Issue 5: Pedagogy
Living as Pedagogy: a four-part meditation on an ongoing, collaborative artwork among apartment neighbors
By Amanda Leigh Evans
The Living School of Art (LSA) is an ongoing, intergenerational living art
project that takes the form of an alternative art school and artist collective.
It is located within a 120-unit affordable housing apartment complex in
East Portland, OR. Neighbors of all ages teach and contribute to activities such as cooking workshops, garden building and planting, performance games, crafts-based practices, and artmaking. Founded in 2016, the project includes exhibitions in 8 laundry rooms, a visiting artist residency program (with artists chosen by a youth committee), a community garden, a medicinal herb garden, and field trips. The project is Co-Founded and Directed by artist Amanda Leigh Evans, who lives in a basement apartment next door to a shared art studio space used for classes and gatherings. The project is funded by Community Engagement Org, a nonprofi t supporting artist projects in affordable housing buildings.
Propedéutico Onírico/A Dream Propaedeutic
Spencer Bryne-Seres with Daniel Godinez Nivón
Spencer: Daniel, quería empezar, por hablar un poco de esta idea de pedagogía y cómo empezaste a trabajar en un contexto social?
Daniel: Yo conocí el tequio al comenzar a intentar desarrollar un proceso de trabajo con un grupo, la AMI, la Asamblea de Migrantes Indígenas en Ciudad México. Todo esto fue en 2009—yo acababa de salir de la escuela y comencé a trabajar en un seminario; un seminario que en realidad es donde me formé, que coordina un artista mexicano llamado José Miguel González Casanova.
Este hombre es mi mentor y una persona que ha brindado ese tipo de relación de procesos pedagógicos de un arte que podríamos llamar, “Ampliado”, que involucra asumir cómo un artista se preocupa por la producción, distribución y consumo de su trabajo. Reflexiona sobre el público y la repercusión en los otros contextos. En fin, ese fue como el perfil de este proceso de trabajo en el cual yo me incorporé y comencé a reflexionar sobre mi propio pasado y mi familia.
Mi familia es de Juchitán, Oaxaca. Tengo una familia zapoteca, mis padres ya crecieron aquí en la ciudad, pero yo crecí con esa fascinación por las historias y los relatos de los abuelos. Pero conociendo muy poco también del pueblo. Durante la escuela, mi trabajo previo había sido con esa imagen: los relatos de los abuelos, esa identidad zapoteca, de las tehuanas, y el pueblo Juchiteco. Eso había sido mi obra plástica.
El seminario de José Miguel me hizo reflexionar sobre tratar de ampliar la relación de identidad en mi familia con el papel de los migrantes en la ciudad. Dentro de esas reflexiones fue que decidí encontrar un grupo de personas con los cuales pudiera trabajar.
La Asamblea de Migrantes Indígenas, la AMI, fue formado por egresados de la Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, personas que hoy en día tienen hoy sus 50 años; es gente política y educada en el sentido de entender varias cosas en su activismo. Yo llegué a la AMI, y solamente estaba un joven, Apolinar se llama, un de Ultatepec. Yo llegué diciendo, “Yo soy Daniel, soy artista”. Esto es 2008.
Spencer: ¿Puedes hablar ahora un poco de cómo encontraste el sueño como tema y esa obra que estás como cumpliendo ahora, creo? Intentando terminar o mover a otra cosa.
Daniel: El primer proyecto que hice con la Asamblea de Migrantes Indígenas fueron las tequiografías. Las tequiografías son un proyecto editorial, un material didáctico que emula un material oficial hecho por la Secretaría de Educación. La Secretaría de Educación trae estas planillas de papel con dibujos y al reverso texto. Se distribuyen por cientos, por miles, en todo el país y tienen una versión oficial de los conocimientos.
Las tequiografías son un material que brinda otra versión de los conocimientos, no es la versión oficial o la versión histórica. Específicamente trabajando con los grupos de la AMI, existe la monografía escolar con el tema de salud, que es la versión de la OMS y toda esta cuestión de la Organización Mundial de la Salud.
Nosotros hicimos una tequiografía de salud, que tiene la versión de la partería, el conocimiento de plantas, del cuerpo humano, la versión de la naturaleza. En fin, brinda otra versión, básicamente. Al trabajar esta monografía de salud, esto fue en 2010, fue que conocí a un grupo de parteras triquis. Estas mujeres comenzaron a hablar de una cosa muy interesante, porque ellas hablaban del papel de los sueños.
Ellas decían, “Es que nosotras aprendemos a partir de sueños. Es en sueños, desde que somos muy pequeñas, desde que somos niñas, se nos revela nuestra futura profesión”, es como un llamado. Eso a mí me pareció, más allá de querer comprobar la veracidad de este hecho, como artista me pareció algo muy hermoso, muy poético, enigmático, muy potente la idea de que en los sueños puedes elegir profesión, puedes tener tus primeras experiencias de trabajo.
Pensando en arte, educación y el tequio como herramienta educativa, educación vivencial, dije, “Es que los sueños para estas personas son una escuela”, ahí fue donde dije, “Imagínate una escuela que ocurre en sueños”. Concretamente, de ahí surgió esta idea del propedéutico onírico. Las experiencias de las parteras tienen un propedéutico onírico.
Me preguntaba cómo sería nuestra educación, imagínate en la preparatoria, en la secundaria, que tuviéramos un taller de sueños para elegir profesión en lugar de estas pruebas de aptitudes, de que, “Tú eres bueno en pensamiento lógico matemático.”
Hay muchísimo más en la complejidad de la mente humana y las actitudes que simplemente la currícula escolar. Los sueños parecían una dimensión nueva en la cual uno podría encontrarse, conocerse más en tanto a su lugar en el mundo.
Imagínate el colegio militar, las fuerzas armadas de los países que tuvieran un taller de sueños, o los policías. Esta gente en México, por ejemplo, si los policías que tuvieran un taller de sueños, no solamente los artistas; los médicos, la gente vinculada con la idea de curación, en contextos llamados. En fin, para mí los sueños me parecían la posibilidad de conocerse un poco más y elegir un camino profesional, pero por lo menos sin identificar la práctica. Apasionante, ¿no?
Daniel: Pensando en estas nociones, tuve una invitación de una fundación de arte que ya no existe en México, que se llamó Alumnos 47, que trabajaba en proyectos de educación. A mí me invitaron a hacer una propuesta para trabajar con un grupo de chicas, de 12 chicas adolescentes de una casa hogar—de un orfanato.
Ellos ya llevaban trabajando con estas chicas por cuatro años, haciendo talleres de arte, pero era un formato más escolar de talleres y ahora me invitaron a hacer una pieza. Entendiendo las particularidades de este contexto, este grupo de chicas—más allá de sus historias de vida, muchas dramáticas y fuertes, eran adolescentes, y en la adolescencia todo está pasando, además.
