Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 5.49.37 PM
Pablo Helguera leads participants in a collaborative storytelling exercise in La Austral, S.A. de C.V at El Museo de Los Sures. Image courtesy of ISCP, New York.

Pablo Helguera is a Mexican born, New York City based, socially engaged artist whose multi-disciplinary work has strong connections to language, experiential learning, and cultural identity. His artwork takes the form of social practice art, where the artist and the viewer are interrelated participants in an artwork’s process. Many of Helguera’s socially-engaged art projects have connections to the ideas of progressive pedagogical theorists like John Dewey and Paolo Freire, who stated that successful education is contingent upon a balanced and ethical partnership between the teacher and students. Helguera’s work acknowledges that humans are not tabula rasas (blank slates), waiting to be filled with knowledge at different points in their development, but rather constructors of metacognitive skills, prior experiences, preconception, and knowledge. In order to successfully do this, the educator must bypass the traditional role of being the arbitrator of knowledge and become a collaborator in developing an educational experience that is upheld through common participatory activities. Traditional art, like traditional education, views the artist, cultural critic, or institution as the arbitrator of aesthetic and cultural value. However, social practice art transcends enforcement and embraces a participatory shared experience between the artist and the public.

Helguera’s socially engaged projects focus on the embodiment of progressive education and art. When these two disciplines are utilized together they have the transformative ability to enact social change through interdisciplinary and multicultural communication and human relationships.  In this respect, his work is largely about a qualitative process where the artist is constructing knowledge and educational experiences collaboratively with the participants who enter into the artwork democratically. Helguera and his collaborators exchange knowledge through the use of oral, visual, and literary tradition, which explores personal and collective identity.

In 2006, Helguera initiated The School of Panamerican Unrest, a four-month long road-trip across the Pan-American Highway. Helguera’s journey started in Alaska where he spoke with Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak, which is a Native Alaskan Language; and concluded in Puerto Williams, Tierra del Fuego where he spoke with Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the indigenous Yaghan language that was spoken by the Yaghan people of the Southern Cone. Throughout the trip, which included twenty-seven official stops between Alaska and Chile, Helguera set up a portable schoolhouse to examine the relationship between art, immigration, and cultural identity within a Pan-American framework. These topics were explored through public performances, discussions, and film screenings.

In 2013, Helguera continued to explore themes of language, immigration, and cultural identity through Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore containing Spanish language literature. The bookstore became the first of its kind in contemporary New York City, a metropolis with over two million latinos (roughly 25% of the city’s population). Within Librería Donceles, visitors had access to a wide variety of Spanish language books as well as a cultural hub where readers can connect with physical books and enjoy a diverse selection of great literary works. Visitors had the opportunity to assemble inside Librería Donceles and organize poetry readings, book discussions, or collaborative performances. This temporary bookstore reflected upon the function of language within culture and the effects that language has on the Latin American diaspora within a city such as New York and other metropolises where the project travelled to such as Phoenix, Arizona, Seattle, Washington, and Chicago, Illinois. The proceeds from the sales of books was donated to support local literacy programs for immigrant communities. In the spirit of education, art, and literacy, the video above (from PBS’ The Art Assignment) features a great creative prompt from Helguera where participants of a small group will each choose a play, select several lines from their play and arrange them together to form a combined play. Starting at 7’55” in the video, there is an example of a “Combinatory Play”at Librería Donceles featuring Helguera and two other participants

On April 11th, 2018, Helguera launched La Austral, S.A. de C.V at El Museo de Los Sures on the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood, which is a historic cultural hub for Puerto Rican, Dominican, Polish, Italian, and Hasidic Jewish communities, is the perfect fit for this collaborative dispensary of oral narratives. Visitors take part in storytelling workshops and can hear stories told by various facilitators who worked with Helguera in bringing this project to fruition. All of the facilitators are immigrants to New York City and include artists, activists, educators, poets, and writers. The project was inspired by the turmoil surrounding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, who are facing increased hostility from Right-Wing partisans. The use of storytelling is a practice that spans time and location and brings people together in a communal environment.

