Summer Reading List

Congratulations teachers, you are at the finish line for the year! While it is time to trade the classroom for wherever your heart desires, the truth is that art and education never take vacations. Therefore, while you are just relaxing or traveling from adventure to adventure, the following very concise selection of books will keep you feeling inspired to vacation artfully.

I don’t know about you, but museums are an essential part of any travel itinerary I make. This post features two influential books that address engaging experiences at art museums. Museums have evolved into so much more than a repository for fine objects. They have focused on fostering participatory-based relationships with their diverse visitors. The two books that I am recommending below are important resources for understanding contemporary museum models and ensuring that you are making the most out of the museum experience.

Exploring museums in this manner is a vital a learning tool, and should be part of any art (or science, history etc.) curriculum. Museum exploration is a key tenet for social, emotional and cognitive learning, because it enables viewers to perceive and respond to things in a unique way. The museum experience acknowledges that viewers will fulfill their own desired paths while interacting with the physical space, the collection and one another. Museums are great examples of spaces where differentiation of learning styles and dialogical methods (see: Shor & Freire, 1987) for creating knowledge are implemented.

I previously wrote about some pedagogical functions museums have within society in the post The Classroom in the White Box


Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 12.59.34 PMThe Museum Experience by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking (Whalesback Books 1992), is an experiential research-based book about why people go to museums. In a very clear and concise manner, the authors explain what visitors often expect prior to visiting a museum; what they do when they get there; and what they take away from the experience. The quantitative and qualitative data collected for this book is explicitly explained in a manner that is helpful for anyone who is interested in museology, sociology, curatorial practice and museum education.

Essentially, The Museum Experience is contextualized from the perspective of the viewer. Therefore, it should be especially helpful for museum administrators, curators and educators who are looking to increase engagement and recurring visits.

For example, the book discusses the different ways that visitors move throughout the museum and how they behave while creating their pathways throughout the building. The interactive experience is described in three overlapping categories: Personal Context, Social Context, and Physical Context.

There is a strong pedagogical focus around making the museum experience central to individuals and groups. This vision is bolstered by the philosophy that viewers are meaningful co-constructors of knowledge and experiences within cultural institutions. This philosophy and methodology is applicable to all areas of the museum or institution from accessibility (i.e. museum layout and exhibition design) to special programming that focuses on equity and equality. Museums must be places where everyone in the community is welcome and have the agency to engage with the overarching museum environment. Taking astute account of visitor-centered experiences in conjunction with the demography of visitors is necessary for museum staff to create welcoming participatory spaces that enable visitors to feel comfortable and inspired.

The next book recommendation below takes a very precise and critical look into the individualization of museums and cultural institutions.


Screen Shot 2019-06-07 at 1.26.35 PMThe Personalization of the Museum Visit, by Seph Rodney, Routledge (2019)

Seph Rodney specializes in museology and the ways that we engage with our cultural institutions. His first book, titled The Personalization of the Museum Visit scrutinizes the history of Western museums in order to explore the current framework many institutions have put in place to develop a viewer-centered participatory environment.

Rodney’s research reveals that contemporary museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text, but rather environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space. Just as pedagogy has progressed to fulfill diverse learning styles and student-centered interests, museology  has taken account of unique interests and diverse identities.

Rodney explains that today’s museums are driven to incorporate distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs. Akin to our collective culture, these needs are influenced by factors such as “social interaction (meeting friends for drinks, for example), spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). Contemporary museums have addressed these needs by creating inviting spaces for visitors to congregate or contemplate; interdisciplinary events that bring large and diverse groups together; adult and family workshops; artist talks, panel discussions, screenings and other informative programming; and novel culinary and commercial spaces.

Another key area for museum operation is crowdsourcing methods for developing a communal dialectic and collaborative aesthetic in tandem with the public. For example, museums have increased their mission to co-create meaning by giving viewers agency as co-curators, collaborators and exhibitors.

Rodney cites examples of crowdsourcing: In 2014, The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, exhibited collaborative drawings created by visitors while they were at the museum. In the same year, the Frye Museum in Seattle initiated an exhibition called #SocialMedium, which featured a selection of works made by visitors utilizing social media. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave curatorial agency to the public during their exhibition Boston Loves Impressionism, by asking them to vote on the selection of works to be displayed in the show. The popular vote resulted in the final collection of paintings within the exhibition.

These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of public spaces. Museums that take heed of the visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them.


This concludes another edition of suggested books that would be apt for readers of this blog. These titles and the previously suggested publications, fuel my own artful learning and enduring understandings about education, visual art and placemaking. I hope that you will also find meaning in what you read here and make significant connections to your own practice. Happy summer and happy reading! Please feel free to contact me if you have any particular book recommendations in relationship to the integration of contemporary art, museums and educational practices. 


Additional References and Notes:

Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic, 22 Jan. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/267096/the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/

Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. “What Is the ‘Dialogical Method’ of Teaching?” Journal of Education, vol. 169, no. 3, Oct. 1987, pp. 11–31, doi:10.1177/002205748716900303.

 

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Spring Reading List

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Happy break, happy reading, and happy artfully learning!

Artists as Illustrators: Promoting Visual Literacy

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

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

Ringgold has written, illustrated, and published 17 children’s books and received the prestigious Ezra Jack Keets New Writer Award for her debut book, Tar Beach (1991), a book based on her quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). Tar Beach tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Quilts are relevant as an illustrative medium because of their history as a vehicle for telling stories. Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to a traditional American craft movement, which has strong associations to the collaborative labor of women and African aesthetics. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980).

