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/

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

Aesthetic Alphabets

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Paul D’Agostino, PD (Initial Self-Portrait), 2017 acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

The language of art is rooted in a variance of archetypes and experiential knowledge that are assigned or convey specific social meanings. Artistic style might be considered a form of sociolinguistics (see: Labov, 1966; Eckert, 2008; Johnstone, 2009; and Irvine, 2001) due to aesthetic, performative and contextual elements that are derived from a myriad of social groups. Art historians can typically tell when a work was made and assign it an attribution, by connecting stylistic elements and patterns that are indicative of a specific movement, artist, ideology and/or culture. While the origin of language is still being debated, the earliest prehistoric art found in caves throughout the world suggests zeitgeist was in situ for communicating material life and supernatural ritual. As humans explored beyond their communities and mingled with other societies, they exchanged and incorporated differences in their regional forms and expressions.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all exhibit social, emotional and cognitive responses to the elements of art and principles of design. The formal qualities of a work of art such as line, shape, balance and color can be used to describe emotions or add emphasis to a work’s meaning. A jagged line might suggest nervous and anxious tension, while a painting predominately colored red might evoke feelings of anger or passion. A good strategy to perform with students who are linguistically developing and/or learning a second language, is to use color and shape to develop conversational vocabulary.  Vazquez (1981) states that works of art are replete with good examples for teaching linguistics via aesthetic principles: “one of the first skills taught to the learner of a second language is color. Teachers usually point out various objects in the classroom that are of the specific color being taught. I intend to eliminate that extra burden of looking around the room and then trying to decide whether that strange word that the teacher is saying is the name of the object or the name of the color of the object(s). By carefully selecting four or five paintings the names of ten to twenty colors can be taught with ease.”

After learning to describe colors, students can move on to identifying and elaborating upon geometric shapes. Shapes have further interdisciplinary vocabulary benefits, because they connect to STEAM learning (see: Artful Equations). Vazquez suggests introducing students to modern and contemporary artworks “with the purpose to develop vocabulary only.” This way, “it will be non-threatening to the student because we will not go into deep analysis, which is not what is important at the moment. Unconsciously, the student can have his/her reactions and if s/he wishes will be free to express them and possibly ask for meaning or an explanation of the piece of art before him/her. The works are mostly non-objective and are those which I feel are most useful in achieving the purpose of the lesson” (See: Vazquez, 1981, “Teaching a Second Language through Art” for specific examples of artworks used to supplement linguistical development). Eventually, the goal is to have students assign syntax to convey meaning by utilizing the vocabulary they have developed through observing works of art.

Artistic content can be quite literal, or it can prompt the beholder to connect the contextual dots, similar to how a poem or a piece of music may influence an imaginative narrative within our minds. While interpretations will vary among viewers, many artists have specific intentions for what their aesthetic style should communicate, even going so far as to create their own form of language. One of these artists is Paul D’Agostino, who is well versed in linguistics, literature and conversation. D’Agostino is fluent in Italian, German, French, Spanish and English, and has translated numerous literary works. He created his own painterly syllabary by transforming paint into decipherable vowels, consonants and word constructions. His 26 panel Chromatic Alphabet (2013-2015) is interpreted through color (red, orange, yellow and blue) and geometric shapes (circles, rectangles, squares, triangles and diamonds). Consonants are smaller than vowels in scale, and are defined by their color and shape against a grey background. The larger vowels, are painted as circles against a white background and each letter is given a chromatic assignment: red = A, orange = E, yellow = I, green = O and blue = U. Every letter is painted exclusively by D’Agostino’s hand, without the use of tools such as a ruler or a compass. This gives the series a gestural feeling that is uniquely expressive to the artist. His own dialect if you will. By employing his chromatic alphabet to individual paintings, D’Agostino spells out words and phrases, which are oft-humorous and astute references to the fields of linguistics and visual art.

