Sunday, November 20, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - Letter to the Artist

Last week I attended the Texas Art Education Association's annual state convention in Galveston, TX.  It was a great conference!  I reconnected with art teacher friends, got inspired by the great keynote speakers, and discovered some new lesson ideas to take back into the classroom.  One of the sessions I attended, "Exploring Aesthetic Choices", was presented by Dr. Carrie Markello who teaches art education classes at the University of Houston.  I really enjoyed her presentation.  One of her observations about her pre-service art ed students was the lack of wonder they seemed to have.  They were interested and diligent in completing the work for the course, but only because they had to jump through the hoops to get their credit.  She asked herself the question, "How can I instill a desire to wonder in my students?"  She admitted that she did not have the answer, but her question led her to creating an aesthetic activity called "Letter to the Artist".

She asked her students to choose a work of art they like and then write a letter to the artist, commenting on the piece and asking the artist questions they might have about the artist, the process or the work of art itself.  I liked the activity a lot, and decided to do this with my own students.  I've been bringing artists to them all year in my Artist of the Day activity; I was curious to find out what artists they would select given the chance.  I'll share four of their letters with you in this post.  (Note:  a little bit of editing has been done in grammar, punctuation and word selection.)

Tattoo Art, Kat Von D  (My student wrote: This Artist is My Favorite Artist and Type of Art, Tattoos)

Dear Katherine Von Drachenberg,

I love your work.  It is my greatest inspiration in life.  I've always wanted a tattoo, but my parents always say, "Over their dead body."  This drives me to want one even more because I want to show them that tattoos aren't just drawing on your body.  I think tattoos are a way that you can express yourself and show others what you feel and like.  I also think it's a way to stand out.  I think tattoos are an art that everyone can see - it's like something you can take with you forever.  I think that tattooing is a way for people to ask questions and wonder what the tattoo is supposed to mean.

I like how you always ask someone that goes into your tattoo shop, "What does this tattoo mean to you?" or "Why are you getting this certain tattoo?"  My 3 questions for you are:
  • What inspired you to be a tattoo artist?
  • What you have become if you hadn't started tattooing?
  • What was the meaning of your first tattoo?

I was not surprised that a student chose a tattoo artist - tattoos are so prevalent today!  I don't have a tattoo myself (I don't think I could commit to an image for life!), but I recognize the power of the art form.  I did not realize until I looked up the history of tattoos that they started about 5,000 years ago!  I used to think they are were a passing fad, but they are obviously here to stay.

Seascape near Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas
51 x 64 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Dear Vincent van Gogh,

I like this painting because it reminds me of the past.  When I was younger, during the summer I would go up to Wilmette, Illinois to visit my grandma and grandpa.  My grandfather had a sail boat that we would go on every day.  The waves of the ocean remind me of the waves of Lake Michigan, when I would sit off the side of the boat and run my fingers through the dark blue water.  I like the colors you used to highlight how the light hits the water.  This painting brings me back to the good times of the past.

  • What inspired you to paint this painting?
  • Were you at this location when you painted this?
  • Have you had a past experience that you can relate this painting to?
Thank you for your time.


My heart swells!  This is one of the goals I have for my students in this activity:  that they can find a work of art that relates to their life.  Marcel Duchamp expresses it beautifully:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” 

After my students leave their high school Art I class, I want them to continue to decipher, connect to and interpret the art they see.  More importantly, I want them to know that they have the power to decide for themselves what the work means; that they will have the skills and confidence to express their opinion.

Before I Die,  Candy Chang, 2011, 41' x 8', chalkboard paint, stencils, spray paint

Dear Candy Chang,

Your installation of the "Before I Die" wall was one I found particularly intriguing, thought-provoking and altogether an exquisite example of creativity and it's effect on a community.  The question itself is a very loaded one, and it's interesting to see the different answers - funny, heartwarming and crazy - all written in broad daylight.

I can't help but wonder if you chose New Orleans for this project because of it's history and hardship with Hurricane Katrina?  If so, this wall would not only symbolize the desires and longings of a random group of people, but a group of people who have seen the long-lasting effects of death on their community and have the ability to appreciate life in all the chaotic glory it deserves.  This would, in my opinion, only further its purpose as both a point of interest as well as a reminder of the gratefulness we sometimes lose in pursuit of material and worldly objects in life.

