Artfully Mapping

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Nancy Graves, Untitled #127 (Drawing of the Moon), c.1972, watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, 30 x 22 1/2 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Nancy Graves’ art explores the connections between art, science, technology and geography. Her early 1970s conceptual paintings and drawings inspired by technological progressions in cartography, such as satellite imagery of the Earth, Moon and Mars, are currently on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash‘s Chelsea location in New York City through April 6, 2019.

Graves’ compositions featured in the exhibition (titled Mapping), combine the aesthetic qualities of maps with scientific inquiry, in order to investigate both the aesthetic and informative nature of mapping. Her artistic process was akin to the way scientists research data, test theories and utilize technology and matter in revelatory ways. Through combining qualitative and quantitative information, Graves portrays maps as both formal abstractions and figurative representations of human explorations, insights and discoveries.

Graves’ map inspired work prompts us to think about the legibility of information, patterns in nature and our own personal bias regarding geography and technology. While science is an essential discipline for explaining the world, the arts humanize and intuit the essence of the world in ways that give gravity and symbolic meaning to scientific data.


Nancy Graves, Mars, 1973, acrylic on canvas 4 panels, overall: 96 x 288 inches. (c) 2019 Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by VAGA, New York; Courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

One of the centerpieces in the exhibition is the mural-sized acrylic on canvas painting titled Mars (1973). The painting references NASA satellite imagery of Earth’s planetary neighbor, which was first being made public during the time that she was painting this 24 foot long composition. Graves’ painting reveals the topographic elements of Mars in a fragmented and abstract manner. This recalls the nature of how visual information is sometimes disseminated through arbitrary signals. The artist’s rendering of the satellite image, shows that data can be read both literally and figuratively.

Graves’ work is a perfect example of why STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) curricula is important within the educational sphere. With so much focus being put into learning science and technology, it is necessary at times to transcend literal authenticity and think symbolically in terms of our physical and metaphysical connection with the world. Art gives us a platform to incorporate subjectivity into objective knowledge. The inclusion of arts with other disciplines also enables us to develop and implement well rounded characteristics that can increase our ethical, social and emotional well-being. When artists make connections between art and science, they create novel ways of observing and expressing material and impressionistic views of the world. This ability to think and work within and beyond the physical and metaphysical realms can result in a springboard for innovative and empathetic undertakings.

Full STEAM ahead!

Artful Arithmetic

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Jennifer Bartlett, Air: 24 Hours, 5 P.M., 1991-92, oil on canvas. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993. © Jennifer Bartlett

When confronted with a mathematical problem, have you ever thought to yourself ‘if only I could see an image (instead of numbers and symbols), this equation might make more sense?’ If so, then you are someone like me, whose method of learning is more inline with visual-spatial abilities than logical-mathematical modalities (see: Gardner, 1983).

That is not to say that if you are more inclined to perceiving things visually/spatially then you can’t also be logical. In fact, these two ways of thinking and reasoning (along with six other multiple intellegences, explained by Gardner, see: ibid) are actually complimentary to logical reasoning and are both bolstered through artistic engagement.

Through employing the theory of multiple intellegences, learners are empowered to combine and/or hone in on problem solving methods by utilizing one or more of eight modalities. The eight modalities are: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.

The systems-centered artwork of Jennifer Bartlett is a great example of how art can combine multiple intellegences in order to arouse responses from a diverse array of viewers, who each bring different abilities and prior knowledge to the viewing experience.

Bartlett’s paintings are inspired by systems based processes, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style. For example, within her series titled Air: 24 Hours, Bartlett created twenty four paintings to represent each hour of the day. She arranged her square canvases by painting a grid-based system that always adds up to the number sixty. While she has implemented the structure of a grid, a comment on a trope within Modernist painting, Bartlett contrasts the logical-mathematical system by overlaying imagery and formal elements that are at once absurd, mysterious and intimate. Bartlett makes logical structures more personal by including symbols and vignettes from her personal life. The scenes, while not overtly telling, represent moments and happenings around Bartlett’s house at a specific hour of the day.