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Paul D’Agostino, The People’s Art School, 1-3, 2019, gouache, acrylic and watercolor on gessoed heavy brown craft paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Titles such as Quadro (2015) literally mean ‘painting,’ while Homages to The People’s Art School, 1-3 (2019) refers to language relevant to the individual and collective work and creative cognition of Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky and Kazmir Malevich. It was inspired by D’Agostino’s research related to Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922, an exhibition at The Jewish Museum in 2018. D’Agostino elaborates: “I had the honor and pleasure of giving an artist talk and leading an exhibition tour while the show was up, so all the research I did with relation to it invariably fed into my artwork. The individual titles for these are basically the words painted on each one according to my Chromatic Alphabet. Left to right they are Haus und Garten (for Chagall), Proun (for Lissitzky) and Arkhitekton (for Malevich)” (D’Agostino, 2019). 

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Paul D’Agostino, Jar Jars Jar Ajar, 2019, acrylic on canvas. Courtney of the artist.

Puns are also a tactic D’Agostino frequently employs via his arrangement of the Chromatic Alphabet. For example, the painting Jar Jars Jar Ajar (2019) repeats the same letters J, A and R, to spell out the word ‘jar’ twice. However, the word on the right is manipulated both in scale and balance, which changes its inflection and expression. As D’Agostino (2019) explains: “the ‘large jar’ at left is ‘jarring’ the ‘small jar’ at right, leaving the smaller one ‘ajar’. So the title of the painting is “Jar Jars Jar Ajar”. Ha ha! Har har!”  

Thomas Micchelli interprets D’Agostino’s paintings as “a code of sorts, but one that distills speech into a conflation of sight and sound, visualized vocalizations that are as musical as they are linguistic….D’Agostino is using abstract painting to convey elemental sounds — the building blocks of both music and speech — in a visual/aural end run around the evolution of written language” (Micchelli, 2016). It has been theorized that music is older than speech or language and some even suggest that language evolved from music, art and crafts (Angier, 2016; James, 2018). Whatever the case may be for the origins of human linguistics, it can be said that the language of art has been a consistent tool for building knowledge and establishing our place within the world around us.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Angier, Natalie. “New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room.’ The New York Times, 8 Feb. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/science/new-ways-into-the-brains-music-room.html?rref=collection%252Fsectioncollection%252Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfron Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “I posted individual pics of this triptych of Chromatic Alphabet paintings…” Instagram, 3 Aug. 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/B0tgzeLlkgr/. Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

D’Agostino, Paul. (@postuccio). “The two vertically configured formations on this new Chromatic Alphabet painting look very similar…” Instagram, 7 May 2019, https://www.instagram.com/p/BxK48TplRfQ/ Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Eckert, Penelope. “Variation and the indexical field.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2008, 12: 453–476.

Irvine, Judith. “Style as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation.” In Penelope Eckert and John Rickford (eds.) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 21–43.

James, Ben. “A Sneaky Theory of Where Language Came From.” The Atlantic, 10 June 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/06/toolmaking-language-brain/562385/ Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.

Johnstone, Barbara. “Stance, Style, and the Linguistic Individual” Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Stance,. Ed. Alexandra Jaffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Labov, William. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1966.

, Thomas. “Paint as Language, Language as Paint: Paul D’Agostino’s Chromatic Alphabet.” Hyperallergic, 13 Feb. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/275429/paint-as-language-language-as-paint-paul-dagostinos-chromatic-alphabet/ Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

Vazquez, Doris. “Teaching a Second Language through Art.” Yale University: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1981. http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/ Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.

Strengthening Cultures & Literacy through Art for the 21st Century

In a previous post titled Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education, I described contemporary artist Pablo Helguera’s use of the written word and storytelling as a means to explore language, immigration and identity. Through projects like The School of Panamerican Unresta four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway that documented a myriad of indigenous spoken dialects, and Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore for Spanish language literature and events; Helguera devotes a large part of his artistic practice to create multidisciplinary portraits and living archives of language and culture.

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Ceramic sculptures by Stephanie H. Shih. Photo by @brandicheyenneharper for @gasworksnyc. Courtesy of the artist.

