In my thesis 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. The projects were titled Walking, Making, Mapping: Taking time to observe the artmaking process, Color Jam! and Drawing Through Movement. In all three projects, students acted as researchers of their local environments and used their everyday movements as a resource for artmaking.
I entered into my research project very much interested in teaching students to value the artistic process as much as the art products they create. I was surprised and excited to realize that while they were learning to make art in a very process oriented way, they were also, simultaneously, teaching me about the process of learning to teach. It is important to mention that my research took place in a school that is very focused on students’ producing strong portfolios of finished work. The three projects I worked on with students helped me understand that a process oriented approach to teaching and learning can not only lead to strong finished artwork but can also deepen students investment and ability to reflect on the meaning behind what they have made. Within each of the three projects I worked on with students, specific and important moments emerged that have helped me begin to understand teaching and artmaking as inherently linked. I will discuss three of these moments in this section.
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 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.
The first significant moment in my research occurred about nine days into the Walking, Making, Mapping project. The subject of my field notes for this day reads: TOTAL BREAKTHROUGH DAY! I shared with students a short video of myself in the process of making the exemplar for the project, which was a five foot by 4 foot mixed media painting. My non-linear decision making process was made evident to them in the video. The five minute video was intentionally silent so that I could talk through my actions as they were happening on the screen. In the video, I was dressed in the clothes I wear while painting, which do not resemble the clothes I wear while teaching. One student shouted out, “Is that really you?” The video prompted an unplanned conversation about artists’ studio habits and I felt a shift happening in the way the students saw me. I was honest with them about not knowing how the project was going to go having never taught it before and asked that they please offer any suggestions throughout the process should they discover a better way of going about things. As a group, we rearranged the tables and chairs in the classroom so as to create an active working studio space. Students, who on previous days seemed disinterested and or aloof, showed a great deal of excitement in the project on this day. A student who before this would only refer to me as bro began calling me by my name.
The shift I noticed in the students was happening inside of me as well. I, for the first time while teaching, felt like myself. In being transparent with students about my insecurities with the project, I felt more like my artist self, a person who is more than okay with figuring things out as she goes and less worried about making things perfect straight away. Understanding myself not only as a teacher but also as an artist helped me to gain confidence in the classroom. In identifying my teacher self with my artist self, I began to relax and started to find pleasure in some of the many unknowns. I had to go through the process of not knowing and asked that my students go through this with me as well. In my Discussion section I will go into further depth about what it may mean for a teacher to learn right along side her students.
In my Introduction section I talk about wanting to make the classroom a place where students can seek a deeper understanding of themselves through artmaking. I’ve learned that this deeper sense of self I spoke about is largely connected to a deeper sense of ownership in the artistic process. In this first project, students were given the freedom to move around the room in a self-directed manner. They were able to choose their own materials and be in charge of deciding their next steps. Admittedly, this movement and freedom made for a somewhat chaotic environment at times, a place we all learned to exist inside of over time.
Positioning students as artists, capable of making complex decisions on their own, was not always easy. I consistently offered suggestions but never told them exactly what to do. I often found myself resisting gently but firmly the “what should I do now?” question. Asking that they be the ones to decide irritated some students. However, as the project progressed, students relied less on me for advice on where to go next. I watched them sit and think about their next steps and also look to each other for guidance when they felt stuck. I tried to be real with them. I think they could feel this. In my Discussion section, I will analyze the challenges of being transparent with students and positioning them as the ones in charge.
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. 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 sculptures were lit with spot lights and the overheads were turned off each day. Students told me they thought the dramatic lighting helped them focus.
