‘Funktional’ Art Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From One Nation Under a Groove (1978) by Funkadelic


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swindall, Emily; McGee, Katherine; and Leyden, Jessie M., “Whole Body Learning in the Classroom” (2014). Georgia Association for Positive Behavior Support Conference. 21. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/gapbs/2014/2014/21

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

 

W.E.B. Du Bois’ Visual Lessons About the Black Experience in Academic, Professional and Everyday Life

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Negro business men in the United States, c. 1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Infographics are aesthetic visual representations of data, which present quantitative and qualitative information in a concise and accessible manner. Infographics have the potential to impact our social, emotional and cognitive development by artfully arranging graphic imagery in a format that enables us to come up with connections, notice patterns and make astute observations about sociocultural and environmental issues. While infographics have become increasingly popular in today’s digital age, they have been an effective way of expressing information throughout civilization (see: Thompson, 2016). You have likely heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” which is why infographics are a good resource for delivering ideas, knowledge and data that can be expeditiously understood by large and diverse audiences.

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Photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black America installation at the Paris Exposition/World’s Fair of 1900. Courtesy of UMass Amherst Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and University Archives

At the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, enlisted the help of his students at Atlanta University, to create a series of infographics representing the trials and tribulations of Black individuals during the years following the emancipation of enslaved African Americans through the present era. The project was a major contribution to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where it was displayed at the Palace of Social Economy and Congress. Du Bois’ information graphics were conceived thematically with extensively researched topics related to “the history of the American Negro,” “his present condition,” “his education” and “his literature.” He depicted his field research via intricately rendered ink wash and watercolor paintings combining the language of art with sociological perspectives (see: Robertson, 1987). In addition to the paintings, Du Bois exhibited ephemera and photographs that related to the aforementioned subject matter.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes, c. 1900, ink and wash on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Du Bois was ahead of his time in many regards. From an aesthetic standpoint, his semi-abstract compositions utilize a geometric and lyrical sensibility that predates modernist abstraction by several years (Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky are considered the pioneers of abstract painting in Western art. Klint’s 1906 paintings are recognized as being the first examples of the genre). Du Bois’ compositions from 1900, blend the elements of art and principles of design with a conceptual framework that visualizes the ways that society influences the attitudes, behaviors and opportunities afforded to Black individuals and communities in the United States of America. His mastery in mixing media (i.e. juxtaposing photography and painting) anticipated postmodern methodologies of utilizing archives, field research and ephemeral documentation in works of art.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] Assessed valuation of of all taxable property owned by Georgia Negroes, c.1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

The integration of aesthetics and sociology helps make research and data more appealing by transforming contextual information into a visual narrative that can be observed, analyzed and valued on both social-emotional and cognitive levels. We are able to assign feelings and build empathy in response to the quantitative and qualitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. The use of color, shape, line, balance and scale heightens our awareness to details by drawing our eyes and minds to poignant statistics about race and how it affects the day-to-day experiences of Black Americans.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Religion of American Negroes, c.1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [African American men, women and children outside of church], c.1899-1900, gelatin silver print, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c03393

While statistical data is an efficient way for scientists, historians and policy makers to organize and keep track of content specific knowledge, it is not always the best method for developing enduring understandings about the human condition. We learn through a combination of observation, action, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. Using visual imagery to express our humanity in a decipherable manner enables us to see and feel things that might otherwise be foreign to our own backgrounds. This is especially important when dealing with systemic issues like racism and inequity, which are both implicitly and explicitly prevalent throughout our collective culture. W.E.B. Du Bois’ visual graphics make concise and clear statements about Black lives, which prompts us to reflect and assess how we see and discuss race in both academic, professional and everyday terms.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bridgers, Jeff. “Du Bois’s American Negro Exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition.” Library of Congress Blogs: Picture This, 28 February 2014. https://blogs.loc.gov/picturethis/2014/02/du-boiss-american-negro-exhibit-for-the-1900-paris-exposition/

Du Bois, W.E.B. (2016). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated; Unabridged edition.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2019). Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition. London: Redstone Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2018). W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Popova, Maria. “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Little-Known, Arresting Modernist Data Visualizations of Black Life for the World’s Fair of 1900.” Brainpickings, 9 October 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/10/09/w-e-b-du-bois-diagrams/

Robertson, Ian (1987). Sociology. 3rd Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

Smiciklas, Mark (2012). The Power of Infographics: Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect with Your Audiences. Indianapolis: Que Publishing.

Thompson, Clive. “The Surprising History of the Infographic.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-history-infographic-180959563/

Artfully Dismantling Systemic Racism

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Dread Scott, from the Wanted series. Courtesy of the artist.

Racism is the longest uninterrupted epidemic within our collective American culture. It is a gaping wound and festering infection intrinsic with the founding of the United States. Although there have been strides to dismantle racist structures and work towards a society of equality, equity and social justice for all, we have a long way to go before any substantial victory can be declared. Racism and racial injustice have been amplified throughout an angry and divided populace, and our local and national leaders are perfectly content with throwing fuel on the fire. The nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations are a result of centuries of authoritative abuse on Black individuals and communities. 401 years to be precise. Protests against oppressive forces are beneficial to spur a multiplicity of dialogues that are necessary to create tangible social change.

There is never a good time for complacency in the face of adversity. There is no option to go back to ‘normal’ times. That simply won’t suffice. If you feel differently, ask yourself what it means to go ‘back to normal.’ The desire for normalcy involves ignoring problematic cultural, economic and political frameworks, which got us to this volatile moment, just to have some semblance of our conditioned social routines once again. This idea of being nostalgic for the comfort and convenience of daily life is a privileged outlook that is largely divided based upon race and class. An example of this division is the data within the latest jobs report, showing a decrease in unemployment. The results showed that while some Americans are returning to work after nationwide quarantines, the number of Black individuals on unemployment actually went up (see: Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia, Paine, Neil and Wolfe, Julia, 2020). Furthermore, black individuals are disproportionately affected by occupational hazards related to the COVID-19 pandemic than other races. “According to research from the Current Populations Survey, black workers were more likely to be employed in essential services than white workers, with 37.7% of black workers employed in these industries compared with 26.9% of white workers” (see: Hawkins, 2020). Returning to ‘normal’ means being content living with the ills of society, while continuing on a path under the illusion of progress.

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Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, detail, 1996. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 2 episode, “Time,” 2003. Photo © Art21, Inc. 2003.

Contemporary artist, Martin Puryear, describes the symbolism of his monumental sculpture Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996) –a title that alludes to the influential 19th century activist and educator Booker T. Washington – as “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement” (Powell, 2007). We are still climbing “Booker T’s Ladderin our society’s struggle overcoming systemic racism (see: Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder), but educators and their students have the opportunity to set foundations for long lasting social change.

What can we do within our art and art education practices to address and dismantle systemic racism? Meaningful responses will require both pragmatic and creative thinking, communication, teamwork and action. All of the above are indicative of the lessons we learn via the arts (see: Educating Through Art).

Artistic immersion is a great catalyst for an individual to formulate enduring understandings about culture and their place within the human experience, while also providing them with agency to express themselves and communicate the issues of their time. In the arts there are no definitively right or wrong ways to approach a problem. Art educator, Elliot Eisner, stated that the process of thinking artfully addresses moments in life that cannot be approached using formulas and rules. Exploring, discovering and making insights about art helps us apply flexible and critical thinking in our everyday lives. In uncertain times, art lifts up our spirits, liberates our minds and gives us a vibrant voice to communicate with the culture at large. It is a discipline that affords us agency to express ourselves humanely and teaches us to consider multiple perspectives, make judgements in the absence of rules and exhibit empathy. These are essential lessons for taking on uncertainty and fear and working towards fostering a more reflective, equitable and justice driven society.

