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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance of the Oppressed

Tania Bruguera’s politically charged performances present a challenging and worthwhile approach for the radical art educator to adapt into their curriculum. 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 sociopolitical 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. Bruguera’s artistic practice is an embodiment of the educational theories of Paolo Freire and John Dewey. Bruguera’s Cátedra Arte de Conducta (2003-2009), was a school for young artists who were interested in socially-engaged art. Through both inquiry and experiential based conversations, students and educators constructed frameworks for artistic practices that were open-ended and focused on developing a dialogue for the Cuban people.

Bruguera’s Cátedra Arte de Conducta is a compelling model of how art-centered learning can inspire students’ social and emotional development in school. It is essential that educators use an approach in the classroom where learning is co-constructed and not approached through means that are didactic. Having students and teachers engage in conversations and actions about topics that are meaningful in their own lives and communities is important because it makes education empowering and relevant for everyone.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Espinosa, Magaly. “Arte de Conducta. Proyecto pedagógico desde lo artístico,” Ramona, No. 93, Argentina, Buenos Aires, August 2009. pp. 10 – 20. http://www.ramona.org.ar/node/27754

Everybody is an Artist

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Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture’ is one of the most important ideas that unite the fields of art and education.  He advocated that human beings can make a greater contribution to society through art. A social sculptor is anyone who creates a structure –literally or figuratively– within their community using actions, thoughts, social interactions and objects. This theory is intrinsically connected to the educational sphere because educators do exactly that in their classrooms.

Artistic learning might very well be the most vital aspect for 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 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) exhibiting 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).

One of the most beneficial aspects of learning through art is that applying artistic thinking in everyday life, can help students students into well-rounded individuals. Through analyzing, creating and reflecting on works of art and aesthetic concepts, 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.

“Everyone is an artist” is a great mantra for us to keep in mind in order to stay connected creatively, empathetically and mindfully to the world around us.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

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.