There are many benefits to bringing art-centered embodied learning into the educational sphere. One of the essential aspects of Helguera’s multicultural work is the multilingual connections that are established as a result of an exchange of dialogue through interdisciplinary communication and process based partnerships. In other words, human relationships, which bring together a multitude of experiences, culture, and educational perspectives. The focus on bridging the gap between speakers of different languages in order to open up new and exciting relationships between different cultures, is indicative of the importance of supporting bi-lingual learning in the education system. Bi-lingual learning is rising across the United States, and has strong benefits for both native English speakers and students whose native language is not English. Garcia (2009) cites research by Thomas & Collier (2002) that supports how educators can scaffold an emergent bilingual student’s learning by building upon their strengths via a dual language curriculum. In other words, educators can help English language learners become proficient in speaking English by using the students’ strengths and comprehension of their native language to discover commonalities in the way we all communicate. The result is that the students are able to think, communicate, and strive using both English and their native language in tandem. This also has the same positive effect for English speaking students who are immersed in a bilingual environment where they learn to make bilingual connections throughout the curriculum. Incorporating a dual language pedagogical approach has positive effects on everyone from students, schools, parents, and the communities at large.

It is time that as a society, we move towards a democratic approach to embodying our collective experiences through art. Art’s most powerful function is not as a pure aesthetic object for us to treat as sacred, but rather a process-based experiential event where we learn and construct knowledge together. Art-centered interdisciplinary projects such as the aforementioned works by Pablo Helguera, strengthen our appreciation of multiculturalism by establishing mutual empathetic relationships between different communities that exist within our local, national, and global landscape.


La Austral, S.A. de C.V. is on view through May 13th at El Museo de Los Sures, 120 South 1st Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249.


Reference:

Garcia, Ofelia. (2009). Emergent Bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a Name? TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 322-326

 

Advertisements
Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

SINESALOUM2-SLERNER2018
Stephanie Lerner, SineSaloum, 2018, fishrope, plastic litter & epitonium shells. Courtesy of the artist.

The confluence of science, technology, and art offers an array of pragmatic and creative opportunities for future generations to make general improvements within the world we all share. One of the major issues that will affect generations in the not too distant future is the transformation of our waterways from being sources of life to being bodies of conflict. Our oceans, seas, rivers, etc. have been experiencing vast amounts of human-induced trauma for decades on end. Eventually, time will run out for these vibrant eco-systems, which sustain all life on this planet. For example, many waterways are overfilled with pollution from consumer goods such as plastic. If the current rate of plastic pollution, which ends up in the water is not ceased, there will actually be MORE plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050. This is obviously a devastating premonition for life as we know it on Earth. The reason we know the extent of this ominous information is due to advances in technology, which allows scientists to safely and effectively study the oceans and waterways.

Art is like science and engineering in that it is informed by inquiry based research, theory testing, and transformation of ideas or materials into something new. Artists, like scientists and engineers seek to develop profound responses to big questions. Artists have aligned their creative output with many major scientific issues since before the dawn of civilization. Our knowledge of human history and the natural environment were initially discovered through visual records evident from cave paintings depicting the inquisitiveness and experiential learning within pre-historic communities. Over time artists have helped us increasingly relate to our surroundings and develop innovative new ideas and products. For example, we see artistic innovation that informed scientific research inside the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, through John James Audubon‘s colorful and accurate depictions of American birds, and in the development of urban agricultural environments like Mary Mattingly’s SwaleAlternatively, the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was just as innovative as a draughtsman visualizing the brain on paper as he was in studying the physical elements of the brain in his laboratory. In the case of all the above examples, visual art played an essential role in the synthesis of scientific discovery and innovation.

Today’s students will inherit a world that is in need of innovations that will ensure its salvation. Art centered education can impress upon students the need for environmental empathy by showing examples of how artists such as Sto Len, Steven HirschWilliam Miller, the Newtown Creek Armada, and Stephanie Lerner symbolize the effects of pollution as material or subject matter in their work. All at once, these works are aesthetically pleasing, romantic, tragic, and dire. They remind us that in life, death is always present and our struggle to create a beautiful world is interconnected to our mortality. However, there is also a great sense of hope to be gained by understanding that visual art has the power to incite change and impress upon people’s positive relationships with the world around them. These artists implore us to become better custodians of our natural resources so that we can sustain nature’s marvelous qualities for many generations to come.