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

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A selection of books illustrated by Benny Andrews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Reading List

As educators are preparing for their Winter vacation (maybe some are already there!), I have compiled a short reading list of books, because art and education never truly take a break! These engaging publications each address topics related to art, activism, education, and overall ways to live life more creatively and collaboratively.

I’m constantly looking for additional art and education themed titles for my own personal reading list, so please feel free to share what you’ve been reading and/or recommend (comment below or contact me).


Art as Therapy, Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, Phaidon Press (October 14, 2013)

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Art as Therapy explores the history of art and architecture by utilizing visual metaphors and representational imagery in pre-modern, modern, and contemporary works of art, in order to make meaningful connections to social, cultural, and emotional facets of our everyday lives.

Reflecting and assessing art’s purpose in a Deweyian tone, the authors, Button and Armstrong, envision ways to experience art that become intrinsic to the human experience.

Each chapter in the book represents a different social, emotional, or cultural theme, which the authors argue, can be bolstered and humanized through an application of artistic understanding and appreciation. For each topic (Love, Nature, Money, and Politics), corresponding artworks exemplify how art can prompt us to deal with complex personal and societal issues in a cathartic and mindful manner. It is a good primer on how art should be enjoyable, enlightening, and, ultimately, a life-affirming experience.

Art as Therapy can be a helpful resource for artists and educators looking to create projects that express a deeper understanding of art’s sociocultural role within society at large. In the appendix, the authors provide an Agenda for Art, which I have personally found inspiring when writing lesson plans. The agenda breaks down the bigger picture of each chapter in the book, so that enduring understandings can be made between works of art life in general. This has been helpful for creating learning segments that connect creating and viewing art to students’ prior knowledge, what they are currently learning in other subjects, and relevant personal experiences. All of these elements incorporate the profound impact that art-centered experiences can have on our healthy development.

In summation, Art as Therapy‘s pragmatic approach to artistic immersion, is indicative of art’s benefits for teaching to the whole-individual. This means that our overall relationship with art should elevate beyond simply relaying fundamental skills (i.e. ‘teaching to the test’ or ‘art-for-art’s sake’), in order to create deeper holistic meaning and personal expression, by connecting artful experiences to the human condition.


Education for Socially Engaged Art:A Materials and Techniques Handbook., Pablo Helguera, Jorge Pinto Books (October 5, 2011)

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Education for Socially Engaged Art
is a practical guide and seminal text for anyone wishing to explore, discover, and gain insight into the discipline of Social Practice Art.

As an artist and educator, Pablo Helguera breaks down the complex conceptual framework of socially engaged art into a useful tome for applying and relating art and pedagogy in a manner that resonates within diverse communities.

Helguera makes connections between contemporary art-driven activism and the influential philosophy and work of previous artists (visual and performance) and educators. By linking the past contributions of socially engaged art to present practices, Education for Socially-Engaged Art is a compendium of inspiring ideas based on both extensive research and empirical experience. Furthermore, this book presents the essential tools and techniques for those who aspire to work in creative cooperation with communities in the public realm. Helguera’s form of writing leaves things very open-ended, which is

Topics addressed include: documentation, community engagement, discourse, and transpedagogy. The latter describes transferring ideas from progressive education within works of art that are intended to function as an alternative to the traditional classroom and/or the art institution. The artist as educator provides instructional scaffolding and creative prompts intended to a build communal partnership within the community (or the population they are working with) in order to co-create new works of art and experiences. This idea echoes Paolo Freire’s ‘problem-posing pedagogy,’ where knowledge is a collaborative process reliant on co-learning that happens through a dialectic between students and educators.


Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Claire Bishop, Verso (July 24, 2012)

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In this seminal theoretical text on participatory aesthetics, Claire Bishop scrutinizes key moments in the artist-viewer relationship over the course of the past 200 years. Bishop’s book (along with Helguera’s) is an essential read for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of how art can be utilized in a socially transformative manner.

Bishop provides many inspiring examples from the history of art, of artists who relied on the participation of the viewer during the artistic process. To illustrate her point, she drew from within the Italian Futurist and French Dada movements, the Situationist International, Happenings in Eastern Europe, Argentina and Paris, the 1970s Community Arts Movement, and the Artists Placement Group. A good portion of the artists, artworks, and art movements that Bishop features in her book are largely under-known within the framework of Western culture. Bishop’s focus on marginalized artists and under-recognized movements within Western art is a refreshing, bold, and reflective take on critical theory and art history.

Bishop also writes about influential art projects that blend pedagogical and aesthetic practices, citing examples of work by artists including Paweł Althamer, Tania Bruguera, Paul Chan, and Thomas Hirschhorn.

Overall, Artificial Hells presents a well argued thesis for a more fearless and analytical engagement with socially engaged art.


 

Happy holidays, happy reading, and happy artfully learning!

 

 

Making a list, checking it twice, going to receive some artistic advice

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Jerry Saltz’s 33 lessons for being an artist, 2018. via @jerrysaltz

The influential New York based art critic, Jerry Saltz, recently published a list of thirty-three ‘lessons for being an artist.’ Saltz’s teachings range from being lighthearted, frank, sensible, and mysterious. They are roughly open-ended guidelines with lots of room for the reader’s interpretation. For example, Lesson 14 Compare Cats and Dogs appears confounding and esoteric, however, it can be comprehended in many ways. Cats and dogs are sometimes compared by pet owners and some might declare that they are either a ‘cat person’ or a ‘dog person.’ Saltz is possibly suggesting that debate, discourse, and creating art around topics that are out of your comfort zone or out of the ordinary is an important part of the artistic process. The Greeks invented the expression cata doxa, which translates as ‘contrary to experience of belief.’ One of the studio habits of mind that we learn through the arts is to embrace ambiguity (see: Educating Through Art), which means that artists are aware that at times they will need to make judgements in the absence of any clear-cut solutions. The arts teach us to explore, discover, and make insightful symbolic expressions. If an initial process doesn’t pan out, artists understand that issues are complex and can likely be discerned and attempted in several other ways.

