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

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

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

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. Love Motel for Insects is an ongoing public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods.

The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops. Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how we can use art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Everybody is an Artist

Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture is perhaps one of the most important ideas that unite the fields of art and education.  He advocated that through art, human beings can make a greater contribution to society. A social sculptor is anyone who creates a structure –literally or figuratively– within their community using actions, thoughts, social interactions, and objects.

Artistic learning might very well be the most vital piece of an individual’s understanding of the world and their place within the human experience. In art (unlike math, applied sciences, language, and grammar) there are no right or wrong ways to approach a problem. Art teachers set up circumstances that will allow students to formulate an aesthetic, social, and emotional understanding about how to shape their own ideas. Eisner (2002) said that this way of thinking artfully addresses moments in life that cannot be approached using formulas and rules.

Art Education is important because it enables certain ‘habits of mind’ such as (to name a few) listening and empathy, flexible purposing (a John Dewey term that describes how thinking enables shifting directions and finding many outcomes or new avenues of insight), making judgements in the absence of rules, and resisting closure (not to be complacent with one method or solution).

Even though there is no proof that art has a direct correlation to test scores and assessment of other core subjects, the arts develop students into well-rounded individuals. Art allows for a visual understanding of our environment. Student artists learn to think critically and creatively, which can lead to a more comprehensive observation of their surroundings as well as a more empathetic understanding of culture.

In summery, artistic learning gives students the confidence and ability to become active learners; empathetic and expressive communicators; and advanced problem solvers beyond the scope of pragmatism. Not everyone will or should become professional artists, however, they can employ art in their daily lives to succeed in many circumstances.


Notes:

Cufarro, H (1995). Experience: Variety and Continuity. In Experimenting with the World (pp. 55-67). New York, NY: TC Press.

Eisner, E. (2002, September) What the Arts Do for the Young, SchoolArts, (pp. 16-17).

Eisner, E. (2002). What the arts teach and how it shows. In The arts and the creation of mind (pp. 70-92). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Everybody is an Artist

Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning

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Lenka Clayton, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

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.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

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.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

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.


Notes:

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Mitchell, W.J. (2005). There Are No Visual Media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning