Process Art’s Pesky Problem

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Mousetrap paper holder. Or, as I see it, surreal assemblage.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot in this space about the value of process art (see for example Doing Food Coloring and Permission to Play: Toddler Paint Bomber). My interest started when I was an undergraduate and developed an intense appreciation for the Abstract Expressionists. Learning about their work and the questions they engaged with in their studios – exploring the inherent nature of the materials they worked with – became an obsession. I developed my own color field experiments and filled huge sheets of paper with marks based on systems I devised. It was visually engaging in an allover sort of way, but I knew it wasn’t nearly as interesting for others to look at as it was for me, with my embodied knowledge of the actions I took to make it.

In the years since, I have continued to develop my relationship with questions like: What is art for? and Why art? I have carried these into explorations of art criticism, visual culture, environmental and installation art, relational aesthetics, and creative placemaking.

This interest also manifests in my advocacy for process art in the playful learning of young children. Really, I believe children of all ages looking for new ways to connect with creative activity ought to focus on process (see for example, Permission to Play: Birthday Parties and Grandma Joyce’s Beautiful Stuff!).

And so it was with a heavy heart that I set about cleaning Cora’s desk yesterday. Stacked on top were the traces of two weeks of summer camps and a few final school projects.

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(Note: I took this photo AFTER I had cleaned the desk and decided to blog about it. I stacked the artwork back up in an approximation of how it had been. But absent are the dolls, rocks and sticks, books, and other random crap that had been there too.)

As Dan has observed, all horizontal surfaces in our house quickly become repositories for junk and this desk is no different. In the three years since it has been in this location, I can count on one hand the times that it has been clear and Cora has sat at it to do anything. I have a plan for it in my head related to a pen pal project we’ve been working on (fodder for a future post), so I told her it was time to clean up.

Of course Cora wanted to save EVERYTHING.

The art camp she attended last week at a neighborhood studio (Paper Moon Art Studio – Columbus, OH) was a great process art experience for Cora. She got to work with a range of media from paper mache to assemblage (complete with hot glue, see the top image on this post), and sand painting to watercolor. She was only there three mornings, but she made a ton of stuff. We had trouble carrying it all home! I was so happy to see this evidence of experimentation but what to do with all that stuff? I live in constant battle against clutter – mostly this involves shoving piles into drawers and cabinets when guests are due – but point being, I don’t like to have a lot of stuff sitting around on horizontal surfaces.

I also struggle, personally, with the hidden curriculum we are teaching kids when we give them access to unlimited supplies and let them make things that will ultimately, at least in my house, wind up in the trash. I has this same feeling while attending TASK parties run by Oliver Herring (see A Task, But Not a Chore). I love the energy that Herring creates and the collaborative experimentation I see at these events, But at the end of the day, there are piles and piles of materials left in a jumble on the floor. A few ideas for combating this issue come immediately to my mind.

Art educators will see the immediate irony in this. Many of us have felt the pain of watching students put their artwork in the trash bin on their way out the door at the end of a term. All that time and effort? Don’t they care at all about what they made here? And, by extension, don’t they value me and our time together? Some educators even use this as a litmus test for a successful lesson — Do the kids express desire to hold onto what they made? to share pictures of it in Instagram? to hang it up at home, or give it to someone as a gift?

So now I’m left holding this evidence of creative activity, all of which Cora insists on calling Art (capital A intended) in an effort to use what I value against me. And I’m wondering,

How can we simultaneously teach people that some things they make are precious and others are not? That some creative experiences are about the process of making, and some about the product that results?

 

 

 

 

 

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What I’m Taking Away from NAEA (2015)

I was too busy learning and exploring to blog from New Orleans as I’d promised. (I did post a lot of photos on Instagram that you may have seen…) It was a great couple of days hearing from some of the most innovative art educators teaching today, catching up with old classmates and mentors, and soaking up the sites, sounds, smells, and tastes of a city that just ten years ago people weren’t sure would survive.

Old meets new.

Old meets new in NOLA.

While we didn’t talk about it much, the convention center where we spent most of our time was part of ground zero during Hurricane Katrina – formally a shelter for national guardsmen, informally for 20,000 New Orleanians waiting to be evacuated. I felt like my entire visit took place in the shadow of that event. While the buidling was washed of this history, the city bears many traces and I couldn’t help think of the flood every time I walked over a water line cover. A sidewalk stencil painting of koi had me imagining fish swimming through the city streets… I’m sure others found moments for remembrance and reflection.