Steven Hirsch and William Miller’s abstract photography, transcends the often negative description of the murky, dark, and slow moving water of the Gowanus Canal. Hirsch’s camera captures a brilliant spectrum of colors that reflect off the water’s surface, which immediately brings to mind the Impressionist works of Monet as well as Post-WWII color field painters. Hirsch’s photographs create an epic visual narrative, which is indicative of Greek mythology. Here, we see that beauty transcends the devastation that has overtaken the canal, and it is calling loudly to us for help. Similarly, the canal’s aesthetic properties becomes the inspiration for William Miller’s series of photographs. Miller photographs the Gowanus Canal in a manner where abstract forms are juxtaposed with recognizable imagery. Reflections of the clouds and sky are visible in some of the photographs, which transforms the viewer to an otherworldly state. It is hard to imagine the toxins below the surface, however, Miller subtly captures glimpses of refuse and sludgy textures to pull us back to reality.

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 11.56.18 PM
Works on paper by Sto Len on view at Volta NY, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Sto Len’s unique printmaking process, transports his practice from the studio environment into the heavily polluted waters of the Newtown Creek. He improvises on the traditional style of Suminagashi (floating ink) printmaking to develop an experiential collaboration and discourse with nature by dipping prepared paper into the creek’s heavily polluted waters, and using its detritus as material.

Through watching video installations and looking at documentation by the Brooklyn based art collective Newtown Creek Armada, students can analyze how artists realized a problem (extreme pollution in the Newtown Creek), developed their research, and sought to address this problem to the public.

Stephanie Lerner is an excellent artist that students can look to for inspiration on working with recycled materials in order to repurpose problematic pollution into an awe-inspiring solution that is both poignant in its message and visually stunning. Lerner combs the beaches and waterways for discarded plastic products and makes intricate works of art such as tapestries and mandalas, which she creates by weaving together plastic refuse and fishing line, a harmful pollutant that takes 600 years to decompose underwater. By cleaning the shorelines, Lerner is ensuring that the plastic washed onto the beach doesn’t return to the ocean, while also acquiring materials for her poignant yet beautiful works of art.

Valuable materials in the art room can be sourced by having the school community (teachers, parents, students) contribute plastic, paper/cardboard, and other refuse, which can be used for weaving, sculpture, collage, and printmaking projects. Traditional materials should ideally be substituted for earth friendly, recycled, and repurposed materials whenever possible.

Artistic learning has many benefits for inter-disciplinary innovation. When artists use their artistic knowledge and skills –put those elements of art and principles of design to practical use and transcend relying on traditional art materials (which can add to surplus waste and pollution as well– to seek to address big issues that affect our civilization, the results are transformative throughout our collective culture. Art influences society by raising our awareness, affecting our emotions, translating experiences across time and place, and giving us a sense of self within the world. When artists explore ideas and problems within other disciplines like science and technology, they can truly make essential contributions to the present and future stewardship of our environment.

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

Remixing the Canon

A whole curriculum around inquiry based projects aimed at ‘remixing the canon’ would reveal how contemporary artists improvise on the Western canon of art and visual culture, in order to comment on the significance of the African-Diaspora, Asian, and other non-European identities within contemporary civilization. The Western canon largely dominates the genre of art history and visual culture, however, the traditional images (of affluent white figures and Christian iconography) are not indicative of the increasing globalization that the Western world is experiencing. For example, black and Asian individuals currently account for a vital part of the population in Western countries, however, images of non-caucasian men and women are portrayed differently than caucasian men and women have been and continue to be portrayed in mainstream works of art. To the outside eye, as well as those from within the art world, the Western art scene would appear to be oriented to the ideals of the white male viewer. Although, the art scene is expanding and becoming more diverse, the white male hegemony narrative holds true for the greater part of Western civilization. There are a growing number of ‘disruptors’ whose profound imagery is getting the attention of the cultural elite and inspiring other artists to challenge the status quo. Contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Awol Erizku, Dedron, Mickalene Thomas, Zhang Hongtu, and Paul Anthony Smith, have turned the Western canon on its head, by remixing iconic Western works of art with multicultural imagery and themes.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 10.45.04 AM
Left: Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977). Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil on canvas, 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Partial gift of Suzi and Andrew Booke Cohen in memory of Ilene R. Booke and in honor of Arnold L. Lehman, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, and William K. Jacobs, Jr. Fund , 2015.53. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Right: Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825). Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard. oil on canvas. 1800-1. Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison

Let’s start by looking at Kehinde Wiley’s portrayals of contemporary black men within his Baroque-inspired paintings. Students should scrutinize Wiley’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005) juxtaposed with the painting it was appropriated from, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (1801). After viewing both paintings, students should receive some concise art historical background about the artists and the subject matter that each work references (David depicted the famous French leader, Napoleon, leading his army into battle, while Wiley chose a man he met on the street to pose as Napoleon did in David’s painting). They will then be asked to describe, interpret, and analyze Wiley’s art. What are some of the similarities between Wiley and David’s paintings? What creative liberties did Wiley take in altering David’s painting in order to influence our understanding of the work in a contemporary perspective (i.e. what do you think those changes signify)? Was this a successful transformation (i.e. did it make us think about the work in an entirely new light after discussing it in context with the original painting, and the larger context of the Western canon)? 

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 10.55.43 AM
Awol Erizku, Girl with a Bamboo Earring, 2009. Courtesy the artist

Awol Erizku’s Girl With A Bamboo Earring (2009), Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007, Zhang Hongtu’s The Last Banquet (1989), and Dedron’s Mona Lisa With Pet (2009), are works of art that sample iconic Western paintings in order to create new meaning. Each artist transforms the original painting they’ve referenced by incorporating their unique and diverse cultural perspectives into an entirely new composition.

Erizku’s photographs, of contemporary black women, recreate of works from the Western canon that typify traditional notions of feminine beauty. For example, Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (1665) becomes Girl With A Bamboo Earring. Here Erizku is asking us to consider how we have and continue to idealize beauty, and black feminine identity throughout the course of Western civilization.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 11.55.02 AM
Mickalene Thomas (American, born 1971). A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007. Acrylic, enamel and rhinestones on wood panel, Overall: 108 x 144 in. (274.3 x 365.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Giulia Borghese and Designated Purchase Fund, 2008. © Mickalene Thomas, Image courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Mickalene Thomas also riffs on Old Master and modernist works of art by incorporating powerful representations of black femininity where white subjects have traditionally been featured. Her painting A Little Taste Outside of Love, samples compositional elements from Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) and Manet’s Olympia (1865). Thomas’ painting addresses both the objective and passive role female subjects have played in Western art, as well as the fact that black women were not typically portrayed as major subjects in Western painting. While Titian’s and Manet’s “venus figures” lay passively, presented for the sole enjoyment of the viewer, a white male; Thomas’ Venus is assertive and powerful. She addresses a different type of viewer, the strong black woman.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 11.24.08 AM
Dedron, Mona Lisa With Pet, 2009, mineral pigment on canvas. Courtesy of Rossi & Rossi

Tibetan artist, Dedron, recasts popular imagery from Western paintings within a new environment, replete with Eastern iconography and mythology. For example her painting, Mona Lisa With Pet, transforms Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) into an amalgamation between Eastern and Western culture. The iconic figure of the Mona Lisa is transformed to a vibrant new land, and is depicted with symbols of Buddhist mythology such as the Fenghuang and dragon.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 11.07.30 AM
Zhang Hongtu, The Last Banquet, 1989.

Zhang Hongtu’s work uses the Western canon, including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), to critique a part of contemporary Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution, where Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, sought to remove all elements of traditional Chinese culture, especially the arts and philosophy. In fact, his Red Army sought to physically destroy monuments to historically and culturally revered figures such as Confucius. Hongtu’s mixed-media work is made from pages of Mao’s  “Little Red Book,”

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 11.46.04 AM
Paul Anthony Smith, Woman #3, 2013, unique picotage on archival pigment print, courtesy of Zieher Smith, New York

To conclude, let’s look at and analyze picotage works, such as Woman #3 (2013), by the Jamaican-American artist Paul Anthony Smith. Smith manipulates modern day photographs by picking away at their surface to create a pattern symbolic of traditional African beaded masks, in order to comment on the African Diaspora and question the complexity of the his own cultural background.  