Realizations that resolutions to complex problems require patience and multiple steps and endeavors, is reflected in lessons 5, Work, Work Work; 21 Define Success (what is an achievable and meaningful goal in your mind?); and 25 Learn to Deal With Rejection (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again). The arts enable us to take direct action through creatively assessing/reflecting upon our work and accept risks based on syntheses of what we’ve experienced and learned in prior explorations.

Not everyone will agree with everything on Saltz’s list, which is OK because it is meant as a motivational prompt and conversation starter. It might even be accepted as a work of art in its own right (Saltz certainly takes ample creative liberties). The idea behind these types of lists is to get people to start thinking like an artist. Being an artist means not simply accepting things at face value or making something ‘aesthetically’ pleasing to view. Artists question (studio habit of mind) existing aesthetic, social, and cultural structures and push the limitations of their own media in order to communicate symbolically within society at large. Being an artist encompasses (among other things) lessons 10 Find(ing) Your Own Voice; 15 Understand(ing) That Art is Not Just for Looking At; and embracing the idea that Art Is a Form of Knowing Yourself (Lesson 29).

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Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life, 1967-68.

Saltz’s recent list is in the good company of prior lists from champions of artistic learning such as the late artist, educator, and nun, Sister Corita Kent, who created ten rules for students, teachers, and life in 1967-68. The list has been popularized the composer/artist John Cage, however, while Cage did contribute to the list (see: Rule 10 in the image above), Kent created this list as part of a class project while teaching at Immaculate Heart College, a former private Catholic college in Los Angeles, California.

Kent’s list serves as sagely and flexible advice for living life in a more creative capacity. It incorporates the trials and tribulations, as well as the joys of being an artist (or being artful) and/or an educator. Advice such as Rule 1: Find a place you trust and try trusting it for a while, reflects studio habits of mind like noticing deeply, and identifying patterns. In other words, spend time with your concept, trust the process, and plan for long term interactions and relationships with intricate layers of details, recognizing that is may change over the course of time. This aforementioned methodology is also significant of Rule 4: Consider everything an experiment, which additionally ties into studio habits of mind such as creating meaning, living with ambiguity, taking action, and making connections. Artistic learning, growth, and development is dependent upon explorations leading to a plethora of unique discoveries and insights. Rules 2 (General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students) and 3 (General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students) are in line with educational philosophies such as Paulo Freire’s ‘problem-based learning’ model, where students and teachers are active collaborators throughout the learning process. In fact, Corita Kent’s rules were exhibited around the same time as Freire’s seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) was published.

In the educational sphere, teachers utilize lists as key visual elements and influential tenets that motivate and support learning. Many art classrooms have lists meant to inspire students to be active participants in class and trust their own creative instincts. A common rule among art educators is that ‘artists turn mistakes into art.’ In addition to being Corita Kent’s rule #6, this philosophy was made famous throughout the world by Bob Ross, the renowned television art educator whose show The Joy of Painting aired from 1983 to 1994. Ross said “we don’t make mistakes, we make happy accidents.”

Joy is a key component of Kent’s list too. Kent’s Rule 9 states “be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.”

Perhaps you are an educator who has adorned your classroom with inspirational lists by others or yourself. Or maybe you are a creative professional (or just love creating for fun) and keep influential lists and notes in your studio. These notes and lists might include mental images, which you have not had the chance to record on paper. I am interested in knowing what kinds of tenets are included within your existing lists OR if you have not created one yet, what would some of the core items be if you were to create a list focused on artistic growth, creativity, or artfully learning?*

 

* Please feel free and inspired to answer the prompts in the comments


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Popova, Maria. “10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent.” Brainpickings. 10 Aug. 2010. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/08/10/10-rules-for-students-and-teachers-john-cage-corita-kent/

Saltz, Jerry. “How to Be an Artist: 33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).” Vulture. 27 Nov. 2018. https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/jerry-saltz-how-to-be-an-artist.html

Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture

Throughout his 70 year-long career, Stan Lee (1922-2018) created many of the major comic book superheroes that are known throughout the world. He introduced us to a diverse array of characters with varying degrees of superpowers and complex personal narratives, such as Spider Man, The Black Panther, and the mutant collective known as the X-Men.

Lee’s work in comics impacts our collective culture in a manner that goes above and beyond mere entertainment. Through the many comics that he published under his company, Marvel Comics, Lee has inspired generations of children, adolescents, and adults to think critically, develop their literacy skills, and expand their imaginations. His comic books are embedded with real life issues, which makes his otherwise superhuman characters appear approachable and….well, human. In Lee’s comic book universe, traditional linear storytelling and simple dualities are turned upside down and revised to reflect a more Humanist form of fiction. His comic book stories surpass the obvious tried and true tale of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong, where the bad character(s) commits a crime, which the good character(s) solves. Instead, the Marvel characters and their associated problems represent similar multifaceted issues that we all face in our daily lives. Issues such as race, gender, violence, corruption, and authoritative governments, are common causes for the characters in Marvel Comics to grapple with. The typical ‘good-guys’ and ‘villains’ are actually well-rounded individuals with traits that are both admirable and problematic. This is because Stan Lee incorporated very humanizing elements into each character that he introduced into the realm of visual culture.