Some of the best resources we each have to offer towards the dissolution of racism is our empathy and willingness to grow and learn. Employing active listening to understand the experiences of others, closely observing and looking out for signs of abuse and discrimination, speaking out against racist rhetoric and behaviors and addressing our own implicit and explicit forms of bias; are key to shifting the paradigm towards an equitable and justice centered environment. Other resources we can provide as educators, artists and cultural producers include raising awareness around pluralism in our fields and supporting the voices, ideas and labor of BIPOC (Black Indigenous Persons of Color) individuals.  Below are a few examples* of artists, art historians and art educators who are doing critical aesthetic and pedagogical work that implores us to reflect on systemic racial and social inequality, inequity and injustice, and build strong and united communities as a response.

*This section is a work in progress that will be updated and eventually archived*

Black Lunch Table – Artists Heather Hart and Jina Valentine address issues of intersectionality and pluralism through their Black Lunch Table initiative. The project, combines oral history, formal conversation, art making and viewing and community building around experiences related to the African diaspora. Black Lunch Table has been creating an archive, as well as performing art-centered initiatives aimed to fill in gaps around pedagogy that is focused on Black contemporary culture. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Black Lunch Table)

The Black School – Founded by contemporary artists Shani Peters and Joseph Cuillier III, The Black School’s objective is to “extend the legacy of art in Black radical histories by providing innovative education alternatives centered in Black love.” The pedagogical philosophy driving the Black School’s contemporary practice reflects  historical contributions that artists and educators like Augusta Savage, Jacob Lawrence and John T. Biggers made to socially engaged Black art education. The Black School is also influenced by community schools such as The Harlem Community Art Center, The Civil Rights era Freedom Schools and The Black Panther Party’s Liberation Schools. Guided by revolutionary Black educators and progressive Black pedagogical theory, The Black School designs and implements experiential learning opportunities as a means to scaffold a lifelong thirst for social justice and activism among the BIPOC students and non-Black allies that they teach. Through art making workshops, The Black School seeks to empower individuals to become lifelong learners and community activists.

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Conversation between the robot Bina48 and artist Stephanie Dinkins.

Stephanie Dinkins – One of the most problematic consequences of AI is its predisposition to exhibit discriminatory bias against marginalized communities. Science journalist Daniel Cossins (2018) writes about five algorithms that exposed AI’s racial, gender and economic prejudice towards non-white men. This information is deeply troubling because AI is used by advertisers, job recruiters and the criminal justice system.

Stephanie Dinkins’ transdisciplinary artwork, Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing), reveals how AI conflates and struggles with issues of gender, class and race in its attempt to exhibit humane behavior. The big question that is explored within Dinkins’ work is whether it is possible to teach a robot the habits of mind that will inspire an environment of hope, love, humility and trust, and enable humans and intelligent machines to be empathetic and virtuous collaborators. (Text has been edited from a previously published Artfully Learning post)

Kimberly Drew – Drew is an art historian and curator, whose influential work via social media, in museums and the community, helps us to develop knowledge of Black contemporary art through critical dialogues about black artists and black representation in the artworld. In 2011, she started a Tumblr blog called Black Contemporary Art, which archived images and information pertaining to black artists, in order to raise engagement and viewership of their work within social media realms.

Drew’s recently published book, This Is What I Know About Art (New York: Penguin Workshop, 2020), is an educational journey centered around experiential lessons that Drew has learned from immersing herself in art and activism. The book is geared for adolescents, but is a great read for any age group, and is an inspirational take on how art can benefit our everyday lives, and help us to feel efficacious about ourselves and the work we do.

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Nona Faustine, “Untitled (Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.)” ©Nona Faustine (2016)

Nona Faustine – Faustine’s conceptual photography reveals the oft-untold history of slavery, imperialism and the continuation of systemic racism. Her work continues to open my eyes and mind and leads me to make further inquiries into past and present forms of racial injustice on micro and macro scales. Faustine’s powerful White Shoes series makes us starkly aware of sites where atrocities related to the social, cultural and economic elements of slavery occurred. Many of these sites had been unforgivably forgotten through time and were not marked or memorialized with historical plaques. Faustine further personalizes these photographs by including herself in the composition, wearing only a pair of white high heeled shoes, a poignant allusion to the affects of colonialism and capitalism on the bodies of Black women. White Shoes goes beyond paying homage to Black women from prior generations, it is an unflinching statement that the wrongdoings of the past are inseparable from the current state of affairs.

Faustine’s My Country series is an artistic examination of iconic and contested monuments in America. She uses abstraction to shift our perspective and question who and what these monuments serve. Through Faustine’s photographic imagery, the history of Black suffering and sacrifice is being reclaimed. Educators can use her powerful images to ask important questions about historical bias, collective memory and identity, such as:  “What is history, who records it and what might be some reasons why certain people and events are left out?” “What is a memorial? Who decides what to memorialize and how does that affect and reflect social ideologies?” “How might our collective memory change as a result of opening up more inclusive dialogues and learning about the stories of historically marginalized people?” (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Faustine’s art)

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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.

Chantal Feitosa – Feitosa makes art to communicate aspects of nature and nurture. Through a playful re-imagining of her experiences in social and educational settings, she confronts long-standing traditions of marginalization and the trauma that various forms of bias have on a person’s development. Pedagogy is a major medium in her artistic practice, and she employs modes and archetypes from 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.

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. (Text has been edited from a previously published post)

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

Maren Hassinger- Hassinger’s art addresses our humane and intrinsic interaction with the natural environment. Her materials-based practice makes use of everyday objects to create oft-large scale installations and performances, which explore themes of identity and interwoven narratives between the past and present. She is currently focusing on making work that investigates issues of equality. Hassinger’s blending of natural and industrial materials makes a strong statement that art is all around us and can be both a critical and holistic experience. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Maren Hassinger’s art)

The Laundromat Project – For 15 years and counting, The Laundromat Project has been championing communities of color and supporting social change, through fostering collaborative learning, dialogue and creative endeavors between artists and their neighbors. The organization has made a sustainable economic and sociocultural commitment to building pluralist communities, where neighbors embody and portray multigenerational, multiracial and multidisciplinary identities and experiences through making art together.

The Laundromat Project amplifies the voices of BIPOC artists in their own communities, and reflects the importance of art-centered community building by stating that “When artists and communities collaborate toward collective goals, we create meaningful transformation and wellbeing. Making art and culture in community and fostering new leadership helps shape a world in which members feel truly connected and have the ability to influence and shape their communities in creative and effective ways.”

I Can’t Breathe, a Public-participatory Workshop and Performance from S&DRF on Vimeo.

Sean Leonardo – Leonardo’s performance artwork critically addresses and dismantles traditional notions of gender and race. An overarching theme in his art is a grappling with the idea of manhood. He scrutinizes popular ideas of hyper-masculinity and how stereotypical cultural obsessions with idealized male identities affect the social, emotional and cognitive development of men. Subjects that inspire his performances include professional sports, comic book superheros and BIPOC popular culture.

When Eric Garner was killed by an NYPD’s officers illegal choke hold, Leonardo responded with I Can’t Breath, a series of performances through which he teaches self-defense and de-escalation methods to the public. During the performance, Leonardo coaches his participants through four physical maneuvers:

1) How to break an arm hold.
2) How to reestablish distance if someone grabs your shirt.
3) How to block a punch.
4) And lastly, how to apply the very same choke hold, that took Eric Garner’s life.

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Steve Locke, Installation view of A Partial List of Unarmed African-Americans who were Killed by Police of Who Died in Police Custody During my Sabbatical from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 2014-2015, 2016. Photograph by Melissa Blackall Photography.

Steve Locke – Locke is a multidisciplinary contemporary artist with a long and accomplished history in education and community art-centered activism. His art envisions ways of memorializing and raising a collective consciousness for marginalized individuals and communities affected by racist ideologies and actions. By poignantly addressing systemic racism and implicit bias within the community at large, Locke’s work exemplifies some of the ways we can empower the voices of those who had their voices violently silenced.