Jennifer Bartlett, Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536, 1973-74, Enamel over silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates, 77 inches x 9 feet and 8 inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Alex Katz Foundation Gift and Hazen Polsky Foundation Fund, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Another work of art by Bartlett, which combines mathematical systems with formal aesthetics is the painting Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536 (1973-74). This painting consists of black enamel paint applied over a silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates. The title is a literal description of Bartlett’s self-imposed mathematical formula for cumulatively squaring the number two. The mathematical function was also Bartlett’s artistic process, because for each solution, she composed the precise number of hand-painted dots within the grid to represent the whole numbers: 2, 4, 16, 256 and 65,536. The resulting painting juxtaposes logic with subjectivity. The perspective changes depending on how you view the painting (i.e. from closer up you can clearly see the dots within the grid, but from afar they seemingly amass into an abstract form or blend together into obscurity).

The work of Jennifer Bartlett is an exemplary intermediary between mathematical and aesthetic thinking and doing. Incorporating visual art with mathematical systems is a great way to gain a well-rounded grasp on math formulas, while also expressing a personal element to problem solving, which makes overcoming challenging tasks efficacious and relevant.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Gardner, Howard 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences , New York: Basic Books

Gardner, Howard. 1999. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017,, accessed 17 March 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences.” Artfully Learning. 11 Jun. 2018.


Word! Comprehending and Expressively Exploring Written Language

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Barbara Kruger, Your body is a battleground, 1989, photographic silkscreen on vinyl, 112 x 112 inches. collection of The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, California

When used as both object and subject (objectively and subjectively), written words open our minds to an endless array of meaning. All letters in every written language have an aesthetic quality to them. They can add substance and context to a work of art, such as in the work of Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein (who used text in his comic strip inspired paintings to make socially conscious statements and satirize popular culture), or become works of art in their own right such as the New York City subway car graffiti murals by Lady Pink and others. Text carries archetypal and personal significance depending on an array of factors, not limited to how they are arranged, accented, or inflected.

Artists including Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Lorraine O’Grady, Yoko Ono, Shadi Harouni, Linda Herritt, Meg Hitchcock,  JF Lynch, Tim Rollins and KOS and Howard Schwartzberg, have each created visual artworks by literally and figuratively using letters and words. These letters and words hold significance to the maker, however, the viewer ultimately becomes an active and crucial participant in reading, comprehending and interpreting the piece in their own way.

According to educator and reading specialist, Gail E. Tompkins, comprehension is a “creative, multifaceted process” dependent upon four language skills: phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics (Tompkins, 2011). In addition to understanding the formal aspects of the text, the viewer gives new meaning to the work through their engagement with the text based upon a myriad of different facets including education, experience, spirituality and culture. Visual art and visual culture (such as comics and graphic novels, see: Excelsior! An Educational Framework Via Comic Book Culture) can strengthen comprehension skills through an experiential application of the studio habits of mind, multiple intellegences, Socratic seminars and critiques. In visual art, comprehension is both an individual and interpersonal activity. According to Gersten, Fuchs, Williams and Baker (2001), there are several strategies for comprehending a text. Seven of these strategies are:

  • Making Inferences: In everyday terms we refer to this as “reading between the lines”. It involves connecting various parts of texts that aren’t directly linked in order to form a sensible conclusion. A form of assumption, the reader speculates what connections lie within the texts.
  • Planning and Monitoring: This strategy centers around the reader’s mental awareness and their ability to control their comprehension by way of awareness. By previewing text (via outlines, table of contents, etc.) one can establish a goal for reading-“what do I need to get out of this”? Readers use context clues and other evaluation strategies to clarify texts and ideas, thereby monitoring their level of understanding.
  • Asking Questions: To solidify one’s understanding of passages of texts readers inquire and develop their own opinion of the author’s writing, character motivations, relationships, etc.
  • Determining Importance: Pinpointing the important ideas and messages within the text. Readers are taught to identify direct and indirect ideas and to summarize the relevance of each.
  • Visualizing: With this sensory-driven strategy readers form mental and visual images of the contents of text. Being able to connect visually allows for a better understanding with the text through emotional responses.
  • Synthesizing: This method involves marrying multiple ideas from various texts in order to draw conclusions and make comparisons across different texts; with the reader’s goal being to understand how they all fit together.
  • Making Connections: A cognitive approach also referred to as “reading beyond the lines”, which involves (A) finding a personal connection to reading, such as personal experience, previously read texts, etc. to help establish a deeper understanding of the context of the text, or (B) thinking about implications that have no immediate connection with the theme of the text.