Me parecía muy importante vincular, de alguna manera, el papel de las parteras, mujeres de conocimiento, mujeres de poder, su sensibilidad con sus estrategias, y pensar en cómo yo podría compartirlas con esas chicas. Sugerí, “Voy a hacer un propedéutico onírico.Voy a hacer un primer planteamiento propedéutico onírico”.
El propedéutico onírico consistió en un proceso de trabajo que duró dos años con estas chicas. Al inicio iba a ser un proceso de seis meses, pero el proyecto se volvió mucho más complejo, rico e interesante y yo no quería precipitarlo a presentar algo inacabado. En fin, el propedéutico onírico comenzó con un par de sesiones a la semana, vernos todos los domingos en la casa hogar, en Yolia, se llama el lugar; un lugar para hablar de los sueños, hacer meditación, dibujar, tener nuestra bitácora de sueños.
Laotra sesión fue los miércoles a las 3:00 AM, en un sueño colectivo. La idea era tratar de verlos en un sueño, claramente con esta idea de sensualizar. Era como un gesto salvaje, increíble de hacer algo nuevo, “Vamos a vernos en un sueño”. Desde luego que causó mucha especulación y fascinación por muchas chicas, otras me decían, “¿Qué estas diciendo? No me vengas a mentir. ¿Por qué dices mentiras? Eso no va a pasar. ¿Qué ganas mintiéndonos?”.
Le digo, “Tú no sabes qué puede pasar, yo lo que quiero es que lo intentemos”, y lo intentaron. Después de seis meses no ocurría nada significativo, es decir, pasaba un proceso bastante tranquilo y muchos sueños no me los contaban. Obviamente, pasaban cosas muy íntimas y tampoco era como que algo para compartir. Fuimos hablando mucho de sueños, hablando de las parteras, hablando del uso de los sueños para comunidades.
Digamos que había pequeños gestos que aún no se lograban materializar en nada, hasta que después de seis meses comenzaron a aparecer plantas, algunas formas de plantas en los sueños de tres niñas en una sola noche. Una niña soñó que le crecía un helecho en la cabeza, otra estaba en la cima de una palmera, otra tenía el aroma de la manzanilla. Eso se volvió para mí, yo dije, “Ya, las plantas, con esto vamos a trabajar, esto va a hacer nuestro material simbólico”.
Conseguí semillas de estas plantas, y empezamos a hacer un pequeño huerto en la casa hogar, a sembrar nuestras plantas, fueron creciendo. Las niñas empezaron a ver sus plantas del sueño crecer. Esto es un acontecimiento, porque ver ese pequeño brote, esa ternura de una plantita que surgió de un sueño de ellas era como si estuvieran cuidando, es como procurar un cuidado y una ternura a esto que venía de ellas, de los más precioso.
Eso fue muy especial. Muchas niñas dijeron, “Creo que sí está pasando algo en los sueños de estas niñas, creo que voy a intentar también”. Comenzaron a surgir muchas más plantas. Nuevamente esta idea de las parteras, de encadenar los procesos; lo que pasa en el sueño encadenarlo con el mundo lúcido, el mundo real. Planta soñada, planta que sí se siembra. En este jardín comenzaron a crecer más y a trasplantar.
Así pasaron estos seis meses, donde estuvimos trabajando una relación entre plantas y sueños. Hicimos una pequeña almohada donde pusimos semillas, plantas aromáticas y esto era como la almohada de los miércoles, para detonar este gesto de encadenamiento, algo que puede ser como un gatillo, que tire la lucidez en los sueños. Poco a poco las plantas soñadas fueron un poco más extrañas, ya no eran plantas reconocibles, como manzanilla o un helecho.
Seguía viéndolas todos los domingos, también tenía maestros invitados, gente especialista en botánica, agronomía, gente que sabía preparar cierto tipo de tés. Desde luego que nunca trabajamos ninguna cuestión de utilizar plantas para tener sueños más lúcidos o algo así; no, para nada. Eran usos diversos de plantas, o conocer las semillas, cultivar.
Yolia está como en una parte superior. La arquitectura de la casa hogar es muy parecida a una escuela pública; por aquí hay una cancha inicial, un par de dormitorios. Es bastante estándar en eso, tiene una azotea que no estaba activada, no se podía subir a la azotea, simplemente era el techo, pero por la altura este lugar tiene muy buena vista, una vista de toda la ciudad.
Yo sabía, me enteré que estas niñas en las noches de luna llena solían subir a escondidas al techo para ver la luna y tener baños de luna, algo que me pareció muy hermoso y dije, “Ojalá, esperaré que las niñas lo sigan haciendo, pero que no arriesguen su vida,” porque realmente tenían que subir al techo de un baño para tomar otra escalera y era una cosa tipo un poco impertinente e imprudente.
Con el dinero de la fundación dije, “Ahora yo quiero hacer mi taller de los sueños”, ya llevamos un año trabajando, quiero hacer mi taller en el techo con esta idea de ascensión, también generar otro espacio.
Imagínate esto, son 12 niñas adolescentes, hay otras ochos niñas chiquititas, la idea de la intimidad o la idea de un espacio solo con adolescentes es un problema. Usar el techo era ganar un espacio también, un espacio para las niñas grandes y un lugar en el cual también se puede observar el mundo, tener otra perspectiva, como los sueños brindan otro espacio, usar ese techo era otro espacio.
A partir de una de las plantas soñadas que era como una enredadera, hicimos una escalera bastante impráctica, es más como una escultura, una escalera pudo haber sido simplemente algo más sencillo, pero esto era una escalera que llegaba– Una cosa bastante rebuscada, obviamente trabajado con un arquitecto y viendo presupuesto para que no fuera tan poco una excentricidad terrible.
Si bien era una escultura pero era funcional, y que en 20 años funcionara muy bien, y también construimos una barda a lo largo en el perímetro de la azotea para que fuera seguro y ahí comenzamos a tener nuestro taller y observar la ciudad, pude llevar binoculares, algunos aparatos para observar. Era increíble, ya había otra perspectiva, otra relación con el espacio.
También tuve posibilidad de trabajar con el Instituto de Astronomía de la UNAM, la universidad, para conseguir unos telescopios, un taller de observación. Ese espacio se volvió nuestro observatorio, un lugar en el cual nos podíamos entender con una mayor presencia en el mundo, puedo decirlo así, como observarlos, en sentirnos en el mundo, tener más control, más dominio, como de arriba para abajo observamos.
Ya no es como desde esta casa a escondidas sino, “El mundo es nuestro”. Esa relación me pareció muy linda para empezar a encontrar el cierre del proyecto, “Ya estamos hasta aquí con este material simbólico, tenemos plantas de los sueños, tenemos muchas cosas”, cómo cerrar, y pensé qué podemos hacer que tuviera que ver con este espacio, con este techo también, con esta vista.