A Partial List of Unarmed African-Americans who were Killed By Police or Who Died in Police Custody During My Sabbatical from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 2014-2015 (2016), is a monumental installation that displays the names of 262 people killed by police brutality. Locke’s stark memorial, which provides details regarding each person (i.e. age and gender) and the way they were killed (i.e. date, location and weapons/tactics used), covered an entire wall inside the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts as a part of the exhibition . Locke’s list reflects the ongoing movement to #SayTheirName, which is a public campaign that encourages publications and social media users to focus on the individual humanity of each victim and use their names in the discourse around systemic racism.

Project Row Houses – Project Row Houses is a contemporary community building model, supporting cultural diversity within the Third Ward through art-centered placemaking. Founded in 1993 by Rick Lowe, a contemporary artist from Alabama, Project Row Houses supports the local community by offering creative solutions to social, economic and educational issues within the Third Ward. When Lowe developed the idea for Project Row Houses –in collaboration with artists James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smith)– he incorporated several specific projects that would uniquely address the needs of Third Ward residents. Project Row Houses provides local artists with studios; safe and affordable housing for those in the community; support for young single mothers; an incubator for small independent businesses and tutoring/mentoring services for students.

In light of ongoing gentrification in many diverse working class and low-income neighborhoods, the need for affordable housing, job training, student-centered education and economical workspace is at an all-time high. Lowe realized that providing creative space could be a catalyst for other socially engaged projects that incorporate studio habits of mind in order to create much needed social, economic and educational improvements. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Project Row Houses)

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Still from Dread Scott’s performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, produced by More Art. Courtesy of More Art.

Dread Scott – Scott’s alias pays homage to the 19th century activist Dred Scott, notable for suing for his freedom. His art intends to make us uncomfortably aware that the United States of America was founded on racism and genocide. In his performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (October 7, 2014), Scott referenced the 1963 civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama, where city officials used water cannons in an attempt to suppress activists who were organizing against the city’s racist segregation policies. In a feat of physical endurance, Scott attempted to cross from one side of a public plaza to the other while being bombarded by a powerful stream of water shot from a fire hose.

Scott recently staged a reenactment of the German Coast Uprising of 1811, which was a slave rebellion in Louisiana. By and large, Scott’s revolutionary inspired artworks re-present history by illuminating marginalized and underrepresented sociocultural events that we all should be aware of. Other projects like Wanted, make us painfully aware of our implicit and explicit bias, and critique racist methodologies that are frequently involved in the policing of black communities. In this body of work, Scott uses the familiar imagery of police sketches used on ‘wanted posters’ to expose the harsh reality of racial stereotypes and systemic racism. Each poster contains a sketch of a black individual, drawn by artist and former Newark (New Jersey) police sketch artist, Kevin Blythe Sampson, along with a description of the subject. An example of one of the posters reads: “On Saturday May 17, 2014, at approximately 12:30 AM, a male black, 16-24 years of age was wearing a black waist length jacket and dark pants. The male was observed engaging in conversation with other males. The police allege that the suspect moved suspiciously when officers approached…”

Although the concepts and imagery in Scott’s artworks are resolute, they leave ample space for us to reflect on the collective trauma around systemic racism and find insightful ways in which we can propel history forward. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Dread Scott’s art)

Clarissa Sligh – Less than 65 years ago, there were separate schools for children based upon the color of their skin. When the contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh was growing up in Virginia county, she wasn’t initially allowed to attend schools with white children. In fact, when she was fifteen (in 1956), she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). However, Sligh’s practice as an artist focuses on transcending the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation and class. She is continually interested in exploring these themes through an intersectional lens, which means that the aforementioned aspects of humanity are not isolated from each other, and exist through a complex, but relational network.

Major issues in Sligh’s art involve explorations into transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). She also addresses race and social injustice in bodies of work like The Witness Project and It Wasn’t Little Rock, Revisited, Romanesque (2012). A common stylistic strategy she employs in her work is the juxtaposition of images with text to create a multidisciplinary narrative around the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond identifiers such as their race, age, social status, weight or gender. She also expresses how discrimination and injustice impacts interwoven forms of social stratification (such as the aforementioned identifiers). Sligh’s ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary and collaborative artwork, which seeks to create an open-ended framework for expressing collective intersectional identities. (See prior Artfully Learning posts about Clarissa Sligh’s art)

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Afflict the comfortable/Comfort the afflicted on view in Cauleen Smith’s solo show Give It or Leave It at the Frye Museum, Seattle. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Cauleen Smith – Smith’s work as a visual artist and filmmaker delves into intergenerational issues that Black women experience. She is best known for her feature length film, Drylongso, which is about a young Black woman named Pica, who is on a mission to document the trials and tribulations that Black men in Oakland, California face. The film speaks to the systemic racism that disenfranchises Black communities throughout the country. Pica’s inspiration behind photographing the men in her community is to create a record of an ‘endangered species’ as she believes they might one day become extinct due to the violent and dystopic conditions that threatens them on a consistent basis.

Smith’s other multimedia artworks seamlessly connect themes such as non-Western spirituality and cosmology, science fiction, feminism and narratives from the African diaspora. Her experimental films and installations such as Sojourner and Pilgrim weave together key figures, ideologies, events and places within the timeline of Black mysticism, healing and cultural history. Through connecting Black women from different periods in time, Smith creates a non-linear narrative that celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit and inspires liberal thinking around building unity and pride in the face of adversity.

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Duneska Suannette, installation detail from How Was School, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Duneska Suannette – How Was School? (2018) by Duneska Suannette was a site-specific installation (at the JCC in Harlem in an exhibition on American education organized by Art in Flux) of an elementary school classroom environment for the viewer to carefully explore. On the door leading into the room, a sign cautioned viewers to “tread lightly.” This was not an understatement, because Suannette installed bungee “trip wires” in a web-like formation several inches above the floor. This classroom-cum-obstacle course, while reminiscent of the laser maze in Mission Impossible or Oceans Twelve, signifies a poignant metaphor for the trials and tribulations that BIPOC students experience in public schools. Wallpaper decorating the classroom was crafted from colorful letter jumbles overlaid with black letters, which spelled out statistics regarding the lack of equality, equity and justice for students of color in the education system. While viewers navigated through the classroom, a looped video was projected onto a wall playing news stories and footage from scenes school board meetings where the uneven treatment of lower-income students in schools was a heated topic of debate.

While I was gaining insight from the poignant classroom messages, I was greeted by Suannette, who asked me how my day was. We engaged in a conversation about equal, equitable and justice driven education, and what it means to give all students a safe, positive and creative learning environment. I then focused my attention on the many empowering elements within the installation. For example, the classroom was made up of stations, including a reading area containing a treasure trove of children’s books about intersectionality of identity and multiculturalism, a play area with black dolls and other uplifting objects and materials representative of a diverse student body. It is more important than anything else for all students to feel acknowledged and valued in their schools. Examples of literature, toys and imagery that express pluralism are great ways to inspire empathy, mindfulness and positive interactions within a heterogeneous educational setting. (Text has been edited from a previously published post)

Sugar Hill Museum – Based in New York City’s Sugar Hill section of Harlem, the Sugar Hill Museum utilizes contemporary art, historical artifacts, archives and storytelling to create community and inspire some of the youngest members of society to become lifelong lovers of learning. Many of the families who visit the museum are affected by generational poverty and lack of equitable housing, health and educational resources. The goal of the museum is to provide a sanctuary space for an intergenerational dialogue that will spark playful ingenuity and give children agency to express themselves through observing and talking about art, as well as creating their own narratives through making art in response to their social, emotional and cognitive experiences.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center has compiled a list of 95 publications for their essential Black Liberation Reading List.