For example, Magneto, the main adversary that the X-Men faced, was once an ally and collaborator of Dr. Charles Xavier (Professor X), the founder of the school for mutants that supports the X-Men. Both individuals are portrayed as influential leaders who stand up for the rights of marginalized groups, however, their methods of working towards achieving this goal are in stark contrast with one another. While they are each important advocates for mutant rights (which can be interpreted as being symbolic of all marginalized groups within society), Professor X calls for a diplomatic approach of integrating mutants and non-mutants together, while Magneto calls for the use of force against non-mutants, who have treated the mutants as second-class citizens. Parallels to historical and current events and figures can be made using the two ideologies to express different forms of activism and sociopolitical organization. For example, some critics have suggested that they are both inspired by historical Civil Rights leaders. Dr. Xavier is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, while Magneto has been compared to Malcolm X (Godski, 2011). Lee’s narratives regarding the relationship between Magneto and the X-Men tread carefully as to not express moral superiority of one ideology over another. Instead, the characters are portrayed in an open-ended manner, which is indicative of multiple social, cultural, and political thoughts. Lee himself stated that he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.”

Blurring fiction and non-fiction is something that makes Marvel Comics a socially engaged form of art and literature. Stan Lee and his collaborators kept their comics relevant with the times, which is poignantly evident in the creation and development of Captain America. Captain America is a patriotic hero, introduced during WWII, who initially defeated Fascist regimes, and embraced the progressive idea of multiculturalism. However, over the course of the comic’s ongoing story line there have been ominous warnings that patriotism could lead to the same oppressive ideologies that Captain America opposed. At one point, Captain America represented zealous Nationalism and right-wing propaganda. This happened when Captain America’s original alter-ego, Steve Rogers, had taken a hiatus (he was thought to have been dead) from society and Captain America’s persona was taken on by an admirer named William Burnside. Through Burnside, Captain America embodied a darker side of patriotism. Burnside represented all that could go awry when blindly led by specific dogmatic ideologies in lieu of facts, critical thinking, and empathy.

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Stan Lee’s ‘Soapbox’ on bigotry and racism.

While Captain America addressed Fascism, Lee’s character, The Black Panther, took on racism. The Black Panther character was introduced in 1966, which makes him the first black superhero in mainstream comic book culture. The complex and compelling narrative of the Black Panther was inspired by the Afrofuturist genre, where the culture of the African diaspora is combined with fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, and non-Western metaphysics. Afrofuturism envisions a world that overcomes White Supremacy and oppression of Africans by Western forces. In the Black Panther series, the protagonist is T’Challa, the king and guardian of a fictional African nation called Wakanda. Wakanda is a thriving nation where scientific advances go above and beyond the scope of the science introduced by Western civilization. Most significantly, Wakanda is a place where blackness is celebrated and issues such as discrimination and racism are confronted directly. When the comic book character was adapted into a film in early 2018, an educator by the name of Tess Raser, designed and implemented a curriculum around the major themes (multiculturalism, feminism, racism, scientific progress, etc.) of the Black Panther narrative.

In addition to encouraging social justice, diversity, and critical thinking, Lee was an advocate of visual literacy. In 2010 he formed the Stan Lee Foundation in order to bring attention to the integration of literacy, pedagogy, and the arts. The mission of the foundation is to support programming and methodologies that expand student’s access to literacy resources that promote cultural diversity.  The fact that Lee was a strong supporter of literacy is not surprising, considering that comic books and graphic novels provide an excellent framework for developing and strengthening reading and creativity. Because comic books combine visual and written language, they’re a prime resource for learning to make associations between language and other forms of expression. This can be especially beneficial for students who are emergent language learners (or developing bi-lingual learners) because the sequential narratives within comics are presented in an accessible manner that uses symbolic and descriptive imagery to bolster the written dialogue.

As a result of the wide range of themes and symbolism present in comic books, several contemporary artists have been attracted to them. Artwork by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Linda Stein, Raymond Pettibon, Chitra Ganesh, re-present comic book imagery in order to address contemporary sociocultural themes.

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“Slave Traders” (Captain America), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983.

When assessing his prior artistic experiences, Jean-Michel Basquiat stated “I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist…really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.” Despite this claim, Basquiat developed a highly personal database of symbolic imagery, which is as iconic as the Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters that inspired him. While comic book superheroes make up a relatively small part of his prolific oeuvre, it is obvious that Stan Lee’s creations represented an important part of Basquiat’s artistic development.

Basquiat’s use of superheroes in his paintings make connections and create new meaning around issues of intersectional identity. Basquiat’s incorporation of different sources from popular culture, visual culture, and history, reflected his poignant responses to the pandemic of bigotry and violence against black individuals. The superheroes in his paintings included both fictional Marvel (and D.C.) comic book characters, as well as real-life African American influences such as Mohammad Ali and Charlie Parker. Basquiat’s heroes are both triumphant and tragic and embody the many trials and tribulations of black culture within the American landscape.

While satire and political critique have ancient roots (see: Elliot, 2004), the origin of the comics as a socially engaged visual artform dates back to the 18th century in England, where individuals like William Hogarth and James Gillray created the precursor to the modern comic strip. Hogarth’s series of politically inspired satire was called “modern moral subjects,” his most famous of which included A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage A-la-Mode. Gillray was a renowned caricaturist, who famously created burlesque criticisms of authoritative figures such as King George III (see: Farmer George and his Wife) and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1841, Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells founded a magazine called Punch, which mass produced politically charged comics by a variety of artists. The magazine was highly successful and lasted until 1992.