Having grown up in the current generation, I suspect that this wall is often, in light terms, repurposed by teenagers with accessibility to graffiti-making tools.  Is this true or false?  Though a project like this would seemingly command a great deal of respect, thoughtfulness is often wasted on the youth, and I would suspect globs of red paint proclaiming 'S.W.'s love for D.W' is not far from the realm of normality in such installations.  

Lastly, what, if any, type of media or influence struck this idea in you?  There is no denying the innovation of such work as either a product of a creative mind or an external muse.


Wow!  First, I was really surprised (and thrilled!) that one of my students found this great artwork.  I knew about it, but it got buried deep in my brain somewhere, so I was really happy to be re-acquainted with the installation.  Brenna's thinking shows a high level of thoughtfulness, observation and curiosity.  A quiet student in the classroom, I would not have known the depth of her thinking had I not given her this assignment.  

Henna Body Art, Artist:  Anyone who can make Henna, Materials:  "cone" and a blend of leaves from the henna plant

Dear Artist of Henna,

Hi!  My name is Cynthia, and I am very interested in the Indian tradition of Henna which is focused primarily on the women of the house.  I really love this type of art.  Most people don't consider it to be art, but I do.  One of the really cool things I love about henna is that the finished product looks so delicate.  There are many small and intricate details.  This particular picture of henna is one of my personal favorites.  It looks like the art is flowing from her fingertips up to her forearm.

Henna makes me feel happy.  I wish I could make this art.  I've never had henna done on my body; my reason is because I don't want to mess with the Indian tradition.  I have many questions about henna, but I'm afraid I can only ask you three of my very important questions.
  • When henna is being applied with the "cone", does it hurt the women in any sort of way?
  • Is it possible that non-Indian girls could get henna without disrespecting the Indian traditions?
  • My third and final question is, how much time does it take to make henna that has very delicate, small, and intricate detailing?
Cynthia - A Fan of Henna

Oh, my!  A response from another quiet Art I student, I am truly blown away by not only her choice, but the sensitivity and respect for another culture's traditions (Cynthia is Hispanic).  I was surprised to see Henna show up, but delightfully!  

Most of my students didn't turn in their work on Friday, the deadline for the assignment, so out of the 100 student responses I was expecting, I got 26.  Out of the ones I did receive, there were letters to several van Goghs, a couple of Picassos, Walt Disney, Monet, three da Vincis (yes - the Mona Lisa showed up!), Steven Moffat (for Dr. Who), Tanemura Arina (a manga artist), and some artists from Deviant Art.  It was interesting to me how the sampling was from current pop culture and from the great artists of the past.  I loved the divergent thinking in some of their choices.  

"Homework in art?  Why do we have homework in art?", they ask!  I'm not sure they would really understand if I tried to explain it to them, but this homework assignment is important to me.  It enables me to find out so much more about what they are thinking, what they are interested in, and how they feel about the art that they choose, not what I choose.  I am grateful to Dr. Markello for this aesthetic assignment idea.  It's super juicy!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Aesthetics in the Classroom - What is the Purpose of Art?

What is the purpose of art?

This was the aesthetic question of the week and I had help from my student teacher, Kim, that has joined me for the rest of the semester.  It's been fun introducing her to one of my favorite parts of my art classroom - Artist of the Day!  I explained the aesthetic project I'm doing with my students, and she was eager to lend a helping hand with it, so she chose the video lineup for the week knowing what the aesthetic question was.  (We only had four this week because one day we had a shortened schedule for our end of the football season pep rally!)  I thought Kim selected some wonderful artists that might challenge the students' ideas about the purpose of art.  This was the lineup:
On Friday, after viewing the videos, they were given a handout that asked these questions:

We saw 4 videos this week that challenge the viewer's ideas of the purpose of art.  What do you think each of these artists' purpose for their art was?
  • Marcel Duchamp - urinal - "Fountain" -
  • Damien Hirst - diamond skull - "For the Love of God" -
  • James Turrell - sky reflector - "Sky Watch" -
  • Golan Levin - mechanical eye - "Double-Take (Snout)" -
What do you think the purpose of art is?
How did these artists challenge your own ideas about what art is for?