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/

Drew, Kimberly. This is What I Know About Art. New York : Penguin Workshop, 2020.

Hawkins, Devan. “The coronavirus burden is falling heavily on black Americans. Why?” The Guardian, 16 April 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/16/black-workers-coronavirus-covid-19

Du Bois, W.E.B. (2016). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated; Unabridged edition.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2019). Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition. London: Redstone Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2018). W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Leong, Kristin. “Black Teachers Matter. Black Students Matter. Black Lives Matter.” EdSurge, 3 June 2020. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2020-06-03-black-teachers-matter-black-students-matter-black-lives-matter

Powell, Richard J. “A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in the exhibition catalogue Martin Puryear by John Elderfield, Richard J. Powell, et al, Fort Worth: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Scarbrough, Elizabeth. “Burying the Dead Monuments.” Aesthetics for Birds, 18 June 2020. https://aestheticsforbirds.com/2020/06/18/burying-the-dead-monuments/

Scott, Dread. “America God Damn.” The Art Newspaper, 5 June 2020. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/dread-scott-america-god-damn

Thomson-DeVeaux, Amelia, Paine, Neil and Wolfe, Julia. “May’s Jobs Report Brought Good News – But Not For Everyone.” Fivethirtyeight, 5 June 2020. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mays-jobs-report-brought-good-news-but-not-for-everyone/

Weaving together history, experience and STEAM based learning

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Soft Monitor (Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman), C O M P U T E R 1.0. Courtesy of Soft Monitor.

Soft Monitor is an art, science, technology and engineering initiative exploring how to divert the detrimental effects of ‘screen time’ and make digital media more holistic. The endeavor is a collaboration between Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman, who each have backgrounds in arts-centered research, and provide aesthetically captivating insights into how technology informs our social, cultural and cognitive experiences. Through a materials based exploration into themes including computing and interpersonal communication, Soft Monitor’s multidisciplinary artwork personalizes the oft-impersonal nature of being immersed and reliant upon technology. The duo’s work is supported by a Materials-Based Research grant from the Center for Craft, which “encourages mutually-beneficial collaboration between craft and the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

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A 19th century Jacquard loom with information punch cards at the National Museum of Scotland. The programmable loom inspired Manganiello and Goldman’s 21st century C O M P U T E R 1.0. Photo by Stephencdickson.

Manganiello and Goldman began working together in 2017. Their inaugural project is a large-scale multimedia installation called C O M P U T E R 1.0, which addresses the intersection of art, math, science and history. The artwork is a massive handwoven textile, created using hollow polymer tubing and natural fiber thread. A series of pigmented liquid, oil and air pixels are pumped into the tubes in a sequence that is programmed from data dictated by motion sensors, computer-controlled valves, air compressors and pumps. When the artwork is activated, it forms a compelling visual pattern that is meant to operate as a lo-fi computer display. Its ancient, natural materials and techniques juxtapose contemporary digital technologies, telling an open-ended story of technology’s successes, failures, promises and deceptions.

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C O M P U T E R 1.0 on Vimeo. Courtesy of Soft Monitor.

C O M P U T E R 1.0 pays homage to the craft-based origins of contemporary computing. In 1801, a French master silk weaver named Joseph Marie Jacquard, developed the first programmable loom known simply as the Jacquard loom or the Jacquard machine. The loom’s design and programmable function was an inspiration for the production of additional programmable machines, including a seminal digital compiler that IBM utilized in their construction of the modern day computer. Jacquard’s invention helped lead the industrial revolution, which shifted the prerequisite of manual labor from skilled artisans –including master weavers– to an automated workforce that didn’t require highly trained and technical labor. Unfortunately, the arts, which were integral to daily life, faced an existential crisis within the public’s perception from thereon in. On a grand scale, it seems more desirable and convenient to produce and consume mass produced objects than to devote the time and experiential knowledge necessary to design and craft quality goods. The problem with this ideology is that it is detrimental to our creative development. This thinking has led to the lack of art educational offerings in schools and the defunding of the arts in general.

When we reduce honing specific skills, techniques and creative processes in favor of mass produced objects, we become less creative and more dependent on imported and exported labor. This way of life significantly impacts our critical thinking skills and  autonomy. Social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, states that we ‘think through making’ (Ingold, 2015). Through explorations with materials, we web together a series of experiences that lead to a mindful interaction with our cognition and the materials and environment around us. During that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through experiential improvisations using different materials and techniques. Thinking through making is the crux of Fröbel’s Kindergarten, the Reggio Emilia approach and Montessori education (see: Penfold, 2019). Each of these early childhood learning methods focus on student-centered learning, where relationship driven environments afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives. This freedom, accompanied with the instructional scaffolding and motivation from educators, provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment. The aforementioned mindset and methodology was consistently supported in pedagogical circles until World War II, when the arms and space races made STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Education the focus of K-12 and higher educational curricula. As Sterling and Burke (1997) reflected, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. More local and national funds were allocated for STEM subjects in schools, starting with the 1958 National Defense Education Act (see: Jolly, 2009). Art education has further suffered from stringent sociopolitical policies like the No Child Left Behind act, which results in teachers having to “teach to the test” in order to have their students pass required standardized exams.  The focus on assessment through quantitative data means less funding or the outright cutting of arts education in schools across the United States. In recent history, the arts have been propelled back into educational frameworks, as a component of the STEM curriculum because of its recognized benefits on facilitating student inquiry, critical thinking, interpersonal dialogue and social engagement (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits).

The resurgent relationship between art, technology, science, engineering and mathematics within formal and informal education is not surprising. Combined, these disciplines have advanced many important social, cultural and economic breakthroughs. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary and university settings. In previous posts, I have described how the arts were historically seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin, the leading Victorian era cultural critic, aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Art educational courses in early American schools generally concentrated on teaching creative skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools, designed to incorporate artistic techniques and artisan principles that promoted valued craftsmanship, were established for industrial laborers. Vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and recognized the importance of artistic development as a means to develop “a mutual understanding of the importance of process in the creation of a product, an appreciation of elaborate sequencing, a valuing of cooperative teamwork in project oriented work, an acknowledgment of the value of uniqueness and adaptation as contrasted to rigid conformity and a mutual respect for the concrete and the visual as well as the abstract and the conceptual ” (Sterling & Burke, 1997). The symbiotic relationship between the arts and skilled utilitarian labor is a major component of the digital age, with artists and collectives like Soft Monitor, who are providing innovative and critical designs to respond sustainably and creatively to sociocultural and environmental issues.

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Soft Monitor, C O M P U T E R 1.0. Courtesy of the artists.

In today’s digitally saturated culture, C O M P U T E R  1.0, “seeks to function as a historical lens that asks us to make inquiries into how our relationship to computing technology has been fraught with juxtaposed promises of utopian and dystopian futures, while the reality consistently finds itself somewhere in between.” An essential question that the artists pose through their work is: “are we better off since the advent of programming and sophisticated technological automation?” C O M P U T E R 1.0 prompts our collective conscious to recall and observe the myriad ways our society has been dealing with a digital existentialism. According to the artists,  “C O M P U T E R  1 . 0  is the physical display of the eternally uncertain potential of technology.”

C O M P U T E R 1.0 also seeks to operate as a prototype for a digital display screen that would be more beneficial to our bodies and minds than the current screens on our smartphones, tablets and computers. Most of us spend a significant amount of time enveloped by the artificial blue light that our screens emit (see: Heiting, 2017). This blue light has negative impacts on our physical and mental well-being, interfering with everything from sleep to creativity (see: Ruder, 2019). In light of our technological conditioning, Soft Monitor aims to utilize the physical and emotional lightness and comfort of textiles in a manner that could function as a personalized display screen. They are doing this by minimizing the use of blue light in favor of a screen constructed entirely from soft, natural and ancient materials such as flax, water and air. The artists intend to use both simple and intricate woven patterns to project images and text from their textile display screen.