La pieza final constituyó en hacer un jardín de cerámica con barro y ceniza del volcán que está aquí muy cerca, que es el Popocatépetl, y colocaron una montaña, hacer un jardín de cerámica y colocarlo en otra montaña que es el Iztaccíhuatl, que es otro volcán inactivo, está muy cerca del otro.
Un buen día sin contaminación se pueden ver los volcanes desde la casa de las niñas, dije, “Sería muy lindo, un cierre increíble poder hacer este jardín y colocarlo en esa montaña”. Que además Iztaccíhuatl es una palabra es una palabra náhuatl que significa mujer dormida, porque supuestamente tiene un parecido a la silueta de una mujer dormida boca arriba. Entonces dije, “Esto ya es un supercierre,increíble, vamos a hacer este jardín de los sueños en la montaña”.
Trabajamos con la facultad de artes en la escuela y trabajar con las estudiantes del taller de escultura, de modelado, para hacer reproducciones de estas plantas. Las niñas de Yolia conocieron a las estudiantes de arte, quienes estuvieron materializando los sueños. Fue vincular a mucha gente, a los astrónomos, vincular a los botánicos, vincular a la gente de esta escultura.
El barro se hace con los cuatro elementos naturales y este jardín en la montaña no iba a generar ningún tipo de contaminación, no era invasivo, era una cosa como muy pertinente, muy congruente, y también que un atractivo muy importante es que la cerámica tiene un promedio de vida como de 5.000 años. Esto es un jardín, una pieza proyectada para durar 5.000 años, por lo cual las niñas pueden verlo desde la casa hogar, pero también el público y la gente pueden seguir viendo esta pieza durante mucho tiempo.
También de esa experiencia hicimos un pequeño filme, un pequeño docupoema yo le llamo, que es una manera de compartir la experiencia también, la idea de cómo los sueños de las niñas se transforman en plantas y esto viene acompañado de un poema que también estuvimos trabajando en las sesiones del taller de los sueños, pensar en la materialidad del sueño y la poesía como detonante de la imaginación a este tipo de imágenes mentales, es una manera en la cual considero los sueños están hechos también de poesía.
Así terminaba este proyecto inspirado en las parteras y en este tipo de experiencias. Lo que estoy trabajando ahorita, y finalmente estoy por terminar este año, porque ya es el gran cierre de este proyecto, es que lo que ocurrió fue que estas 12 plantas, nos quedamos con 12 plantas soñadas, extrañas, no sabíamos qué plantas eran. Yo las llevé con los botánicos, los científicos de la UNAM, les dije, “Ustedes son los expertos, tenemos estas plantas, no sabemos si existan, tal vez podrían ayudarnos,” dijeron, “En realidad no las conocemos, no conocemos estas plantas, excepto esta. Esta planta se parece mucho a una que crece en las montañas altas de Escocia.”
Spencer: Es muy interesante esta tensión entre la academia y trabajar con biólogos y luego con las niñas, tener esas dos formas de saber y conocer. La niña es la que ha soñado la cosa y luego tienes un biólogo intentando crear un sistema de cómo funciona la planta.
Daniel: Sí, es muy ligado a esta parte que te decía de exotizar también estos procesos. Dedicar el tiempo para un botánico, para estudiar una planta encontrada en un sueño, parecería un acto hasta subversivo, crítico de la idea de productividad a esta velocidad.
Spencer: No reconocemos tanto la influencia que tiene al arte y las cosas creativas en crear el futuro, tampoco. Toda esta tecnología ha sido soñada antes de que existiera y es algo que tiene mucho que ver en las decisiones que tomamos para cómo construir el mundo en que vivimos.
Daniel: Desde luego que sí. También es que esta separación entre arte y ciencia es bastante nueva. La historia de la humanidad, la historia de la sensibilidad y la creación, es bastante nueva y ha sido lo que ha generado más distanciamiento entre los campos. A mí me gusta pensar más en términos de entender la creación, el conocimiento o la ciencia de los pueblos indígenas, lo que en antropología se le conoce como los chamanes, sí, pero en realidad son hombres y mujeres de conocimiento.
Una partera es una mujer que da la bienvenida a nuevos seres al mundo, conoce de plantas, conoce de cantos, sabe tejer y sabe generar lo artesanal. Esa persona hace un trabajo mucho más loable que cualquier artista. Esa mujer está haciendo realidad, haciendo mundo, no pretende hacer arte, pero su trabajo es superior al arte. De tal manera que yo me inspiro en eso.
Me inspiro también de la conocida alquimia, los alquimistas, gente que estaba investigando sobre los sentimientos de los minerales, que observaban. Las últimas personas que ya comenzaban a entender más volverse físicos, pero venían de ese conocimiento y de esa pasión casi secreta de apasionarse por entender la realidad. ¿Qué es lo que hacemos los artistas? Tratamos de entender cómo se comporta la luz en los materiales de la pintura, cómo funciona el vínculo, la intersubjetividad, las relaciones, los afectos—es lo mismo.
Nuevamente tanto en la educación como el arte buscamos entender la realidad, ampliarla a la situación. Un botánico, en su oficina, en la universidad, está haciendo lo mismo que yo estoy haciendo de alguna manera dentro de ese gesto ingenuo o esa pequeña incipiente detonante de claridad. Estamos en lo mismo, somos curiosos.
Queremos entender el mundo y el arte es eso. Nuevamente, genera conocimiento y de esta separación arbitraria ha hecho generar una mercancía del saber, descapitalizar las profesiones, pero este deseo de vincular astrónomos, estudiantes de arte, botánicos, parteras en un proceso de los sueños, parte del hecho es decir, “Amigos, estamos juntos en esto, compartimos el mundo”.
Spencer : Daniel, would you want to start by talking a bit about teqio, and how you began to work in a social context?
Daniel: I got to know the tequio when I started trying to develop a work process with a group, the AMI, the Assembly of Indigenous Migrants in Mexico City. This was all in 2009 — I had just left school and started working in a seminar; a seminar that is actually where I got my training, coordinated by a Mexican artist named José Miguel González Casanova.
This man was my mentor and a person who has provided that type of relationship of pedagogical processes of art that we could call “Expanded,” which involves focusing on how an artist cares about the production, distribution and consumption of their work. As well as reflecting on the public impact on other contexts. In short, that was the profile of this work process in which I joined and began to reflect on my own past and my family.
My family is from Juchitán, Oaxaca. I have a Zapotec family, my parents already grew up here in the city, but I grew up with that fascination for the stories of my grandparents. But knowing very little about this group of people as well. During school, my previous work had been with that idea: the stories of my grandparents, their Zapotec identity, and of the Tehuanas and Juchiteco people. That had been my physical work.
