‘Tis the Season for Solidarity

Growing up in Great Neck, NY, the “quintessential Jewish suburb” (Goldstein, 2006), December was a time for Chanukah candles, not Christmas lights. Still, I remember the few houses around town that were decked out for that holiday. I loved and hated those lights. I loved to see them twinkling through the crisp winter nights. I hated that they reminded me of this great big and seemingly amazing thing I wasn’t a part of.

Today, I live in Columbus, OH where most of my family, friends, and neighbors celebrate some derivation of Christmas. At times I have felt uneasy participating in their seasonal traditions. Afterall, as the Chanukah story teaches us the Maccabees fought the Greeks for the right to be different, not to blend in.  But, as I’ve written in this space before, I now feel comfortable sharing the joy my friends and family feel at this time of year. (See, for example: “Cultural Responsiveness Begins at Home,” and “Our Craftiest Christmas to Date.”)   In turn, I’ve shared my Chanukah traditions and together, we’ve found light in the darkness.

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Sharing the magic of Chanukah candlelighting with some non-Jewish friends.
(Columbus, OH 2007)

Times seem pretty dark for many of us at this moment in time, and it’s not just because the sun is up fewer than 10 hours a day. Many of us are afraid of the direction our country will go when our president-elect takes office in January.

The appointment of Stephen Bannon as Senior Counselor to the President set a lot of Jews on edge. We fear that with someone like Bannon in the White House, someone who has supported racism through the spread of white nationalist messages on Breitbart “News” Network, prejudice and violence against minorities will not only increase, but be condoned. When the story broke of Richard Spencer’s speech at the white nationalist movement conference in D.C. last month, our worst imaginings seemed even more like real possibilities.

After watching Spencer’s talk and the response from his audience, I had a sickening thought. With Chanukah around the corner, would I feel comfortable setting our menorah in the window per tradition? I voiced this fear to my husband, Dan, who was raised Catholic but does not associate himself with the church any longer. While he is not Jewish, he is supportive of my commitment to my Jewish heritage and my desire to raise our daughter, Cora, with a sense of Jewish identity. Dan assured me we would light the candles and display them for the world to see, and that we would get others to join us. (I really love that guy.)

So, here’s your invitation.

If you are Jewish and haven’t lit Chanukah candles in a while, please join us.
If you are a friend of Jews, please join us.
If you want to show the world that you are not afraid to stand up for those who have been persecuted for following beliefs that don’t mimic the dominant culture, please join us.

The Jewish calendar is lunar based which is why our holidays don’t fall on the same secular dates each year. This year we’ll be lighting candles for eight nights beginning December 24th. I’m excited by the idea of millions of chanukiot (a name for menorahs used on Chanukah which have 9, rather than 7 candleholders) taking their place beside Christmas trees, Kwanzaa Kinaras,  that night.

There are lots of ideas for DIY menorahs out there as well as well as information about the candle lighting traditions. If you have a Jewish friend or neighbor, they might have an extra one you can borrow.

Dan and I made up the following secular blessing which we welcome you to use if you are so inclined. It speaks to the spirit of the traditional Hebrew blessing, but is something we believe Jews and non-Jews can say without fear of contradicting their own religious or philosophical beliefs.

“Thank you for being here with me tonight,
to celebrate the miracle of the Chanukah light.
Peace out.”

(NOTE: I hope to come up with a catching #hashtag we can all use to connect on this project, but I need help. Please send your suggestions or post them as a comment below.)

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Worlds Collide: Art Education at OEFFA

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“What are we going to do with this?!”   “Look at all this yarn.”

“This is fun.”        “This is taking so long.”       “Can I take some yarn with me?”

A few weeks ago, I was invited to lead a 60-minute art activity for 30 kids ages 6-12 during the 37th annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. I was really excited to be asked. Since I started my adventures in urban agriculture a few years ago (see Outside the Lines Goes Over the Fence) I’ve been interested in checking out this multi-day meeting of growers and consumers interested in organic and sustainable practices in farming. I’m not sure I would have made it there without the specific invitation (and offer of free admission for the day) just given how hectic life can be. But now that I’ve been, I plan to make it a point to get back.

Figuring out what to do in one hour with a big group of kids covering a wide age range (a few teens even came and hung out unexpectedly) is not the sort of thing I’m used to doing. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around these kinds of make-and-take sessions. On the one hand they seem antithetical to the meaningful and authentic art education experiences I hope to promote through my teaching. But, on the other hand, they are so common it seems we ought to find ways to make them the best they can be.