I recently learned about Stephanie H. Shih‘s ceramic sculptures, which embody culinary items in Asian-American homes. Shih’s sculptures are social, emotional and cognitive reflections of Asian-American diasporic culture. They are representative of what it is like to immigrate to far away places and incorporate both new and traditional concepts that signify a unique cultural and communal identity. Shih makes connections with other members of the 20 million (and counting) diaspora through many overlapping culinary memories, which represent personal significance and collective experiences. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, enshrining heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share similar cultural heritage. In her artist’s statement Shih says:

“Through the lens of the Asian-American pantry, my ceramic sculptures explore how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora. For first-generation Asian Americans, the finite collection of imported grocery brands from our youth has become shorthand for parallel childhoods raised by immigrant parents. To meet strangers who have memories of eating the same can of fried dace –a small fish preserved with salted black beans– is to discover a sense of belonging. Replicating these kitchen staples in clay immortalizes both the shared memories and the feeling of finding the nonexistent homeland of Asian America” (Shih, n.d.).

These are just two of the many examples of how contemporary art is created, presented and contextualized in a manner that reflects globalization and migration. Ideas, images and works of art travel far and wide, due to artistic discourse being spread more fluidly throughout the world. Advances in technology and the proliferation of museums, galleries, biennials and residency programs is making art more accessible to heterogeneous audiences. As a result of these aforementioned factors, artists (and other cultural producers) who are separated by borders are more easily able to collaborate and partake in collective art making (see: Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran and Transcending Boundaries).

Art has its own forms of language that facilitate the exchange of visual information and act as a liaison between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. Visual art can also be a catalyst for developing speech and literacy skills that support multilingual learning in the educational system. This is especially beneficial for communities with large immigrant populations who can harness the expressive and dialectic values of visual art, in order to strengthen their social and cognitive skills in their native and emergent languages.

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CALTA21 Classroom. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Some art institutions are embracing their role in teaching language and literacy skills to immigrant students through contemporary art. The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is expanding its programming for English language learners, conducted in partnership with the Elizabeth Public School District. Their program, which has been implemented for 8th and 9th grade students, was created with help from Cultures & Literacies through Art for the 21st Century (CALTA21), a national initiative focused on creating a dynamic environment where museums provide authentic, meaningful and engaging learning experiences to immigrant communities. CALTA21 is rooted in professional development for English language teachers. Educators partnering with the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey are given training that helps them create literacy curricula in support of their diverse students who are learning English as their second (or third, fourth etc.) language. Through a dialogic method of participatory art-based discourse, students are empowered to share their narratives of immigration. Essential questions that are needed to effectuate and sustain this kind of pedagogy are: “how can art museums create space for the exploration of linguistic and cultural diversity and what role can they play in strengthening the immigrant voice?”

CALTA21 uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a methodology to encourage the development of  observation and speaking skills. There are many ways to scaffold learning by taking the time to carefully look at artworks in galleries. Embodied learning is one learning approach (see: Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant) where students physically engage with works of art in order to build personal and collective understandings about the work’s form, function and content. This type of participatory learning strengthens observational and communicative skills because it includes a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm (Zucker, 2018). Developing an art vocabulary is important, not only in the discussion around works of art, but also for applying that language to other subjects and aspects of life experience. Talking about art is beneficial to building language skills, because observing art requires a command of descriptive words that support critical thinking and noticing deeply. As students develop their own evidence-based interpretations about art, they learn to trust their eyes and the value of their own opinions while building collective knowledge via gallery visits and artmaking exercises.

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CALTA21 participants discussing a mural by Kevin Blythe Sampson at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Communicating thoughts and observations with others through CALTA21, has been proven to strengthen the literacy and critical thinking skills of participants. Anamaria Llanos, one of the lead Elizabeth School District teachers in the program, has seen firsthand how incorporating CALTA21 into her curriculum and lesson plans has increased student engagement and efficacy of language and literacy:

“CALT21 cultivates language and free thinking. It nurtures a dynamic environment where students are guided through thought provoking questions to engage prior knowledge and their imagination; develop and strengthen their voice; and promote language thought process. There is nothing more intimidating than talking about art, yet with CALTA21, a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere is created by the students themselves. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to participate and facilitate their own CALTA21 session at the museum is a teacher’s dream. The program encourages students to think outside of the box, be creative; and become more assertive in the way they look at the world” (Llanos, 2019, quoted in a press release from the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).

