Last night, Ace Art hosted an artist talk by Stacey Abramson, a friend and colleague of mine who is equally as passionate about revolution. Stacey is a high school art teacher, a visual artist and one of the twelve educators who (in 2016-17) was selected to be part of the ART:21 Educators Program, an incredibly collaborative, forward-thinking and enriching professional development program for teachers interested in teaching with contemporary art.
Her talk drew a fairly large crowd (larger than one might expect for a talk about 'teaching art') - and since there are so few venues for debate, dialogue and discussion around the state of art education, especially in Manitoba, her presentation felt like a combination of a battle cry and a 'coming out' party. She might as well have begun with, "Hi, my name is Stacey, and I am a quiet radicalist." It was both a call-to-action and a joy-filled celebration of the great changes that a small collection of art teachers have been making over the past number of years.
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Breaking Arts and Taking Names
We want a massive overhaul of art education - all the way from Kindergarten to S4.
We are knocking down the walls of our classrooms and gifting the creative experience back to the kids. No more teacher-selected "copy-this-example" projects. No more worrying about filling school bulletin boards with pretty things for parent night or for last-minute superintendent visits. Yes - these 'make-and-take' projects have "high success" rates – and look great on Grandma’s refrigerator - BUT NOBODY LEARNS MUCH. They are projects with pre-determined outcomes. They projects are rule-bound – they do not allow for creativity or deviation from the norm. Kids don't get to make choices. They don't even get close to experiencing what an actual artist might work through to make their art. (And yet we remind them from the front of the room, “Okay everybody, try to be creative!”)
Rather than base school projects on formalist properties of art (see "the elements and principles") that were REALLY relevant 50-100 years ago, or on copying an artist's work ("Wow. Your Van Gogh reproduction looks just like the original!") we are shifting to postmodern ways of creating: considering hybridity, the deconstruction of gaze, playing with identity and cultural affiliations, juxtaposition, appropriation of pre-existing visual culture, perspective, ritual, layering, and re-contextualization... techniques that contemporary artists use to make meaning (Gude 2004). Students learn to ask meaningful, open-ended questions and to pursue their own curiosities with art-making.
This is constructivist learning – students developing visual literacy skills: being able to “read” art critically and deeply, and create their own in an eloquent way. They generate understanding through the interaction between their experiences and their ideas. They learn that creativity is not a fixed attribute (like brown eyes) – it is something that can change and grow.
In our classrooms, Stacey and I focus on process. Some people label this teaching method "the inquiry process" - and that's true - technically. But more than that, it's just HOW PEOPLE LEARN. It's how artists work through the process of thinking and questioning and making and reflecting. As a very simplified summary, students initiate projects and learn independently.
And here come the critics...
Hmmm… Wait a minute, Dawn. I know how much you like coffee breaks.
Is this just a way for art teachers to avoid preparation or hard work?
OH. HELL. NAH.
Teaching this way is immersive, time-consuming and incredibly challenging. As teachers, we are provocateurs. We pique curiosities. We incite discussion. We unpack and model our own creative processes in real time with an audience. We take on challenging and uncomfortable topics and bravely show our soft underbellies to kids who (in some cases) could tear us apart. But you know what? It doesn’t happen. Because our relationship with these students is not one of "the powerful leading the powerless". We are learners too. We are part of the community. We don’t know everything. We have strengths and weaknesses (oh, so many weaknesses). And most importantly, we are supports; cheerleaders. We push our students to the edge of their capabilities and then nudge them just a little further. We show them the value of persistence, and hard work, and patience. We relish in the magic of delayed gratification (and for some of these technological natives, this is truly a revelation!)
They have to work through problems, with their teachers as supports and resources - but nobody is helicopter-ing in to save the day. Sometimes the kids get stuck - and they learn to get un-stuck. And if they fail (heaven forbid!), we rename it ‘experience’ – and show them that humility and disappointments happen to everyone. They build resilience by starting again, problem-solving, and figuring out new plans. We teach kids that their personal worth is not dependent on their grades… and that ultimately, their learning is our biggest priority. (And should be theirs too!)
We won't settle for meaningless, "easy", teacher-driven art classes. We want to fuel and foster authentic, meaningful art-making – and to provide a space for our kids to work like artists do - to ask their own questions and follow personal curiosities, to search out inspiration, use their imaginations, collaborate with their peers and build supportive communities. We encourage intimate, trusting and vulnerable relationships to develop within our classroom. We teach kids to research and investigate, collect, play around, tinker and experiment purposefully, and to trust their gut. We want them to ask for help, to build technical skills, to recognize and use each other's talents and rely on each other for assistance, to take calculated risks and learn to fail spectacularly, and then discover their own amazing resilience and the incredible learning that comes from making mistakes.
