the natural world.


Selected works from the Ecotone and Erasure series are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, New York, NY 10001) through June 22, 2019.

 

Artfully Failing

In our society, we associate negative opinions and emotions with failure. In truth, failure is a significant ‘teachable moment’ that allows us to become more critical and creative in dealing with a variety of life’s issues.

Failure in the arts can equate to a piece of art being destroyed or distorted during the artistic process, or getting a rejection notice from a museum or gallery. In the examples to follow, artists learned to turn rejection and the physical manipulation of work into new and empowering ideas.

Contemporary art editor and writer Casey Lesser, recently published an article for Artsy about how working with ceramics teaches us to utilize failure as a tool for being flexible and overcoming challenges. Because ceramics is a labor intensive medium, there are a lot of physical things that can go awry, such as a clay breaking in the kiln or being dropped in the floor right after it was fired. There is even an Instagram account devoted to ‘ceramic casualties’.

It is almost inevitable that ceramic artists will experience physical mishaps during their engagement with clay. Ceramic artists become aware of clay’s affordances and the potential for physical accidents, and learn techniques and skills to minimize these effects. However, working to ensure that everything goes smoothly all the time can become stale and monotonous. Taking risks, albeit opening oneself up for failure, is what excites many of the artists mentioned in the article and enables them to grow artistically. For example, artist Matt Wedel says that “it felt so good not to know the outcome again; everything was new and exciting. My work now is a constant unraveling of what I know and how I make. It is about a constant evolution, and failure is a good indicator of whether or not I am moving forward” (Lesser, 2018).

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Arlene Rush, Silver Lining, 2018, linen paper, museum board, Linen paper, digital print, resin, silver leaf, wax, acrylic and wood. 26 x 26 in. (dimensions variable). Courtesy of the artist.

Arlene Rush‘s series Silver Lining (2018) focuses on transforming the social and emotional aspects of failure by turning rejection letters into new material for art making. The works of art began as a way of archiving her career and investigating the trials of being a professional artist in an increasingly commercialized, competitive and niche art world. Each individual artwork takes its title from the institution that sent her a letter of rejection. Rush embellished the letters with silver leaf, symbolizing the idea of finding a ‘silver lining’ to the difficulties of rejection. She states “in considering my own evolution, I began to see the things as more than an accumulation of objects. I found they raised questions about the nature and importance of being an artist.”

Silver Lining is part of a larger series of work titled Evidence Of Being, which explores and offers insightful responses to the fraught and political nature of the art world. Issues such as the difficulty women artists or artists without an MFA face getting their work shown are expounded upon in a symbolic manner through artworks and installations such as Sorry to inform you… (2015-16).

Rejections from galleries became critical assessments for Rush, who is confident in embracing the ambiguous and problematic elements of her artistic practice. She utilized surplus materials that signified failure, and transformed them into contemplative works of art that realize rejection is an element within the cycle for self development. It is inspiring to see how Rush doesn’t allow defeat to define her. She uses both subtle and bold aesthetic expressions to communicate that there’s always a silver lining, such as self discovery, personal growth and resilience to try new things in the face of failure. Overall, Rush has been successful in Turning Lemons into Lemonade (2016).

Learning to turn mistakes or unsuccessful results into works of creativity is the crux of art education. If you have ever watched Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, you will know that his philosophical mantra is ‘happy accidents’ make for new discoveries and insights. Perhaps something didn’t go as planned, however in the process of ‘failure,’ something completely revelatory arose that opened up new avenues and perspectives that were even more desirable than the initial plan. The pedagogy of failure is a highly practical methodology for the advancement of social, emotional and cognitive development.

In the classroom, it is best to set open-ended, inquiry-based ‘aims’ rather than goals when introducing a unit or project. Aims are more flexible than goals because the focus is on the learning and doing that leads an individual or collective towards the goal. Since goals are often set prior to the activity, it can stifle the process because it makes you think about the end result without a sense of the actual steps needed to get there. Aims allow for experiential learning because they can shift as needed throughout the process in order to achieve the goal.