Hogarth, Gillray, Mayhew, and Landells’ work inspired many other artists to take a socially conscious approach to their work. For example, Thomas Nast, one of the seminal American satirists of the 19th century used the power of visual imagery to make sweeping statements about corruption. His 1874 wood-engraving Jewels Among Swine, which depicts the police as swine with batons, engaging affably with gangsters, while arresting women activists that were protesting against the lack of enforcement against crime. This graphic style of shocking and captivating satirical narration is evident in the work of many contemporary artists such as Spain Rodriguez and Raymond Pettibon.

Rodriguez’s inspirations came from underground comix scene (see: Estren, 1974), motorcycle culture, and progressive politics. His 1969 comic strip Manning, is a film noir inspired narrative of a crooked detective who takes little issue with using his authority to lie, cheat, steal, and brutalize innocent civilians. The graphic nature of Rodriguez’s art is reminiscent of  modern comic book artists such as EC Comics‘ Wally Wood.

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Raymond Pettibon, No Title (We destroy the), 1983. Private Collection, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Raymond Pettibon’s artistic origins manifested within the punk rock music scene during the late 1970s. He made artwork, zines, and album covers for punk bands such as Black Flag. Pettibon’s unique style of brash line drawing combined with symbolic text, poignantly connect fine art with popular and underground visual culture. His drawings establish a contemporary dialog with the socially charged political cartoons of Thomas Nast and the expressive art of Goya (among others). Pettibon frames his imagery in a novel way that references both past and present narratives while consciously leaving room for interpretation. As an artist whose inspiration frequently is derived via comic book culture, Pettibon uses the comic strip format to deconstruct certain sociocultural frameworks (see: Zucker, 2017). For example, comic book icons depicted as homosexual lovers (Batman and Robin), or his 1983 drawing No Title (We destroy the), can be interpreted as a mocking rebuttal to Fredric Wertham’s condemnation of comic books as being degrading to culture because of sexually suggestive themes (see: Wartham’s Seduction of the Innocent, 1954).

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Linda Stein, Justice for All 698, 2018, collage/archival inks, paper, wood, 79 x 24 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Linda Stein and Chitra Ganesh each implement comic book styles and themes into their artworks, which focus on the intersectionality of identity and systemic marginalization. Linda Stein portrays archetypal superhero symbolism and iconic characters to comment on the strength, audacity, vitality, and perseverance of ‘the other’ throughout history. Steins Knights of Protection series (2002-) is inspired by armor and uniforms worn by superheroes and other powerful figures throughout time. These “androgynous sentinel-like figures” are intended to stand guard against oppressive and demeaning forces. Stein also creates wearable sculptures, which she calls Body Swapping Armor (2007-) that embody guardian-like qualities and give the wearer a sense of self and collective value. Some of the symbols on these protective suits resemble insignia affixed to the outfits worn by comic book heroes. In addition to her sculpture, Stein’s ongoing mixed-media series Superheroes, Icons, and Fantasy Females (2007-), appropriates the likeness of women from comic books to question what makes a hero and address stereotypical gender references in popular culture.

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Chitra Ganesh, Forever Her Fist, 2006, digital c-print on archival inkjet paper, 21 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon, New York.

Chitra Ganesh’s artwork articulates new meanings from both personal and recorded history and mythology in order to address gaps in collective storytelling. Similar to the Afrofuturist movement, Ganesh’s work envisions alternative multicultural scenarios, where gender, sexuality, race, and spirituality are re-presented in a nonlinear fluid state that is devoid of preconceived identity constructs and hierarchical structures. Many of her artworks take the recognizable format of comic books, although Ganesh is much more interested in creating open-ended dialogue than with presenting a sequential narration. She stated:

Much of my visual vocabulary across media engages the term ‘junglee’ (literally ‘of the jungle’, connoting wildness and impropriety), an old colonial Indian idiom (still) used to describe women perceived as defiant or transgressing convention. I’m deeply indebted to and inspired by feminist writing that dismantles traditional structures in favor of radical experiments with translation and form including that of Clarice Lispector, Anne Carson, and books like Mrs. Dalloway, and Beloved. In layering disparate materials and visual languages, I aim to create alternative models of sexuality and power, in a world where untold stories keep rising to the surface.

Because of the previously described social, emotional, and cultural connections within comics (and the work of visual artists inspired by comic culture) and their strong ties to literacy, comic culture should be recognized, studied, and widely utilized in the educational sphere. In 2001, Michael Blitz organized The Comic Book Project, which supports curricular connections between the visual arts and language arts. When the project was initially implemented at a public elementary school in Queens, New York, many of the students responded to the task of making a personal comic strip by depicting specific social issues that they experience on a daily basis within the urban environment. The benefits of the students’ engagement with the comic book genre included a noticeable increase in artistic and literacy development, as well as a strong sense of efficacy, social awareness, and empathy (Blitz, 2004).

Additionally, comics and graphic novels (a comic inspired long-form book) are a great accompaniment to history and social studies curricula. The aforementioned Marvel comic book characters such as the X-Men (Civil Rights and Holocaust studies), Captain America (immigration and Fascism), and the Black Panther (multiculturalism, the African diaspora, and Racism), each provide elements of historical fiction that can be analyzed and discussed as students learn about related historical accounts. Additionally, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, is an essential graphic novel that tells a social and emotional story about the Holocaust; while John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s graphic novel March, expresses a jarring and uplifting account of the Civil Rights era. Like Spain Rodriguez, Spiegelman got his start in the underground comix scene. After listening to primary accounts of his father’s experiences during Holocaust, Spiegelman created a moving tale of the Jewish people’s struggle for survival during the Nazi regime’s reign of terror. In Maus, Spiegelman symbolically represented the Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats. In March, John Lewis tells his own biographical story as an activist during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Stan Lee’s legacy lives on in everyone who opens up a comic book and feels empowered to live, love, and learn through the socially engaged content. While we’re unlikely to develop superhuman powers, it is our human elements (which happen to also be Studio Habits of Mind) such as exhibiting empathy, thinking critically (self-reflection and assessing our actions), and taking bold actions to confront difficult situations, that might just save the day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Blitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: The Lives of Urban Youth.” Art Education, 57 (2), 33-39.