If you compare these strategies with the studio habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) it becomes evident how nicely they align. Additionally, applying Feldman’s Model of Art Criticism is essentially using literary comprehension strategies for visual works of art. The overarching artistic experience enables us to process a work of art, analyze and interpret its meaning and integrate the aforementioned processes with our prior knowledge and lived experience. The artists featured in this post present us with challenging compositions, which can be deciphered in novel ways based on our ability to comprehend visual and written language and make associations to what we are already familiar with in regards to text and imagery.

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Shadi Harouni, MOSADEGH, 2017, plexiglass, light, fixtures, 16 x 40 x 2.7 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Smack Mellon.

Shadi Harouni’s artwork scrutinizes the history of resistance in marginalized communities and the creative strategies that individuals and groups use to resist erasure. She uses linguistics in an expressive way to symbolize the social and emotional relationship between people and the culture at large. For example, her sculpture MOSADEGH (2017), illuminates the narrative of Reza Nik, a shomemaker from Hamedan, Iran who named his shop Mosadeqh (the name of the first elected prime minister of Iran who was overthrown in a CIA coup) several days after the Revolution. Harouni’s poignant adaptation of the neon sign (one that is very familiar to commercial establishments throughout the world) installed by Nik, plays with the way the original letters that in Farsi read as ‘MSDQ’, were changed over time due to orders from the local authorities. After he was told to change his shop’s name, so that it wouldn’t bear likeness to the deposed prime minister, Nik dropped the first letter. The sign then spelled out the word “Sedqh,” which in Farsi means “truth.” As fate would have it, the light in the ‘S’ burnt out after a few years and the sign spelled “Deqh,” which means death by heartbreak. While there is a substantial amount of unpacking and prior knowledge that is needed (especially if you are not familiar with Arabic linguistics), the imagery of a neon sign with burnt out letters is a familiar sight within cities and towns throughout the world. We have likely encountered a sign advertising or describing something that is missing letters, thereby altering the meaning.

Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger’s oft-monumental conceptual artwork, utilizes words and phrases that address modern clichés, stereotypes and proverbial ideas about identity and materialism. Kruger generally applies bold lettering (typically using the typeface Helvetica) with black and white photography, which raise our awareness about the ways in which commercial advertisements, news and mass media information affects the decisions we make (such as the products we buy, the way we act towards each other, the ideologies we hold as truth, etc). Kruger’s application of pronouns (ex: “you”, “your”, “I”, “we” and “they”) give weight to her tabloid-esque satire of patriarchal systems and other social, political and economic hierarchies.

While Kruger’s most iconic work (see: I shop therefore I am, 1987; and Your body is a battleground, 1989) fuses text with imagery, both she and Holzer suggest that the words themselves are aesthetic. The bold letters form engaging sentences, which interact with the public space or environment (such as a gallery or museum) where they’re displayed and implore us to comprehend them in conjunction to out prior knowledge and personal experience.

Holzer’s Truisms (1977-79) are a series of slogans and maxims addressing the “usual baloney they are fed” in daily life (Tate Modern, “Jenny Holzer,” gallery label, October 2000). Holzer constructed her Truisms in a manner akin to subversive popular advertisement so that they reach and captivate a large and diverse audience. A close attention to the detail of Holzer’s work by the public, reveals that these dictums are in fact, works of creative provocation. Holzer makes reading comprehension a fun, humorous and engaging activity.