When I wasn’t marveling at NOLA’s cultural legacy and contemporary recovery, I was attending sessions. I learned a lot and came home with fresh inspiration. Here are some of my takeaways.

Build more bridges
A number of presentations got me thinking about forming new and stronger bonds across communities and institutions and encouraging my students to do the same.

  • UFARTED alumna Stephanie Wirt (VA) and Stephanie Pickens (GA) led their high schoolers in an exchange of ideas and artwork using social media. Their enthusiasm inspired me to think of new ways we can use collaborative artmaking practices to connect our online students and get them thinking about how to build bridges between their classrooms. I have some ideas for this summer so stayed tuned UFARTED folks!
  • Art21 Educators Juila Mack (NYC) and Jocelyn Salaz (NM) created concurrent community murals with their first graders and shared the results as a way of teaching them to value their own culture and that of others. The collaboration began with an exchange of mini documentary movies about each school and its cultural context. Students, and those of us in the audience, couldn’t help but be engaged by the stark contrasts and sweet similarities of the students observations.
  • I heard at least three references to Padlet, an app I want to explore with students that allows for collaborative brainstorming using images, text, and hyperlinks. Seems promising and it’s free.

Process as Practice
I am inspired to revisit the way we structure class discussions in our courses – trying to move away from relying so heavily on the (verbal) discussion boards to other (non-verbal) ways for students to demonstrate understanding and application of ideas from our course readings. These sessions provided  some ideas.

  • “Process as Practice” was the title of a presentation by Jack Watson (NC) and Todd Elkin (CA), another pair of Art21 Eduators who share ideas and collaborate with their high school students. Their presentation was a great follow-up to the session we had at school last week with Joe Fusaro. They provided amazing stories and examples of working with their students in choice-based, process-driven, and conceptually-rich settings. They shared strategies for brainstorming and concept development that were really thought-provoking.
  • While I have always advoacted process over product in work with young children on this blog, a presentation on collaborating with children inspired me to think more about my interactions with children as creative processes.
  • Alice Pennisi and Krissi Staikidis presented on their work advising masters level researchers. Much of what they spoke about was familiar but I will keep with me for a long time a few things they said. Alice tells students to think of their research as a self-designed and moderated class about their specific interest. “You are the teacher and the student. Enjoy.” They both strive to address research as an active, ongoing, and reflexive, process. Noone can move from point A to point B in a day, a semester, or even a single degree program. “50% of a masters thesis is about learning to do research. 50% is about that project in particular.”

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
This is one of those maxims I can never hear too often.

  • 8am Saturday morning I walked into a session and saw the chairs arranged in small circles. While I love to talk and often find myself tired of the presenter/audience format of most conference sessions, not all interactive dialogues work in the conference context, especially first thing in the morning. At “Speed Dating with Theory,” presented by five doctoral candidates from ASU assumed the persona of the theoretical framework guiding their research far surpassed expectation. I met remix, third space, postcolonial, relational aesthetics, and play theory and was given a chance to consider my work in relation to them. It was brilliant. One particularly really great moment worth noting, was when play theory asked the other woman sitting with us, “Are you familiar with play theory?” to which she responded, “Uh, well, my dad is George Szekely so, yeah.” The students shared that discussion of educational aesthetics and the art of presentation is a part of their curriculum and I am excited to think more about that.IMG_9756
  • Doug Blandy has been a favorite presenter/scholar of mine for as long as I’ve been going to NAEA conferences. For the past few years, he’s been hosting a local artist whose work represents a folk tradition and this year Mardi Gras Indian Cherice Harrison-Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame was his guest. She broke the monotony of the conference space with storytelling and singing that was engaging, informative, and restorative.
  • Rebecca Belleville (MD), yet another Art21 Educator, broke down in tears as she shared stories from her classroom where she teaching artmaking for social  justice. While I know she wasn’t thrilled to be crying in front of a ballroom full of people, it made an incredible impression and demonstrated the position of passion from which she teaches.

The present and future of public schooling in this country seems severely challenged
I have never been to an art education convention, nor do I think I ever will be, at which the topic of advocacy has not come up. It seems no matter what labels we attach ourselves to – discipline-based, STEM, etc – we don’t have enough allies outside our ranks making arguments on our behalf. At this conference, however, I heard more than I ever have before from art teachers who feel pinched by public education reforms related to standardized testing and teacher assessment. I was shocked by how many of my friends and colleagues, who work primarily with public school-based art educators, don’t trust those schools to educate their own children.

  • The only presentation I saw in the catalogue that included the name Katrina was sparsely attended which allowed for a really great interactive dialogue between the presenter, Sarah Travis, who was born and raised in NOLA and went on to become a public school teacher there, and the audience of mostly charter school-based art educators. She taught in NOLA before and after Katrina and shared statistics and information about the near total reconstruction of the local school system in the wake of the storm. It is a story at polar opposite with the Reggio Emilia grassroots initiative following WWII in Italy that focused on the holistic development of children and paid special attention to the role of the arts in that process. The story of NOLA schools post-Katrina is a story of charter takeover. One those with money in the game are watching very closely. (For a taste check out the trailer for The Experiment.)
  • 50 years ago art educators hosted a conference at Penn State on the state of art education funded by money from the federal Department of Education. That meeting lead to many developments in our field including the discipline-based art movement. Next year, faculty at PSU will host a similar event. As participants discuss the past and next fifty years, they will have to address whether we have a future at all in the public schools.
  • Trying to end this section on a high note, Alston Wise’s very witty UF MFA thesis project  “Public School Parent” got stuck in one of the final time slots and not even I was there. But Alston’s witty response to the assessment-driven culture of schools today is just the type of smart and eye-catching advocacy we need, and need more of, in order to make ourselves seen and heard.

What I do matters.

Catching up with Shakirah and Bryan.

Catching up with Shakirah and Bryan.

Sometimes its hard to tell in the online teaching environment but the connections and impact we are making with our online students, and they are making with one another, is significant. It is real. It is meaningful. And it translates to our shared lived experiences. My desire to see and talk with students in the flesh was met at this convention. We were able to pick up conversations where we left off on class discussion boards, Facebook, and twitter, and we were able to share more about our personal lives and personalities by sharing space and meals, walking and talking.

So, I’ll see you next year in Chicago.

Doing Food Coloring

I’m not sure how many kids ask their parents, “Can I do food coloring?” Perhaps more than I can imagine. Cora has been doing food coloring since she was one. That’s when we started taking a set of translucent tupperware containers (red, yellow, and blue + one clear) into the bath to transfer colored water from one to another and watch the magic.

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Last year for her birthday, we filled squirt guns with colors and she and her “friends” made some collaborative paintings (see Paint by Squirt Gun).

This summer, after our freezer was accidentally defrosted and refrozen by our very well meaning dog sitters, we harvested a giant clump of ice and got busy pouring with salt food colored water on it. Thanks again Tinkerlab for a great invitation!
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These were all exciting experiences that provided us both “permission to play.” But the fun really began for me this weekend when Cora asked for food coloring and made her own choices about what to do with it. Her actions echoed those from the past, but she was the master of ceremonies, determining the tools she needed and the order of events. Here’s a quick recap.

I was busy for hours on end making sauces and pressure canning them so Cora was getting into just about every nook and cranny of the kitchen trying to keep herself occupied. She eventually stumbled on a stack of tiny blue plastic cups we have used for grape juice in our hippie hebrew school program. She stacked them and counted them and stacked them again. Then she made her request,

“Mom, can I do food coloring?”

While Cora was ready to line up 50 cups to play with, she settled on 5, which turned into 6 once we realized we needed another to complete a rainbow of colors.

DSC_0110After that, she asked for a plate to put them on. I gave her two; one dark blue, one white. She moved the cups from one plate to the other talking about how they looked different one each. Then came the request for “a block of cheese.” It took awhile, but I finally realized she meant a block of ice. So, we filled a square tupperware about a 3/4 of an inch with water and found some other things to do while it froze.

Later that afternoon, she asked for the ice. We popped it out of it’s mold and Cora got busy. DSC_0130DSC_0133

 

 

Once the ice was significantly melted, she poked at it with a spoon which then turned into a scooper. DSC_0157

Once she had some cups filled up, she asked for a bowl to dump them into.

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Then she refilled the cups and carried them over to the sink for one final dump.DSC_0174DSC_0180

Game over. It was a VERY busy day, with lots and lots of dirty dishes to be done.

Gardening is Magic

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One afternoon last spring, I updated my facebook status to read, “Planting seeds is the greatest act of faith I know.” The words just kind of flew from my fingertips. It wasn’t a thought I had consciously nurtured for any length of time. It just felt true to my experience. It really seems magical how you put these teeny tiny things in the ground and they grow to be bigger, in some cases enormous, things with just a little sunshine, water, and time. The element of time is the most elusive, and possibly most important, ingredient in this equation.

