I am interested in understanding how to enable students to find a deeper sense of self through artmaking. The following Literature Review attempts to frame the three working research questions in my thesis project: How will students respond to an artmaking practice with an emphasis placed on process and product? What happens when students’ unique paths taken to and from school and to and from class become a context for conducting drawing experiments? What occurs when an art teacher looks to the aesthetic strategies of contemporary working artists for teaching strategies? In section one I discuss how an art making practice with an emphasis on process helps students find pleasure in the act of thinking critically while making art. Section two considers the importance of encouraging students to pay close attention to the way that they move as a way to see their journeys through the world more clearly. Finally, in section three, I explore some of the benefits of emulating the processes of professional artists in the classroom, and using these processes to develop creative teaching strategies.
Critical Reflection on Process
The freedom of not needing to know exactly where or how an art project will end up allows room for students to experiment and take risks. The term process is typically defined in American dictionaries as "a series of steps or operations toward a desired result or product” (Webster’s II, 1996, p. 546). My understanding of the word process in relation to artmaking, unlike steps that lead to predetermined outcomes, resembles, rather, a series of circular forms in constant motion. Patricia James (1996) says, “although creativity is an evolutionary process that is developmental and purposeful, it is also a non-linear process shaped by accidents, mistakes, and chance occurrences” (p. 360). Without a linear path to follow, students’ ideas ebb, flow, and bounce around. Artmaking then becomes an active process of continually finding and losing one’s direction in the world.
Allowing flexibility in the artmaking process gives students opportunities to move in unpredictable directions toward the construction of meaningful work. However, Sydney Walker (2004) argues, “it is one thing to introduce students to an artmaking process or to instruct them to engage it in a reflective manner, but it is another for students to utilize the process with invention and deeper critical thinking” (p. 11). If reflecting on one’s process does not come naturally for most students, how then can educators help them find meaning in an artmaking practice that values process? Walker suggests that teachers need to think carefully about how to move beyond ‘self expression’ and engage students in a process of critical thinking.
In my thesis research I hope to help students understand the artmaking process as a way to deconstruct their own ideas and to think about themselves thinking. Walker says, “an artmaking process structured around big ideas orients students toward the notion that artmaking can be about meaning making that has both personal and larger social consequences. Additionally, the use of big ideas, personal connections, knowledge, artmaking problems, and boundaries nourishes and enables the employment of meaning in artmaking” (p. 12). In my thesis project, students will research their daily movement patterns to then use these as a context for conducting drawing experiments. Students will map their journeys to and from school and to and from class. They will experiment with different drawing techniques to represent their findings.
Positioning students as researchers in and out of the classroom is one way to engage students in an artmaking process. Through conducting personally relevant research, students continually discover and uncover truths about themselves and their surroundings. What do I see? Where do I fit? What do I think? Rather than being told exactly what to think and make, students will hopefully learn, through the process of conducting research, how to become the sources of their own knowledge.
If educators are willing to grant students flexibility in the process of making art, a greater potential for understanding “artmaking as a discovery process” (Walker, p. 11) arises. Encouraging open-ended questions with endlessly shifting answers may result in feelings of pleasure in students. This is one way to engage students in critical thinking. Finding fulfillment in the process of making art may help eliminate a need to rush to the finish line. Understanding artmaking as a fluid process, capable of bouncing back and forth in time helps students develop a “high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and innate curiosity” (Walker, p. 12). Teachers and students open to unsureness create spaces for dynamic discussions. Engaging these uncertainties is essential for meaningful learning to occur.
Learning Through Movement
Learning to listen to one’s body through observing the way that it moves is a crucial component in forming an ability to communicate with oneself and with others. According to Peter London (2006), “all organs and systems of our body are constantly, critically, truthfully signaling how we are functioning. But we are rarely if ever taught how to interpret its forms of ‘speech’” (p. 5). Other people influence the way we move. Our movements in turn impact others. The built environment around all of us regulates these movements. Understanding these complex relationships offers new ways of imagining the possibilities for how we might inhabit and move through space. In paying close attention to the way teachers and students move through their daily lives, they can think together about how inner worlds interact with the outer world. The classroom then becomes a social network with these complex human relations at its core.
How can the visual arts help us identify the links between learning and moving? London says, “the visual arts can learn a great deal here about what an informed, aware, practiced, and attuned body requires from what the community of dancers, athletes, musicians, and theater people know and practice” (p. 5). The language of physicality and the language of drawing both utilize repetition, discipline, visual thinking, and meditation as techniques in furthering participants’s performance within these realms. An ability to make connections between art making and moving may help students become less apprehensive in learning how to draw.
I believe a heightened awareness of one’s body aids in a deepened sense of self. Marion North (1973) says, “the chief aim of movement education is learning to ‘know’ one’s body, in rhythm, action and stillness, in skills and in striving, in freedom and restriction. This knowledge contributes to a ‘sense of self’, that is, an awareness of oneself which is intimately bound up with becoming a person in one’s own right” (p. 23). This embodied knowledge may then support students’ understanding of how they relate to others and the world around them. How can an art class lead students to discovering a deeper sense of self? In my thesis project, students will map their movements through the act of drawing and create unique records of their lived experiences to share with classmates. Will their maps share similarities? How will they be different?