José Miguel’s seminar made me reflect on trying to expand the identity relationship in my family to include the role of migrants in the city. Amid those reflections was where I decided to find a group of people with whom I could work.
The Assembly of Indigenous Migrants, the AMI, was formed by graduates of the National Pedagogical University—people who are now in their 50s today; they are political and educated people in the sense of understanding various things in their activism. I arrived at the AMI, and there was only one young man, his name is Apolinar, one from Ultatepec. I arrived saying, “I am Daniel, I am an artist.” This is 2008.
Spencer: Can you talk a little bit now about how you found the dream as a theme in the work that you’re fulfilling now?
Daniel: The first project I did with the Assembly of Indigenous Migrants was the tequiografías. The tequiografías are a publishing project, teaching materials that imitates official documents made by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education produces these sheets with text and images that are distributed by hundreds, by thousands, throughout the country and have an official version of knowledge and history.
The tequiografías offer an alternative version of this knowledge, it is not the official version or the historical version. Specifically, working with the AMI groups, we looked at the official monograph on the topic of health, which is based on the World Health Organization.
We did a health tequiografías, which has midwifery knowledge, knowledge of plants, of the human body, the other versions of nature. It offers another version of the official narrative on health. While working on this health monograph, this was in 2010, it was then that I met a group of Triqui midwives. These women started talking about a very interesting thing—the role of dreams.
They said, “We learn from dreams. It is in dreams, since we are very young, since we are children, that our future profession is revealed to us. It is like a call.” That seemed to me, beyond wanting to verify the veracity of this fact, as an artist it seemed something very beautiful, very poetic, enigmatic, very powerful the idea that in dreams you can choose a profession, you can have your first work experiences.
Thinking about art and tequio as an experiential education, I thought “dreams for these people are like a form of school.” Imagine a school that happens in dreams. This is the origin of this idea of the dreamlike propaedeutic. Midwifery experiences have a dreamlike propaedeutic.
I was wondering what our state education would be like, imagine in high school that we had a dream workshop to choose a profession instead of those aptitude tests, that say “You are good at logical mathematical thinking.”
There is so much more to the complexity of the human mind and attitudes than just the school curriculum. Dreams seemed like a new dimension in which one could find oneself, to know oneself as much as one’s place in the world.
Imagine the military college, the armed forces of countries that had a dream workshop, or the police. These people in Mexico, for example, if the policemen who had a dream workshop, not only the artists; doctors, people linked to the idea of healing, in contexts called. Anyway, for me dreams seemed to me the possibility of getting to know a little more about oneself than choosing a professional path, and without identifying the methods involved. Exciting, isn’t it?
Daniel: Thinking about these notions, I had an invitation from an art foundation that no longer exists in Mexico, called Alumnos 47, which was working on education projects. I was invited to make a proposal to work with a group of girls, 12 teenage girls from a family home — from an orphanage.
They had been working with these girls for four years, doing art workshops, but it was a more scholarly workshop format and now they invited me to do an art piece. Understanding the peculiarities of this context, this group of girls—beyond their life stories which were dramatic and powerful— they were adolescents, and in adolescence everything is happening.
It seemed very important to me to link, in some way, the role of midwives, women of knowledge, women of power, their sensitivity with their strategies, and think about how I could share them with these girls. I suggested, “I am going to do a dream propaedeutic. I am going to do the first dream propaedeutic approach.”
The dreamlike propaedeutic consisted of a work process that lasted two years with these girls. It was going to be a six-month process at first, but the project became much more complex, rich, and interesting, and I didn’t want to rush him into presenting something unfinished. In short, the dream propaedeutic began with a couple of sessions a week, meeting in person every Sunday at the home—a place to talk about dreams, do meditation, draw, have a forum of sorts.
The other session was on Wednesdays at 3:00 AM, in a collective dream. The idea was to try to see each other in a dream. It was like a wild, incredible gesture of doing something new, “Let’s see each other in a dream.” Of course it caused a lot of speculation and fascination for many girls. Others said to me, “What are you saying? Don’t come to lie to me. Why do you tell lies? That won’t happen. What do you gain by lying to us?”
I say, “You don’t know what can happen, what I want is for us to try,” and they tried. After six months, nothing significant happened, that is, a fairly calm process was going on and many dreams were not told to me. Obviously, very intimate things happen in dreams that are not something to share. We talked a lot about dreams, talked about midwives, talked about the use of dreams for communities.
After six months plants began to appear, some forms of plants in the dreams of three girls in a single night. One girl dreamed that a fern grew on her head, another was on top of a palm tree, another had the aroma of chamomile. That became for me, I said, “Now, plants, with this we are going to work, this is going to make our symbolic material.”
I got seeds from these plants, and we started to make a small garden in the home, to plant our plants. The girls began to see their dream plants grow. Seeing that little bud, that tenderness of a little plant that arose from a dream of theirs was like procuring a care and tenderness to something that came from them.
That was very special. Many girls said, “I think something is happening in these girls’ dreams, I think I will try too.” Many more plants began to emerge. What happens in the dream by connecting it with the lucid world, the real world. Dream plant, plant that is planted. In this garden they began to grow more and to transplant the plants.
So six months passed, where we were working on a relationship between plants and dreams. We made a small pillow where we put seeds and aromatic plants on Wednesdays, to trigger the dreaming gesture, something that can be like a trigger, that pulls lucidity into dreams. Little by little the dream plants were a little bit stranger, they were no longer recognizable plants like chamomile or fern.
He continued to see them every Sunday, we also had guest teachers, people specialized in botany, agronomy, people who knew how to prepare certain types of teas. Of course we had any ideas about using plants to have more lucid dreams or something like that; not at all. They were diverse uses of plants, or knowing the seeds, cultivating.
Yolia is on top of a hill. The architecture of the home is very similar to that of a public school; there is an initial court, a couple of bedrooms. It is quite standard in that it has a roof that was not activated, you could not go up to the roof, it was just the roof, but due to the height this place has a very good view, a view of the whole city.
I found out that these girls on full moon nights used to sneak up on the roof to see the moon and have moonbaths, which I thought was very beautiful and I said, “Hopefully, I hope the girls keep doing it, but don’t risk your life,” because they really had to go up to the roof of a bathroom to take another ladder and it was kind of a bit impertinent and reckless.
With the money from the foundation I said, “Now I want to do my dream workshop,” we have been working for a year now, I want to do my workshop on the roof with this idea of ascension, and also to create another space.
Imagine that there are 12 teenage girls, there are eight other little girls—the idea of a space with only teenagers is a problem. Making the roof safe was gaining a space too, a place where you can also observe the world, have another perspective, as dreams provide.