Making art accessible to multilingual viewers should be at the top of every museum and cultural center’s mission. By incorporating CALTA21 in their programming, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey –the state’s largest largest institution dedicated exclusively to  contemporary art– is providing a valuable opportunity for the 22.1 percent of the state’s immigrant population (as of 2015) to engage in viewing, making and learning through art. Other cultural institutions such as The Hudson River Museum have programs that support young docents who represent a spectrum of international backgrounds. Their junior docent program consists of students from each of the City of Yonkers’ public high schools, representing the city’s culturally, economically and socially diverse communities. Many of the docents are first generation Americans or recent immigrants to the United States. Participants in the program speak many different languages and have a variety of interests including art, science, dance, history and fashion. Having informational guides who speak multiple languages and have experiential knowledge about specific cultures, makes museums and their collections more accessible and relevant to more communities. Global Guides, Penn Museum’s docent program, employs refugees from the Middle East as gallery guides who lead visitors through thematic tours of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection of art and artifacts. Because these docents have lived in many of the regions where the art originated, they offer visitors unique insights and personal connections to the objects on display.

As people move from place to place to seek better opportunities or asylum, the incorporation of immigrant and refugee narratives into art and art education is necessary to reflect the diversity of our multicultural communities. Programs like CALTA21 and the aforementioned museum docent initiatives, give immigrants much needed authority to communicate and present their experiential knowledge in their own voices. What they have to say is also beneficial for developing empathetic understandings of the world at large.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Shih, Stephanie H. (n.d). “Artist’s Statement.” https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/32dc1-cv_public.pdf

Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “Visual Arts Center of NJ Receives IMLS Grant to Partner with Elizabeth Public Schools.” Visual Arts Center of N.J. Press Release, 20 Nov. 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant.” Artfully Learning, 27 Apr. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/embodied-learning-makes-the-classics-relevant/

Artful Equations

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Joshua Caleb Weibley, Excerpts from Engineering Forms, 2011, ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

In High School, I loathed math. I was obviously very interested and invested in art and music, and didn’t realize how artistic discovery relates to principles of mathematics (and vice versa). If I had been introduced to mathematical concepts via visual art, performance and music, perhaps it would have made a significant difference in my enthusiasm and effort in my math classes. I might have ended up challenging myself with numerical equations and problems, if artists like Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Piero della Francesca (whose day job was as a mathematician) and Sandro Botticelli were discussed in relation to the content we were learning in math class.

The confluence of art and math should have been a forgone conclusion, because the mathematics we know today has its foundations in art. The practice of synthetic geometry, which was discovered by the Greek mathematician Euclid, in the 4th Century (BCE), is still taught in schools and utilized by graphic artists and architects. Euclidean geometry uses tools like compasses, rulers and protractors to visualize optical dimensions in a physical and tangible manner. In the 15th Century, Filippo Brunelleschi’s concept of linear perspective (inspired by Euclid’s optics) changed both the disciplines of math and art in a monumental fashion. Linear perspective directed the way artists, such as dell Francesca, realized and depicted three-dimensional space within a flat picture plane. The resulting aesthetic explorations with linear perspective led to enormous breakthroughs in the fields of architecture, science and engineering. STEAM learning was a huge component of the Renaissance and its lasting influence, which is why it is so shocking that the arts have largely been left out of the equation in educational curricula until recently (Gunn, 2017).

The cultural impact of linear perspective and other aesthetic mathematical revelations is the subject of Lynn Gamwell’s book, Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History. Gamwell lays out the formulas and shows her work, in order to make the case that art and math are intrinsically linked and have progressed nicely together through time. Gamwell doesn’t solely focus on Western culture; she traces the topic of mathematics within human development back to prehistoric times and our early explorations with counting systems and pattern design. During the modern and contemporary eras, both mathematicians and artists have been concerned with more abstract ways of defining what space is and can be. Non-euclidean geometry gave way to theories regarding the relationship between space and time, which artists of the 19th and 20th centuries sought to visualize in their artwork.
When you look at Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, it is not a stretch to think about fractal geometry. There is mathematical theory testing to prove the correlation between Pollock’s chaotic splashes of paint and complex fractal patterns which are self-similar over different dimensions. As Jennifer Ouellette (2001) recounts, “the physicist Richard Taylor was on sabbatical in England six years ago when he realized that the same analysis could be applied to Pollock’s work. In the course of pursuing a master’s degree in art history, Taylor visited galleries and pored over books of paintings. At one point in his research, he began to notice that the drips and splotches on Pollock’s canvases seemed to create repeating patterns at different size scales—just like fractals.” In fact, Taylor did the math and revealed that Pollock’s painting Number 14 (1948) has a fractal dimension of 1.45, which is very similar to the fractal dimension of many natural coastlines (Taylor, Micolich and Jonas, 1999). In November 1945, Pollock and Lee Krasner moved to the town of East Hampton on Long Island, so he was definitely attuned to the natural seascapes nearby his home and studio.

