Teaching with Contemporary Art

It’s OK to Make Art…

Edward Hopper, "New York Movie", 1939 Image: heaviestcorner.org

It’s amazing… After over twenty years teaching I still get nervous. And I’m not thinking about the first day of classes (everyone gets nervous then), I was actually thinking about putting together an exhibition of student work. While it doesn’t carry the weight of big-ticket shows in Chelsea, student shows on college campuses, high school galleries, community centers, middle school hallways and even elementary school gymnasiums carry the weight of student ambition and often serve as a form of self-assessment for everyone involved, not just the students.

In a few weeks I am putting together an exhibition of student work at Hopper House here in New York called Reasons to Paint. This is the second show I have organized in the small, three-room gallery that once was the ground floor of Edward Hopper’s home. The first, an exhibition called Common Ground in 2008, paired student and teacher work side by side. Art educators from across our district were asked to identify a student who, in some way, shared a common concern, theme or approach in their own work and then exhibit alongside them. I was interested in students and teachers having the chance to show together on the same walls. In the end the opening was packed. Everyone was enthusiastic to be part of an exhibit in a professional gallery space. Best of all, parents and community members got to see the students in a way they didn’t experience all that often- seriously talking about their own work and having a dialogue about the works of classmates and teachers. Many of those students were at critical stages in their own school careers at the time, and I sincerely believe the opportunity to be part of a unique exhibit really made a difference as they began thinking about their own next steps after graduation.

This show, which opens on November 20th, asks students to take a work by Edward Hopper and simply be inspired by it to create a new work of art. The artist himself once said, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint,” and students are being asked this time around to look into the work they select in order to decide what exactly it is that’s so inspiring. Whether it’s the way unexpected colors come together, the gesture of two figures, the memory a particular image recalls, or even the ambiguity of a solitary figure in a room, students need to take that point of inspiration and create a work in response. Some students have understandably decided to paint, others have chosen photography or mixed-media. I even have one student who has chosen to make a sculpture… in a glass box, of course.

So why am I sweating it? Because I am dealing with high school students who have little regard for the word DEADLINE. While works were “due” this past Monday I still have these wonderful student artists casually coming by the classroom (as I am nearing a stroke) and saying things like, “I was thinking about cropping that photo we discussed instead of using the version we agreed on.” Whaaaaat??

Regardless of how they understand what it means to be prepared… in advance… I am hanging a show next week. And many of these students, like the students in Common Ground years ago, have some important decisions to make. This show, if we’re lucky, will be a tipping point for some that not only says it’s “ok” to make art, but it’s important to make art.

Contributor
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.
  1. Jeannine Bardo says:

    Great post Joe. I love the assignment and I hope you post pictures of the student’s work. They always make you sweat, but somehow they come through. Good luck! Keep stressing the importance of making art. Because it is pleasurable and not considered “necessary” it is often considered unimportant, but we know better.

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  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Yes, definitely… An upcoming post reflecting on the show and sharing some photos is in order. Thanks, Jeanine!

    Reply

  3. Jack Watson says:

    While they’re a drag, it’s heartening that deadline frustrations are universal, even in the context of something as engaging and meaningful to students as a show like this one! I’m really inspired by the shows you describe here, for several reasons but mostly because they demonstrate to your students the dialogic nature of contemporary art. It would be rewarding just for the students to see their own work on display in a gallery, but you’re showing them that their work speaks not only for themselves, but it speaks to the viewer and even to the works that informed it. To see it linked with common threads to their mentor’s work (Common Ground), or to see it as a progression from the work of a modern master (Reasons To Paint) is incredibly inspiring.

    I think we will have to rethink our district art show format…

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