Inspired by one of the dream plants that was like a creeper, we made a rather impractical staircase, it’s more like a sculpture, a staircase could have been just a little bit simpler, but this was a staircase that was a rather elaborate thing.
Although it was a sculpture, it was functional, and in 20 years it would still work very well, and we also built a fence along the perimeter of the roof so that it was safe and there we began to have our workshop and observe the city. It was incredible, there was already another perspective, another relationship with space.
I also had the opportunity to work with the Institute of Astronomy at UNAM, the university, to get telescopes, and do an observation workshop. That space became our observatory, a place in which we could understand ourselves with a greater presence in the world—how to observe, to feel ourselves in the world, to have more control, as we observe from above and below.
That relationship seemed very nice as a way to start finding the closure for the project, “We are already here with this symbolic material, we have dream plants, we have many things.” To close, and I thought about what we could do that had to do with this space, with this roof too, with this view.
The final piece was to make a ceramic garden with mud and ash from the volcano that is very close here, which is called Popocatépetl, and make a ceramic garden and place it on another mountain that is the Iztaccíhuatl, which is another dormant volcano very close by.
On a good day without pollution, you can see the volcanoes from the girls’ house. I said, “It would be very nice, an incredible closure, to be able to make this garden and place it on that mountain.” It just so happened that Iztaccíhuatl is also a Nahuatl word that means sleeping woman, because supposedly it has a resemblance to the silhouette of a sleeping woman face up. So I said, “Incredible, let’s make this garden of dreams on the mountain.”
We worked with the arts faculty at the school and with the students in the sculpture department to make reproductions of these plants. The Yolia girls met the art students, who were making dreams come true. It was linking many people, astronomers, botanists, students.
The clay is made with the four natural elements and this mountain garden was not going to generate any type of contamination, it was not invasive, it was a very pertinent thing. Very congruent. And also a very important attraction is that ceramic has an average life of about 5,000 years. This is a garden, a piece designed to last 5,000 years, so girls can see it from the home, but also the public and people can continue to see this piece for a long time.
Also from that experience we made a small film, a small poem-documentary I call it. It is a way of sharing the experience as well, the idea of how girls’ dreams transform into plants and this is accompanied by a poem that we worked on. In the dream workshop sessions, we thought about the materiality of the dream and poetry as a trigger for the imagination to create this type of mental image. It is a way in which I consider dreams are also made of poetry.
Thus ended this project inspired by midwives and their experience. What I am working on right now (and I am finally about to finish this year, because it has already been a long time closing this project) is to look at these 12 plants, we had in total 12 dreamy, strange plants—we did not know what plants were. I took them to the botanists, the scientists from UNAM, and I told them, “You are the experts, we have these plants, we do not know if they exist, perhaps they could help us,” and they said, “We do not really know them, we do not know these plants , except this one. This plant closely resembles one that grows in the high mountains of Scotland.”
Spencer: It is very interesting this tension between the academy and working with biologists and then with the girls, having these two ways of knowing and understanding. The girls are the ones who have dreamed these things and then you have a biologist trying to create a system of how the plant works.
Daniel: Yes, it is closely linked to this part that I told you about, which was to also exoticize these processes. Spending time for a botanist, to study a plant found in a dream, would seem like a subversive act, critical of the idea of productivity and speed.
Spencer: We don’t recognize the influence that art and creative things have on creating the future. All this technology was dreamed before it existed, and it is something that has a lot to do with the decisions we make about how to build the world we live in.
Daniel: It is also that this separation between art and science is quite new. The history of humanity, the history of sensibility and creation, is quite new and has generated distance between the fields. I like to think more in terms of understanding the knowledge and science of indigenous peoples. In anthropology they might be known as shamans, yes, but in reality they are men and women of knowledge.
A midwife is a woman who welcomes new beings to the world, knows plants, knows songs, knows how to weave, and knows how to generate crafts. That person does a much more laudable job than any artist. That woman is making reality, making the world, she does not intend to make art, but her work is superior to art. In such a way that I am inspired by that.
I am also inspired by alchemy, the alchemists, people who were investigating the feelings of minerals, who were observing. The more that people began to understand, the more they transitioned to become physicists, but that science came out of that study and from that almost secret passion of understanding reality. What do we artists do? We try to understand how light behaves in painting materials, how intersubjectivity, relationships, and affections work—it’s the same thing.
Again both in education and art we seek to understand reality, expand it. A botanist, in his office, at the university, is doing the same thing that I am doing in some way within that naive gesture or that incipient little trigger for clarity. We are doing the same thing, we are curious.
We want to understand the world and art is that. It generates knowledge and this has caused the generation of a commodity of knowledge, the capitalization of professions. But this desire to link astronomers, art students, botanists, and midwives in a dream process is a way to say, “Friends, we are together in this, we share the world .”
Dot the “i’s” with hearts: Working with kid designers at RECESS! Design Studio
A conversation between Jordan Rosenblum and Roshani Thakore.
Edited by Jordan
RECESS! Design Studio is a creative agency housed inside of a classroom in The Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Working with third, fourth, and fifth-grade designers, the studio is one part classroom, one part creative agency, and one part artist project. The project is co-directed by artists Jordan Rosenblum and Kim Sutherland, in collaboration with visiting artists and designers.
RECESS! serves as the in-house studio for the artist-run project, The King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA). The studio’s ongoing design services include posters for exhibitions and lectures, signs for classrooms, and promotional material for school events.
The ambition of RECESS! is to create a full-service creative agency directed and run by elementary school students.
Since its launch in the Fall of 2018, RECESS! has worked on several large-scale projects. In collaboration with the school administration, school parents, and student copy-writers, the studio created a set of posters championing community residents as a long-term installation in the school cafeteria. In Spring of 2019, the studio collaborated with Adidas to explore the design of a new school brand.
In the classroom, RECESS! students develop classic graphic design skills—creating experimental typefaces, designing business cards for student entrepreneurs, and learning about visual literacy and making meaning through text and image.
Through project-based learning, RECESS! also explores the role design plays in society—looking at the power design has in shaping kids’ (and adults’) lives. This includes an on-going project creating interpretive signs written by student-designers that will be installed at the school. The signs investigate the architecture, history, experiences, and culture of the school from the students’ perspectives.
The following conversation took place in May 2020 between Roshani Thakore, Artist and Organizer, and RECESS! co-director Jordan Rosenblum.
Let’s start off with talking about the early days of RECESS! Design Studio. What was the beginning of it like?
The idea for teaching design at the King School (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School) came from a series of conversations between Harrell Fletcher (co-director of KSMoCA, with Lisa Jarrett), Kim, and I. Within a month, we were in the library pitching to recruit kids to opt-in to our fledgling class.