Had I not listened to a particular student (who here I’ll refer to as Leo) at a time when ignoring his trying behavior would have been much easier, the second noteworthy moment that occurred during my research would have slipped right past me. Students and I began the project under the impression that they would be painting individual objects and constructing individual sculptures out of these objects. On day two I changed my mind. I told students I had re-thought the plan and that rather than making sculptures independently they would instead make one large class sculpture. They were really into this idea and we looked at more examples of Stockholder’s work for inspiration. As students began collaboratively constructing smaller parts to then add to a larger whole, we decided the smaller parts were really interesting and should remain separate as individual sculptures. As a class, we generated 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 these sculptures. Students were enthusiastic about contributing their ideas to the project and excited to begin the next step.
As they began to draw their sculptures, Leo’s behavior became disruptive. He voiced loudly his disdain for drawing from observation. He refused to participate and tried to talk his classmates into doing the same. I continually asked him to please take part in what the rest of the class was doing and tried to convince him about the importance of drawing from observation. I wanted to ignore his bad attitude but he made it impossible to do so by repeatedly tapping his pencil and stomping his feet. Finally, I sat down next to him and asked that he tell me why he thought the project was, in his words, pointless. At first, he didn’t want to talk. My first reaction was to walk away. I forced myself to awkwardly wait for him to speak. In the difficult conversation we began to have, I learned that his uncooperative behavior stemmed from a lack of ownership in the process. He missed two crucial days in a project that was continually morphing and changing depending on what had happened right before. He was still under the impression we were making one large class sculpture. He wasn’t there to add his own ideas to the materials and techniques list created by the rest of the class. The project was pointless because he didn’t have a say in shaping it. From Leo’s perspective the project was stupid because his opinion didn’t matter. He told me so. In my Discussion section, I will talk more about student ownership as a key component in the artmaking process.
The third project, Drawing Through Movement, took place in an 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 their own ideas for whole body drawings using materials of their choosing.
The third important moment that stands out to me transpired during the above mentioned project. I designed the unit with the hopes of facilitating situations for students to understand their everyday movements as resources for making art. I hoped that in doing so they would become less apprehensive about learning to draw. I observed the students I would be teaching for a week before introducing the project. To be honest, I was a little worried. I walked around trying to talk with students and was met with one word responses. Some students slept, some finished homework for other classes and a few worked on finishing art projects they showed little interest in. One student walked around the room punching the walls. The energy in the room felt really low.
When it came time to start the lesson, we looked at and talked about Namkung’s work for a little while. When asked how they felt about drawing, most students voiced an aversion to it. They described it as boring, pointless and way too hard. Already convinced they were “bad at art” and unable to draw well, most students were resistant in the beginning. I was asking them to try something brand new. In my Discussion section, I will talk more about how teachers can understand student resistance as a resource for learning and making art.
As a group, we rearranged their classroom by pushing all of the tables and chairs to the perimeter of the space. This sparked interest in the group. As the project progressed and students began to experiment with different movements, I noticed a slight climate change in the room. With more space to move around, students’ seemed to loosen up both physically and mentally. The freedom to move around created a playful atmosphere and more students began to participate. Some of them offered personal stories about sports they play. Others talked about how much they hate sports but love dancing. They talked while they worked and rarely complained about not knowing how to draw. We treated their drawings as experiments, which helped them relax and find pleasure in the process of learning to do something new.
Toward the end of the lesson, I took the students into the hallway with long strips of paper and oil pastels. We taped their strips above the lockers and I modeled jumping up to make repetitive marks. They looked at me like I was crazy at first and then reluctantly started to do it themselves. The hallway filled with laughter pretty quickly. It was awesome. Feeling ashamed for being scared of these young people upon initial meeting, I took a couple steps back to watch them work and listen to their laughs. On our walk back to their classroom I hung back with the student known for punching walls. He told me told me he’s a boxer. He said hitting things is the only thing he’s good at. I don’t think I would have learned this from him if it weren’t for the physical nature of this project.
Using key concepts from the sections in my Literature Review, A Critical Reflection on Process, Learning Through Movement and Teaching Through Contemporary Art, in my Discussion section I will analyze these three significant moments in greater depth.