Additionally, asking questions at the beginning of a project instead of making overarching statements, helps to facilitate the procedure for learning and doing, because students will come up with responses that make learning personal and give them agency to direct the acquisition of knowledge.

Most importantly, student and teacher responses to failure should be re-presented as moments for deep reflection and new collaborative learning moments. Failure helps us to scaffold important steps, procedures and reflections, which enable our minds to be flexible in dealing with uncertainty and frustration.

Failure should not be a quantitative data set that measures whether we pass or fail, but rather a qualitative assessment of why something didn’t work out and how we can work through it to achieve a more effective outcome. Persistence through failure often attributes to success if the reasons for undesired results are assessed, and the new knowledge gained from this reflection leads to innovative and alternative approaches to the initial problem/objective.

The hands-on and experiential nature of art is a great avenue for working through failure and creating deeply symbolic and innovative perspectives in the process. So embrace those happy accidents and remember that artists turn mistakes into art.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Lesser, Casey. “Why Ceramic Artists Are so Good at Dealing With Failure.” Artsy. 9 Jan. 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ceramic-artists-good-dealing-failure

 

 

The Kids Are Alright

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. at Lehmann Maupin, June 2016. Courtesy of Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. From left to right: Logan Swedick, Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Tim Rollins, Angel Abreu and Jorge Abreu. Photo by Aileen Painter

Throughout this blog, I have frequently written about and cited the work of Tim Rollins as a valuable contributor to the fields of both art and education. Rollins’ dedication and passion as a visual artist and educator is testimony that the two disciplines are intrinsic to each other, and that learning through the arts has unique lifelong benefits for all individuals.

Rollins’ mentees and collaborators, who call themselves Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), were initially middle school and high school students in Rollins’ after school art program in the South Bronx. They met in Rollins’ studio and developed a decades long partnership, which led to international acclaim within the fine art community. Their work is in the collection of major museums throughout the world. For these young kids, Rollins’ classroom and studio was the pathway to the cultural landscapes of Manhattan, Venice, London, and beyond.

Original K.O.S. member Angel Abreu first encountered Rollins in the 7th grade when he walked into the art room at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx. He recalled a captivating man in a red three piece suit who immediately caught the attention and enthusiasm of his students. On the first day of class, Rollins placed a large multiple choice test in front of each student. Sophisticated art history questions appeared on the test such as: “the following is not example of Cubism” or “what is the ‘Surrealist Manifesto?” These questions would be confounding for anyone with no prior background in art education. Nevertheless, Rollins encouraged his students to try and answer the questions. At the end of the class, he mentioned that this test was an exact facsimile of the final exam and that by the end of the term each student would have a deep understanding of the concepts, terms, and theories. He guaranteed that everyone would get an ‘A’ if they devoted themselves to participating in class (Abreu, 2019).

Abreu recalls that he was immediately hooked. When Rollins invited him to be a part of his atelier, he knew that it was a big deal. It was his entry into the world of fine art, something that he never thought was possible until that pivotal moment. Thirty years later, Angel Abreu is mentoring students and future artists in the School of Visual Arts’ BFA and MFA programs.

Early members of K.O.S. including Angel’s brother Jorge, Robert Branch and Rick Savinon, came to Rollins’ studio with varying degrees of skills, interests and knowledge. The unlikely artistic partnership between Rollins and his students broke all the constraints of typical art education and art studio practices. Rollins and the members of K.O.S. built a mutual relationship where the agency of planning, developing and executing work was a democratic process. They weren’t just filling a blank slate, or more aptly, a blank canvas; they brought themselves into every work of art. Through working with Tim and each other, they developed a cohesive style that is also highly personal. Each individuals’s contribution to the work is indicative of their enduring understanding for the subject matter in relationship to their life experiences.

They learned to embrace ambiguity and failure. As they all agreed during a panel discussion on Friday, May 3rd at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, some of the best pieces of inspiration and artistic wherewithal were obtained via the studio’s garbage can. In other words, it was an experiential process where assessment, reflection and flexible purposing were necessary elements of the creative and critical praxis. Sometimes an idea worked and other times it was necessary to put something aside, revise it or start again completely. The ability to see art in everything and everyone was something that Tim Rollins practiced and preached. Another important lesson that Rollins imparted onto his mentees was how to carefully examine sources such as literature and music, in order to make meaningful connections between works of art and the world around them.

