There’s an annual event here in Texas called VASE. I will cover it in depth at a later time, I am sure, but for now, if you’re not familiar, it’s a statewide high school art show. Whenever I go to this event, I spend most of my time pacing back and forth, looking at the top-rated student work laid out on the gymnasium floor. Usually, I cringe. There is something I find highly problematic about a lot of the work I see here. A majority of it is overly formulaic. The teacher has laid out a foolproof plan for the students to follow. The youngsters take some quirky picture with some specific requirement given by the teacher. They then grid their photo and transfer it methodically to their new surface. Because it is so foolproof, a lot of them end up on that gymnasium floor. One year the assignment must have been to spread something sticky on your face, because every row had at least one realistic self-portrait of a kid with a face covered in jam or something similar. They were beautifully crafted. Even I have to admit that for a moment, I wished my students pushed their work to that level of finish. As I stood there looking closely at the details, I could hear people behind me whispering. They always say the same thing. “Can you believe that it is not a photograph?”
Every time I hear that phrase, I grit my teeth. I don’t find this to be authentic art making for three reasons. The first is if you believe Sol Lewitt/Andy Warhol/Jeff Koons, if I give someone detailed instruction on how to make an artwork and have them make said artwork to my specifications, it makes it my work, not theirs. Second, photography is a valid art form. Why have them transfer a photograph to another medium? Why not just let the photograph stand on its own? The meaning and visual impact will still be the same; it just might not get the rubes standing slack jawed in disbelief at the fact that it’s a painting. Third, projecting an image on to a surface has been a valid art making practice for hundreds of years now. Let’s stop wasting students’ valuable time with grids and just project. They have stuff to do.
All this is a lead in to my actual point; lessons need to be designed better. I’m sorry if I am harsh, but our students need to realize that there is more to art making than photorealism. The way we do this is by designing our lessons to follow concept over a prearranged series of steps. Let’s face it: those prearranged steps are closer to a complex paint by number than they are to an authentic art making process. So, how do we design lessons to encourage students to authentically follow a concept?
First, we need to incite student thought. To accomplish this, I like to start a new lesson by discussing a topic that is part of our common human experience. Two of my favorites are our relationship with death and the arbitrary structures that inform our understanding of gender, but almost anything works. I once built a lesson around how we all felt about coming back from winter break.
Once I pick my topic, I bring in information from all over the place to help get things going. This can include poetry, YouTube videos, newspaper articles, magazine ads, songs, artwork, whatever. The only thing I will say about showing artwork is to show artists that explore the same concept and show a variety. Even if I’m just teaching painting, I show sculpture, installation, performance, and whatever else I can find. Remember, I am starting a conversation about a concept, not a medium.
Now, once I show them all this great stuff I’ve collected I ask them what they think of it. How does this concept manifest itself in their personal life? How does it affect them? I ask them to write how they feel and tell I them I’m not going to check it, I’m not going to read it, and it is just for them (personally, I believe a sketchbook is every artist’s personal space, and I never collect or go through a student’s sketchbook). I take my time with this. I allow for an entire period, maybe more, and I let the students talk more than I do. I listen to their stories. When I ask a question and no one answers, I let the room be silent for a moment; I don’t rush to fill the space with an answer. If nothing comes out, I ask another question. Maybe they’re just thinking, or maybe their answer is something so personal that they don’t want to say it out loud. If that’s the case, I let them write it in a private space. When the class ends, I don’t give them any homework; I just tell them to reflect on what they heard and saw.
When they come in the next day, I ask them if they had any interesting thoughts on what was discussed yesterday and how did they feel. Then I let them talk for as long as they need to. When I feel it is appropriate, I tell them that their assignment is to make a work of art that communicates how they feel about everything I covered the day before. I try to add as little else to the assignment as I can. Now, of course, in a public school setting, there are requirements that need to be addressed. If I’m teaching AP Studio, I probably want to make sure that it is something that conforms to the rules of the portfolio. And of course, I should probably suggest they use a solution that falls under the umbrella of a course title supplied by Texas (or whoever is supplying the rules in your particular case). But at the same time, let’s think about Robert Rauschenburg’s Monogram. That piece could technically be turned in in a course labeled art, painting, sculpture, or fibers. I’d probably even accept it in a drawing class. So let’s not unnecessarily restrict a student’s exploration.
Personally, I have a nice set up. I have 12 large papers drawers, all with different paper, and all labeled (I’m a big fan of organization). I also have a wall full of cabinets with different supplies that are also labeled. My students determine not only the media that they will be working with, but also the size of the paper. Other than that, I just assign the critique dates. This way the student is evaluating what they want to accomplish and what the time will allow them to accomplish. Sometimes I have to make a comment along the lines of, “Are you sure you can pull off an 18”x24” colored pencil drawing in 2 weeks?” For the most part though, the students are pretty aware of their limits.
I do get a lot of questions when I first start this with my students. Most of them aren’t used to this level of autonomy, especially in a school setting. “Can we do…” is a common beginning for every question I hear during that first assignment. My go to response for those types of questions is a coy, “Did I say you couldn’t….?” After that, they see it as something devious. “Mr. Clumpner didn’t say we couldn’t use…” They think they’re breaking the rules and getting away with it on a technicality, when in reality, they are finding their own unique solutions to a problem. Heck, sometimes they even come up with solutions I would never have thought of.
Now go ahead and play devil’s advocate in your head. What possible solutions could they come up with that you would be opposed to? Maybe they want to make 5 little artworks instead of one big one. “Great.” They could want to turn their artwork into something wearable. “Sure, why not?” Could be they’re thinking about doing an installation. “If you can get the principal’s permission, then go for it.” As long as the student is using artwork to express him or herself, then what’s the big deal?
I had a table of students in a painting class once draw and paint on 1,000 small squares of paper and then fold them into origami cranes in order to get a wish. They got permission from the principal and installed them with fishing line in the hallway along with a plaque explaining their purpose (they’re still there, by the way; I never saw any reason to take them down). They were so excited about doing the project that they had “art parties” where they met up outside of school to fold cranes. They even convinced their friends from other classes to come and help. The group was so excited, that they even made a documentary about their experience and put it on YouTube. They became passionate and excited about art making.
Our students are entering an unknown future. They’ll have things like self-driving cars and robot butlers. I’m pretty sure eventually cell phones will just be implanted directly into their heads. We don’t know what skills will be necessary for this future, but I am pretty sure it won’t be how to replicate a photo exactly. What I am sure of is that the ability to take a problem and create a unique, impactful solution is a skill that will be much more important, regardless of whether or not their future includes flying cars. This is a universal skill that will not only drive them to be impassioned artists but also better doctors or politicians or carpenters or whatever it is that our students go on to become. Art, when taught correctly, has the ability to be the most transformative class in preparing students for whatever future they find themselves in.