My former student and friend Hilary Frambes recommended me for the gig after she had to drop out at the last minute. (I don’t think I’ve a chance to say thanks yet, Hilary!) I was invited to plan any type of art project I’d like to lead the kids in – but with some type of environmental bent. I had to decide quickly whether I was interested and what I would do. The program for the conference was being finalized the next day.

I did a little searching around Pinterest and found a few weaving ideas I thought might work in the name of creating harvesting vessels. I offered to collect containers, yarn, and ribbons through my neighborhood Freecycle group and did so over the course of the next few weeks.

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Other than that, I didn’t think too much more about the workshop until a few days before the event. (This wasn’t procrastination, this was part of my ongoing attempts to schedule my work so I don’t expect myself to tackle my entire to-do list in a single day.) At any rate, I let it go a little too far and didn’t get to really test my ideas until the night before the big day. At that point, I realized that it was harder and took longer than I imagined. I started to worry about how the kids, with their little hands, would handle it and whether they’d get too frustrated to make it work.

In my early days of teaching I would have panicked. But this time I went to sleep, assuming I’d be able to think more clearly in the morning. I woke up thinking about some fairy wands I’d made with the kids at home – wrapping yarn (and feathers and such) around the ends of sticks from the yard.When I got to the conference site, the thermometer on the car read 6 degrees. I walked away form the building and across the street into the woods. I gathered about twenty 18-30 inch sticks and hurried inside to find the room where I’d been working, dropped off my supplies, and found my way to my first (adult) workshop session.

After lunch I got my supplies set up as seen above. I devoted one large table to yarn the other to the supports we’d be wrapping. As the kids filed in we gathered around the table with the yarn. They immediately started pawing the colors, then paused to ask if that was okay. “Of course,” I told them. And in that moment I clearly understood my goal in our limited time together was not to teach them anything major or manage their behavior any more than was necessary to keep everyone positive and productive as we played with yarn and sticks.

I introduced myself and asked them what they knew about weaving. I showed them a few ideas for working with the materials I brought and invited them to play* with them with me.  And that’s what we did. Some kids got frustrated. Some kids seemed to work as fast as they could and then just sat and watched the others. But noone complained, they all tried something new, and in the end they made some pretty cool looking objects.

 

Creative Connections: The Kitschy Kat Alphabet Book

Last summer I met Nancy McKibben when she was assigned to write a story about my urban farming project – Over the Fence Urban Farm. During our time together for interviews, Nancy and I shared our mutual interest in picturebooks and she shared her plans to put together an ABC book made of postcards, for children to create with the help of loved ones far away.

In the fall Nancy sent me an invitation to support Kitschy Cat Alphabet Book on Kickstarter. (It’s now available on Etsy.) With a four-year-old at home in Ohio and family all over the country, there was no reason to refuse. For my donation towards the project’s start-up costs, I received the full set of postcards.

I love perpetuating the idea of snail mail, and am trying to give Cora ample exposure to the joys of writing and receiving handwritten notes. I think it’s catching on. And why shouldn’t it. There’s little more magical than sealing an envelop, sticking it in a box, and then receiving a letter from the recipient in response. One of the projects on my to do list this spring is to create a mail station for Cora per recommendations from Playful Learning. Kitschy Cat will have a special place in the setup.

IMG_9031I sent the postcards to my mom along with 52 stamps and the introductory note Nancy included for participants and then we waited. Mom let me know when the package arrived, told me I didn’t have to send the stamps, and proceeded to laugh as she apologized in advance if somewhere along the line she forgets about the whole thing. But then the postcards started coming. And her notes are thoughtful and clever!

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photo 4I love that she is referencing where she lives, asking about where we are, telling stories from the past, and making suggestions for the future. Previously, when I asked my mom to write to Cora it didn’t always happen. No shame, no blame. She’s just not that kind of grandma. The point is that the parameters and creative starts offered by the alphabet themed cards gave her the encouragement and support she needed. Suddenly I was seeing this as a creative invitation for my mom, perhaps even more than for Cora.

Of course we’re trying to find ways to extend the activity on our end. Using the letter of the day as a prompt for writing practice. . .

IMG_9045And drawing invitations. . .

