The purpose of my thesis research is to find ways to enable students to take time to observe the artmaking process. I explored with students how the process of making art is as important as products created, how the journey is sometimes even more important than the destination, and how students’ lived experiences can be used as rich material for self-recognition, self-reflection, and growth. My thesis research incorporated the use of mapping, body movements and drawing experiments as ways to enable students to gain a deeper understanding of how they move through their world. As mentioned in my Introduction, the following questions guided my research: 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 become a context for making art? What occurs when an art teacher looks to the aesthetic strategies of contemporary artists for teaching strategies? In this section I will first describe my research site and identify my methods of research. Next, I will discuss the data collection procedures I used, followed by the parameters of my research. Lastly, I will examine how my overall plan helped to answer my research questions.
My research took place at a Chicago Public High School located on the northeast side of the city. Currently, there are 1,067 students enrolled in the school, 62.14% of whom speak a language other than English as their home language. The student body is 42% Latino, 38% African American, 13% Asian, 6% Caucasian and 1% Native American/Other (http://cps.edu/Pages/home.aspx). My research site is technically referred to as a neighborhood school. One thing that makes it unique is a recently added Fine and Performing Arts Magnet Program within the larger school. The program is comprised of tracks in music, theater, dance and visual arts and is in its second year of existence. I worked with visual arts students enrolled in the magnet program as well as with students in an Art I class. Another distinctive characteristic of this particular school is that, against the wishes of community members, educators and activists, an entire wing of the building was converted into a naval academy in 2005. There are many small stories housed within this massive structure.
In my research project, I was interested in learning how students would respond to an artmaking practice that values the process of making art as being as important as the products they create. With the invaluable input of my students and cooperating teacher, I designed and implemented three units that I thought would allow for an opportunity to do just this. All of the contemporary artists I used as inspiration in the projects mine materials and processes from everyday experiences, which is the thread that holds them all together.
The first project I worked on with students, Walking, Making, Mapping: Taking time to observe the artmaking process, was a six week unit inspired by the work of contemporary artists Hamish Fulton and Julie Mehretu. Students read aloud Fulton’s artist statement and discussed the notion of walking as an art form. They wrote about their own experiences of walking through Chicago and took four photographs on their paths to and from school. After learning about Mehretu’s process of using overhead projectors and incorporation of her surrounding environments to make large scale works, students transferred their printed photographs onto acetate using sharpies. They then projected their transparencies onto large scale paper, which led to the creation of mixed media, layered paintings.
In project number two, students and I looked at and discussed the work of Chicago artist Jessica Stockholder, which led to a four week unit on color theory using everyday materials. Color Jam! started with students selecting twelve everyday objects. Each was painted a different color in the color spectrum. A large collection of objects began to form and students worked collaboratively to construct sculptures out of these objects. We compiled a list of materials and techniques they wanted to try out in the next phase of the project, which was to make observational drawings of their sculptures. Students arranged their sculptures as still lives throughout the classroom and moved around the room to draw from different vantage points daily.
The third project, Drawing Through Movement, took place in the Art 1 class and began with a discussion about how hard drawing can be. Together, we looked at the work of contemporary artist Michael Namkung who uses the whole body to make drawing experiments. Students tried out multiple ways of drawing using their whole bodies. Some examples included drawing behind their backs standing up, jumping to make marks and sitting on the floor while reaching as far as they could. In the last step of the process, students proposed and executed their own ideas for whole body drawings using materials of their choosing.
My thesis research took the form of action research. As mentioned in my Introduction, action researchers gain insight into themselves as well as into the lives of their participants. They focus on both the process of collecting data and its outcome (Esterberg, 2002, p. 136). My research data consisted of written reflections, individual discussions with students as well as group discussions during critiques, student artwork, and my own thoughts on moving through the experience of being a first time teacher. I found myself paying close attention to moments of resistance within my students as well as in myself during my study and tried very hard to remain open and flexible to learning right along side my students/research participants.
As is the case in all research projects, my thesis research was conducted within an acknowledged set of parameters, including limitations and delimitations. Limitations are the practical limits of a study given the context; limitations take into consideration what the researcher is able to do (Rossman and Rallis, 2003, p. 133). One limitation of my study was the short amount of time spent with my students. Although I do feel that important connections were beginning to form between myself and my students, trusting relationships take longer than seven weeks to develop. I had anticipated an initial resistance from students, especially in asking them to experiment with physical movement and drawing, and experienced a fair amount of it in the beginning of the projects.
Delimitations “imply what the study is not” (Rossman and Rallis, 2003, p. 133) and include the conceptual boundaries around it. In my thesis research I decided to focus on the artistic process through the lived experiences of students. Declaring this specific focus is a delimitation of my study. My research does not focus solely on products created but instead incorporates the entire process of artmaking as a way for students to gain critical insight into how they move through their lives as they reflect on what they are making.
As previously stated, my thesis research attempted to answer the following 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 become a context for making art? What occurs when an art teacher looks to the aesthetic strategies of contemporary artists for teaching strategies? My action research consisted of: paying close attention to details, positioning students as researchers, an emphasis on both the process of artmaking as well as products created, the implementation of unit plans that consider the links between learning and moving, students’ lived experiences, looking to the strategies of contemporary artists for teaching strategies and most importantly critical self-reflection.
In my study, students were positioned as artists and researchers, capable of making complex decisions on their own. Although the freedom to decide their next steps was not always met with enthusiasm, students became more motivated to work when they were able to take ownership of their projects. This sense of ownership not only helped students produce artwork they were proud of but helped them to find value in the process of making it. I began this process interested in learning how students would respond to projects that were designed to move forward with the aid of their input. This project challenged me to hold back on telling students what to do and provide feedback through many small conversations to students working at different stages in the process. I was surprised and excited to realize that while students were learning to make art in a very process oriented way-inspired by the methods of contemporary artists, they were also, simultaneously, teaching me about the process of learning to teach.