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.
Krzystof Wodiczko’s artistic practice transforms public spaces into sites of collective memory and historical memorialization. He has worked with diverse populations including the homeless, war veterans, and victims of global atrocities such as Hiroshima. Wodiczko’s work is often temporal and doesn’t physically alter the space. Rather, he creates a metaphysical alteration of our perception of events and public spaces by projecting poignant imagery and narratives directly on well known buildings, statues, or other iconic structures in urban environments. His installations are largely politically charged and powerfully engage the viewers to reflect on their own trauma and relationship to both past and current events.
For example, Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, comprised of videos of fourteen U.S. Veterans talking about the effects that going to war has had on them. Wodiczko projected the video on the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square so that each participant’s image embodied the form of the sixteenth President.
Wodiczko’s work presents a great opportunity for educators to discuss the personal ramifications of historical events and iconic sites. Public art works such as Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection supports social and emotional learning (SEL) because it shapes social awareness, self awareness, and relationship skills by bringing a diverse population together inside the park to share in a moment of empathy. In making these poignant projects, Wodiczko relies on a strong collaborative relationship built on trust and engagement from both the subjects of his work and the viewers. Another major aspect of Wodiczko’s work is bringing an awareness and contemplation of the social and emotional connections we have to public spaces. In conjunction with Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection, More Art developed a curriculum for middle school classrooms that explored the historical and contemporary functions of Union Square and the role of public spaces within the community at large.
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.
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.
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.