Bitz, Michael. (2004). “The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (7), 574-588.

Dittmer, Jason. (2013). Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Elliott, Robert C. (2004). “The nature of satire”, Encyclopædia Britannica.

Estren, Mark James. (1974 and 1992). A History of Underground Comics. New York: Straight Arrow Books/Simon and Schuster, 1974; revised ed., Berkley: Ronin publishing, 1992.

Godoski, Andrew. (2011). “Professor X And Magneto: Allegories For Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X”. Screened. Archived from the original on 2011-06-18. Retrieved 2018-11-16.

Johnson, Jason. “How Stan Lee, Creator of Black Panther, Taught a Generation of Black Nerds About Race, Art and Activism.” The Root. 13 Nov. 2018. https://www.theroot.com/how-stan-lee-creator-of-black-panther-taught-a-genera-1830406797

Taylor, Paco. “Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artwork Reveals Powerful Superhero Influences.” 28 Sept. 2018, Medium. https://medium.com/@StPaco/artist-jean-michel-basquiats-artwork-reveals-powerful-superhero-influences-811a1c6673e7?fbclid=IwAR0khXZe5UCcUzJlpsfsUfNY1ZIX27Tm6slItFKLapECOc3Lspf8F9vOS1g

Zucker, Adam. “Raymond Pettibon: Visual Vehemence.” Rhino Horn. 20 Feb. 2017. https://rhinohornartists.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/raymond-pettibon-visual-vehemence/

Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art

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

The art critic Ben Davis (2018) recently described the artist curated works at the 33 Bienal de Sao Paulo (components of a show curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro) as “eschewing spectacle in favor of a much more contemplative” experience, which is focused on using works of art to develop the viewer’s attention span. Davis stated:

“today’s endless slurry of bad news mixed with frenetic entertainment—which is replicated in the intellectual, optical, and spatial overload of a lot of international art shows—tends to render the mind frantic. It paralyzes extended analysis by the same measure that it overpowers any more-than-superficial aesthetic experience. And so, art’s use as a space to train attention may be less superfluous than it seems, and worth salvaging.”

In Pérez-Barreiro’s exhibition titled Affective Affinities, comprehensive scrutiny and deeply reflective assessments take priority over aesthetic convergence and art for entertainment’s sake. Pérez-Barreiro selected seven artist/curators to curate ‘mini-exhibitions’ that feature their own work along with work by other artists of their choice. This open ended concept allows for significant affinities to be realized amongst a group of diverse modern and contemporary artists (and the inventor of Kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel!).

Affective Affinities (on view through December 9, 2018), offers a respite to the banal, superfluous, abject, depressing, and perverse headlines currently dominating Brazil’s cultural landscape. While art alone cannot solve all of society’s problems, taking time to look at and engage with artwork helps us to become better focused, make qualitative relationships and judgements (Eisner, 2002), and be more in-tune with our critical thinking skills. Because of these aforementioned benefits, art makes us more attentive to the complexities of a world in flux and therefore enable us to make adjustments to life’s challenges by crafting innovative solutions in collaboration with other disciplines.

Spectacle is all around us. We have access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips, however, the amount of mis-information and sensationalized media we are collectively subjected to is at an all time high. Too often, our obsession with spectacle translates to moments in culture where entertainment or scandal overshadows the potential teachable moments and reflective outcomes that works of art can provide. Modern Museums (such as Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1677, and the Louvre Museum in Paris, founded in 1793) opened as public spaces where people of all social and economic statuses could go to learn about objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance.  Some contemporary museums seem to have lost sight of this democratic ideology and have become sites of divisive controversy and exhibitions for entertainments sake. Instead of focusing on blockbuster exhibitions, or populist exhibitions (exhibitions for entertainment’s sake), today’s museums should be designing shows that make viewing art relevant to the lives of the viewers and the diverse communities where the museums are located. Artworks and their curatorial incorporation into exhibitions should be culturally appropriate, serve an educational purpose, and all the while, their inclusion should remain open-ended enough to account for inquiry based viewing and mindful enduring understandings on the part of the gallery goer. In other words, artworks in museum exhibitions should hold our attention and leave us inspired to learn more about the content long after we’ve left the museum’s majestic galleries.

One of the many important ‘Habits of Mind’ that art offers us is the ability to pay close attention to details or ‘noticing deeply.’ Most artists scrutinize each and every aspect of a work of art during the creative process. Whether they are drawing sketches for a painting or writing a proposal for a large-scale public art commission, artists meticulously plan, revise, and consider many different facets and perspectives before their work is presented to the discerning public. Paying close attention to details continues to be an important aspect during the presentation of a work of art in the form of critiques by fellow artists, curators, art critics, and anyone else who finds themselves standing in front of the artwork. In fact, the Feldman Method for Art Criticism requires the critic to spend a great deal of time with a work of art in order to truly engage with its stylistic and symbolic elements. Multiple viewings are typically required to fully describe, analyze, interpret, and make judgements about an artwork.