When Kim and I started having planning conversations, we were really asking, “Well, what is graphic design? What is design? And what do we want to teach about it? Why should kids care about it?” We were thinking a lot about narrative, about storytelling, and about communication as a kind of core piece of this, as well as how design impacts them. We were really interested in how kids can and do construct meaning.
From the beginning it was going to be a project-based learning environment. The studio was going to provide design services to KSMoCA (The King School Museum of Contemporary Art), which was one of the things that made the project compelling to us. That is, the idea that we would have a classroom of kids that were creating design work for real clients. One of the goals for us was that the studio would eventually provide design services to the school, and extend out into the community.
We also had never formally taught children before, so we were—and still are—trying to figure that out. I feel like we’re in total infancy in terms of understanding how to work with kids.
I know that you were formally trained in graphic design, and have had a long history working as a designer, and you teach design at Portland State University. You are also an artist, and enrolled in PSU’s Social Practice program. Working in design is just one part of what you do. What does design mean to you, and how does it enter your life?
I have always been ambivalent about design. The constructive role that design can play is serving as a conduit for interpretation, and as a vessel for communication. It functions for me as a process for relating to things. It is useful for looking at systems, breaking them down, and problem solving. There are also lots of complications with the role of the designer finding and solving problems, but I think that’s a separate conversation.
I think the most interesting thing about the project is that it is in the King School, which is a public elementary school in Northeast Portland that has been historically African American, as opposed to, for example, a private school. The demographic of the school is changing as the neighborhood gentrifies. Beyond thinking about teaching design to elementary school students, there’s something powerful that’s happening in choosing to lead with this concept of design as interpretation, and design as communication. Many of our systems, and so much infrastructure that we know, are created by a specific group of people – white, cisgendered, men.
This is an opportunity—and any kind of art education can be—to start talking about interpretation, and communication, and breaking down systems. That’s the most interesting thing to me.
At a young age to even start to consider, “Oh, somebody designed my school,” is a big deal. To have an understanding that the school is somebody’s concept. Or, that “I could design my own school, and I could build my own world.” Or, “I can communicate the things that are actually important to me and relevant to me because of my worldview.” Which may not match up with what I’m being told every day, as a person of color, as an African American, as queer, as all these other aspects of identity and experience.
The power is in the revolution right there. You are working with a specific site.
We are interested in exploring how design relates to power, and how design can also be a tool to look at power. We hope to provide some agency for students to explore that for themselves, in their own lives. We are trying to approach it in a couple of ways. I think one piece of it is through having students designing client-based work. For many of the projects—especially the early ones—Kim and I were doing the art direction, and the students were designing, but we want to move in the other direction. We are interested in flipping it, where the students tell us what to do. What if they worked as hovering art directors, telling us to push pixels around, make something smaller, move it to the left, etc.? That’s one of our ambitions. I think it’s a lot less interesting when we are running it like a traditional design studio where Kim and I are the creative directors and the students are doing the production work. Despite our commitment to making this flip happen, we haven’t been fully successful in doing it yet. In part, I think it has to do with the students really trusting that they have full permission to do what they want with the material. They are receiving lots of messaging implicitly and explicitly to perform or think a certain way—by us, too, despite our intentions. And there also secondary expectations that come into play from other places. This was particularly clear on a project that involved a pretty complex collaboration with parents, students, and some of the school administration. Issues came up around whether things were written well enough, or drawings of people were good enough representations. That is to say… we didn’t all agree. Merging these different forms of education and an approach that is sometimes purposely not affirming what is good or bad can be complicated and confusing.
At the same time, I also think there is power just in the fact that students create things, and all of a sudden those things are hung up all over the school, and published on the web, etc…
I also don’t want to downplay the role of formal design education, and of course that’s in there. We spend a ton of time looking at and creating typefaces, we talk about form and hierarchy—“what’s the most important thing on this poster? And, how do you know what to read first?,” etc.
We started off with an approach that was pretty abstract—making collages out of cut paper that would evoke feelings, and drawing typefaces that represented qualities, like fast, or soft, etc… but they just didn’t seem to work. In part because we were so new to working with children, we were just throwing stuff against the wall that seemed interesting. As it progressed, we would go back and forth between doing client work, where we would draw or design posters and things for the school, and return to these shorter exercises. We became interested in longer collective projects where students would each contribute something that would form the whole. One example would be the posters we designed for a couple of KSMoCA artist’s lectures. We created one for Hannah Jickling’s talk about their Big Rock Candy Mountain’s project, and another for Arnold Kemp’s lecture. For both of these, each student designed letters for the poster that collectively formed the text for the poster. They created typefaces that were created together. These were also tactile, where the letters were created out of materials that related to the artists’ work. A really simple lesson for us about teaching young folks is that they love tactile materials. For the talk about Big Rock Candy Mountain, we crafted letters out of clay that resembled candy. It’s not totally clear to me why, but the tin foil we used for Arnold Kemp’s poster was totally captivating for them. We love these projects, but also recognize that at a certain level they are really dealing with form, and not so much with content from the students.
We started working more directly with content. We asked students to choose portions of Dr. MLK Jr.s “I Have a Dream” speech, and to illustrate a graphic poster out of it. So, we were experimenting with narrative, where we would have all of these posters that would basically line up together to form the whole speech, but allow these individual interpretations in a mix of word and image. When the speech itself was removed, we had these wonderfully evocative posters that related to each other, but were also clearly individual expressions. The project had clearer boundaries and goals, and some really evocative imagery to work with, and because of that were easier for the students to access. More importantly, the project opened up discussions into the places where student’s individual experiences could meet up with the communicative power of graphic design.
It seems like it’s a meshing of traditional design education, and on-the-job training—which is also experiential learning. If your classroom is one of only a few spaces in the structure of King school that operate that way, it’s going to take some time for the kids to realize they’re in a different kind of class, with a different set of expectations. KSMoCA is pushing the lines of experiential education in the school in a major way.
I think for kids to have to adjust to another space in their school for an hour a week, while seven hours a day they are in more traditional classrooms is just another unseen layer in how you are working with them. You are really butting up against traditional education models. Students having to navigate to very different types of spaces, and move between them must be such a big transition for them. Especially when you are talking about projects that are really asking students to show up as their whole selves.
I think that’s absolutely right. In some very real ways we are taking them out of one system and just like dropping them into another for forty minutes.
The most significant shift in the classroom started when Kim and I started to give ourselves freedom to more directly explore the kind of questions we were interested in as artists. I began to center my interest more in a way that I think has opened up different conversations with the kids; of course, that’s way richer for me. Doing so has fed back into the way I’m teaching in higher education right now, where I am giving myself permission to do similar things in those classrooms.