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Soft Monitor (Victoria Manganiello and Julian Goldman). Courtesy of the artists.

I recently spoke with Victoria Manganiello about her STEAM-centered explorations and how collaborating with experts in other disciplines (like science, technology and engineering) has informed her work as a solo artist and as part of Soft Monitor. I wanted to know how working in a multidisciplinary artistic duo has influenced her own expertise, knowledge and comfort in subjects outside of the arts; and whether she feels it is necessary and beneficial for the arts to be included in projects that have scientific or technological objectives.

She began by stating that “As a visual artist, I have always found inspiration in the science, technology and engineering fields and in particular, from their histories.” She is especially interested in the contributions that women have made to textiles that had an impact in diverse fields including medicine, agriculture, fashion, art and space travel; and is working on a documentary series, called Woman Interwoven, which explores and presents the stories and multifaceted identities of women through their craft-based practices.

As for scaffolding inspiration, knowledge and personal growth through collaboration, she elaborates that “I’ve learned about circuitry, biology, chemistry, and engineering while working with collaborators and those things have in turn informed other projects. And while I’m still an amateur at best in those disciplines, I have had some opportunities to try them in real life which might be an experience unique to an artist. And perhaps, not knowing what I don’t know has given me an optimism that’s led to an innovation only available to a novice.”

Manganiello’s philosophy regarding art’s benefits on learning and exploring other subjects is a great quote to conclude with. She expressed, “For me, art is a way for us to understand the experience of individuals as a way to understand larger phenomena in our societies and environments. If we can make other disciplines artful, that might mean connecting them to lived experiences. I think that would at least make the STEM disciplines more interesting or accessible to learners but further, it will make them more ‘human’ and perhaps allow us to understand their uses for good and betterment. For example, if when I had learned about electricity in grade school I was shown a project like The Knitted Radio by Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, I might have been able to both understand the concepts with more clarity, be offered the precedent as an opportunity to see myself actually applying them, and a reason to use something like electricity to connect with humanity.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Heiting, Gary OD. “Blue light: It’s both bad and good for you.” All About Vision, November 2017. https://www.allaboutvision.com/cvs/blue-light.htm

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Jolly, Jennifer L. “The National Defense Education Act, Current STEM Initiative, and the Gifted” Gifted Child, 32 (2) Spring 2009. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ835843.pdf

Penfold, Louisa. “Five key early childhood educators! A post for parents.” Art. Play. Children. Learning, 27 May 2019. http://www.louisapenfold.com/five-key-early-childhood-educators/

Ruder, Bradley Debra. “Screen Time and the Brain.” Harvard Medical School News, 19 June 2019. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/screen-time-brain

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

Finding hope, exhibiting empathy and artfully learning through Quaranteens

My high school experience was largely defined by sociopolitical events. Freshman and sophomore years were book-ended by anxieties related to Y2K and the partisan fallout from the infamous 2000 presidential election. I was just starting my junior year when the September 11th attacks took place. Although we were given the option of taking the day off from school, many of us chose to spend time with our friends and teachers. My school provided a sanctuary space for students and faculty to try and make sense of the events, while openly discussing our feelings and lending support to those who needed it. The formation of empathy and sense of community is pivotal to our social development and mental well-being. Exhibiting empathy and collaborating with our peers are key principles of a good educational framework.

The class of 2020 has endured an even more distressed four years of schooling. They began their high school experience with the 2016 presidential election, which was arguably more divisive than the 2000 election, and their senior year has significantly been altered by a global health pandemic. At the moment, the physical school year has been curtailed, making attending graduation with their classmates and experiencing the joys of end of the year academic and social celebrations unthinkable. However, that hasn’t stopped students from giving up hope in the world that their generation will go on to lead. It has been inspiring to see some of the artfully poignant and uplifting documentation from students responding to life in times of COVID-19.

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The artist’s view from sheltering in place. Still from the film Oh, the places you’ll go by Olesya. Courtesy of the artist and EVC.

Quaranteens are a collective of New York City high school students and their teacher Kate Levy, who is the Co-Director of the Youth Documentary Workshop at the Educational Video Center. The Educational Video Center (EVC) is a “non-profit youth media organization dedicated to teaching documentary video as a means to develop the artistic, critical literacy, and career skills of young people, while nurturing their idealism and commitment to social change.” Prior to the pandemic, the group had been working on a documentary film that addressed their commitment to nurturing social relationships within their community and compassionately supporting social change.

In light of the pandemic, the Quaranteens have continued to utilize the medium of storytelling and multimedia art processes to document individual and collective adolescent experiences in response to the abrupt and drastic changes in their daily lives. Although they cannot meet together on set, the students have been working remotely and virtually sharing videos, photos and articles that communicate how the pandemic, New York’s shelter-in-place order and the closure of the city’s schools have been affecting them. It hasn’t been easy as Levy reflects that “Students have sick families, new responsibilities at home, and are woefully unprepared to manage their own schedules in an online learning environment. At times, the only thing I can do with students is help them develop a schedule or recommend mental health resources. I ask myself every day ‘what is the best way to engage students in a fulfilling learning process, one that doesn’t stunt their growth as lifelong learners, nor destroy any opportunities for pleasure in their pursuit of knowledge. In reality, the best I can hope for is that my students remain in contact.”

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Still from a short film by Ashlee. Courtesy of the artist and EVC.

As this instance and many others have shown, being away from the physical school environment for such a lengthy period of time can be detrimental. Educational experts fear that extended time away from in person learning will lead to significant social, emotional and cognitive atrophy and widen the inequity gap (see: Lederman, 2020 and The Learning Network, 2020). Levy continues to reflect upon the impact that school closures have, proclaiming that “Education is about community, and the obstacles for online learning are just too much. School buildings were a place for my students to access the internet, get fed, connect with many mentors and supports all in one place, socialize, exercise and stimulate their minds.”

Although the aforementioned struggles are incredibly problematic to maintaining a semblance of progressive learning, especially in a constructivist and student-centered environment where students thrive from collaboration, relationship building and group dynamics; Levy and her students have gone above and beyond the challenge, even with so little time and resources to properly prepare. I asked Levy what she is most inspired by as a result of the uncharted process of taking this project, which relied on interpersonal collaboration, into a remote setting: “From time to time, my students reflect on their work, and express pride in their work. They also have received some submissions from other students across the United States and have been really excited about that. One of my students is an amazing editor, and I am really pleased he’s been able to hone his skills.” So not only have the students expressed a critical eye and an efficacious outlook for their work, but they have made connections with people outside of their social network and extended their socially engaged vision and concept across the country. Furthermore, the students are showing their digital dexterity by expressively utilizing forms of media that their generation came of age with to make powerful statements documenting moments of living, working, learning and just getting by in light of significant local and global current events.

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A video by Quaranteen artist Khalil, discussing his experiences communicating with different generations in his household and how reactions and responses to social, cultural and emotional issues contrasts from one generation to another. Courtesy of the artist and EVC

It is refreshing to see some of the more positive aspects of remote learning via this project, which lets students express themselves creatively and communicate with their peers in a profound and socially engaged manner. High school is a time for both innovation as well as for fitting into groups. Adolescent learners in the arts are meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something. This is the time in their artistic development when the concept and aesthetic experience simultaneously inform their creative process. They consider their work as a fluid body (part of a series, period/movement and style), which takes viewers’ experiences and observations into account. They are interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the artworld (i.e. galleries, museums and other sources of visual and material culture). Often times, they will appropriate works of art or iconography from the visual lexicon to make statements regarding their sense of self within the cultural landscape. It is important to qualify this phase of development with prior artistic learning, so that students can combine their artistic backgrounds with contemporary experiences and knowledge in order to create meaningful and expressive works of art that significantly impact their audience. This is clearly exemplified through viewing the multidisciplinary artwork by the artists in the Youth Documentary Workshop. It is evident from the work of the Quaranteens collective that these young artists are able to view their work through a critical and reflective lens, while symbolically communicating and considering the range of impacts it might have on viewers.