The integration of math and aesthetics can also be deciphered within the work of artists such Dorothea Rockburne, Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Joshua Caleb Weibley and Nick Naber.

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Dorothea Rockburne, Egyptian Painting: Basalt, 1981, oil, glue, pencil on gessoed linen. Photograph by Nick Naber.

Dorothea Rockburne fulfills her academic interest and passion for math via her creative practice as a studio artist. While studying at the renowned Black Mountain College in the 1950s, she was influenced by a professor named Max Dehn, who was a leading practitioner and scholar in the mathematics of geometry, topology and geometric group theory. She is also intrigued by the scientific and astronomical explorations of Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, who she references in her painting Piero’s Sky (1991-92). The painting alludes to the ‘natural’ starry night skies that della Francesca depicts in paintings like The Dream of Constantine (1464), which reinforces his expertise as both an artist and astronomer (see: Valerio, 2011). The sublime and serene character of Renaissance humanism and the elongated forms Mannerism, are evident in many of Rockburne’s contemporary abstract paintings. She connects 15th and 16th century painting to topology, by creating geometric forms that retain their essence under material deformations that include bending, stretching and twisting. This mathematical treatment of her imagery also makes them feel as if they are in motion, akin to the avant-garde choreography of her friends from the Judson Dance Theater. Rockburne personally describes her painterly process, which results in very fluid and accurate geometric compositions, as “visually solving equations” (Hoban, 2015). In a 2013 article Rockburne wrote for the Brooklyn Rail, she elaborates on her studio process and its connection to math:

“During the ’60s and ’70s I struggled to find a new geometry, something beyond the grid and Euclid. Excited by topology and set theory I began to look at transitive geometry, always envisioning concepts in different, possible materials that could be made into art, but which were outside of art materials. Carbon paper seemed a perfect choice. My intuition demanded that previously unseen, invisible structures and proportions be made visible through a transitive process.” – Dorothea Rockburne (Sept. 2013)

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Jennifer Bartlett, House: Dots, Hatches, 1998, enamel on 81 baked enamel plates. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Jennifer Bartlett makes paintings that are inspired by systems based processes, sets, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style that comments on painting’s narrative history and its roots in geometry (see: Artful Arithmetic for further analysis of Bartlett’s math infused art practice).

Agnes Denes is also drawn to mathematical systems, ratios and proportions. She utilizes complex equations and improvises on the work of mathematicians like Pascal and Whitehead and Russell, in order to address social, political and ecological concerns. Her oft-environmentally themed artworks employ geometric structures such as pyramids and sets of flora planted to form patterns inspired by natural rhythmic and evolutionary phenomena (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences for more about Denes’ work).

Joshua Caleb Weibley utilizes synthetic geometry to create very intricately hand rendered drawings that discerningly provide insights into the evolution of technology, game theory and programming language. Many of his drawings parallel the ideological process of Minimalist art, the language of play and the optical mechanics of Op art. Weibley’s critical analysis of technology, presents it within the framework of time and space. His major focus is the coordinated obsolescence of technology, a process which is consistently stimulated by new technological advances and machine based learning. By replicating digital ephemera using an analog technique, Weibley’s art melds the fields of fine art, industrial engineering and computer science.

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Nick Naber, Facility 23, 2019, marker and graphite on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Nick Naber’s technically stunning paintings and drawings adopt a personalized mathematical process that highlights line, geometry, and repetitive gesture to make commentary on architecture’s affect on the human psyche. Naber’s geometric structures, which largely resemble archetypal modern and post-modern buildings, impose upon one another to form implied three-dimensional compositions. These structures are drawn to scale and often based on odd numbers, often sets of three. They are like a contemporary version of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prisons,’ because they similarly form fantastical architectural labyrinths, which are Kafkaesque in nature. Through Euclidean geometry, Naber’s works envelop the viewer with the illusion of feeling trapped, alienated and/or imprisoned within the confines of overarching forms.