At the end of the day, Kim and I eagerly sat down to see what their responses were.  I have to say after 7 weeks of asking them to write down their opinions, they are gradually going deeper with their thinking.  I'll list a few of their responses for the reader:

"Fountain", Marcel Duchamp, readymade, 1917

What do you think each of these artists' purpose for their art was?
Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" -

  • he chose the urinal to create controversy
  • use it for humor
  • to challenge the concept of art itself by presenting something most people wouldn't expect
  • to show that the idea behind the art is more valuable than the art itself
  • to show that art doesn't have to be skillful or beautiful or even professional
  • (one student replied: I thought it was not art and not a good idea to do that)

"For the Love of God", Damien Hirst, 2007, platinum, diamonds, human teeth

Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God" -
  • to show that death isn't a demise, but a fabulous beginning of something
  • riches are useless when it comes to death
  • he wanted to make a visual metaphor of death's beauty and how when a person dies, their last memories and feelings will be forever frozen
  • art can be very valuable
  • death costs a lot (Ha!  Out of the mouths of babes!  If they only knew!)

"Skyspace", James Turrell, 

James Turrell's "Skyspace" -
  • to see the sky in a different way
  • a way to bring the sky closer to you
  • to show nature is calming
  • you can imagine being in the sky
  • that the sky is art, the universe is art, and everything is art
  • to give a persona a sense of solitude that only nature can bring and that can't usually be experienced in normal city life

"Double-Taker (Snout)", Golan Levin with Lawrence Hayhurst, Steven Benders and Fannie White, (2008) interactive installation

Golan Levin's "Snout" -
  • challenged people's belief that art was something for you to look at, and made so that it was looking at you
  • that technology can be made into art
  • humor on the whole security watch system
  • art can be fun
  • to show that someone is always watching
And, the larger questions for the day.....

What do you think the purpose of art is?
  • to express yourself and your talents
  • art serves as anything that evokes real, true emotions, whether they be good or bad
  • the purpose of art is to show that creativity can be endless, and that anyone can create it
  • I think the purpose of art is to let your conscious and subconscious mind let it's thoughts be reproduced through physical form
  • to entertain people and keep them asking questions
  • to express a feeling or emotion without the barrier of language or words
How did these artists challenge your own ideas about what art is for?
  • it made me think that art can be taken to a different level of critical thinking
  • art is more than just a drawing
  • by showing that art does not have to be amazing
  • they made me think more about what they're trying to say and I feel like art teaches me new ways to look at things
  • they showed me that art has no limit
  • their artwork is not traditional, but is testing the boundaries of creativity and originality
  • they made you think; art doesn't necessarily make you feel good - it just makes you feel
Awesome!  Admittedly, I just picked a few responses out of the many, but some of these responses were repeated frequently.  There were some students who didn't think the selections were art, and yes, some thought they were boring.  But those were in the small minority.  The large majority responded in a way that lets me know that their preconceived notions about art when they first entered the class are now expanding.  Artist of the Day has got them thinking, and that's the most I can hope for.

So, I asked my student teacher what she thought about Artist of the Day and this is what she said:

I think it's a good way to introduce a lot of different artists to the class that are not usually covered.  It's also a really good way to expose the students to the artists' processes and ideas.  When I was in art class I don't remember being able to hear the artist talk about their concepts and how they go about their work.  I really like the theme of the week - it helps organize the thought process that lies beneath the idea of the artwork.  And, it's a good way to show them more than one artist within that question for the week, so the students get a broader view of different interpretations of a concept or idea.  I am interested in continuing this when I have my own classroom.  And, I don't think this is good just for high school, but would also be great for elementary students.
Kim & me

Nice!  Passing on a passion (for me, my Artist of the Day) is not always an easy thing to do.  We are all unique and different, and what I love, others may not.  It pleases me that Kim has caught a little of the fever for Artist of the Day.  I get to see it six times a day and I love every minute of it.  Plus, I love it when the kids are as enthralled as I am in someone's work.  It's a time when we can come together in wonder and amazement.