Labor of love: art, activism, collaborative learning

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Sol Aramendi, Apple Eco Power. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Creating art and reflecting on artwork is often a cooperative experience that supports empathic responses to lived experiences. Both the artist and the viewer put effort into formulating understandings of issues affecting the cultural environment. In this respect, art informs us about the lives of others and raises our consciousness regarding how we view ourselves and others within the culture at large.

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El Coop Mobile, Installation at Queens Museum. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

Making art is a labor of love that employs a combination of social, emotional and cognitive actions. Artists make art because they care about expressing themes that impact the human experience. Art is a wonderful methodology for experiential learning, because it allows the artist and viewer to engage in a cooperative dialogue. The artist makes the artwork around a theme of their interest, and then it is left to the viewer to find value within the work and make their own unique connections to it.

I advocate throughout this blog that art doesn’t have to be realized within the traditional ‘art world’ (see: Danto, 1964). I disagree with the idea that something is only defined as art if it is established by art academics, critics and institutional professionals. While not everyone who makes art is going to be recognized in the field of fine arts, everyone has the ability to live artfully. Living artfully means translating the studio habits of mind that we learn from the arts (see: Educating Through Art) into everyday actions. Contemporary artists like Sol Aramendi, are making an important contribution to both the institutional art world and the larger world outside of the creative sector.

Aramendi immigrated from Argentina 17 years ago and collaborates with local immigrant populations to realize socially engaged artworks. Her recent creative partnerships include the Workers’ Studio, an ongoing project with women day laborers who come from diverse backgrounds. The common thread between Aramendi and the women laborers is their advocacy for workers’ to reverse the exploitation of labor, which includes wage theft and unsafe working conditions. Under the auspices of the Workers’ Studio, art making is the vehicle for raising awareness in support of equal, equitable and justice driven labor systems.

Aramendi’s artistic initiative is a form of social sculpture (see: Everybody is an Artist), where the act of making art reflects social conditions such as immigration and the right to a living wage. The Workers’ Studio is nomadic, meaning that it can be successfully implemented in all sorts of environments. This element is important both functionally and symbolically for addressing themes of labor and immigration. Because the project can move from place to place, it is easily accessible to a wide group of participants, whose narratives signify a vibrant tapestry of experience and creativity. The artistic contributions, which are on display in an exhibition at the Queens Museum titled Workers’ Studio: El Co-op (curated by Eva Mayhabal Davis), come from women who have organized into co-op businesses, where each worker owns a share in the company. The co-ops who have artworks featured in the exhibition are: Love & Learn Childcare Cooperative, Apple Eco Cleaning, Brightly Port Richmond Cleaning Cooperative, and Mirror Beauty Cooperative. The work created by the workers of these co-ops include photographs, writings and mixed-media objects. There are several workshops and events throughout the course of the exhibition (on view until January 12, 2020) that support creative discourse and action around the issues of labor and worker organization.

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Materials and resources at the El Coop Mobile. Courtesy of Eva Mayhabal Davis.

One of the benefits of participatory art projects, is the collaborative/cooperative learning aspect that comes from sharing and relating experiences. Collaborative/cooperative learning expands our ability to understand and express ourselves through scaffolding and building upon each other’s skills and resources. In the educational realm, this pedagogical approach “promotes interaction among students and shared responsibility for academic achievement” (Stein and Hurd, 2000).  Similarly, the work created through the Workers’ Studio supports the reciprocity of ideas, resources and authority, in order to benefit all members of the collective. The personal stories that are expressed via the creative process inform us about the power of coming together and raise our consciousness towards advocating for worker’s rights, and human rights. You can see the labor of love within the imagery and materials on display.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld” (1964) Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584.

Stein, Ruth Federman & Hurd, Sandra. Using Student Teams in the Classroom. Bolton MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 2000. admin.leeuniversity.edu/Media/Website%20Resources/pdf/cte/SteinHurd_UsingStudentTeams.pdf.

Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Blueroom (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a great city, but not one that you might automatically think of when discussing global issues. However, the Steel City has been getting a lot of attention regarding global affairs lately. President Trump declared on June 1, 2017, when withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement that: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” As a counter to Trump’s unabashed and callous attitude on the climate crisis, Pittsburgh’s mayor Bill Peduto responded: “as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

Pittsburgh is once again in the cultural spotlight of an international dialogue with another global city via an artist initiated installation called The Other Apartment on view at the Mattress Factory. The Other Apartment, a collaboration between artists Jon Rubin, based in Pittsburgh, and Sohrab Kashani, based in Tehran, Iran, explores the beneficial impact that creative collaboration has on shifting the oft-negative narrative between the United States and Iran. It largely speaks to artists’ abilities to think outside of the box, embrace ambiguity and make social, emotional and cognitive connections with others (all studio habits of mind that the arts teach us).

This is such an important project that is taking place at a time when the United States is increasingly engaging in volatile diplomacy, and isolating itself from the global community. While it may seem insurmountable to bridge the gap between two very contentious nations, artworks such as The Other Apartment make connections when it may otherwise seem impossible to do so. Art communicates beyond social constructs like geographical boundaries and demarcated borders, and gives us access to intimate spaces and unique cultural insights that are typically marginalized and overshadowed by conflict and propaganda. Within Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, Rubin and Kashani have created an exact replica of Kashani’s apartment in Tehran. They worked with fabricators to make duplicates of all the objects within Kashani’s flat. The fact that a likeness of Kashani’s space is on display within a public museum is fitting, because for the past eleven years he has opened up his Tehran home to the public as an exhibition space and artist residency.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Event Room Watching II (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

It is remarkable that Rubin and Kashani are fulfilling this collaboration without being in the same physical place due to Iranians being affected by Trump’s travel ban. Therefore, the artists had to work from detailed photographs and utilize telecommunication technology to transform the Mattress Factory’s gallery into Kashani’s apartment. Throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs through July 2020, the two artists will work in tandem to develop events, exhibitions, art objects and programming. Every happening that transpires in one space will be identically reproduced in the other space.

The Other Apartment could inspire classroom projects (The Other Classroom perhaps…) where students from two distant regions of the world connect and collaborate with each other, creating a communal classroom full of students who may never have the opportunity to meet in person. It is a great way to learn about other’s experiences and build empathy for one another. Students and educators could come up with a learning segment where each classroom has an opportunity to address a topic that they want to share with their cooperating class, and conduct a series of activities to be performed collectively that seek to realize common aims and objectives. The exchange of empirical cultural and social knowledge would be beneficial for a diverse body of students to foster both personal and professional relationships with one another.

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Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Studio Opening (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Shirin Rezaee (Tehran)/Jon Rubin (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

The Other Apartment is an example of how art can foster diplomacy and deep sociocultural understandings. Reflecting on creative endeavors like this, it is clear that migration has a profound effect on society at large; and it is imperative that we open our minds, borders and communities to others who are eager to share their culture, knowledge, creativity and passion with the world.

 

Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf

Are we there yet?

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Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (detail), 2018. Installed and on view at the Brooklyn Museum

“Are we there yet?”

To answer this question, we might respond with several questions of our own, such as: “who is WE?” or “where is THERE?” It is a question that can be either simple or loaded. We might think about career or personal milestones that we have set (and whether we have been successful in checking them off the list); places we have gone to (perhaps as a child you consistently asked this question to the adults on long car rides); or social, emotional and cultural viewpoints. The answer to “are we there yet?” is completely subjective and largely depends on individual and/or group experiences and perspectives.

On Saturday, March 23, my wife and I joined the artist, Kameelah Janan Rasheed and several others on an ‘artist’s walk’ between the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Central Library. We began our discussion on the steps outside of the museum, where Rasheed’s I AM POROUS. TODAY, I LEAK PREPOSITIONS. SO, I WILL ASK AGAIN, DO YOU HAVE A SIEVE? (2018) is installed. The installation is composed of several vinyl propositions affixed to the concrete steps, which read (to name a few) ‘after’ ‘before’ ‘above’ ‘along’ and ‘below.’ Rasheed prompted us to pick a word that spoke to us and our relationship to others and stand next to it. We then partook in a conversation with the other people who chose the same word. My wife and I choose the word ‘after’ and along with three other strangers, we engaged in a discussion regarding the language functions of the word. Our cohort came up with definitions, syntax, concepts and intersectional relationships for ‘after’. We then regrouped with Rasheed and the others and discussed how all the prepositions have multiple meanings in regards to how we think about past, present and future narratives and constructs.