The aforementioned artists represent a few examples of how mathematical processes and aesthetic concepts inform one another. With mathematical knowledge and tactile skills, artists continue to probe, explain and expound upon the phenomena of our lived experiences. For the people like myself who struggle with didactic math (i.e. studying baseline formulas), analyzing works of art that combine math, science and technology, can open inquiring minds into developing a better understanding and application of these fields.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Hoban, Pheobe. “Works in Progress,” T Magazine, 15 May, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/15/t-magazine/17older-female-artists-agnes-dene-herrera-rockbourne-farmanfarmaian.html

Gamwell, Lynn. Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History, New Jersey: Princeton, 2016.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/surface-substitution/art-and-maths, accessed 17 March 2019.

Gunn, Jennifer. “What is STEAM Education?” Room 241, A Blog by Concordia University, 8 Nov. 2017. https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/leaders-link/importance-of-arts-in-steam-education/

Ouellette, Jennifer. “Pollock’s Fractals,” Discover Magazine, 31 Oct. 2001. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/pollocks-fractals

Rockburne, Dorothea. “Points of Change; A Painter’s Journey,” Brooklyn Rail, 4 Sept. 2013. https://brooklynrail.org/2013/09/criticspage/points-of-change-a-painters-journey

Taylor, Richard, Micolich, Adam and Jonas, David. “Fractal analysis of Pollock’s drip paintings,” Nature 399, 422,

Valerio, Vladimiro. “Piero della Francesca’s Sky in The Dream of Constantine,” The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI. ASP Conference Series, Vol. 441. San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2011, p.161, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2011ASPC..441..161V, accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

The Fourth Grade Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Process of Play: confronting systems of inequity through art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Art of the Syllabus

A syllabus is an essential guide that communicates the what, why, when, and how for learning within an academic course. But can a syllabus be both a course outline as well as a work of art? The possibilities are certainly ripe for the picking. A good syllabus is one that is ‘contagious’, according to novelist, poet and educator Jesse Ball.

Ball expands this philosophy by saying:

“It is a very good thing if a syllabus is contagious. That is—if one of your students shows the syllabus to someone else, and if then that person is possessed by a sudden desire to take the class, or even to begin conducting research along parallel lines.”

To be possessed; drawn in by sudden desire; have an urge to share an experience with someone else and conduct further research, is parallel to the way a good work of art attracts and inspires us. We see a painting on the wall of a museum and it draws us in. We are guided by its form, function and content. This visual possession might lead us to investigate the context of the work and even make connections to similarly attributed work by that artist/movement or artwork from other cultures and eras that share specific thematic ideas.

Since the syllabus is the first document of exchange between a student and teacher, why not make it as compelling and as critical as a work of art? This is certainly what Ball does with his classes at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago where his syllabi encourage students to ditch their mobile phones in favor of long walks; become participants in the Franz Kafka Fancier Society of Chicago; and lucid dream. These course outlines are replete with creative requirements and reading lists that encourage students to think big, take risks and acquire agency for their learning. The visual arts do this very well via the Studio Habits of Mind.

If a syllabus can be defined as “a summary outline of a discourse, treatise, or course of study or of examination requirements,” then visual artists have been creating syllabi since antiquity. Take the Narmer Palette (c. 3200-3000 BCE) from 1st Dynasty Egypt, which has been interpreted as a treatise and guideline describing the dynamic and divine power of a king. The stone palette (typically used for applying makeup) depicts Narmer, who some historians suggest is also known as Menes, uniting Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. The engraving features some of the earliest examples of hieroglyphics, as well as canonical forms for depicting Egyptian gods and kings. There is lots of room for debate as to whether Narmer (whose identity is still unclear) should get the credit for unifying Ancient Egypt. Whatever the case may be, it can be surmised that the stone palette served as an outline that reminded contemporary citizens of the king’s divine prowess.

Another ancient syllabus is the Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), a tall stone stele with over 300 laws inscribed using cuneiform script. The script describes an action and the resulting consequence of that action, such as ‘an eye for an eye’ (later appropriated in the Bible). These are requirements of legal and moral conduct that were known throughout Babylonian society. These are ancient ‘course expectations!’