Another artist who mines through mass media information and profoundly changes the way it is comprehended is Lorraine O’Grady. Her Cutting Out the New York Times (from 5 to November 20, 1977) series combined disparate sentences from New York Times headlines in order to make relevant connections to her lived experiences. Through an artistic process of employing the cut-up poetry technique, this body of work makes uniquely introspective statements derived from public information. These works of art humanize headlines and other mass media buzzwords, which are generally used to captivate and attract viewers (to sell papers or generate online ad revenue via ‘clicks’) by sensationalizing the human experience. Cutting Out the New York Times largely commented on her intersectionality as a woman of color within the arts scene.

Yoko Ono uses words in an expressive and symbolic manner to encourage participation between the artist and viewer and raise awareness about ourselves, each other and the collective environment we share. In artworks such as her Instruction pieces, Ono presents written instructions for us to comprehend, synthesize and engage with in a meaningful manner, which requires deeply personal connections to be made from Ono’s often open ended sentences. These text based works place creative responsibility on the viewer and are intended to be visualizes as “paintings to be constructed in your head” (Persse, 2010).


Meg Hitchcock, Mantras & Dragons, Letters cut from “The Confessional: A Full and Free Inquiry into the Right, Utility, Edification, and Success of Establishing Systematical Confessions of Faith and Doctrine in Protestant Churches,” holes are burned in paper, 26 1/2 x 26 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

While artists like Holzer, Ono, O’Grady and Kruger alert our sensibility to the way linguistical phrases affect our social and emotional lives, Meg Hitchcock explores the way that written words influence religion and spirituality. Hitchcock creates awe-inspiring artwork using letters, phrases and mantras, which she cuts out from major religious texts and appropriates in order to reveal a similar thread between the world’s major religious faiths. Hitchcock’s interpretation and appropriation of passages deconstructs the exclusivity it was originally intended to be representative of. She does this by selecting words from the Christian bible and arranging them into a passage from the Koran, or the Torah and vice versa. Hitchcock’s arrangement of spiritual verses from sacred texts exposes the commonality that exists between religions, which are often perceived to be at odds with one another due to social, geographical and political issues. In addition to the conceptual poignancy in Hitchcock’s work, her intricate designs draw a strong visual recollection to ornamental and sacred objects and patterns that are central to all the major faiths.

Linda Herritt, JF Lynch and Howard Schwartzberg utilize the aesthetic properties of letters and words to form insightful connections with regards to the artistic process. Through this endeavor, they assume the role of a narrator who playfully and poignantly engages and confounds viewers.


Linda Herritt, Seafoam Spectra, 2016, Handmade paper and photo transfers; Text lists wall paint color names, 30 x 40 inches. Produced as part of the Workspace Residency, Dieu Donné, New York

Herritt uses written language as an element of art and principal of design, as well as a means of conceptual expression. Herritt’s text-based work builds upon subject matter that ranges from lineups of bands playing shows in Brooklyn, a compendium of traditional Chinese brushstrokes, or a catalog of common side-effects from pain medications (to name a few). She composes these elements as a shorthand, a method of rapid writing by means of abbreviations and symbols, to talk about specific cultural phenomena. The way that Herritt arranges and distorts the form of each letter confounds a simple reading of the text and challenges the way we perceive the combination of image and text. Additionally, the unique juxtaposition of words creates the effect of traditional drawing techniques such as cross hatching and shading.


J.F. Lynch, Beautiful (Full of Beauty), 2017, Courtesy of the artist.

J.F. Lynch also arranges letters and words in a manner that is indicative of language’s dual aesthetic and conceptual possibilities. To J.F. Lynch, words are everywhere. They exist alongside other sensory information as memories of stored information that amplify what we see, and stay with us when we travel. Lynch’s subtle word paintings and drawings play off of Surrealistic biomorphisms as well as the tromp l’oeil text found in contemporary graffiti and Medieval illuminated manuscripts. He combines these decorative lettering constructs through a dramatic value scale that calls to mind the tonality in the work of contemporary artist Robert Longo. Similar to Longo, Lynch uses graphite to ‘sculpt’ his letters to give his paintings and drawings the illusion of being three-dimensional. They appear and disappear within his black-and-white charcoal works. They give a conflicting emotional sensations appearing both beautiful and foreboding. Despite the conflicting feelings, there is an overall playfulness within his typographic expressionism. The letterforms in his work are often jumbled or distorted, blurring the line of legibility and enticing the viewer to try and decipher them. Lynch gives some hints within the titles of his artwork for those painstakingly searching for the message. One example is Beautiful (full of beauty), 2017. In this drawing, Lynch creates a portrait of the word “beautiful” by pulling each letter apart and arranging them throughout the picture plane. His dramatic chiseled treatment of each letter makes them feel like they’ve come into our realm. As word-portraits, Lynch’s primary objective is to establish these words as tangible objects for us to engage with.