We then went into the museum and gathered around Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s A QUESTION IS A SENTENCE DESIGNED TO ELICIT A RESPONSE. TODAY, WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE SLOPPY FUTURE HOLDS (2018), which consists of four textile banners, on view within the museum’s entrance. The artwork’s intent is to prompt individuals of all ages to elicit responses to problem posing questions (Freire, 1970) including: “Are we there yet?” “After hope, then what?” “Is this the last time?” and “Did you think it would get easier after this?”

We were invited to congregate around a question that we felt was most pertinent to our own lives and discussed it with others in our group who chose the same question. The responses ranged from personal to collective and addressed themes that are social, emotional and political. We spoke about what we thought the future might hold in relationship to our sense of self, collective identity and the environment. In times of flux and ambiguity (which largely define our contemporary culture), it is helpful to come together and share feelings, aspirations, assessments and ideas about how we can address pertinent societal issues going forward.

After several people shared their responses to the questions, we walked roughly six minutes down Eastern Parkway towards the Brooklyn Central Library, where Rasheed’s interactive project Scoring the Stacks (2019) is installed in the main lobby. The participatory installation instructs visitors to select cards (possibly referencing card catalogues of yesteryear) with ‘scores’ that direct and elicit specific actions. For example, one card tells the holder to go to the reference ‘Society, Sciences & Technology’ section and choose a blue book, read the last page and choose a word that you would like to use in future conversations. The participant answers their prompts and deposits a carbon copy (they take home the original in a folio) into a box, which is then utilized for other participatory projects, which include: collaborative flash fiction writing, songwriting and choreography.

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An example of one of my responses to a prompt from Scoring the Stacks.

Scoring the Stacks is symbolic of how we can learn through noticing deeply and making connections to past and present information, while thinking ahead to the future. While going through the library on the de facto scavenger hunt, I became more aware of other things, such as the library’s special collections; other interactive exhibitions on view; and the diversity of the people who utilize the library’s breadth of resources. Sharing my own insights and hearing the insights of others made the experience incredibly fulfilling and efficacious. Throughout the two-hour artist’s walk, I enjoyed listening to all of the thoughtful responses from each individual and opening my mind to new perspectives and information.

Participatory-centered artwork has major benefits on the way we construct knowledge and experience in a collaborative environment. Rasheed’s installations at the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Library are the crux of inquiry based learning, where questions and actions, rather than statements, become the impetus for the creation of knowledge. Rasheed’s practice embodies a constructivist form of pedagogy, centered on formulating knowledge through socialization and collaboration. In fact, prior to becoming a full-time artist, Rasheed was a high school history teacher.

Rasheed’s artistic practice combines progressive pedagogy, history and literacy, focusing on the intersection of these elements with multicultural identity and placemaking. Scoring the Stacks is both an engaging activity and a teachable moment, where we co-create new knowledge in collaboration with the artist, in order to make insightful realizations about our unique relationships with history and public spaces. The Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Library are ideal environments for an artful activation of public space, because they function as pedagogical institutions for the community at large.

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Installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed at the Brooklyn Central Library. Photograph by Kelly Kimura (@pageonesixtyone).

On the atrium of the library is a quote from Rasheed, which reads like a mantra for self-discovery and interconnectivity with the world around us: “having abandoned the flimsy fantasy of certainty, i decided to wander.” This quote brings to mind the idea of playful exploration and experiential learning, which makes building knowledge a worthwhile lifelong process. When we allow ourselves to let go of convention in favor of exploration and embracing ambiguity (both studio habits of mind that the arts teach us), we gain a wide range of metacognitive and critical thinking skills, while exhibiting empathy and expressing ourselves through multifaceted means. American educational philosopher, Maxine Greene (1995) states that the arts empower our minds to examine and interact with the unknown and uncertain. Therefore, I don’t think the question “are we there yet?” can ever be repletely answered, because we are always learning and creating new personal and communal experiences each and every day.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. Pg 12.

