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.”

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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.

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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

Life Lessons Through Children’s Art: How they learn to represent their world, and how that learning can teach and inspire us

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The wonderful thing about children’s art is that it is detached from the socio-economic structure of the “adult” art world, and, most importantly, it gives us a unique glimpse into their emotional and cognitive state of mind.  A child’s drawing, painting, sculpture in clay (or other material), or a doodle in their notebook is largely an unrestricted form of expression. If you’ve ever had the experience of listening to a young child talk about their art, it is most refreshing to hear them describe their process. In fact, a large part of early artistic learning comes from prompting them to explain and develop a narrative (imagined or real/representational or non-representational, but always at their own pace and from within) for their works of art as they’re working. This process, is actually more important than the “finished” product, because it shows us as educators, that they’re self evaluating as they’re creating and are making insightful connections by exploring with the material(s) they are working with.

Children begin their art-making journey through an exploration with the material at hand. They discover the material’s properties and how their physical actions change the material. Their discoveries then lead to insights, and sure enough, they’re making associations between what is in the paint (or clay, or paper collage, assemblage, etc.) to experiences in their own lives. This whole process is achieved in a playful, yet serious manner. From the get-go, children begin to understand that art-making is a potent form of communication, and they’ve got a lot to say! Children are also naturally curious and will ask big questions, which show they are eager to take part in the many facets that confront us in our contemporary lives.

This unbridled form of expression and inquisitiveness is why so many great artists, from Chagall, Klee, Dubuffet, Picasso, the CoBrA movement, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, looked at children’s artwork as inspiration for their own paintings. In fact, Basquiat was so inspired by the aesthetics and expression within children’s art that he had to unfairly assert to the art world and culture at large that “believe it or not I can actually draw.” However, it is the rawness and unfettered nature of his paintings that set him apart from the conceptual (and structured) art that dominated the 1980s art scene. Basquiat’s strength was in his ability to passionately and prolifically make associations between his life as an African-American and the collective experience of African-Americans. His ‘childlike’ style, which spurred from frequent “doodling,” afforded him freedom to combine and reflect a multitude of poignant imagery and ideas within a single canvas. Basquiat combined text as well as images in a body of work that addressed issues of racism, urban life, personal identity, as well as celebrated the contributions, which black individuals made that have shaped American life. Other contemporary artists such as Donald Baechler, Michael Scoggins and Brian Belott, also harness the immediacy and playfulness of children’s artwork and curiosity in order to make strong and serious statements about the socio-political environment that affects us as a culture at large.

Professional artists, who have gone through the full spectrum of artistic development, understand the importance of breaking the rules and routines of contemporary adult life, which can often become monotonous and far too restrictive. By embracing the more explorative, inquisitive, and subconscious side of themselves, individuals can return to the spontaneity and excitement that they experienced when making art during their childhood years. This is why it is so important that children are offered the opportunities to explore materials, techniques, and make unique works of art at a very young age. Their creativity should be applauded and their excitement and enthusiasm for making art should be scaffolded by their teachers and caregivers so that they hold dear the many positive qualities (empathy, inquisitiveness, eagerness to participate in events, etc.) and habits of mind (improvisation, thinking outside the box, turning mistakes into successes, etc.) that art making reveals.

Even the most serious of artists, such as Picasso knew this when he said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

 

Life Lessons Through Children’s Art: How they learn to represent their world, and how that learning can teach and inspire us

What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017)

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Workshop for Amerika IX, 1987. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina.

With the very sad news that Tim Rollins (1955-2017) has passed away, it is important that we recognize and harness the lessons he taught generations of inner city youth and the art world at large. Tim Rollins, was an artist, activist, and most importantly a passionate educator who co-founded the activist art Group Material in 1979 and “The Art and Knowledge Workshop,” which introduced the world to K.O.S (Kids of Survival) around 1984.

Rollins and K.O.S showed us that no one is beyond the reach of a good education. The model of pedagogy Rollins developed as his curriculum at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx, was a cross-disciplinary student centered form of learning, which sought to empower and inspire at risk youth. Initially, Rollins (who was already a well-known contemporary artist and activist) was hired by the school’s principle to create a visual arts program that would help academic or emotionally at risk middle-school youth with their reading and writing. What transpired in Rollins’ classroom became history in the making. Rollins made learning personal and engaging by enabling student choice within a lesson so that learning history and literature had unique relevance to the students’ own experiences.