One of the artists in the Quaranteens collective named Olesya responded to my prompt of “why do you think art is a good medium for communicating messages of hope and unity?” by saying “Art means different things for different people. So art can invoke powerful meanings and feelings while expressing a message about hope and unity. It can create sort of a median ground so people can be inspired and do something about a social justice issue. And that’s what Quaranteens is about and what we are trying to do.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Lederman, Doug. “The Shift to Remote Learning: The Human Element.” Inside Higher Ed, 25 March 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/25/how-shift-remote-learning-might-affect-students-instructors-and

The Learning Network. “What Students Are Saying About Remote Learning.” New York Times, 9 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/learning/what-students-are-saying-about-remote-learning.html

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tove Jansson’s Who will comfort Toffle? 1960.

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

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

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

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

The Conference of the Animals and 120 Years of Children Drawing New York surmises that all children’s art has something important to communicate and that we should be paying serious attention to what they are saying. The way children symbolically convey their observations and insights about the world changes as they build artistic skills and conceptual knowledge. Art education scaffolds the progression of children’s artistic development through phases of representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials (see: Louis, 2005). A multidimensional model of artistic development, proposed by art educator and teacher of teachers, Linda Louis, recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The crux of education and diplomacy is to foster a better framework for current and future generations to thrive in equal, equitable and justice centered environments. The anthropomorphic protagonists in The Animals’ Conference understood that intergovernmental policies needed to change, in order to support the world’s children who were “caught in the web of wars, strikes and famines” (Fischer, 1953). Successful works of public art and communal design projects teach us that it is possible to create something that is both beautiful and beneficial to collectivist culture. A good art education centered around nurturing experiential learning, empathy and imaginative innovation is a means to achieve “peace through understanding.”


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artfully documenting, contextualizing and transcending time

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On Kawara, Oct. 31, 1978 (Today Series, “Tuesday”), 1978, acrylic on canvas with two newspapers. (C) On Kawara. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.

A lot of us have been relegated to atypical and banal regimens in the midst of sheltering-in-place. Have you been losing track of what day it is? I know that I have. Weekdays and weekends feel like a blur. I am maintaining a more uncommon schedule nowadays: taking naps in the middle of the day, working till 5am, observing the “weekend” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The list of uncharted routines goes on.

Looking at the calendar has become akin to viewing a surrealist work of art. In light of social distancing, we have celebrated birthdays, Passover, Easter and Ramadan in solitude or on Zoom. Seeing documentary images of empty church pews, Seder tables and city streets have been sobering. Everyday tasks, like cleaning, shopping, eating and sleeping become more pronounced and connected to the psyche in light of these challenging times. More than ever, we need art to help us alleviate the stress and channel our time in isolation into moments of creativity.

Conceptual works of art by Tehching Hsieh and On Kawara utilize a logistical and structured approach to recording time, in a way that simultaneously transcends and diverts the concept of time. Both Hsieh and Kawara’s work comments on the construct of time in relation to the human experience. Their respected works reinvent and re-present the traditional telling of time using experiential, narrative and embodied processes.

 

Hsieh combines performance and documentation in his art, often through absurd actions that test his physical and mental endurance, in order to explore subjects related to labor and quotidian life.

In the late-1970s, Hsieh began to conceive his ‘One Year performances,’ which are durational works of art featuring repetitive and ordinary activities, realized over the course of 365 days. One of the most well known examples is One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece). From April 11 1980 to April 11 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the dot, taking a photo of himself each time he did so. At the beginning of the performance, Hsieh appears with a shaved head. As the piece spanned onward, his hair grew back in, which symbolically reflected the passage of time.

On Kawara’s life’s work is his oeuvre of acrylic text-based paintings, which are minimal in their composition, consisting simply of a monochromatic background and the date when the painting was completed, which he rendered in hand-painted typography. These paintings, aptly called the Today Series, began on January 4, 1966 and continued throughout his life, up until his final years (he passed away on July 10, 2014). Every single Today Series canvas is displayed with a handmade cardboard box and a newspaper clipping from a local paper published on the same day that the painting was made (Kawara lived and worked in over 100 cities around the world, so the newspaper clippings reflect a diverse range of geographical and cultural topics).

The meaning that each painting has is particularly ambiguous and open ended. Dates mean many different things to many different people. Some days are etched in infamy, like September 11, 2001, while other days like my birthday (August 15), are less acknowledged across culture (it’s OK, I don’t like too much fanfare). Dates are not binary and time is in flux, but our consciousness enables us to assign and fix sensory emotions and qualities to specific moments in time. Kawara’s Today Series paintings capture our individual and collective notions regarding time and place.

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Lizz Brady, My life expectancy according to statistics, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

In the computer generated artwork, My life expectancy according to statistics (2017), artist Lizz Brady, utilizes the quantification of time to express how a person’s quality of life is altered in relation to mental illness. Brady depicts the average life expectancy of a woman (around 82 years) in dots, with each dot representing a week in 82 years time. The first set of dots, which are black, signify her current age at the time of the print. The grey set of dots are the estimated number of weeks left. The white, symbolizes the potential years lost due to having a diagnosed mental illness. Studies have shown that people with severe mental illness die 14 to 32 years earlier than the general population (see: Aarhus University, 2019; Insel, 2011; and , 2018). In the example within Brady’s work, that time is 15 years. Brady’s aesthetic calendar turns data into a qualitative reflection on mental health awareness. My life expectancy according to statistics prompts us to look at the mortal impact of mental health on individuals, and the stigma around talking about and treating mental illness in the culture at large. Brady’s conceptual calendar communicates her own struggles with mental health and personalizes scientific research, transforming quantitative information into a social and emotional learning experience that encourages empathetic and informed responses from viewers.

Art helps us to record and assess moments in life that we want to remember, communicate to our peers and pass on to future generations. One way of doing this on a consistent basis, is keeping an artist’s journal or diary. There are many great examples of diaries kept by artists, some of which include the introspective records of Frida Kahlo, Keith Harring, Leonora Carrington and David Wojnarowicz.

In educational settings, prompting students to keep a visual journal is a great way for them to hone their observational and communicative skills. Journals can be multimedia manifestations, combining a variety of materials and techniques so that they have a well rounded vocabulary and can hone their prior and ongoing artistic learning outside of class.

Art makes standardized systems of measurement such as time profound through the incorporation of human expressions and symbolic communication. Creating and viewing art is an immersive action; one which requires us to be careful observers and participants within our culture at large. Being enveloped in art can slow down, speed up, reverse, or more aptly, make us lose track of traditional notions of time. It gives us the agency to create and present our narratives in a process that is intricately layered and evolves as we experience the journey of life.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

In conjunction with the 2015 exhibition On Kawara–Silence, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum developed a series of classroom activities inspired by Kawara’s work addressing his interactions with people, places and things that he experienced on a daily basis.

Aarhus University. “Mentally ill die many years earlier than others.” ScienceDaily, 25 October 2019. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191025094013.htm

Insel, Thomas. “No Health Without Mental Health.” The National Institute of Mental Health, 6 September 2011. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2011/no-health-without-mental-health.shtml

Rorimer, Anne. “The Date Paintings of On Kawara.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1991), pps. 120-137+179-180. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4101587?origin=JSTOR-pdf. Accessed 4 May 2020

Sewing and Growing: Communal Quilts for Education and Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

Life imitates art: Communicating and discovering the world IRL via video games

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Shing Yin Khor’s Spiral Jetty (2020). An Animal Crossing performance after Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (2010). Courtesy of Shing Yin Khor.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and it became clear that our new reality would include social distancing and going into quarantine, anxiety set in. Groceries, toilet paper and hand sanitizer quickly vanished off store shelves, as consumers exhibited a frenzy of panic buying. These items remain scarce and highly coveted, but so does another item, the Nintendo Switch™ video game console. A few weeks after many cities, towns, states and countries announced shelter-in-place regulations, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on Nintendo’s highly regarded gaming platform.