When I was a kid in Hebrew school, I heard a story that put it in perspective. “An old man in ancient Israel was planting a fig tree, when a Roman general happened to pass by. The general says to the man, ‘Don’t you realize it will take twenty years before that tree will grow enough to give fruit, and you will be long dead by then?’ The old man responded, ‘When I was a small child, I could eat fruit because those who came before me had planted trees. Am I not obliged to do the same for the next generation?'”

I didn’t realize until just now the impact that story had on me. But, I like to think I honor its spirit both in my own work in the garden and by teaching my kids to appreciate the power of such actions. When we work the land, we are working for ourselves and for those who come after us.

Yesterday Cora and I planted some spring-flowering bulbs. She did an incredible job following each step of the process and even developed her own system for evenly distributing the different varieties among the containers. Then she went to the rain barrel and filled her watering can. I nearly melted into the ground. It reminded me how capable three-year olds can be when given a chance to do something real and meaningful. It’s no wonder there are so many Montessori schools with gardens.

Together, we put the containers in the shed and covered them with a burlap blanket. She knows they will spend the winter there, I’m just not sure she knows what will happen next. That’s where the wonder, and magic, come in.

Parenting Perk of the Day: Vicarious Flow

Cora has been so busy lately it’s been hard to keep up. Even harder to find time and mental space to sit down and write about anything that’s been going on. She’s at this truly amazing stage where everything is interesting to her and once she sets her mind on something, she will pursue it with her full attention until she has exhausted her interest in it, or I cut her off because it’s time to drive her brother and sister to school, mow the lawn, go to bed… She has become a process artist.

In art education, we often talk about process versus product. In short, what we learn and experience while creating things isn’t always evident in the final product. This is especially true for performance artists and young children. The work of Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci, to site some well-known examples, cannot be understood through a single image or description of their performances. They mean and are experienced differently by each viewer of, or participant in, their projects. Similarly, a piece of construction paper covered in glue and cottonballs made by a toddler means much more as evidence of a process the child engaged in than a work of art of itself.

DSC_0119Shortly after Cora’s first day at school, I was raiding the basement for new materials to experiment with. I pulled a set of brightly colored rolls of tape out and she immediately ran to another corner of the room and pulled out an empty wrapping paper tube. She told me she wanted to put the tape on the tube. She sat for at least 40 minutes taking small strips of tape I cut for her and covering the tube with them. Turns out she got the idea from some kids at school who had done something similar. So, while I had to admit this wasn’t her original idea, I was still impressed that she was able to tell me what she wanted to do and then to execute it with such focus. In retrospect, I think it was really important for her to act out something she’d only watched others do. To experience it for herself.

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Like so many toddlers, Cora’s creative work is mostly about process. Marilyn Kohl (1994) writes in an authentic and informed manner on this subject in her introduction to Preschool art: It’s the process not the product which is full of ideas for initiating process art with young children. Many of these ideas could be scaled up for older audiences. 

Cora’s not concerned with the look of a drawing when she is finished with it so much as the processes she engages in making them. For instance, the other morning, she dumped out a bin of crayons and oil pastels then picked them up one at a time, made a mark on her paper, then lined them up. It was like the rules Jenny Bartlett sets for herself while painting. I have long been a fan of process art so I find this really amazing to watch. It also, reminded me of Helen Molesworth’s exhibition for the Wexner Center Work Ethic (2003) which highlighted artists who tested the definitions of what it means to work as an artist. Cora rarely makes a drawing of anything. Rather, her drawings provide a record of something she was doing.

When a toddler is involved in process art she is experiencing the state of flow creative practitioners strive to maintain. It brings us peace and pleasure to be so absorbed in an activity that we are focused only on the moment at hand, on the process we are engaged in. Watching Cora in flow brings me to a parallel space, engaged by her engagement. Next up, finding more opportunities for me to find such moments for myself.

“I Did It! I filled them all in.”

That’s what I heard from a little girl, who later told me she would be 4 in July, as she went running from this table at one of our local playgrounds the other day. It was just after Cora and I arrived, so I didn’t get to see her at work, but I had to go over and investigate.  Using wood chips and sticks of various sizes, she created this composition that any process artist would be proud to call their own. The best part, when she was done, she got up and ran off with no care for what might come of her work.  The worst part, her dad was so busy tending to her baby sister that he didn’t even notice the masterpiece she’d made.IMG_0764