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R is for Rabbit

In addition to my mom, I’ve been trying for what seems like forever to get my niece, who is in first grade and has the sweetest penmanship, to write to me with little effect. But my mother brought some Kitschy Cat cards along last week while she was visiting my brother and his family last week and guess who signed the last two letters we received?

photo 2I’m grateful to Nancy for sharing this project with us. For me, it’s turning out to be so much more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m not sure what we’ll do when it’s over.

[Postscript: Art educators might get inspiration from Nancy’s project for exchanges within their districts – I can imagine elementary and high school students exchanging cards, for instance. They can also draw inspiration from mail artists like Ray Johnson and On Kawara or contemporary correspondence projects like Post Secret. And then there are sites that offer mail art challenges you can join with or without your students. (Honestly I didn’t even know how active the postal art community was until just now.)]

 

 

 

#MobilePhotoNow Models Participatory Culture

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 1.17.00 PMThe curator’s talk at the opening of #MobilePhotoNow at the Columbus Museum of Art was a whole lot different from similar talks I’ve been to in the past. While the tone was serious, it was also welcoming. The comments were smart, and thought-provoking, but understandable by folks who don’t spend the majority of their time in white boxes with artists and collectors. Attention was also paid to those who might not speak hashtag as well as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. This is all in keeping with CMA’s mission: “to create great experiences with great art for everyone.”

The night started with a greeting from museum director, Nanette Maciejunes, who was proud to let everyone know that “#MobilePhotoNow is the biggest mobile art show on the planet to date, demonstrating the power of social media as a means of creative expression and connection.” She spoke about the museum’s commitment to creativity and innovation and how this show fit with their goals of celebrating and enabling participation in the creative process.

She went on to remind us of a show a few years ago that CMA co-created with the Jewish Museum in New York called “The Radical Camera.” That was a fabulous show which featured many images from The Photo League, a group of (mostly Jewish) politically engaged photographers who focused their lenses on the lives of everyday people, doing everyday things from the end of the Great Depression to the start of the Cold War. CMA owns a lot of works from artists in this group who not only recorded the lives of others, but in doing so, reflected on their own. The League was blacklisted in 1947 and by the time it dissolved in 1951, it “had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones—from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.”

It’s clear to see how The Photo League’s citizen reporting paved the way for our 21st century newsfeed of events large and small. But Maciejunes described a less obvious, but equally salient connection between The Photo League and mobile picture sharing, “the photo hunt.” In this creative exercise, league members selected a theme and made images around that theme to share with one another. Sound like anything familiar? CMA staff immediately related it to communities of interest on social media and so the first, CMA-sponsored, Instragram-supported, photo hunt was launched.

The CMA strives to be a participatory museum (Simon, 2010), in the context of a participatory culture (Blandy, 2011). “Connectors” appear in many of the galleries offering visitors opportunities to reflect on and respond to what they see through an activity; a game, a puzzle, a drawing prompt, a wall of post-in notes and a question. For The Radical Camera, CMA staff crowd-sourced images through a series of photo hunts and displayed their favorites. Maciejunes recalled that when she walked into the opening for the show and didn’t recognize anyone, she knew they were onto something big. They were connecting with a new audience.

The CMA Photo Hunt helped bring together mobile photographers in and around Columbus. Seeing the exhibition brought to light the potential of social media to inspire artistic practices that are at once personal and collective. But, at the time, I still didn’t have a smartphone so the whole thing was somewhat lost on me. Now I get it. Little did I know that for more than two years members of the jj community were pushing one another to make art, and share it everyday. What art educator wouldn’t like the sound of that?

Recently, in connection with a course I’m teaching, and in expectation of #MobilePhotoNow, I started using Instagram and following the #jj daily challenge stream. It’s intense, and beautiful. These are not a bunch of poorly-lighted selfies and half-eaten meals, they are (on average) well-designed, artfully composed, and intentional images shared with pride and purpose. See for yourself. Here’s something that showed up last night.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.12.23 PMIt was a response to the day’s theme:

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.14.58 PMThis is a kind of formalist invitation (similar to black & white or group shots). Others are more conceptual (where I live, tourist trap, the night) or object-oriented (cars, the beach, woods). It’s a nice balance really. So often art educators struggle with questions of focusing on form or content, agreeing in the end that a balance is ideal. I only scrolled through a few weeks of challenges to get this collection of examples but it suggests a pretty well-rounded “curriculum” to me.