The premise of Animal Crossing is very simple. It is a social simulation (see: Mondo Museum: A Sim that encourages decolonization and experiential learning), which means that its format is open-ended and the gameplay represents real-time events and situations. You control a human avatar living in an environment populated by anthropomorphic animals, and fill your days performing work, leisure and social activities. You can choose to forage for food, shop for groceries, work odd jobs, go to the beach, collect fossils, send mail and visit friends that live near and far away (you can play the game online with other players). You can do all of this without worrying about getting yourself and others sick. It seems like an ideal antidote to the feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety brought on by the global pandemic. In the world of Animal Crossing, there are no such health concerns, and the disparaging feelings brought on by socioeconomic realities are also largely non-existent. There is an overall communal spirit in Animal Crossing that transcends our current social, medical and economic crisis.

Tom Nook, a racoon-like merchant and realtor, is the only true capitalist in the Animal Crossing‘s universe. He is the first character that players encounter, and you have to purchase property from him and spend a great deal of time paying back the extraordinarily large loan he makes you take out. It isn’t at all dissimilar from the predatory behavior of late stage capitalism (see: Hennelly, 2020), which includes student loan corporations and private medical insurers whose inequitable practices account for individuals becoming indebted to them for years on end. All the other merchants and characters in the game tend to embrace an alternative economy where you can barter for goods and services. When you do sell the fruits of your labor to a merchant, you receive the full value for that item. Outside of Nook who is trapped in his laissez-faire individualism, neighbors are very supportive of each other and embrace a collectivist societal mindset.

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Shing Yin Khor’s Spiral Jetty (2020). An Animal Crossing interpretation of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Courtesy of Shing Yin Khor.

In addition to players being captivated by the quotidian gameplay, Animal Crossing‘s open-ended format has inspired a great deal of creative interactions from devoted players who have expanded the gameplay to suit their own interests. Realizing the parallels the game has to real life, artist Shing Yin Khor, has been filling the void of not being able to visit cultural sites by recreating iconic works of art within the game. So far, she has reproduced Christo and Jean Claude’s installation artwork Umbrellas, Robert Smithson’s land artwork Spiral Jetty, Barbara Kruger’s text-artwork Untitled and Marina Abramovic’s performance art piece The Artist is Present. Khor’s innovative re-imaginings of these seminal contemporary artworks has given many gamers a chance to experience art and perhaps might also inspire them to create their own virtual art forms within the digital environment. Khor’s process involves utilizing artistic habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) such as flexible thinking, making connections and noticing patterns. She states “Animal Crossing only has very limited customization and interaction options, so there are significant restrictions on which art pieces can actually be replicated within the game. It is more of a conceptual exercise than a technical design one” (Cascone, 2020).

Khor’s conceptual artmaking within Animal Crossing makes it evident that video games have the potential to benefit our social, emotional and cognitive well being, as well as our ability to think critically and creatively. Video games and other forms of visual and material culture (i.e. T.V., the internet and social media), are a key conceptual part of our experiential learning process. Using digital media and playing games has revolutionized the way diverse groups of people communicate and make insightful discoveries about their place in the world (Parks, 2008). Professor Kerry Freedman (1997) has been advocating for the incorporation of visual and material culture within the art education curriculum for decades, asking us to consider “are we not, as art educators, responsible for teaching all aspects of technology?”

With an exponentially large number of individuals between the ages of 8 and 18 utilizing more than one media device or console, and spending at least 6 and 1/2 hours per day with media (see: Roberts, Foehr and Rideout, 2005), the answer to Freedman’s question is yes. Video games can teach us to be well rounded thinkers and communicators, and keep us connected to the culture at large. They should certainly be considered and analyzed as an art form and an educational resource.

Art encourages us to appreciate and scrutinize the aesthetic and conceptual nature of everyday life. Philosopher John Dewey’s influential treatise, Art as Experience (1934), states that we learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and are able to attach language and meaning to these experiences. Oscar Wilde, wrote that art helps us to do this because our sensory and communicative ability “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy” (Wilde, 1891).

Our faculty and desire to express and communicate aesthetic and social experiences drives us to create and expand upon the natural and synthetic environments we occupy. This is a reason why games like Animal Crossing and game design programs like Scratch (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits) have such a seminal influence on how we use technology to narrate our discoveries and exchange ideas and insights with others.

Video games are replete with elements of art and design (see: Hasio, 2015), as well as pedagogical models like constructivism (student-centered, inquiry-based learning – see: Piaget), social constructivism (student centered collaborative learning with coaching from the teacher – see: Vygotsky) and liberationism (students’ voices express their knowledge and experiences in a manner that gives them agency. The teacher co-learns along with the students. The role of teacher/student is interchangeable – see: Freire).

Video games prompt us to test theories, cooperate with other players, reflect on useful strategies and find ways to explore freely within the confines of a game’s structure. Many contemporary video games operate in both a sequential and non-linear format, which teaches us to employ inductive and deductive thinking and to consider solving problems from more than one perspective.

Learning through video games rewards play, creativity and socialization. When we enter into the world of a game, we bring our real life knowledge, experience and desires along with us. The aesthetic and conceptual nature of the virtual environment becomes an extension of our contemporary lives and we apply and connect narratives and experiences within the games we play to current events and issues we face in society. Games like Animal Crossing help us to contemplate and address humanist questions such as what we hold valuable and how these values impact our moral judgement and behavior. The attention that Khor’s reproductions of artworks are receiving from her fellow gamers is evidence of art bringing us together and having a positive influence on our lives and our thirst for learning and experiencing visual culture. By providing both a respite from the stresses of contemporary life and a creative outlet for individual and group expression, video games can be a potent social, emotional and cognitive power-up.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cascone, Sarah. “A Witty Installation Artist Is Recreating Famous Artworks Inside the Wildly Popular ‘Animal Crossing’ Video Game and It’s Kind of Amazing.” artnet, 6 Apr. 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/virtual-museum-nintendo-animal-crossing-1824990

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Freedman, Kerry. “Visual art/virtual art: Teaching technology for meaning.” Art Education, 50(4), 1997. pps 612.

Jackson, Gita. “Tom Nook Needs to Get with the Times.” Kotaku, 18 Sept. 2018. https://kotaku.com/tom-nook-needs-to-get-with-the-times-1829149177

Hasio, Cindy. “Action Packed Art Education: Shooting for Higher Learning through Material Culture and Video Games.” Journal of Art for Life, 7(1), 2015. https://journals.flvc.org/jafl/article/view/84597. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020

Hennelly, Bob. “Late-stage capitalism primed us for this pandemic.” Salon, 15 Mar. 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/03/15/late-stage-capitalism-primed-us-for-this-pandemic/

Parks, Nancy S. “Video Games as Reconstructionist Sites of Learning in Art Education.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 49, no. 3, 2008, pp. 235–250. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24467881. Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.

Roberts, Donald F., Foehr, Ulla G. and Rideout, Victoria J. (2005). “Generation M: Media in the lives of 8-18year olds.” Kaiser Foundation. Menlo Park, CA. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED527859.pdf

Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying in Intentions, 1891.