Art education teaches us to pay close attention and to become adept ‘part to whole’ and ‘whole to part’ thinkers. A mastery of inductive (part to whole) and deductive (whole to part) reasoning is necessary to our participation in daily life. Mastery of anything requires education and experience. Similar to other areas of growth such as speech and movement, we develop artistically through “phases.” That is to say that a child’s (or older beginner’s) understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time with experience and education. A good framework for assessing artistic development is the ‘multi-dimensional model’ of artistic development, suggested by Linda Louis (2013). This model acknowledges a key fundamental element of artistic development, which is that exploration leads to discovery, which leads to insight. An earlier philosophy regarding artistic development came from Viktor Lowenfeld, who was a pioneering theorist on the way children’s art progressed through what he called “stages.” While his model of artistic development inspired the contemporary multi-dimensional model, the multi-dimensional model provided by Linda Louis is more apt because it recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages and can be both phase one and phase two (or three & four, and so on) learners at the same time…The six phases of artistic development are: 

  1. Explorers/Discoverers
  2. Deliberators/Planners
  3. Communicators
  4. Inventors
  5. Illusionists
  6. Expressers

In the multidimensional model of artistic development (Louis, 2013), young artists develop as inductive thinkers around phase number two (Deliberators/Planners). They create imagery and symbolic meaning by piecing together parts to form a whole. This is why you’ll generally observe them creating a figure that is depicted in multiple parts (separate shapes for each body part and confined shapes) rather than render a whole interconnected image. Additionally, Deliberators/Planners are becoming quite observant of their environment, therefore, attention to details are given significance within their artwork (skin tones, facial features, accessories, etc). As the child moves from phase two into phase three, they begin to think deductively, while shifting to inductive thinking as needed. The most important element in their work is their desire to be understood as a communicator of information and therefore, they focus on image making using conventions that serve depiction.

As the child receives more artistic education and experience, they become meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something significant. In other words, both the thematic concept and aesthetic experience informs their artwork. They consider their work to be a fluid body (series, period, style), which takes the viewer’s experience and perception into account. In fact, they are able to view their own work through a critical and reflective lens. They’re interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the art world (the history of art, as well as the current visual culture). Often times, they’ll appropriate works of art or iconography from visual culture to make a statement related to their experience within the cultural landscape. It is more important than ever to qualify this phase with prior artistic learning (throughout each phase, students are building skills and exploring materials in a developmentally appropriate manner), so that the students can utilize their combined artistic experience to create personally meaningful, expressive work. 

Professional artists seamlessly fuse inductive and deductive thinking in the planning, communicating, inventing, and expressing of their artwork. Making art is a multi-disciplinary process, which starts with a ‘big idea’ (a.k.a an inspiration, framework, theory, or thematic focus), and continues with essential questions, within which the artist must reflect the most important issues, problems, and debates related to their big idea. In other words, within a body of work, the artist poses significant questions, issues, and/or problems that they want their work to address and realizes the aesthetic and expressive strategies they will use to communicate these themes.

In educational settings, the ‘big idea’ directs the information and concepts that are included in a curriculum. It is followed by essential questions, which are open-ended, exploratory, and allow for student-centered inquiry. Finally, enduring understandings are what makes the big ideas and essential questions relevant in the lives of each student.

Both professional artists and professional educators have to hone in on the necessary details that are imperative to successfully express big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings to a diverse group of individuals. A successful work of art should have relevance and capture the attention of its viewers, while a successful curriculum should be relevant and engaging to students. This is why Ben Davis argues that utilizing art to train our attention can be a good thing. While all forms of art can be beneficial in strengthening our attention span, there are some artists whose work especially requires a high level of attention. Two of these contemporary artists are Mark Dion and Alisha Wessler.

Mark Dion’s work is the epitome of multi-disciplinary art-centered inquiry. Dion’s practice blurs the boundaries between art and science in an effort to explore the objective and subjective nature of our natural environment and human psyche. This is the case with his most renowned work of art titled Neukom Vivarium (2006). At first glance, a viewer will recognize this work as a fallen tree, covered in moss and other plants. Some might recognize the 80 foot tree as a Western hemlock, which is a native species on the West Coast of the United States. It is Dion’s intention for the viewer to inquire about the significant meaning of installing a giant tree at the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington. Dion acknowledged this to be true when he stated:

“I think that one of the important things about this work is that it’s really not an intensely positive, back-to-nature kind of experience. In some ways, this project is an abomination. We’re taking a tree that is an ecosystem—a dead tree, but a living system—and we are re-contextualizing it and taking it to another site. We’re putting it in a sort of Sleeping Beauty coffin, a greenhouse we’re building around it. And we’re pumping it up with a life support system—an incredibly complex system of air, humidity, water, and soil enhancement—to keep it going. All those things are substituting what nature does, emphasizing how, once that’s gone, it’s incredibly difficult, expensive, and technological to approximate that system—to take this tree and to build the next generation of forests on it. So, this piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back. In a sense, we’re building a failure.” (See: https://art21.org/read/mark-dion-neukom-vivarium/)

Apart from the overarching big idea of humanity’s impact on the environment, Dion wants us to pay close attention to the details that are not so obvious, such as the smallest elements of an ecosystem. These facets such as lichen, small insects, and microscopic bacteria, are often harder to discern via the naked eye, and are largely overlooked when gazing at the gargantuan specimen of Tsuga heterophylla. While the hemlock tree’s life came to an end, new life has formed and continues to grow on and around the fallen tree, albeit due to human interaction such as climate control in the form of the artist built greenhouse enclosing the tree, essentially keeping the complex ecosystem alive on life support. One essential question in Neukom Vivarium is “what makes up an ecosystem?” Dion’s answer to the essential question of “what makes up an ecosystem?” is revealed by providing visitors with magnifying glasses and illustrated field guides featuring the organisms that the viewer is likely to see while gazing at the tree through the lens of the magnifying glass. This is where an attention to details formulate significant meaning within the work of art. Dion engages us to explore and spend quality time with the thriving yet delicate ecosystem that he has preserved. We alternate between our magnifying glasses and our field guides and our attention becomes focused on identifying and observing the various specimens of animal and plant life. We can see the complex communities of insects, lichen, and bacteria living as if they were in their natural habitat. Our attention span is held steadfast by the wonders of the natural environment. Perhaps, during the elongated moment of careful and astute observation, we forget that we’re inside a human made environment and that everything we’re looking at would cease to live if removed from its life support. However, the moment we step back and put down our magnifying glasses, our awareness of the tragic situation comes to light.