Howard Schwartzberg, from “The Muse ic Series,” 1995-96, pen and dirt on paper.

Howard Schwartzberg incorporates specific words, sentences and organic materials such as dirt, wax, fish scales and dust within his drawings. Similar to Lynch and Herrit, the line, shape and placement of the words represent formal elements of art and are used as the focal point for these aesthetic compositions. Schwartzberg’s drawings symbolize the process of making art and give us an introspective view of the thought process he engages with inside his studio. Words are repeated as if re-occurring in thought or rubbed and crossed out as if it were a mistake. Furthermore, the phrases depicted in each drawing suggest a play on words, which enables the viewer to construct their own visual imagery by interpreting and deciphering their multiple meanings.

These previously discussed contemporary artists are several of many visionaries whose work provides varying examples of how viewing text and imagery together can lead to an enjoyable and profound engagement with particular messages, themes, or vocabulary. While some of the work would be challenging for emerging readers and language learners, the aforementioned artists and artworks can help students with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, sentence construction/cohesion, reasoning and background knowledge, working memory and paying attention (being active and observers. See: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

All of the strategies for reading and comprehending text can be supported in creative and unique ways within the educational sphere. In the art classroom, students can start the year by creating fanciful text based artwork. This not only helps assess where they are at artistically, but also what their comprehension skills are. Additionally, it is a great way to learn names and get to know the students in a meaningful way. For inspiration and motivation, students can look at examples of graffiti from the 1980s (see: Style Wars) through the present, as well as illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. After scrutinizing these aesthetic movements, they should compare and contrast the two text-centered art forms, decode symbolic meanings and make inferences about the content. After discussing the properties and analyzing the contents of each art form, students should be prompted to make connections between these works of art and their own lives. They can then create a work of art focusing on the embellishment of their name (nickname, or initials) that is self-aware and cognizant of their relationship to the world around them. This project challenges students to relate what they learned about text based art by employing several different comprehension strategies. It is a fun way to introduce visual vocabulary (the elements of art and principals of design) and strengthen students’ understanding of written language.

Another idea is a unit inspired by the cut-up poetry technique of Lorraine O’Grady, Barbara Kruger’s juxtaposition of words and media imagery and the truisms of Jenny Holzer. This unit might be well served in collaboration with the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum when students are learning about strategies for reading and writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Students should analyze the work of the aforementioned artists, and discuss how they each re-present mass media stereotypes, clichés and contemporary narratives within their artwork. Students should research several different newspaper, magazine and journal articles (appropriate for their reading levels), follow the strategies for reading comprehension, and suss out important information from the publications, which they can use to create an aesthetic response to an issue that holds significance to them.

An additional way of strengthening literacy and critical thinking via visual art is by connecting art projects to literature that students are reading in other classes. Again, such a unit/learning segment can be designed and implemented in coordination with the ELA curriculum. The work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S is a prime example of how contemporary art practices can bolster reading comprehension skills (see: Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy and What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017) ). Starting in the 1980s, Rollins and his middle-school aged collaborators (who named themselves K.O.S.) started to make work in response to the books they were reading for class. By focusing in on common tropes, themes and important passages, K.O.S. synthesized literary narratives into abstract works of art, replete with sociocultural symbolism.

There is a current traveling exhibition called Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, which showcases the work of contemporary artists who re-imagined themes from fairy tales. The realized works comment on stereotypical treatments of gender and power dynamics in several traditional fairy tales. This exhibition is emblematic of how developing strong reading comprehension techniques enables us to understand and digest problematic themes in existing literature and expose them in novel perspectives for renewed evaluation.