Classes like ours allow kids to design with purpose and intention, and to consider audience when planning a work. Rather than teaching projects focused on the media that we (as individual artists ourselves) are the most comfortable with, we center our teaching (and our own learning) around techniques that support the students’ ideas. We encourage our kids to look for experts to help them - whether it be in a particular medium or style (lost-wax casting / public art installation / computer programming / video editing / performance / etc.) or to find an expert or experienced community member connected to the topic or theme they are investigating (scientists / refugees / architects / historians / Indigenous Elders / musicians / etc.)
This engagement in multiple modes of learning honours 'real life' experience; rather than scheduling and categorizing content areas into one-hour-blocks (ahem!), students begin to understand the overlap and connectedness between subject areas and approaches to learning. (You know - like the REAL WORLD.) Although the teacher is a guide, a support and a resource, students become independently motivated - moving through a learning journey like they would as adults. They develop skills in creating expressive and thoughtful art pieces, yes, but also experience art-making as cathartic, therapeutic, challenging, celebratory, and a socially active way to engage with others.
By teaching this way, we are giving them opportunities to feel empowered - to learn that their voices matter and to explore and expand their sense of self. That sharing their individual and collective experiences through visual means is SO important. That their art can reach those whose voices have been silenced and give them hope, and can encourage an audience to consider a new perspective.
We also know our responsibilities. We know that our words can make them feel like artists, or make them never want to take a risk again. We also realize that art teachers - for many kids - are both the catalysts AND the gatekeepers of kids' engagement with artworks, past and present. The specific artworks and artists our kids are exposed to will set the tone for art appreciation; whether they are works we have hanging in our classrooms or in the galleries we choose to visit or in the videos we choose to show. We know that the artworks that we select will either honour our students’ personal place in culture and society or negate it. These pieces will captivate students or shut down their interest.
And we are finding ways to break down the barriers between kids and real-life gallery experiences - taking the fear out of analyzing and interpreting contemporary and conceptual works. Teaching kids that they can bring as much meaning to an art viewing experience as the exhibiting artist does - and that visual literacy and art appreciation is not just for rich old white people with yearly museum passes. It is for kids. And teenagers. And contrary to what you find in most art history books, it is made by women, and people of colour, and Indigenous folks, and the LGBTTQIA* community, and people with disabilities. It is FOR them, and BY them. And their stories are incredibly important.
And so we are purposeful in our planning. Rather than spending valuable class time talking about only dead, European men, or artists whose iconic work is sold on mouse pads and mugs - or only formalist work - or only modernist work (can you imagine how horrified the public would be if a science teacher only covered content and ideas developed prior to the 1960's?) - we are choosing to focus most of our "looking" at LIVING, breathing, making artists, and the challenges and joys they face in making meaningful, personal, socially-connected art in the 21st century. We want kids to know that the arts both influence and reflect culture, and that understanding the context surrounding an artwork's creation will allow us to better understand the work.
We want them to understand that artmaking be can wonderful, significant, rigorous work. We model for our students the difficult work it is to move through the natural anxiety that comes with being an artist - to trust in their own process and forge ahead even when they hit road bumps. To say "yes" to new and tangential experiences, to learn to relish ambiguity and "not knowing". To defer judgement and look critically at things that they don't understand.
We want them to find art and beauty in the everyday – to live attentively and to move through the world with eyes open. We want them to relish in culture - to recognize the connectedness between people and communities, and wholly celebrate the differences. Through these experiences kids learn to understand “The Compelling Why”: why art has been, and always will be absolutely essential to human experience.
This is our vision of art education. It is individualized teaching and learning at its best – and it requires teachers to let go of the reins (and for many of us, that can be challenging). But what we give up in power, we gain back in student engagement, inclusive and collaborative communities, and authentic art-making. It is incredibly hard work. And completely worth it.
This revolution is happening, quietly, in art classrooms in Winnipeg. And tonight, I sat on a chair in the back of a gallery watching about 50 peoples' eyes light up. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve seen this fire. By showing real-life examples of the work she's doing in her classroom, Stacey brought the public a taste of what building this kind of safe community can do to encourage collaborative discourse and authentic engagement in art making.
Fantastic work, my comrade!
#quietradicalism #breakingartsandtakingnames #art21educators #contemporaryart