Greene, Maxine. 1995. Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Springgay, Stephanie, Irwin, Rita L., and Kind, Sylvia Wilson. “A/r/tography as Living Inquiry Through Art and Text” Qualitative Inquiry. 2005 11: 897. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rita_Irwin/publication/258181966_Artography_as_Living_Inquiry_Through_Art_and_Text/links/00b7d5323b351ac803000000.pdf

Pedagogy of Empowerment

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Cheryl Pope, Community Is Built On Empathy, 2016, installation at Kenyon College Athletic Center, Gambier, Ohio. Courtesy of the artist.

Cheryl Pope has a background in fashion design and boxing, a unique combination of skills and interests that has informed her career as a contemporary artist. Pope’s multidisciplinary artworks fuse elements of her multifaceted identity together through a materials based process that addresses social and emotional themes and issues. Her work also embodies principles and methods of collaborative learning, where diverse groups of people cooperate in activities that broaden their sense of self, communal and civic relationships.

A major topic within Pope’s work is the role of the individual and the collective within communities. She often works with young artists and students across Chicago, Illinois to explore, discover and express how race, gender, class, history, power and place affect the identity of a community at large.

Pope portrays communities as being an amalgamation of identities, with a foundation of unique multicultural perspectives that reveal strength through diversity. Her work has poignant and positive sociocultural overtones, which emphasize the importance of exhibiting empathy towards one another. One of Pope’s large scale installations that profoundly addresses this is Community Is Built On Empathy (2016), which was initially installed in the gymnasium at the Kenyon College Athletic Center in Gambier, Ohio. The installation consists of several banners –such as the ones you would see in a school gym or sporting arena to announce specific performance accolades– adorned with personal declarations. Hanging above and around the gymnasium floor, these banners are reminders of what it means to display value for yourself and others. The banners were created during the spring 2016 Semester at Kenyon College when Pope collaborated with two social science professors and their classes.  The students in the two professor’s classes prompted anonymous personal statements from Kenyon college students and alongside Pope, they selected twenty of them to be made into banners.

Examples of specific texts include “I’m not good at being vulnerable,” “I am learning,” and “I wish I did more.” These phrases signify largely archetypal ideas about self perception. They are statements that have likely crossed our minds at one time or another. Whether we are open about these thoughts or not, these private and intimate notions shape the way we perceive ourselves and others. Sometimes we feel good about ourselves, while other times we have low self-esteem and feel largely negative about the condition of things. If we all want to live our best lives, we need to establish a strong sense of community by showing that we are aware and engaged in strengthening and embracing our personal and collective self-worth. That is the crux of Pope’s installation.

The fact that Pope’s artwork, Community Is Built On Empathy, was both realized and exhibited within an educational setting is a testament to the idea schools should create and maintain an environment that supports equity, equality, social justice and good well-being. Schools are communities made up of diverse groups of students and faculty members, each with their own unique experiences and backgrounds. As a result, it is a school’s fundamental duty to champion, recognize and reflect the diversity and uniqueness that is both implied and explicit within the school community.

Schools should enable and empower students’ and educators’ best traits, while prompting them to be understanding, compassionate and patient with others. No one should feel disempowered or ashamed of who they are. The systemic perpetration of self-deception is a dangerous and dehumanizing practice, which leads to self and interpersonal discord. The whole framework of passing and failing within systems of education needs to be refocused in order to allow for students to make bold and positive discoveries about themselves and the world around them. Collectively addressing our vulnerability, weaknesses and self-worth, as well as celebrating our strengths and diversity, is the scaffolding and the pulse of a vibrant and liberated community.

A Neighborhood Divided Will Not Stand: An Artfully United Neighborhood For All

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Bob Clyatt, “Greencastle Indiana,” July 2018, hydrocal and Carrar marble, 18 x 35 x 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist

In the renowned television program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers blended cognitive behavioral psychology with social and emotional storytelling to create a unique and unexpected brand of children’s television. Rogers had a novel and inspiring message for his school-age viewers, which he posed in the form of a question each episode: “won’t you be my neighbor?” This simple question packs a great amount of symbolism that resonates strongly within the divisive world we live in. Fred Rogers truly understood that empathy, play and making meaningful connections with each other and our environment is a key component of healthy development.

Rogers believed that everyone is special because they are unique. He expressed this sentiment consistently through the artful narratives of his show, as well as in the community where he advocated for progressive, ‘whole child‘ education and funding for the arts.

Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.

The enduring understanding that I gleaned from watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood during my formative years was that life can be very difficult, and there are times when we feel frustrated, anxious, afraid and uncertain. However, we must retain our love for ourselves and others. When we truly value ourselves then we value others in the same regard. Self and collective value lead to empathetic responses that create a community of caring, compassion and collaboration, just like in Mr. Rogers’ fictional Land of Make-Believe.

The Land of Make-Believe is not unlike the real world. In fact, the diverse characters, their unique personalities and the issues they dealt with, are all realities within our own society. The Land of Make-Believe was ruled by King Friday XIII, a monarch who exhibited a wide range of emotions and often provided the foundation for Rogers to address complex social, cultural, economic and political issues. For example, in one episode, King Friday XIII was overcome with a severe case of xenophobia and built a wall to keep the neighborhood ‘safe’ from outsiders (note: this was in February of 1963, shortly after the Berlin Wall but decades prior to the current border walls and Nationalist rhetoric of contemporary political despots). The citizens of the Land of Make-Believe took on King Friday XIII’s irrational decree through heartfelt and symbolic gestures, epitomized by Lady Aberlin sending balloons with encouraging and empathic messages over the wall; which convinced the autocrat to tear down the wall. While King Friday XIII was frequently making rash decisions, he was surrounded by loved ones like his wife, Queen Sara Sunday, who represented rational thinking, balance and sympathy within the royal court. Ultimately, the kingdom flourished because each member of the society found common ground and supported one another.

Educators are aware of the fact that their classroom is a diverse environment, populated by students with varying degrees of prior educational knowledge and life experiences. Students come from unique social, emotional, cultural and economic backgrounds, which inform the ways they interact with the people and environment around them. This means that students will approach a singular issue with different perspectives. Some will align with the majority of the class or school, while other perspectives might not reflect the popular opinion. We see this outside of schools where adults are at great odds with one another over issues like global warming, healthcare, immigration, the types of media/information they consume and gun control.

Because of the wide range of social and cultural influences throughout our society, it should come as no surprise to an educator if a student responds to a prompt with an answer completely opposite to the values of the educator. It is important to validate each student’s response in an open and respectful manner. Debate is a healthy discourse to have in a classroom as long as it remains civil and students are challenged to provide facts that back up their statements rather than blunt opinions. Unsubstantiated facts and hateful remarks should never be tolerated. Students and educators need to find ways to communicate and collaborate when they may not completely agree. Teaching community building skills and learning to work across our differences, prepares today’s students to be social justice leaders of the future.

Art does a great job of validating an individual’s personal expression, while allowing us to see what others value. Art presents a humane picture of reality when it is difficult to find common ground around certain social, political, or spiritual issues. Contemporary sculptor, Bob Clyatt is a Humanist sculptor who believes in art’s ability to unify a diverse group of people. His ongoing project, Shared Spaces, promotes multicultural art-centered learning by making insightful connections to what makes communities unique. Clyatt has been traveling throughout the United States to implement this collaborative artwork that is equal parts physical sculpture and Social Sculpture (See: Everybody is an Artist). Shared Spaces invites the public to collaborate with the artist and each other throughout the creative process. Each project begins with the artist asking individuals from the community to choose objects and materials and press them into clay to create a mold. The community members can choose from an array of object the artist has collected (that resonates with them), or they can bring their own personal objects with them. The amalgamation of images overlaps the stars and stripes of the American Flag (which Clyatt sculpted prior to the collaborative process) and results in a communal expression of the community where the work of art was crafted.

The sculptures that have been created thus far illuminate a wide range of viewpoints and interests that are present within the community. During the creative process, Clyatt engages with his collaborators in a participatory dialogue and develops a greater understanding of the diversity of interests and opinions within different communities outside of his own. Upon reflection and assessment of the final works of art, the beauty of diversity is enlightening and profound. Through art making (and viewing and reflecting upon works of art) we can find creative solutions to bridging divides. Shared Spaces provides a safe space for interpersonal dialogue and personal symbolism to be shared in hopes of building a unifying narrative that while we have a varying degree of ideological and sociocultural differences, we can all be brought together and work alongside one another.

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.