I think granting ourselves that freedom has allowed us to go deeper into our initial intent. Like we were talking about earlier, in working on this project my interest has a lot to do with using design as a tool to explore and shift power. Graphic design is a professionalized craft, and in many ways is about providing legitimacy and authority. That craft and visual language can be applied to voices and media that traditionally don’t have access to it. And, to voices that are denied authority which certainly includes youth.
In a recent project I walked with the RECESS! Designers around the school for about an hour. They wrote down a list of every sign that was hanging in the school. They created this long catalog of all kinds of signs, which was pretty fun, kind of a treasure hunt. We mapped all kinds of signs—exit signs, fallout shelter signs, wayfinding, signs for the principal’s office and teachers’ lounge, historic plaques and markers, obscure indicators for infrastructure—everything. Even though there are a lot of different kinds of signs and indicators on the walls of the school, many of them are operating in an official framework. Most of them are unquestioned, and many go unnoticed, consciously speaking.
This started out as an act of observing and noticing. It brought up the students’ curiosities about what was and wasn’t being shown, and it brought up questions they had about the space and its history. This idea owes a big debt of gratitude to Rosten Woo’s work, which served as a big inspiration.
Back in our classroom, we started to talk about what their experiences of the school are, and how that related to the signs and indicators that are on the walls.
Just to be eight years old and to consider that the instructions and signage and language around you is not “truth,” that’s a big thing. To allow for multiple truths to exist, and allowing your personal story to exist in a visible way in relation to parts of the school experience. Even that is kind of like a foundation. I think this side project is a great iteration of that. I think the core of what you’re working through is young people at a place in their lives where they are often told what the truth is, and you’re using the elements of design, education, and art. The juiciest stuff is how it’s all mixed together. You’re expanding the way of thinking about design through an artist’s perspective, and because of that the classroom is an art project. It is an art project that uses the tools and principles of other fields. I think there is a real possibility for arts education to serve as a leader in opening up new kinds of spaces within schools.
Adopting or playing the role of the artist as an educator can grant more permission to ask questions that might not be asked otherwise.
Often, even in spaces in schools which are safe and allow for deeper sharing, or that encourage critical inquiry, student’s insights are focused around a specific subject. That might be historical, like a revisiting or reinterpretation of histories. It’s hard to imagine a school giving permission to look at what is on the walls around them, and asking for that to be interrogated. It’s too close to home, and potentially threatening to the institution itself.
At the same time, thinking about signs in the school is not expressly or inherently critical. It can just serve to simply to create a vessel for student’s curiosities and experiences to be expressed. By focusing around whose voices are being expressed, how signs work, and how they affect culture students can begin to see the possibility of alternatives that more closely support their needs or views. One example is a sign above a drinking fountain. The sign has a set of rules about drinking water, there is a time limit for how long you can drink, and an instruction about how to stand in line. Something like “drink for one minute, and move on.” One of the RECESS! Designers wanted to rewrite the sign to say “drink until your thirst is quenched.” In another, a student wanted to change the sign for the library to read “Kids’ Lounge in the Library, Yay!” In the design for it, the dot of the “i’s” are hearts. That small gesture reorients the space to a child’s experience. The library is renamed in a reflection of care and fondness. Institutional language—which is the language of most things we consider signs—doesn’t allow for that. There is real power in exploring how the world is interpreted, and allowing for a combination of both critical and personal perspectives. I think one of the possibilities for art and design education is to really bridge the spectrum of experience, so that nothing is left out. So that there is room for the political, the critical, and spiritual, and the personal. It makes me wonder what schools, or institutions, or spaces would be like if the people—or kids—who utilized them had their interpretations and experiences made visible. I think I’d like to live in a world where a library sign had a heart above the “i.”
Learning by Hand
Mary Olin Geiger
Via Handwoven Tape: Understanding and Weaving Early American and Contemporary Tape, a book written by Susan Faulkner Weaver
As she writes on pages 10-11: “Every culture needed long, narrow bands of cloth for their tying and strapping needs. Different cultures have referred to tape in their own manner, and have made it with their own variations in style and appearance… Oral traditions were important for passing down the Early Americans’ common tape patterns… functional, utilitarian tying and strapping tape, used for such things as cloth ties and satchel straps.”
Learning process described by Mary Olin Geiger
These are my reflections on the initial stage of learning a hand-craft in social isolation. Over the course of several days, the importance of human interaction in this process became apparent: especially in the act of learning. This length of tape was made with materials I already had in my home prior to quarantine, including cotton thread and a borrowed loom. Here, I translated my notes from a handwritten list into verse.
Page 102 #14, Tape Pattern: Single Dash with Border
Reproduction, original weaver unknown.
This weaver could have been my great great great great grandmother.
Or her sister, or her aunt, or cousin;
all the women and children used to do this.
So, men had it in their muscle memories too, probably.
They taught each other using words and hands
not writing it down.
I go to my warping board,
purchased at a store not far from where
they used to weave this kind of tape. Pennsylvania Germans.
I never thought I’d return to the place where half of my family came from.
Tape is utility made by women and children
A fibrous material needed to tie clothing and other materials together,
before zippers and velcro
to bind attach hold
I wind the warp. This I know
from past learning. Back and forth, tie it off, remove it.
Back to the book:
Tape is utility made by women and children
A fibrous material needed to tie clothing and other materials together,
before zippers and velcro
to bind attach hold
Daisy chain, hands around loops, fingers
at the cross, making sure not
to lose it.
Start from the front.
like I usually do.
Back to the book:
A little unclear on warping – I take a measured guess?
I’ve lost 3 strings in the cross. Ah,
Because they are individual colors. Damn.
now the warp is tangled
travelling through slots and holes.
Will it stay messed up?
wind the shuttle. Begin. How do I beat? It’s too loose.
Research this. Look at the pictures.
Ahhh, I look and see
the edge of the shuttle – that is the tool.
It’s tapered. That makes sense.
My hands are clumsy This rhythm
is harder than I thought.
Why is it so loose? Why is my
warp not evenly tensioned!
Angry. It’s all messed up. Try to
start over; with this warp though.
It gets tangled. Can’t be saved.
(Scraps for later I guess.)
Go back to the warping board.
Ok, now, tie all the strings together, to
avoid those tangled, out of order threads.
Cross is intact. Good. Better than
last time. Let’s keep it front to back.
that feels familiar.
Through holes and slats, tie one knot. Start.
This feels better. continue wait
It’s wrong again. I wish I had someone to show me.
I’ll talk to Chris when I’m able to see her again.
She’ll know. Susan might get back to me soon,
I’ll ask her.
For now, continue. Terrible.
tension is wrong again. should I
stop? for the day? no, just re-tie.
Re-tie, get tangled. Don’t start
over again, just stretch it out
Take the time to untangle.
I do this.
Spread out the warp maybe? More
spaces? Try it. 3 knots now
instead of one.
Begin again @ new knot at the
front. Feels better.
