Teaching with Contemporary Art

The Same, But Different

Artist at work: Cai Guo-Qiang. Production still. 2005

Artist at work: Cai Guo-Qiang. Art21 production still. 2005

About a year ago at this time I was getting ready for Art21 to come in and film me teaching about the theme of power with my freshman Studio in Art class. I was a bit nervous, but when it was all said and done, I was happy with what we had filmed and the story that got told about how students tackled the idea of visually depicting power in a variety of ways through painting. The number of hours that went into that 5 minutes of film (fame?) still blows me away.

It’s that time of year again. And while I’ve decided that I will return to the theme of power with my new students, the beginning has already been different. Rather than start with a customary skill-building approach similar to our recent drawing unit, which is the way we began in 2008, I decided after looking at some reflections in my notebook that maybe I wanted to begin with specific challenges students already have when it comes to painting. It seemed a lot easier than assuming what they did or didn’t know.

Borrowing an idea I learned while mentoring teachers in New York City, I set up a “parking lot” (aka a large chart for students to place written responses to a specific question) this past Monday and gave each student four Post-It notes in the ugliest color I could find. I asked each of them this time around to identify four specific challenges they have experienced working with paint in the past (a quick survey told me that over 90% of the class had some experience with painting pictures). After they finished, students placed their answers in the parking lot I had set up near the door.

Later that afternoon, I looked over the chart and realized that the beginning of this unit would be a little different than last year. Based on the answers I received, students wanted the most help with blending, color mixing, and coming up with good ideas (“Not making a mess” was a close runner-up, by the way). So this time around, we will be trying some specific experiments around mixing and blending before re-emphasizing, as was the case last year, a variety of ways artists get good ideas and put them in motion.

In my work as a teacher and an artist, I am constantly reminded that just because something went well once doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be better the next time around. Starting the Power unit in a slightly different way allows me to show students I am taking their feedback seriously and that I’m ready to help with what they need as we move into something new.

Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
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