Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning

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Lenka Clayton, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Lenka Clayton’s art practice investigates the history of art and culture by making work in response to historical and iconic themes. In her current exhibition Object Temporarily Removed, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Clayton collaboratively realized the creation of unique works of art in dialog with Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920). Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) espouses the idea of social sculpture, a term created by Joseph Beuys to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society. Brancusi’s sculpture is a highlight of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art’s collection, however, it’s display makes it completely inaccessible to visually impaired individuals. The museum’s display of the piece is paradoxical in that the only way a visitor can access it is through sight. The tactile nature of Brancusi’s sculpture could easily be beneficial for blind individuals to envision its unique form and material through touch, yet the museum wouldn’t agree to let Clayton use this piece to have a critical discourse and embodied learning experience with a group of blind art enthusiasts. Therefor, Clayton decided to put similar materials in the hands of visually impaired individuals and described the piece in great details so that they’d be inspired to create a response to Brancusi’s original piece.

Through both social interaction and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. Asking engaging questions; passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images; and encouraging individuals to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning will give a wide range of individuals the confidence and joy that art should contribute to their lives.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Mitchell (2005) asserts that there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. This might come as a shock to an art theorist, especially one devoted to modernist ideologies. He argues that painting is associated with language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all, in fact he states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258). Sculpture is the most tactile of all artistic mediums therefore it isn’t as shocking to think that a sculpture can be experienced in ways other than sight. Because sculpture is three-dimensional, it has the affordances of occupying the same physical space as we do so by its nature, it seemingly welcomes haptic interaction. While many galleries and museums would be aghast to letting visitors touch priceless works of art, it is also a disservice to deny someone the experience of great art.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind dispels the myth that the artistic experience for the sighted is far more extensive than it is for a visually impaired individual. Renowned art educator and theorist Viktor Lowenfeld published a seminal book in 1939 called The Nature of Creative Activity, which was based upon his fifteen years teaching art to blind and visually impaired students in Vienna. Lowenfeld (1939) proposed that creativeness and symbolic expression goes beyond sight using other sensory perceptions like touch. He stated that there are two types of creative activity “visual” and “haptic.” Visual is a result of what is seen, while haptic is formed through physical interaction as well as through making value judgments. His work with the blind became the basis for the totality of his breakthroughs in art education. Castellano (1996) says that there is a certain bias that sighted individuals have about the blind. She says that as educators we should set high expectations for visually impaired students to succeed at the same level as sighted students. This statement is also pertinent to Bird (1991), who says that given the proper tools and situations we can all understand art. She quotes psychologist John Kennedy who said, “Blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” Kennedy’s research and work with blind students has shown that visual impairment isn’t a hindrance to the appreciation, understanding, and creation of symbolic imagery.

Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind is a great example of collaborative learning and inquiry based learning and supports Kennedy’s statement that sight isn’t a precursor to understanding or creating works of visual art. By utilizing instructional scaffolding, Clayton made the implicit and sacred knowledge of art an explicit learning experience for blind and visually impaired individuals.

Lenka Clayton’s Object Temporarily Removed will be on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through July 9, 2017.


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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BHQFU – A Pedagogy for Artists by Artists

According to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, there is nothing in life that is truly free. I won’t get into the irony and implications of DeVos’ loaded statement (a response to Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free college tuition), however, it is explicit knowledge that our higher education system is broken, in part because of the predatory nature of for-profit companies that handle student loans. The conflation of the commercial sector with education is problematic because it disenfranchises scholars from lower income homes, and puts private interests above learning. It models the educational system as a free-market enterprise, where private investors have greater pull than educators. The same privatization has been happening in arts institutions, which dictates many factors including determining what is ‘important’ and ‘stylish’ (a la the art market and auction houses or through exhibitions based upon interests of private donors/collectors).

The artist collective, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), founded the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in order to create an alternative to the traditional higher education model and inspire a framework for equitable learning through the arts. Their curriculum model aims to offer a wide variety of subjects centered around art for free and open to whomever wants to attend. There are several classes in art (both criticism and making), philosophy, science, math, cooking, engineering, writing, etc. Many of the classes offer a cross-disciplinary approach, which is driven by what the public wants to learn as opposed to what the institutions tell them is important/necessary to learn. When a collaborative and liberal approach to education such as this can take place, the institution’s role is reversed and it becomes a powerful medium for both art and education.