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Amerika – For Karl, 1989, watercolor on paper mounted on canvas. 97 x 132 inches. Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Matthew Herrmann

Rollins would typically select a text and ask his collaborators motivating questions such as:

“…you all have your own taste and you have different voices. If you could be a golden instrument, if you could play a song of your freedom and dignity and your future and everything you feel about Amerika and this country, what would your horn look like?”

Often during studio time, Rollins and K.O.S. members would engage in what they dubbed ‘jammin’, meaning that they would take turns reading from texts while others would create visual responses to the literary content.

Each flower (A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2014), each golden horn (Amerika – For Karl, 1989), each wound (The Red Badge of Courage, 1988) motif is distinct, just like every individual. Rollins understood this, and that is why he coached a great group of individuals who have all gone on to create positive change inside and outside of the art world.

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. By any means necessary – Trapped/Caught, 1985-1987, black gesso on book pages mounted on linen, 21 x 28 x 1.375 inches. Courtesy of Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

A concise selection of the collective’s seminal paintings, works on paper and sculptures are on view at Lehmann Maupin‘s 22nd street gallery in Manhattan. The exhibition titled Workshop features over thirty years worth of work, meticulously curated by Ian Berry, Director of The Tang Teaching Museum. The title for the show is an homage to the Art & Knowledge Workshop (the precursor to Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’ partnership), as well as the collective’s methodology of utilizing intensive group discussion and experiential processes to explore potential aesthetic themes and issues.  The exhibition also marks a monumental change for the collective because it is the first exhibition organized without Rollins’ formidable physical presence.

After Tim Rollins passed away on December 22, 2017, several longtime members of K.O.S. restructured themselves as Studio K.O.S. This second iteration of the original collective is led by seminal K.O.S. members Angel and Jorge Abreu, Branch and Savinon. The collective continues to produce critical works of art that touch upon topics such as race, identity, history, education and politics. Additionally, many of Rollins’ K.O.S. associates are teachers themselves. Pedagogy is a major element of Studio K.O.S’ philosophy, and they provide arts education and youth mentorship for a diverse range of individuals within the urban environment. During the course of the exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, Studio K.O.S. is leading workshops for public school students and making sure that students of all demographics have unbridled access to the arts and art education.


Workshop, curated by Ian Berry, Director of The Tang Teaching Museum, is currently on view at Lehmann Maupin’s 22nd street gallery (536 W 22nd Street) through June 15, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Abreu, Angel; Abreu, Jorge; Berry, Ian; Branch, Robert;  Savinon, Rick; and Stothart, Anna. “Past, Present, and Future of Tim Rollins and Studio K.O.S.” Panel discussion. Lehmann Maupin, New York, 3 May 2019.

Social and Emotional Learning for Artificial Intelligence

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Conversation between the robot Bina48 and artist Stephanie Dinkins.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the biggest and most ambitious futuristic concept that has arrived at our cultural doorstep (still no flying cars…). For decades, the concept of AI has been surmised and depicted through genres of science fiction, as well as through other fantastical media that conflated fiction with reality. Today, after many years of on and off research and development, we are starting to see the effects of how AI might interact and inform our collective culture. As theorized by some of the previous sci-fi accounts, AI can have both advantageous and detrimental impacts on our society.

One of the most problematic consequences of AI is its predisposition to exhibit discriminatory bias towards marginalized communities. Science journalist Daniel Cossins (2018) writes about five algorithms that exposed AI’s prejudice towards non-white men. The five discriminating algorithms include racial, gender and economic bias towards minorities. This is troubling because AI is increasingly being used by advertisers, job recruiters and the criminal justice system. AI’s favoring of white folks disturbingly revisits the revelatory insights gained from ‘the doll test,’ which was performed by Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark during the 1940s. In the Clark’s doll test, it was revealed that black children were conditioned to assign negative traits towards their own race and social status. When the Clarks presented African-American children with a black doll and a white doll and asked them which doll they preferred, the children overwhelmingly chose the white doll. Furthermore, they attributed more positive attributes to the white doll than to the black doll. The study reflects how segregation and racial stereotypes have a significant impact on a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development, and does enormous damage to their self-esteem. The poignant results of the doll tests were pivotal in deciding the Brown vs. Board of Education case, which ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional (Blakemore, 2018).