If we hadn’t experienced this installation and we were just walking past a dead tree in the forest, would we consider the possibility that there is an abundance of life within the confines of this tree? If we didn’t take the time to scrutinize the tree’s nooks and crannies, we’d likely miss out on the thriving life within the fallen tree. And while it may seem like there is an abundance of other trees surrounding this deceased tree, would we realize that this complex ecosystem, which nature incredibly maintains, is in danger of vanishing before our very eyes due to our civilization’s polluting of the elements (air, water, humidity, and soil) that are needed to sustain all natural life on Earth? The enduring understanding in Dion’s installation is that life cannot sustain itself without the basic elements, which include healthy air, humidity, water, and soil. Once these elements are gone or negatively altered, it will be nearly impossible to get them back. Dion’s work raises our consciousness and awareness about nature’s intricacies and how fragile our natural resources truly are in our hands.

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Alisha Wessler, detail of From Afar It Is An Island (Case 1), 2013,
aqua resin, pigment, cardboard, sodium chloride, wax, clay, fabric, thread, wood, bone, fur, leather, citrus peels, petrified carrot, bird feet, dried kelp, milkweed seed pod, modeling material, foam, glassine envelopes, polystyrene, tissue paper, found hardware, insect pins, iron and wood stands, museum vitrines. Courtesy of the artist.

Another artist whose work requires an elongated attention span is Alisha Wessler. Things are not always what they seem in her intricate constructs, which blur the lines between reality and fantasy, biology and cryptozoology, and fossil and artifact. In order to take in Wessler’s highly detailed work, a viewer needs to exercise a great deal of scrutiny.  For example, Objects and their Doubles (2017) presents tactile objects –such as aqua resin, a plastic umbrella handle, metal rod, wood, flattened pinecone, polymer clay, iron hook, rope, embroidered thread, dental mold, rusted wire, rock, water caltrop (devil pod), leather glove, leather glove tip, steel rod, cholla cactus skeleton, milkweed seedpod, human hair, pigment, dried plant, paper, methyl cellulose, fishing net, fabric, and thread– juxtaposed with the artist’s technical rendering of that same object in watercolor and ink. Similarly to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Wessler employs visual tautology, where representational objects appear the same but are manifested through different materials. At first glance, the eye is tricked into thinking that these materials are not what they seem.

Wessler is very skilled at manipulating materials to make graphite look like lace (Pictures on Surrounding Objects, 2013), and objects like citrus peels, petrified carrots, birds feet, dried kelp, and milkweed seed pods, to resemble ancient relics that could have likely been uncovered during an archeological dig (From Afar It Is An Island [Case I], 2013). If you casually walk by the pedestal or display cases containing her work, you’re likely to miss the hidden properties and characteristics latent within these seemingly inscrutable works of art. If a viewer pays careful attention to all the fine nuances, akin to the way a keen archeologist studies arcane antiquities, they will come to the realization that these ‘artifacts’ are in fact, ordinary objects imbued with novel taxonomies.

Wessler’s artistic process is also very detail and time oriented. In order to manipulate everyday objects into astonishing hybrids, she utilizes an alchemy-like art methodology where materials are ‘cured’ and chemically transformed through dehydration or crystallization (to name a few of the experimental processes Wessler employs), after which they’re further manipulated by more traditional artistic actions like painting, sculpting (additive and reductive), and sewing. Wessler’s big idea is that ordinary objects have extraordinary underlying qualities. Her essential questions include “how can I fuse two opposing elements together to create new and mysterious hybrids?” and “how can materials be manipulated in uncanny ways to express indeterminate dualities?” The enduring understandings are that things are not always what they seem and that artists can create symbolic new meanings and perspectives through an experimental transformation and repurposing of materials.

Throughout the course of this blog, the enormous benefits of creating art have been explored. The multi-dimensional phases of artistic development (mentioned earlier in this post) illustrates how explorations in creating art lead to discoveries and insights, which enable highly significant and personal modes of expression. Because artists always seek big ideas, ask essential questions, and synthesize important ideas and core processes (enduing understandings), creating art makes us life-long learners inside and outside of the classroom or art studio. From the cited examples of artworks by Dion and Wessler, it is evident that viewing art is also largely beneficial to our lives. Studies have shown that spending ample time identifying and articulating the intricate layers and details within works of art improves our cognition, our ability to think critically, and our emotional wellbeing. In an age of 24 hour news cycles and constant burlesque distractions, the benefits of creating, presenting, viewing, and responding to art are seriously needed.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Davis, Ben. “What will art galleries look like in the future?” The Australian, 15 April 2016, https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/2c030-whatwillartgallerieslooklikeinthefuture.pdf.

Davis, Ben. “The Bienal de Sao Paulo Makes a Bold Attempt to Change the Way We Look at Art. Can It Work?” Artnet, 17 Sept. 2018, https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/33rd-bienal-de-sao-paulo-1347956.

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.