Getting Artfully Attuned to Higher Learning

Preface: I had started writing this post prior to the great wave of uncertainty and major changes in educational policy, teaching and learning due to the coronavirus. In light of educators, education administrators and students adapting to the new routines of remote learning (see: Art Education in an Age of Social Distancing), it has become clear that some facets of prior educational models are worth assessing when schools reopen their physical classrooms. For example, many standardized tests have been cancelled. Do we need them going forward? Can something else be implemented as a more beneficial and engaging form of student assessment and reflecting? Perhaps some kind of cumulative learning project with a strong focus on independent and collaborative research and activity? The following post takes a look at some ideas and methods that could be incorporated into educational environments in order to make learning more purposeful and interconnected with our experiential realities.


Artists and educators may often feel like a they are cog in the traditional education system. We are typically valued upon the level of formal academic training we receive in college and university programs and the degrees that we earn. It is difficult to teach in schools, curate in museums or exhibit in major galleries without an M.A./M.F.A. at the very least. Whether an employer states it in the job description or not, it is largely expected that their candidates possess an advanced degree from an accredited institution.

As someone whose career narrative applies to much of the aforementioned criteria (no PhD, although it has been strongly considered), I have often pondered the value of traditional schooling. It has been a productive and beneficial experience for me, but I understand and have witnessed that the model doesn’t work for everyone. Not everybody has the option to contribute time, energy and finances to attend four to eight years of school. There are plenty of qualified and passionate people who would be great contributors to the fields of art and education, but are relegated to the sidelines and ignored, because they can’t afford to ‘play the game.’ In addition to the amount of time and money spent on college degrees, we are also expected to intern at institutions, schools and galleries, for little or no compensation. This internship to employment pipeline is detrimental to individuals with economic hardships.

Does the conventional educational system actually make us better at our jobs or more qualified than others with similar skills and interests but who have less traditional schooling? Does the traditional paradigm of higher education inspire lifelong learning (or is it just a means to reach a professional plateau)? Does climbing the academic ladder increase our happiness and well-being? These are questions that overwhelm anyone who has considered them. From an arts and educational standpoint, we are told about the benefits of schooling and how it can increase our professional development and standing. This is somewhat true (having a Master’s allows for more diverse teaching opportunities), but it is a myth that better paying jobs always follow a higher degree. Adjunct professors, for example, have advanced degrees, but suffer from poor compensation and very little job security while teaching at for-profit Universities and colleges.

The issue regarding making higher education more holistic and equitable is a necessary element in fixing the broken parts of our society.  We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there are many significant changes that should be taken to ensure that everyone (who wants to) can afford to benefit from earning their degrees. In late-January, I attended a workshop organized by the art and pedagogical collective BFAMFAPhD. Two of BFAMFAPhD’s core members, Caroline Woolard and Susan Jahoda, coached a group of educators and artists on how we can make our classrooms contemplative, collaborative and purposeful. They recently published an interactive multidisciplinary pedagogical guide called Making and Being, which provides teaching strategies that they have adapted to a wide range of learning environments. Making and Being is book, a series of videos, a deck of cards and an interactive website with resources that can be downloaded for free. The activities that we embarked on as a group reflected an overview of the Making and Being curriculum.

We started the afternoon with an attunement session with Susan leading us through a somatic process, where we focused our consciousness throughout the space, in order become emotionally, cognitively and socially aware of ourselves, each other and the space we shared. We envisioned ourselves as a rhizome, with each of our core stems sending out roots and sprouts that connect and support one another.  This is a great activity to perform in any environment where people assemble together as a unit (classrooms, offices, public parks etc.), as it sets the tone for the rest of the period. The steps for enacting the practice of attunement is as follows:

“1. Stand in a circle. Feet hip width apart. Keep your knees soft. Close your eyes.

2. Inhale deeply through your nose. Hold your breath for a count of four, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, to a count of eight.

3. Breathing normally, become aware of the connection between your feet and the floor, the earth beneath you.

4. Gently correct your posture and slowly lift your chin so that the top of your head feels energetically connected to the sky. Sense that connection.

5. Relax your forehead, relax your eyes, your jaw, your ears. Relax the muscles at the back of your neck.

6. Inhale, and stretch your arms over your head. On the exhale, lower your arms to your side.

7. Continue breathing normally. If you are right-handed, place your right hand approximately two inches just below your navel. If you are left-handed, place your left hand approximately two inches below your navel. Spread your fingers. This part of your body is where 72,000 nerve endings come together and where your physical and emotional bodies meet.

8. Visualize your navel as a root that travels up your spine to the top of your head and as a root that travels down your legs into your feet. Hold that image.

9. Bring your attention to the place of contact between your hand and the center of your body beneath it. Inhale deeply through your nose, and hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale slowly through your mouth to a count of eight. Do this once more. Inhale deeply through your nose, and hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale slowly through your mouth to a count of eight” (Jahoda and Woolard, 2019).

Following the attunement session, we discussed, shared and reflected upon our sense of belonging within a shared learning space. We learned more about each other through active listening exercises and asset mapping. The latter activity is a form of altering the political economy, by developing a rhizomatic system of bartering. We each jotted down one thing that we could offer the community (our group) and one thing that we were looking for. Within a classroom environment, this system of asset mapping could be a periodic action. Students and faculty could check in on each other’s needs and ensure that everyone is both personally and academically considered and cared for.

BFAMFAPhDStatementsCaroline-1

Caroline Woolard, Statements, 2013-2014, plexiglass, plaque, hardware, 11” x 23” x 1”. Courtesy of the artist.

BFAMFAPhD presents us with a good alternative art educational model that focuses on interpersonal and empathetic making, presenting and reflecting. Instead of conditioning artists to fulfill lofty and unobtainable goals in an economy that exploits their labor (and puts them in debt), educational settings have the opportunity to become thriving centers for activism and the democratic transfer of ideas, skills and support. Caroline Woolard sums up the need for this tangible transition in a statement about her plexiglass series of work called Statements (2013-2014):

“To avoid a century of creative debtors who owe $120,000 in student loans for art degrees, here is a framework for change: 1) raise consciousness together, 2) resist and reform bad systems, 3) support spaces of hope, and 4) create options for cooperation.

1. RAISE CONSCIOUSNESS: Adjunct Project (adjuncts), Carrot Workers (interns), How’s my Dealing (gallerists), Guerrilla Girls (women), LittleSis (power elites) and Arts and Labor (visual artists).

2. RESIST and REFORM, BAD SYSTEMS: StrikeDebt, ask for a living WAGE, refuse to participate or occupy your school.

3. SUPPORT SPACES OF HOPE: Attend free and low cost art schools and alternative institutions, radical histories of land reform and media making, gardening in empty lotscommunity-control of land, and coalitions of worker cooperatives and solidarity economy initiatives and place-based organizing for cultural policy.

4. CREATE OPTIONS FOR COOPERATION: barter, share your work in the commons, give your work away by adoption, create a rotating savings fund or pool funds to distribute and join a collective or group.” – Caroline Woolard’s statement on her series Statements.

The art world doesn’t need to find the next Picasso, it needs to shift its focus to interdisciplinary and socially engaged practices, and also be committed to supporting diversity through equitable and justice driven methods. A more inclusive field of artists means that more ideas are presented within the collective culture. During their formal education, artists should be prompted to break out of the introspective practices of studio art training and develop social and cognitive skills that can lead to a fulfilling life as participants in multidisciplinary endeavors. Finding novel ways to connect emotionally and lend creative occupational support is blatantly necessary in unprecedented times of global quarantining and social distancing. When we endure this current hardship, it will be in large part a result of us developing a sustainable framework where we harness the skills we possess in ways that have an impact on the community around us.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Jahoda, Susan and Woolard, Caroline. 2019. Making and Being: a Guide to Embodiment, Collaboration and Circulation in the Visual Arts, Pioneer Works: New York.

Simon, Nina. “How Can I Contribute? Four Steps I’m Taking to Figure it Out.” Art Museum Teaching, 29 March 2020. https://artmuseumteaching.com/2020/03/29/how-can-i-contribute-four-steps-im-taking-to-figure-it-out/