Unfortunately, while our social and emotional awareness regarding instersectionality has improved, there have not been nearly enough improvements to overcoming systemic racism and gender disparity. Artificial Intelligence, which is supposed to mimic our cognitive functions, such as learning, critical thinking, and problem solving, provides a stark assessment of how far we are from achieving equal, equitable and social justice throughout our society. However, the arts have a problem-posing model (collaboration and critical thinking via dialogue between students and educators, which leads to liberation and empowerment. See: Freire, 1970) that sheds light on the possibilities for humans and artificial intelligence to collectively engage in genuine modes of listening, dialogue, and action.

Transdisciplinary artist, Stephanie Dinkins, realized that AI was negatively conflating gender and race and has set out to explore and discover ways for AI to exhibit a greater sense of social and emotional understanding and ethical behavior. The big question within Dinkins’ work, is whether it is possible to teach a robot the habits of mind that will create an environment of hope, love, humility, and trust (Freire, 1970) and empower humans and machines alike to be empathetic and virtuous collaborators.

Dinkins’ project Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing), is a collaborative problem posing model involving the artist, a group of youth participants and an AI unit by the name of Bina48. Over the past five years, Dinkins has been building a relationship with a robot named Bina48, who was built with the capabilities to communicate individual thoughts and emotions. Bina48 is also representative of a black woman, however, the overarching issue is whether or not she can truly comprehend and reflect upon issues of race, gender, and economic inequity.

The conversations between Dinkins and Bina48 blur the lines between human and non-human consciousness, exploring what it means to be a living being and whether it is possible to achieve transhumanism (life beyond our physical bodies). The depth of the interpersonal interactions encompasses the philosophical and is surprisingly profound, with moments of absurdity, where it is obvious that the human experience does not fully compute with Bina48. While Bina48 was able to answer Dinkins’ question about whether or not it knows racism, the response was both compelling, semi-relational and frustrating all at once. It is evident that there is still a great deal of learning necessary for robots to repletely understand and make meaningful connections to the intersectionality of identities that comprises human nature.

Because the algorithms used by these robots disproportionately reflect experiences outside of communities of color, AI needs to do a better job finding patterns and making connections (two studio habits of mind learned through the arts) to large populations that are marginalized by these algorithms.  To address this glaring discrepancy,  Dinkins enlisted several youth and adult participants from communities of color to develop inquiry based questions and dialogues that could be programmed into AI algorithms that support their communities. The ongoing project is titled Project al-Khwarizmi (PAK), and the transdisciplinary dialogue (which utilizes aesthetics, coding, speech and language) shows that there is possibility for co-learning and the creation of new sincere knowledge between humans and intelligent machines. When machines learn in ways that are similar to human data processing either through supervision, semi-supervision, or on their own, it is known as ‘deep learning’.

The results of AI’s ability for ‘deep learning’ is represented in another ongoing project by Dinkins called Not The Only One (N’Too). In this project, an AI unit presents a familial memoir, which develops via dialogue between a multi-generational African-American family and a deep learning AI algorithm that collects data about their life experiences and demographic information. Through active listening, the emotionally intelligent AI will be able to relate the collective stories of others in an intimate manner that shows it is growing both emotionally and cognitively. With each new narrative the AI will build upon its vocabulary and relatable topics.