Paulo Freire (1970) stated that schools were a major factor in  perpetuating a “culture of silence.” In other words, schools were in the service of the larger Capitalist economy and contributed to the domination of the dispossessed. Through a social and democratic structure that is devoid of the larger Capitalist economy, BHFQU is the antithesis of the “culture of silence.”

In an article titled The Learning Public, published in 2010, BHQF stated that the framework of ‘Learning Public’ means that: “1) we learn things from works of art, 2) those lessons can be implemented in the world without duplicating the private sector’s instrumentalization of art for profit, and 3) the result will be art institutions that are themselves works of art.”

Howard Schwartzberg and Reality Art

Brooklyn based artist and educator Howard Schwartzberg realizes the potential that art can have in everyday life. Schwartzberg’s curriculum is called Reality Art, an embodiment of social and emotional learning, where the students’ learning experience is centered on gaining skills necessary to achieve positive goals, feel empathy for others, and build positive relationships. This is structured through experiential learning and art making that is inspired by everyday life.

Schwartzberg believes that incorporating art –and thinking artistically– within other disciplines facilitates student’s learning more fluidly. Schwartzberg encourages students to enter what he coined the “freespace for expression and observation.” This conceptual space centers around a collaborative learning experience involving interpreting, analyzing, and making art about the world outside of the classroom. It is akin to the idea of “Social sculpture,” Joseph Beuys’ concept of individuals utilizing artistic practices in the community for socially engaged purposes. Schwartzberg also developed a curriculum for non-art teachers to bring the benefits of artistic learning into their classrooms. The concept maps for his curriculum can be viewed here.

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Howard Schwartzberg’s Scaffolding (2017) is a painting that rises from the floor to high up onto the wall. It is comprised of sewn together student paintings (left behind by former students), which have been flipped around so that they’re viewed from the verso. The piece reflects on Schwartzberg’s own artistic process working with materials that investigate the objectivity of painting, combined with his experience teaching in Public Schools. Scaffolding refers to instructional techniques teachers use to guide them toward both mastery and independence in the learning process. The role that the teacher plays should be more along the lines of ‘coaching’ rather than directing. Art is the perfect discipline for this type of learning, because art making involves a combination of personal experience and depiction strategies that are best achieved through experiential learning.

This painting is part of his “Left Behind (Student Work)” series, which was created in response to the detrimental shift from public education to for-profit schools. Other works in the series have titles that also refer to experiential educational strategies such as Collaborative Learning, and Think Pair Share.

Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy

Tim Rollins is an artist and arts educator based in New York City. While Rollins was teaching middle school art in the Bronx, he became an after school mentor to students, providing a safe space for them to discuss, analyze, and create collaborative works of art. In 1982, he formed the Art and Knowledge Workshop with a group of students called Kids of Survival (K.O.S). Rollins and K.O.S have exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide.

Understanding art as being an interdisciplinary practice, Rollins and his students interpreted well-known works of literature. Through sharing their ideas about the text, the students identified key themes that they felt related to their personal experiences, their community, and socio-cultural spectrum at large (as they experienced it). In doing so, they have appropriated “the classics” to make powerful comments on events from everyday life. I find the students’ responses to be incredibly enlightening:

Educating Through Art

Artfully Learning is an experiential and critical cross-examination of the fine art world and the educational sphere. Through the lens of both art historian and educator, I explore examples of artwork that have symbolic learning capabilities inside and outside the classroom. So why is this important? Why are two seemingly divergent worlds actually more similar and vital to each other than it would seem? First, the discipline(s) of art, as well as education are at a crucial time in our society. Politicians are threatening the foundation of both art by proposing to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities; and education by suggesting the elimination of the Department of Education and deemphasizing public schools in favor of “school choice.” Secondly, the arts within an educational environment are vital because both areas of interest have numerous benefits across our cultural landscape. These benefits called “habits of mind” were nicely described by Lincoln Center’s Capacities for Imaginative Learning program as:

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These criteria are essential for developing an art education curriculum, but they are also evident in many works of contemporary art being made by professional artists. The following series of posts will look at how we might think of responding to contemporary art using the tenets of educational theory and practice.