Students can comprehend, analyze and critique a text they’re reading in class in terms of whether it conveys pertinent and/or problematic issues, as well as the ways it might hold significance to specific contemporary social, political and cultural issues that they are aware of.  Several visual responses can be implemented to exhibit what the students have comprehended from literature. A few of which include: producing graphic novels that are adapted from their assigned reading; re-imagining a story line or dialogue through performance; and creating a mixed-media typographic portrait of a character in relationship to their intersectional identity (ex. using key passages from the book and media sources to form a symbolic image of key character traits of literary figures).

Literature, language and the visual arts are all essential modes of expressive communication and therefore can be creatively synthesized in order to sincerely portray and contextualize the human condition. Understanding text and written language in terms of aesthetics and visual culture is beneficial to professional artists and educators alike. The examples of how visual artists utilize written language and are inspired by literature, provide ample opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration within a pedagogical framework. It would benefit the scholastic community if art departments and literary departments work towards incorporating strategies and habits of mind in each discipline in order to make developing literacy (both visual, oral and written) relevant and engaging for students.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Gersten, R., Fuchs, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). “Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research.” Review of Educational Research, 71, 279–320.

Lee, Andrew M.I. “6 Essential Skills Needed for Reading Comprehension.” Understood.

Persse, Jason. “From a Whisper to a Scream: Following Yoko Ono’s Instructions.” Inside/Out. 10 Jul. 2010.

Quinn, Chase. “How Lorraine O’Grady Has Challenged a Segregated Art World.” Hyperallergic. 3 Dec. 2018.

Tompkins, Gail E. (2011). Literacy in the early grades: A successful start for prek-4 readers (3rd edition), Boston: Pearson. p 37



Visualizing Our Complex Identities through Art


Dread Scott, from the Wanted series. Courtesy of the artist.

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 initially 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 is continually 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). She also addresses race and social injustice in bodies of work like The Witness Project and It Wasn’t Little Rock, Revisited, Romanesque (2012).

A common stylistic strategy in Sligh’s work is the juxtaposition of images with text, to create a multidisciplinary narrative around 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 identifiers such as their race, age, social status, weight, or gender. She also expresses how discrimination and injustice impacts interwoven forms of social stratification (such as the aforementioned identifiers). Sligh’s ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary and collaborative artwork, which seeks to create an open-ended framework for expressing collective intersectional identities.

Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. His text based work is influenced by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. Ligon appropriates texts 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.

Dread Scott’s Wanted series is similar to Ligon’s Runaways in that Scott uses the familiar imagery of police sketches used on ‘wanted posters’ to expose the harsh reality of racial stereotypes and systemic racism. Each poster contains a sketch of a black individual, drawn by artist and former Newark (New Jersey) police sketch artist, Kevin Blythe Sampson, along with a description of the subject. An example of one of the posters reads: “On Saturday May 17, 2014, at approximately 12:30 AM, a male black, 16-24 years of age was wearing a black waist length jacket and dark pants. The male was observed engaging in conversation with other males. The police allege that the suspect moved suspiciously when officers approached…”  These surreal posters call our attention to the injustice and explicit racial bias that is too frequently involved in the policing of black communities.

The work of artists like Sligh, Ligon, and Scott, presents compelling narratives, which express to us that our identities are more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis). 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, prior or current education, and social class. Understanding that we’re each representative of an amalgamation of diverse physical, social, and cultural, involves removing exclusivity from the conversation when it comes to identity. We need to fully address the ways that specific groups are marginalized and remove implicit and explicit bias from our lives altogether.

Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other and draw meaningful connections between themselves and their classmates. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them, as well as 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, which 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, Scott, 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 illustrates their dynamic and multifaceted identities.

First, students will arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (this narrative can be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Next, students will 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.

Through the arts, we employ studio habits of mind such as exhibiting empathy, noticing deeply, making connections (finding similarities and connections between our experiences and the experiences of others), and reflecting on how we represent ourselves and others. These habits of mind are essential to building a collective community full of compassionate and open-minded individuals. This is a resounding reason why including the arts in school curricula can have a lifelong positive influence on how we value ourselves and others in the world around us.