A critical awareness of the way we move through our immediate surroundings promotes physical literacy. Physical literacy, according to Margaret Whitehead (2011), “is a fundamental and valued human capability that can be described as: a disposition acquired by human individuals encompassing the motivation, confidence and physical competence that establishes purposeful physical activity as an integral part of their lifestyle” (p. 1). A person who is physically literate recognizes her seemingly mundane movements as meaningful, capable of influencing the people and places around her. In my thesis project, students will be encouraged to research their own everyday movements as inspiration for conducting drawing experiments. In positioning students as researchers of their own movements, my goal is to foster a community of thinkers able to see themselves as the sources of their own unique knowledge.
Teaching Through Contemporary Art
Artmaking involves critical thinking. Gaye Green (2006) argues, “critical thinkers employ behavioral dispositions to solve problems. Evident in the approaches of most professional artists, the mindsets also characterize the thinking processes of researchers in general” (p. 48). Teachers who model the “critical thinking behavioral dispositions” (Green, p. 48) of contemporary working artists provide students with critical thinking and research skills. These dispositions include, “persistence, tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, revision, risk taking, objectivity, fluency, flexibility, and self-regulation” (Green, p. 48). Making visible the thinking processes of artists gives students the tools to examine and discuss big ideas. An ability to dissect artists’ big ideas may help students to form their own.
In understanding artmaking as an opportunity to speak about and reflect on issues important in the lives of students, the process of making art begins to mirror a process of formulating an identity. According to Walker (2001), “by using big ideas, students find that artmaking is more than creating an interesting design or learning a particular technique with a specific medium: artmaking also becomes an expression of important ideas related to their own life and the lives of others” (p. xiii). Walker suggests that by dissecting the big ideas of artists, students will begin to understand the artmaking process as a way to creatively examine the complex world within and around them.
Artmaking is a process of considering multiple options, making decisions, making and breaking rules, and paying attention to details. Professional artists, not unlike adolescents in search of constructing unique identities, are in a state of constant questioning. It is my hope that in teaching with contemporary art, students will begin to make connections between artmaking and their everyday lived experiences. I recognize that teaching with contemporary art is risky. I worry that students will resist learning about art they’ve never seen before. I may need to respond to comments I am uncomfortable with. I question my own capabilities of understanding and articulating to students the complex concepts utilized by contemporary artists. I may be asked to reflect on my own doubts, causing feelings of vulnerability. Can a teacher who questions herself along with her students be considered an expert in knowledge?
In closely examining an artist’s process, teachers can help students understand big ideas as being formed through a process of asking essential questions. The PBS series Art:21 - Art in the 21st Century is an excellent resource for educators interested in exposing students to the thinking and working processes of contemporary artists. I plan to use Art:21 as a guide to expose students to “the stories behind a work of art—told by the artists who conceived and realized it—[to] enhance [their] thinking about what art is, how we talk about it, think about it, and teach with it” (http://www.art21.org). This site provides access to videos about the artists’ process, interviews with working artists, materials for teaching, educators’ guides, and a glossary of key terms associated with contemporary art. The processes of contemporary artists working in all sorts of disciplines are represented. I am particularly interested in researching with students contemporary artist, Julie Mehretu, whose work and process are represented on the site. She discusses the different mapping strategies she uses in her artwork and talks about mapping as a way to reconsider forms and to begin to see them in new ways. It is my hope that in looking to Art:21 as a resource for introducing contemporary artists in the classroom, students and I will be provided a platform for discussing new and challenging ideas.
Introducing multiple perspectives on how to approach artmaking will help students understand the multi-faceted decision making involved in a creative process. Utilizing “Art:21’s straightforward approach of presenting artists at work and in their own words demystifies contemporary art, sparking discussion and inspiring creativity, in view of an expanded public engagement with twenty-first-century art and artists” (http://www.art21.org). In watching professional artists at work and listening to them speak about their unique approaches to artmaking, students will see that there is more than one right way to go about making art. In my thesis project, I plan to use Art:21 as a guide in forming a collection of questions with students to initiate conversations about the connections between process, drawing and movement.
The purpose of my Literature Review has been to create a conversation between my own ideas and the ideas I am reading about in relation to my working research questions: How will students respond to an artmaking practice with an emphasis placed on process and product? What happens when students‘ unique paths taken to and from school and to and from class become a context for conducting drawing experiments? What occurs when an art teacher looks to the aesthetic strategies of contemporary working artists for teaching strategies? In synthesizing and making connections between my own perspectives and those of other researchers and educators who are interested in these questions, I have begun to frame my thesis project theoretically. As it stands in my mind now, the three sections discussed in this Literature Review will be essential components in my thesis project. How can I enable students to gain a deeper sense of self? A critical focus on process, considering the links between learning and moving, and utilizing the strategies of contemporary artists as resources for teaching will ground my study.