Several lessons incorporating different media and techniques can be used to develop a multicultural arts-centered curriculum that references the Western canon in a way, which makes it relevant to students who may not feel well represented by the traditional imagery often associated within well known works of art. Any of the examples above by Wiley, Erizku, Dedron, Thomas, Hongtu, and Smith, can serve as inspiration for projects that have personal significance to the students’ lives and express the intersectionality of  identity.

In the classroom, students should be encouraged to share their personal experiences of cultural traditions that have been passed down within their family or community. How have these traditions held up in the contemporary world? If they began outside of the country/city/state that they’re currently living in, how have these customs or traditions been modified or transformed to correspond with their new geographical environment? Students will think about their own cultural identities and the customs and traditions that are familiar to them. They can make a list of specific iconography associated with their cultural identity and discuss how their cultural experiences are different or similar to the mainstream images they see in Western culture. Assuming the role of a sociologist/anthropologist, students can interview a family member in order to find out about their cultural identity and then create a portrait of them, which expresses that information. For example, they can have photograph their subject posing as a figure within a well known work of art and transform the more traditional artwork into a personalized portrait with symbols or elements that are indicative of the person they have chosen to represent. The possibilities are diverse and plentiful.

 


Note: this post was inspired by the writings in Julia Marshall & David M. Donahue’s Art-Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom (Teacher’s College Press, 2014).

Remixing the Canon

Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

According to recent opinions and research, experiences and not objects are the preferred type of consumerism among young adults, who are more interested in spending their money on (to name a few) cooking classes, cultural festivals, quilting workshops, indoor rock climbing, yoga at sunrise followed by an early morning dance party, and so on; than physical objects (gadgets, gizmos, etc.).

Contemporary art has also experienced a shift towards art that is more experientially focused. Instead of an interest in making traditional art objects that would exist on gallery walls (or in the market place), artists like Tino Sehgal and James Turrell produce artworks that offer a unique interactive visual, physical, and cognitive experience for the viewer. Their art makes the viewer a part of the work by engaging them through a range of social and emotional stimuli, whether it is changing a physical environment like Turrell does, or constructing social situations like Sehgal does.

If you’ve visited a work of art by Turrell such as Meeting at PS1, and were wondering where he derived his inspiration from, I highly recommended hopping on the 7 train and going up to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House one Sunday morning. Meeting is a site specific installation, where Turrell altered the museum’s ceiling to provide an unobstructed view of the sky. Viewers sit on wooden benches that face one another and can share in conversation or a silent reflection, while natural light and the elements are filtered in from above.

Having experienced Quaker church at different points in my life, I can say that James Turrell is one of the most profound artists for me personally. I don’t think I would have been able to engage in his work as repletely, had it not been for my reflective moments in these meeting houses. That said, Turrell makes work that everyone can make significant based on their own unique experiences and engagement, so whatever you choose to bring to it will be truly unique.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell, a Quaker, draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community.

Tino Sehgal goes even further outside the traditional role that we typically attribute to an artist. Sehgal’s art is focused on the creation of ephemeral social and emotional situations. For many of his museum scale exhibitions, the artist works with a population of non-artists to produce multi-disciplinary situations that are aimed at bringing the viewer directly into the piece. The basis for these interactive pieces is rooted in a social choreography, where Sehgal’s non-artist performers are trained to move about the physical space and engage the viewers in movement, song, or inquiry based communication. Experiencing a piece by Sehgal is an exemplar of embodied learning, where issues and investigations are explored through both cognitive and kinesthetic means. The pieces themselves are fleeting moments in time (besides being documented through film or photography, no physical trace is left at the end), however, the viewer’s memory of their experience remains long after the exhibition ends.

The phenomenon of experiential art does not replace the effect that viewing more traditional art has, it simply adds another dimension to what we can perceive as art and engage in as artists, educators, and appreciators. Analyzing, interpreting, and presenting all varieties of art (cf.: Ways of Seeing and Art as Therapy) has an enormous value on our everyday experiences. For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s bold and enlarged paintings of flowers might prompt the viewer to be more in tune to their natural surroundings. The next time they’re out for a walk in the park, they might see and respond to the flora with a heightened sense of awareness and respect. O’Keefe realized that art has a profound way of reminding us to slow down and appreciate life’s experiences more greatly, when she stated:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