Rollins understood that by connecting newfound knowledge (from the books they were reading in school) to personal and significant daily encounters, students become thirsty for learning and are emboldened to ask or take on ‘big questions.’ In other words, they become life-long learners who aren’t afraid to take risks or make mistakes, because one of the major tenants we learn from art education is that there are no mistakes in art.

Rollins knew that his students were exceptional, and together they formed an art collective called Kids of Survival or K.O.S, through which they created major works of art that related text to visual imagery and interpreted literature within the lens of contemporary issues such as race, gender, and social justice. Putting Paulo Freire’s (1921-1997) teachings into practice, K.O.S. developed an educational model where the students, teacher, and society (in this case the art world and museum/gallery visitors) can learn collaboratively with each other. The learners became co-creators of knowledge.  For K.O.S, art was a means for survival and education was the material that was used to transcend the tough and seemingly hopeless environment that they grew up in.

Tim Rollins’ memory will be a blessing as his collaborators in K.O.S continue to tackle ‘big questions’ in their works of art and will no doubt inspire future generations of at risk youth. All of our students have the potential to succeed. Art presents us with a blank canvas where we can combine the knowledge we learn (in other disciplines) with the personal lessons, trials, and tribulations we experience.

What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017)

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt. 2: Body, Mind, and the Environment

Art and science are more similar than they are different. Artists and scientists use similar methods or habits of mind such as theory testing (concept/hypothesis, trial and error), flexible purposing (ability to shift aims while working), and weighing alternatives (the ability to see things from multiple perspectives). Furthermore, artists and scientists explore various organic and synthetic materials and change their properties or qualities to create something new. In today’s volatile climate, where science and the humanities are eschewed in favor of ‘alternative facts,’ artists can fight back by presenting awe-inspiring work that unites disciplines such as science, technology, and history. There is a lot of potential for the artist and scientist to collaborate inside and outside of the studio or laboratory. Additionally, when scientific research is presented in the form of an art project (such as Love Motel for Insects), it humanizes the data and communicates an empathetic message that is accessible to everyone in the public sphere.

The common thread between the artists discussed in this post, is their use of organic and inorganic mediums as a vehicle for promoting a conversation about our relationship with the world and our fragile existence within nature. Referencing their knowledge and research of biology, ecology, medical science, climate science, and social history, their artwork is a visual metaphor for the paradoxical conflation of the human made and natural world. Juxtaposing organic materials and phenomena with synthetic art materials and processes, contemporary artists: Vanessa Albury, Nene Humphrey, Kristen Holcomb, and Jordan Eagles, explore the association between the body, mind, and the environment. At large, these works of art present aesthetic reflections of mortality, spirituality, and scientific inquiry.

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Vanessa Albury, Arctic, Future Relics (Distant Mountains), 2016, Selenium-toned Gelatin Silver Print mounted to museum board and wood, 42″ x 32″ x 8″.

Vanessa Albury’s photographs take glacial ice-caps in the Arctic Circle as subject matter. Her series Arctic, Future Relicswhich was realized during a residency in Svalbard, Norway, documents the melting of glaciers due to climate change. The ephemeral essence of these glaciers are memorialized in time through the photographic process. Ghostly in their aesthetic form, these epic photographs capture the essence of these majestic ecological forms throughout the process of decay.

Microscope_Hand Drawing Amygdala from Nene Humphrey on Vimeo.

In her series of layered drawings created by using high-powered microscopes, Nene Humphrey explores the connection between aesthetics and the deep cellular workings of the amygdala where our emotions reside. The resulting images are intimate artistic expressions of our psyche that deals with themes of loss and mourning.

Jordan Eagles ‘paints’ using animal blood mixed with multiple layers of clear resin. His unique style of work came about through rigorous theory testing and trial and error. He incorporates gradations of “aged blood” that create various deep black fields in stages of decomposition and illuminates the consistency and texture of the blood. These abstract works of art can resemble other natural and synthetic imagery such as Rorschach inkblot test patterns, magnified biological cells, and lava. The work explores how we think about our bodies and address issues of mortality.