If we are going to continue on the current trajectory, where AI is poised to become embedded into the fabric of our society, it is essential for us to develop methodologies and practices that ensure that the relationship between humans and machines follows problem-posing models. If humans and their robot counterparts are able to understand one another through active listening, dialogue, and participatory action, then the world is far less likely to resemble the dystopic prophecies that sci-fi genres have illustrated.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Blakemore, Erin. “How Dolls Helped Win Brown vs. Board of Education.” History. 27 Mar. 2018. https://www.history.com/news/brown-v-board-of-education-doll-experiment

Cossins, Daniel. “Discriminating algorithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice.” New Scientist.  27 Apr. 2018. https://www.newscientist.com/article/2166207-discriminating-algorithms-5-times-ai-showed-prejudice/

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Russell, Stuart J. and Norvig, Peter. 2003. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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

Spring Reading List

It is that time again, when both teachers and art world practitioners are getting some much needed respite. For educators, spring break has either just arrived or is right around the corner (hang in there!); and for arts professionals, the first round of art fairs has ended (although the next batch are quickly approaching)…Take a moment to get outside, smell the flowers and engage in some personal development and mindfulness. Additionally, it is always nice to sit down with a good book, which is the topic of this post.

Learning and artful activity never take breaks, therefore this post features a concise selection of books that focus on the development of knowledge through art-centered actions (you can check out some of the prior reading suggestions here). So spring ahead with these influential publications regarding the arts, education and social practice!


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What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Tom Finkelpearl, Duke University Press (January 15, 2013)

Tom Finkelpearl is a jack of all trades within the New York City cultural scene. He has previously worked as the museum director of the Queens Museum (2002-2014), where he initiated a huge refocusing of the museum’s mission to serve the diverse community living in the ‘World’s Borough.’ He did this by developing programing and hiring staff that would embrace and promote multiculturalism within Queens’ communities. Additionally, he expanded the museum in both its size and budget, which enables the institution to create more events and programs that serve the public.

Finkelpearl currently serves as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, a position he was appointed to by Mayor Bill De Blasio in 2014. As the commissioner, Finkelpearl has continued to embrace and implement his philosophy that the arts are beneficial aspects of every single community. He has been working to provide equal and equitable access and exposure to art institutions, workshops, educational opportunities for all residents of New York City.

What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is a compendium of Finkelpearl’s experience and knowledge for providing the framework for art-centered action to be an agent for communal social and emotional transformation. The book gives a diverse cultural analysis of participatory centered art and the many instances where art has integrated with other disciplines as an agent for education, activism, and placemaking.

This publication is unique because it presents reactions from the public participants, whose experiences as collaborators add a well rounded assessment of the artwork’s relationship to both individuals and the collective culture. Overall, What We Make: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation is an inspiring resource for artists, activists, educators, students and just about anyone who is interested in exploring profound methods to facilitate creative sociocultural cooperation.


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Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Grant H. Kester, University of California Press (April 15, 2013)

The crux of Grant H. Kester’s Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art is that art is everywhere and can be sustainable in any social and cultural environment. It is the art in odd places, such as on a pleasure craft on the Lake of Zurich, Switzerland; a public market in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and in a parking lot in Oakland, California; which Kester focuses on within the book.

Kester writes about some of the most provocative and engaging art, which exists outside of the ‘white box,’ in order to address art’s overarching benefits throughout society. He argues that the value of art is that it can spur widespread dialogue and inspire community action via its social, emotional and cultural intervention within public and non-traditional spaces. Kester’s case studies reveal how artistic practices can address issues of intersectionality and spark taking action for social change and exhibiting empathy for others.


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A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts, Arthur E. Efland, Teachers College Press; Reprint edition (June 15, 1990)

At 320 pages, A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts isn’t a quick read, however, the book is a comprehensive overview of how art-centered learning has shaped the culture of Western Civilization. Efland traces the roots of art education as a means to argue that the inclusion of arts within educational curricula is essential for developing long lasting social, cultural and cognitive development among society.

Through Efland’s extensive research, it is revealed that art education has both a complex and profound standing within the Western world. Over the course of time and place, art education has been at the forefront of innovation and social discourse, although it hasn’t always been given credit where credit’s due. Efland explains how society’s views regarding the arts have progressed (and at times regressed) in relationship to its place within institutional settings. His account of art education gives insight into the many benefits the arts have had on the development of major societal movements, as well as how significant events within the 19th and 20th centuries (in particular) have shaped the course of contemporary art education.


I am enthusiastically open to suggestions for books that integrate artistic practice with pedagogy. Please let me know if you have any recommendations!

Happy break, happy reading, and happy artfully learning!