Everyday, people from around the world tag between 5 and 10,000 images with the hashtag #jj. This means anyone who searches for jj in Instagram will be able to find their image. When jj founder Josh Johnson spoke at #MobilePhotoNow, he expressed his personal love for the community he helped create. In a shaky voice he described Instagram as a place where “this buttoned up preacher’s son could be himself.” He reminded the audience of the connection between dopamine and addiction, how we respond emotionally to immediate response and gratification. Try 30 second feedback. “Powerful things can have pluses and minuses. Some of us spend too much time taking pictures. But if you have to have an addiction taking pictures isn’t really a bad one to have.”

CMA partnered with jj community to organize and manage #MobilePhotoNow. They hosted 4 challenges in one month this fall: street, portrait, black & white, and community generating 45,000 submissions from 5,000 photographers in 89 countries. A jury process through the jj community yielded about 600 images with 320 finalists selected by the museum staff. The images were printed locally, for free, by a graphics company supportive of the project whose name I should credit here but can’t recall.

Jennifer Poleon, CMA Digital Communications Manager and organizer of the CMA Photo Hunts introduced contributors in the crowd from Sweden and Iran as well as an older women, who looked to be around 70 years old. Her son, a photojournalist in town, got her on Instagram and soon thereafter she showed up at a CMA “insta meet.”  This is like a flash mob where strangers all show up at a designated place to share some experience. There she met other photographers who welcomed her and offered her tips. I loved this idea. Putting mobile photography in the hands of older folks and encouraging them to take pictures and participate in a community of creators. It’s an idea I want to push my students working with aging populations to seriously consider. For house- and institution-bound folks in particular, Instagram can offer a forum for rich connection, taking them across the Earth and back.

Kevin Kuster, who helps run jj described it as a modern day pen pal project; one which yields responses everyday. “The virtual world is not virtual,” he suggested. “It is deep and personal and when you do meet, you already know one another.” Kuster came to mobile photography after burning out in the world of professional photography. He described this as “the best time in the world for photographers. And the worst time to be a professional photographer.”

The enthusiasm throughout this session was palpable. It ended with a declaration from the museum’s contemporary curator, Tyler Cann: “I want to say. Yes, this is photography, and you are photographers. And I hope this exhibition creates more photographers and more radical eyes.”

An online gallery for the exhibition should be available tomorrow. Google it.

 

 

Promoting Creativity – A Welcomed Invitation

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on Making Creativity Visible at the Columbus Museum of Art. It’s part of a grant project spearheaded by the museum’s Center for Creativity which I will report on at a later time. As a warm-up to the discussion, the educators and docents in the room were asked to think of ways we model, promote, and assess creativity in our work. While I’d like to think through these prompts again with my university students in mind, in the moment I thought of my own children and our home studio experiences.

In the section on promoting creativity, I wrote: “I let things get messy.” And just below that, I wrote, “I clean things up.” I firmly believe that being creative requires space and time to put lots of materials out on the table but it also requires clear space to think and see one’s options and imagine new possibilities. This all reminded me of something that happened at home this past weekend.

As regular readers know, I’ve been working with the concept of “invitations” for creative activity around the house. This weekend, the invitations I’ve been sending came back to me, wrapped up with a big red ribbon.

This was the scene of the action.

Cora's easel positioned in a new location, with supplies she hasn't used in awhile, and a fresh sheet of drawing paper.

Cora’s easel, which for the past month had been moving around the living room mostly just collecting dust, caught her attention the moment she rounded the corner into the kitchen. In addition to moving it into a new space, I had rolled out a fresh sheet of paper and set out some triangular crayons she’d been neglecting in favor of markers.

“Thanks for settting this up for me mom!” she cheered, and my eyes immediately welled up.

Cora picked up some crayons and started drawing, big bold strokes of color. She was drawing with her whole body, in motion, and singing songs from the Sesame Street alphabet album which we listened to that morning. She was exuding positive energy and intensely making fields of color.

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For the past while Cora’s been making up a stories when she draws. Talking through her process, but still not drawing much recognizable imagery. So I asked her to tell me about what she was doing.

“This is a spiral drawing,” she declared and then she paused . . . . . “Do you know why I am doing this, Mom?”

“No. Why?”

“Because… I have to.”

I’m not really sure what Cora meant by this statement but I am sure it relates to issues of discipline, persistence, and drive to make things mentioned by the panelists at the museum. I’m sure I’m going to keep thinking about it. And I hope reading my documentation of this creative happening in my kitchen prompts some of you to set up a clean slate for your students and children to embark on a new creative adventure. If not today, then perhaps in the new year.

Need inspiration: Check out Tinkerlab and Playful Learning.