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Kristin Holcomb, Transformations #81, pigment print, 11.5 x 17.5 inches.

Similarly to Vanessa Albury, Kristin Holcomb observes nature taking its course and captures the transformative process through the lens of her camera. Her abstract photographs are of surfaces of walls after years of being changed by weather, paint, rust, and algae. The walls themselves become complex, organic or synthetic ‘paintings’ with the passing of time. The Transformations series of photographs are about rebirth and the possibility of beauty in destruction.

The aforementioned artists are just a few inspirational examples of how art, science, and technology can have a symbiotic relationship and result in strong inter-disciplinary learning capabilities. Having students reflect and respond to their natural surroundings through art is a good way for them to develop a lifelong thirst for knowledge and become more environmentally and socially conscious.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt. 2: Body, Mind, and the Environment

Being in the Material: Living & Learning Artfully

There are many theories and practices that focus on living ‘artfully,’ which means that the very act of living is a constant yearning for means of expression, and as Oscar Wilde stated, “art offers it (life) certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” We simply have to take the time to look around us, because there is already an abundance of materials and experiences for us to work with.

Vik Muniz is a Brazilian contemporary artist who is renowned for his large scale photographic works that often comment on the plight of poor communities throughout Brazil. He appropriates iconic imagery, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, which he re-conceptualizes using unconventional materials such garbage. His Marat (Sebastião) (2008), depicts Tião Santos, a garbage picker from Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in Latin America. Muniz started by photographing Santos, in the exact pose as Marat in David’s composition. Next, the photograph was ‘painted’ with garbage so that the image of Santos was developed by arranging layers of debris from Jardim Gramacho. The resulting ‘painting’ was then photographed again.

Exploration of materials is a major component of artistic learning and development. Through exploring a material’s properties, an artist discovers ways to change the material in order to make visual matches that convey symbolic meaning. Muniz’s work is a good example of how an artist thinks within the material (even better that the materials he uses are unconventional) and creates something entirely new and unexpected. Because of the lack of funding for the arts across the nation, it is even more essential for art educators to get creative with the materials they introduce to their students. Everyday objects are especially useful because they can be sourced for free or little cost, and provide a wealth of affordances for the maker to create expressive works of art. Using materials that we’re familiar with in our everyday lives, adds a level of personal and/or collective cultural significance to a work of art. In the case of Muniz’s art, his materials embody the essence of the work’s subject matter and add a uniquely poignant humanist outlook on the value and agency of human beings.

Furthering his response to issues regarding the human condition, Muniz has been a proponent of art education in areas where children have very little exposure to the arts. He is opening a school in Brazil where young children from diverse backgrounds can develop studio habits of mind that will help them become critical and visionary members of society.

Being in the Material: Living & Learning Artfully

Performance of the Oppressed

Tania Bruguera’s politically charged performances present a challenging and worthwhile approach for the radical art educator. Her work is forceful and if it makes you uncomfortable, that is evidence of its success. She considers her artistic discipline to be”Behavior Art,” which is a movement rooted in performance and pedagogy that is more concerned with socio-politcal ramifications of art making than with aesthetic or material outcomes. It is a concept, not unlike Joseph Beuys’ ‘Social Sculpture’.

Bruguera’s performances are experiential education experiences where the artist and the viewers enter into a social and emotional dialog for the benefit of contributing positively within their community. Bruguera’s work often comments on the oppressive forces in government, which have detrimental effects on society. For example, in 2015 she completed 100-hour performance, a reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), in her Havana based studio. Shortly afterwards she was arrested by Cuban officers. The Burden of Guilt (1997), is a metaphor for resisting colonialism and authoritarianism. The performance was inspired by a legendary Cuban narrative where the indigenous people resisted Spanish occupation by eating dirt until the collectively died. In her performance, Bruguera consumed a mixture of dirt and salt water.

By challenging the physical, cognitive, and communicative limits of the body, Bruguera’s shocking and corporeal performances raise a critical conscious within the viewer who realizes the need to break free from oppressive societal structures.

Performance of the Oppressed