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George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963

Modern and contemporary artists have taken initiatives to define their objectives, goals and contemplative statements of purpose by putting pen to paper.

The Fluxus artists’ instructive prompts read like course materials and assignments that one might see within a creative syllabus. Artist manifestos, such as the ones written by the artists from the Bauhaus and Fluxus movements, and Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Enduring Rules for the Creative Life are types of syllabi. The artist duo Gilbert and George believed in the concept of ‘Art for All,’ which demystifies the oft-abstract and erudite relationship  between the viewer and the artwork. According to them this esoteric art is “decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.” Their first manifesto titled The Laws of Sculptors (1969), sought to amend and re-purpose the academic and institutional ideas that defined the medium of sculpture, which they felt was stifling to the growth and development of contemporary artists. They did so in a manner that expressed their sense of humor and challenged the status quo:

“1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control.

2. Make the world believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.

3. Never worry, assess, discuss or criticize but remain quiet respectful and calm.

4. The Lord chisels still, so don’t leave your bench for long.”

In his essay titled “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture,” Adam Heidebrink-Bruno (2014) states that “a well-written syllabus should prove to be a useful educative artifact, embedded with rich cultural and political meaning worthy of much time and contemplation.” Approaching the syllabus in a manner that breaks through the status quo of syllabi –a banal listing of authoritative expectations, grading policy/rubrics, and the mention of office hours as an afterthought to name a few– provides students and teachers with an artifact that serves as a mission statement for co-creating a productive learning environment. With a set of understandings that are encouraging and expressively stated the educator is setting up the tone for a give and take with their students. Starting out the class with a collaborative discussion about a classroom bill of rights would enable students and teachers to define the framework of their learning and behavior throughout the course. Being that it is a bill of rights, these ideas can be amended over the course of time if need be and if it is mutually agreeable to everyone in the class.

A syllabus, like education, is an artifact in flux and should develop and get amended over time. It should reflect the interests of the teacher, while opening the students up to possibilities to go above and beyond the required course content. The syllabus doesn’t have to be a conceptual document, but the more it encourages critical thinking and suggests diverse avenues of exploration, the more contagious it will be. And that might just lead to more engaged (and awake) students! It would be interesting to have a whole course around the ‘art of the syllabi,’ where throughout the semester, the tables get turned and the students create the guidelines, suggested readings, assignments and evaluations for themselves.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Ball, Jesse. 2016. Notes on My Dunce Cap. New York: Pioneer Works Press.

Baker, Harriet. “10 game-changing art manifestos.” Royal Academy, 10 April 2015. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ten-game-changing-manifestos

Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 28 Aug. 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/

The Kids Are Alright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

Are we there yet?

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Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (detail), 2018. Installed and on view at the Brooklyn Museum

“Are we there yet?”

To answer this question, we might respond with several questions of our own, such as: “who is WE?” or “where is THERE?” It is a question that can be either simple or loaded. We might think about career or personal milestones that we have set (and whether we have been successful in checking them off the list); places we have gone to (perhaps as a child you consistently asked this question to the adults on long car rides); or social, emotional and cultural viewpoints. The answer to “are we there yet?” is completely subjective and largely depends on individual and/or group experiences and perspectives.

On Saturday, March 23, my wife and I joined the artist, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and several others on an ‘artist’s walk’ between the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Central Library. We began our discussion on the steps outside of the museum, where Rasheed’s I AM POROUS. TODAY, I LEAK PREPOSITIONS. SO, I WILL ASK AGAIN, DO YOU HAVE A SIEVE? (2018) is installed. The installation is composed of several vinyl propositions affixed to the concrete steps, which read (to name a few) ‘after’ ‘before’ ‘above’ ‘along’ and ‘below.’ Rasheed prompted us to pick a word that spoke to us and our relationship to others and stand next to it. We then partook in a conversation with the other people who chose the same word. My wife and I choose the word ‘after’ and along with three other strangers, we engaged in a discussion regarding the language functions of the word. Our cohort came up with definitions, syntax, concepts and intersectional relationships for ‘after’. We then regrouped with Rasheed and the others and discussed how all the prepositions have multiple meanings in regards to how we think about past, present and future narratives and constructs.