There are many reasons why contemporary art, which is divorced from the traditional studio based art discipline, is beneficial in an educational environment. The first and foremost is that it enables students think outside of the realm of using traditional materials in order to solve aesthetic problems and express themselves and their collective identity. Producing artistic experiences allows students to engage in a social and emotional experience without relying on formulaic rules that often (when used solely as a means to develop artistic skill or technique) stagnate personal style and communication. When coupled with more traditional modes of creating, experiential based art provides a greater vocabulary and expanded set of tools to communicate one’s ideas and vision effectively. It also allows for many opportunities to introduce collaborative projects that can lead to multi-disciplinary partnerships with other students, faculty, and the local community. You don’t need to be a skilled draughtsman to create art in the contemporary era, which means that art education needs to embrace this facet (and develop curriculum for a multi-disciplinary visual arts program) with as much certainty as it has embraced the traditional canon of instruction.

Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

Intrinsic Value in Contemporary Art Collaborations…and Learning Through Them

I am thankful that I was recently introduced to the work of the Slow Art Collective through Louisa Penfold, who writes Art.Play.Children.Pedagogy. The Slow Art Collective creates interactive installations, which are based upon “the slow absorption of culture through community links by creating something together and blurring the boundary between the artists and viewer.” They go on to state that their work “is a sustainable arts practice, not an extreme solution; a reasonable alternative to deal with real problems in contemporary art practice.” Slow Art Collective’s collaborative art work is very much inline with several major theories in education such as social and emotional learning, embodied learning, cross-disciplinary STEAM, and the Reggio Emilia approach. I want to focus on the latter approach in relation to the Slow Art Collective’s work.

The Reggio Emilia Approach was founded in Italy after World War II. It focuses on nurturing pre-school and early childhood student-centered learning environments, and is based on Constructivist educational methodology.  philosophy is based around these principle beliefs:

  • Children must have some control over the direction of their learning
  • Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, and observing
  • Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that they must be allowed to explore.
  • Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.

Within the Slow Art Collective’s installations, there are a multitude of tactile environments that engage children (and adult visitors) in a collaborative materials based exploration, where the viewers actively contribute to the aesthetic and conceptual design of the art work.

While the visitor moves throughout the various components of the installation, they are partaking in an exchange of value, not in the monetary sense (which is often unfairly/unfortunately tied to art), but in the sense of appreciating the way creative experiences connect us and help us to become better members of our community. Art that is collaborative goes beyond the traditional artist/viewer relationship and forms open-ended art works, where viewers become participants and experience the work of art through a combination of physical and intellectual engagement. By having collaborative components, the artists are sharing some control over the direction of the work with the viewer/participant. Additionally, the work is made replete through the viewer’s touching, moving, listening and observing. Furthermore, these installations create a safe space where visitors form relationships with each other by sharing in a cooperative creation of an art work, as well as a profound individual and shared experience.

The playful (yet serious) approach to art making promotes both self and collaborative expression, and teaches us that it is the process –the work we put into relationships and working together creatively– that matters the most.

Intrinsic Value in Contemporary Art Collaborations…and Learning Through Them

Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

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

Major themes in Sligh’s work include transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). Many times, she’ll combine images with text to create a narrative, which is often related directly through the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women, and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond their race and gender, and that discrimination is also not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, or social status. Her ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary artwork, which seeks to create an open ended framework for constructing our collective identities.

Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. Ligon’s text based work is inspired by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. He appropriates text from well known fiction and non-fiction writers in a way that causes us to question preconceived notions of historical identity and human aspects like gender and race. Through his work, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Civil Rights era hate and discrimination still exists in a more complex way than our history books might have portrayed it. As a society we need to recognize this dire flaw within the human condition.

In Runaways (1993), Ligon recreated historical runaway slave broadsides by asking friends to describe him. Ligon constructed those descriptions into witty but poignant ‘self-portraits’ that made pertinent statements on identity politics. Berwick (2011) gives examples of these works: “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. . . . He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother;’” and “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He is socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 1.38.09 PM
Runaways (detail), 1993, 10 lithographs, 16 by 12 inches each. Whitney Museum of American Art. Image from Berwick, Carly, “Stranger in America.” Art in America, 23 Apr. 2011.

Through art we can really get a strong picture, which tells us that an individuals’ identity is more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis, etc). Our identities are made up of many facets, which include (but are not limited to) the color of our skin; the religion of our ancestors; the faith we practice; the gender or sexual orientation we identify as; our political affiliation; our hobbies; our physical and mental health; education; and social class.

Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them and the labels they believe that society places upon them. Next, they will share these aspects with the rest of the class by posting their map around the classroom. Students will walk around with post-it notes in hand, and place their name next to aspects they see on their classmates maps that also resonate with their own personal identity. Finally, they will discuss what they’ve discovered as a whole class.

This would be a great time to introduce the work of contemporary artists like Sligh and  Ligon, and have a discussion where students can analyze work by these artists and point out which identity related issues these artists are commenting on and why. Lastly, a visual art project can be introduced where students will transform how they identify themselves (using their identity maps as reference) into a self-portrait. These self-portraits will make use of found and sourced material along with traditional art techniques to depict an image of themselves that includes but also goes beyond their physical description.

First, they’ll arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (could be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Then they’ll be prompted to use magazines, old history books, and the internet, to mine for reference imagery and text (or images and text that they can appropriate) that they feel is representative of their personal and collective identities, and construct a visual image that signifies these aspects of their humanity.

Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

Cityscape and the personalized experience

Landscape is an essential genre of art that has stood the test of time. Artists have been depicting their environments and using their surroundings as inspiration for centuries. The technique of landscape painting, drawing, and collage provides a great foundation for students to learn both formal aspects and techniques of visual art, while incorporating their personal history and prior knowledge in order to create a unique form of expression.

There are many great examples of landscapes that show how artists are personally impacted by their geographical settings. For instance, David Hockney’s relocation to the West Coast transformed his style of painting, and allowed him to explore his identity further with a newfound sense of freedom. Within a visual arts curriculum in urban schools, having students observe cityscapes (a type of landscape that features an urban setting) might be more appropriate than a rural or idyllic scene. There are a great deal of important works of art and artists that illustrate the social and emotional connection to city life. For example, students can analyze urban scenes by Martin Wong and/or Romare Bearden, and be asked to describe the work both in terms of its formal aspects (the elements of art & principles of design) and its subject matter, which can be interpreted in a way that should have personal relevance to their own lives.

Romare Bearden’s The Block (1971) depicts the artist’s interpretation of a typical block in the neighborhood of Harlem, New York. His style was inspired by the Cubist technique of cut-paper collage and Dadaist technique of photomontage, which afforded him to show multiple perspectives within a single image. For example, we can simultaneously see what is happening inside and outside of the buildings on the block, revealing the intimate reality of daily life as one might personally experience it versus being an outside observer. Bearden gives brick and mortar a personal character and gives the city street a Humanistic portrayal that signifies to us that he is both an admirer and a participant within this vibrant community.

Another artist who gave personal expression to city architecture was Martin Wong, whose paintings of brick red apartment buildings signified the artist’s unique connection to his Lower East Side community. In the painting La Vida (1988) Wong depicts a brick red apartment building similar to the many that exist in the Lower East Side, which features a diverse group of tenants, some of whom were his actual neighbors, and some of whom were figures within the arts community and the Downtown New York City community at large. Each individual in the painting is displayed as a portrait occupying a space within a window and is someone who has personal or historical significance to Wong. Some of the figures in this painting include the writer and poet Amiri Baraka, poet/playwright (and Wong’s lover) Miguel Piñero, and graffiti artist friends DAZE (seen analyzing the painting in the video below), Sharp, and LA2. Wong also included the celebrity, and inspirational figure, Mr. T, as well as some archetypal figures such as firefighters and policemen.

Wong’s work featuring Lower East Side apartment complexes, and Bearden’s Harlem street scenes, might be especially of interest to students who are growing up in densely populated city neighborhoods. By showing students work that has cultural relevance to their lives, an educator can challenge students to be astute observers and participants in their own community. Having students make their own cityscapes (this can be done in a variety of media, however, I prefer using cut paper and magazine image collage) or having them collaboratively contribute to a large-scale mural (to be displayed inside or outside of the school) of their city will open up the floor to a sharing of personal stories and memories, which may result in students better understanding each other and coming together through their shared life experiences.

Cityscape and the personalized experience