We then went into the museum and gathered around Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (2018), which consists of four textile banners, on view within the museum’s entrance. The artwork’s intent is to prompt individuals of all ages to elicit responses to problem posing questions (Freire, 1970) including: “Are we there yet?” “After hope, then what?” “Is this the last time?” and “Did you think it would get easier after this?”

We were invited to congregate around a question that we felt was most pertinent to our own lives and discussed it with others in our group who chose the same question. The responses ranged from personal to collective and addressed themes that are social, emotional and political. We spoke about what we thought the future might hold in relationship to our sense of self, collective identity and the environment. In times of flux and ambiguity (which largely define our contemporary culture), it is helpful to come together and share feelings, aspirations, assessments and ideas about how we can address pertinent societal issues going forward.

After several people shared their responses to the questions, we walked roughly six minutes down Eastern Parkway towards the Brooklyn Central Library, where Rasheed’s interactive project Scoring the Stacks (2019) is installed in the main lobby. The participatory installation instructs visitors to select cards (possibly referencing card catalogues of yesteryear) with ‘scores’ that direct and elicit specific actions. For example, one card tells the holder to go to the reference ‘Society, Sciences & Technology’ section and choose a blue book, read the last page and choose a word that you would like to use in future conversations. The participant answers their prompts and deposits a carbon copy (they take home the original in a folio) into a box, which is then utilized for other participatory projects, which include: collaborative flash fiction writing, songwriting and choreography.

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An example of one of my responses to a prompt from Scoring the Stacks.

Scoring the Stacks is symbolic of how we can learn through noticing deeply and making connections to past and present information, while thinking ahead to the future. While going through the library on the de facto scavenger hunt, I became more aware of other things, such as the library’s special collections; other interactive exhibitions on view; and the diversity of the people who utilize the library’s breadth of resources. Sharing my own insights and hearing the insights of others made the experience incredibly fulfilling and efficacious. Throughout the two-hour artist’s walk, I enjoyed listening to all of the thoughtful responses from each individual and opening my mind to new perspectives and information.

Participatory-centered artwork has major benefits on the way we construct knowledge and experience in a collaborative environment. Rasheed’s installations at the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Library are the crux of inquiry based learning, where questions and actions, rather than statements, become the impetus for the creation of knowledge. Rasheed’s practice embodies a constructivist form of pedagogy, centered on formulating knowledge through socialization and collaboration. In fact, prior to becoming a full-time artist, Rasheed was a high school history teacher.

Rasheed’s artistic practice combines progressive pedagogy, history and literacy, focusing on the intersection of these elements with multicultural identity and placemaking. Scoring the Stacks is both an engaging activity and a teachable moment, where we co-create new knowledge in collaboration with the artist, in order to make insightful realizations about our unique relationships with history and public spaces. The Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Library are ideal environments for an artful activation of public space, because they function as pedagogical institutions for the community at large.

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Installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed at the Brooklyn Central Library. Photograph by Kelly Kimura (@pageonesixtyone).

On the atrium of the library is a quote from Rasheed, which reads like a mantra for self-discovery and interconnectivity with the world around us: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, i decided to wander.” This quote brings to mind the idea of playful exploration and experiential learning, which makes building knowledge a worthwhile lifelong process. When we allow ourselves to let go of convention in favor of exploration and embracing ambiguity (both studio habits of mind that the arts teach us), we gain a wide range of metacognitive and critical thinking skills, while exhibiting empathy and expressing ourselves through multifaceted means. American educational philosopher, Maxine Greene (1995) states that the arts empower our minds to examine and interact with the unknown and uncertain. Therefore, I don’t think the question “are we there yet?” can ever be repletely answered, because we are always learning and creating new personal and communal experiences each and every day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. Pg 12.

Greene, Maxine. 1995. Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Springgay, Stephanie, Irwin, Rita L., and Kind, Sylvia Wilson. “A/r/tography as Living Inquiry Through Art and Text” Qualitative Inquiry. 2005 11: 897. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rita_Irwin/publication/258181966_Artography_as_Living_Inquiry_Through_Art_and_Text/links/00b7d5323b351ac803000000.pdf