Tension is great. Although
The weave is balanced and not
right. Too much spaces between threads.
New knot @ front. Re-sley. Take out
half the spaces
Begin again better
closer. Getting a rhythm
feeling my hands learning the motions.
Up, pass, hold, shift grip, beat, repeat
Oops I miss a string. That’s ok.
Take away more spaces. Now
it looks alluvial. This works better.
Now, much better than before.
back and forth back and forth
back and forth. Step away.
Come back. Back and forth.
I see the end knots. A few
First one done.
I coil the length, and carry it into another room.
Laying it out on paper to show the full length, I take a photograph.
What if they were here to help me?
PHOTO OF TAPE SNAKE HERE
Excerpt from a phone conversation on May 14th 2020:
Mary Olin Geiger: It was interesting, over the couple days that I worked on this first (length of) tape, I thought, “I’m doing this all by myself, getting frustrated.” I was having a conversation with this book, which is written words on a page, not dialogue. I was thinking about that, in this time of social isolation, and I realized how important that social part would have been: even in the learning.
Susan Faulkner Weaver: You know, you can really reflect on whatever you want when you’re in a private setting, doing some kind of craft or art, whatever it is. I know one thing with weaving: weaving guilds are very, very important in today’s world. And that’s because, you know, weaving is a very private way of creating. Guilds are a way of coming together with all these people, coming from their private time, weaving together, sharing, educating, having fun, laughter. It’s really, really, really important. And it sort of balances out with that private time that you have in the weaving-focus. You know, other art forms, I’m sure they have their ways of gathering and communing together, which is very important. Another thing I just want to mention is that I have been teaching for many years, (and) if I teach a rag weaving workshop, I just do a little monologue on the history of rag weaving. I focus on the 1930s in Appalachia, and the importance of rag weaving to certain cultures. And then I get into the nitty gritty of how to do it. I don’t like the concept of “how-to do it,” you know, the concept of “make and take.” I think it’s important, and so I was doing that before I got into tape weaving, exploring different cultures and respecting where people were coming from a long time ago. I just think that’s so important when you’re going to work on something, to know that history before you go beyond it.
M: That’s something that I both think about a lot and struggle with, because I think nostalgia can be a big rabbit hole. How do you have, or how do you live with, a history and act around a history while not saying it’s better or worse, or you know, any of those things? What are the ways that we can just exist with these histories? I do think craft is one of those ways. It’s a very direct connection.
S: When you’re learning the weave structure, historically, you’re also learning about the people, and everything that was going on around them. It’s not just that narrow focus of weaving; you’re learning an overview of that particular period of time and what the folks were about and what was important to them. You’re using weaving or textiles as the focus, but yet, it’s not this narrow focus with blinders on.
M: It’s kind of like a conduit. to look at people through the things that they make.
S: It’s a symbol. Yeah, I just find that fascinating. And so, in writing this book, the focus was tape. But I was incorporating a lot of what I learned about Pennsylvania German history into that, and that was important. I know one of your questions had to do with something about other kinds of inherited learning?
M: Yeah! If you’d like to talk about that one, that would be a good transition.
S: Well, I was thinking of my mother. My mother’s father worked in a weaving textile mill, and he was just there for the machinery. He wasn’t really into the craft. But my mother has always been… she’s always been very creative. She was always a really good seamstress. She would buy her material, make her suits, and then she would go out and buy the accessories: the hat and the handbag, and the shoes to go with it. You know, the colors and everything back in the 50s and 60s. She was very good that way and a phenomenal designer: she’d upholster her own furniture, you know, stuff that I wouldn’t even attempt. I’m really bad on the sewing machine, which is where I have to do all my finishing work, and I cringe when I get off the loom and have to finish with hemming and all for handbags. But she has really been my role model, just from watching her. And I guess I took one step backwards and went into the world of weaving, creating the fabric, and she would do things with the fabric. I remember when I first bought my 42 inch floor loom—I had no clue what to do with it. I didn’t know whether it was a good loom or not, but I bought it from a farmer’s wife: she sold it quite reasonably to me. I came with all this 8/2 cotton thread, so I put the whole width of the warp on the loom—the whole width of the loom was warped up with this cream colored cotton thread, and I wove curtain material. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had no fear in me! I just did it. And I always think back on that, and it’s like you had got to have been crazy, Susan, but it worked! And so, bottom line is, I made a beautiful fabric: cotton fabric. The weft had some slub in it, so it had some interest, and (I) took it off the loom. And then I realized there is no way I could possibly make curtains out of this! I made the fabric, but I can’t do anything with it. I could not cut into it! So I gave it to my mother and she turned my fabric into beautiful curtains. And it was just wonderful. I guess I inherited that little bit from my mother, you know, how to examine fabric and play with it, then creating it.
M: Right. That’s an interesting lineage too, because you identified stepping back in the process to the fabric itself, but you can also see how (the two parts of the process) interact and how the ways that you learned about fabric before inform what you’re doing now.
S: I had never really thought of it that way before. (I’ve) never thought of my mother and having that much influence, but then I started really thinking: it was definitely there.
M: A lot of what I’m thinking about is how to talk about and how to make sense of these relationships, like you just described with your mother, acknowledging the connections in ways that aren’t just related to the pristine craft object where it’s like, “I learned this from this person,” or all of those direct lineages. There’s also indirect things at play that we don’t often see (clearly). If it’s not being passed down through oral tradition, is it changing?
S: Well, it is and it isn’t. You know, you can still make the tape from my traditional tape patterns. But that’s why, in the book, I have the history and the tradition in the front and then (in) the back is contemporary. And I did that on purpose so that you would be able to take it and go with it. It isn’t changing, because it looks just the same, you know. But yes, it’s changing as far as the colors and patterns and things like that. I don’t quite know how to answer that.
M: I don’t quite know how to answer it myself. I guess this is one of the questions that I try to bring in to conversations like this every once in a while, so maybe I can get a little closer, you know what I mean?
S: If you’re not learning it by the oral tradition way, if you’re learning the “how-to,” that would be the same as (being) curled up with your mother for years and learning how to do it with your sister or something. But you’re not learning any kind of little shortcuts, or tips that they would have been expressed in the oral tradition. So the change would be in the loss of some of the finer techniques, maybe, or in the spinning of the fiber. It’s being changed by not having all of that, and having to sort of pick up the pieces and go on. And that’s the sadness of oral traditions is that you’re losing some of the knowledge because it’s not documented. But you do the best you can, and hope that your reproductions are adequate.
M: And maybe it didn’t want to be preserved.
S: You know, I have some of my own pieces of tape, and some of them are from that period. And you can almost tell, I mean, sometimes they get a little wobbly… and you can sort of tell that maybe someone else was taking over on the loom. And this is one of the most beautiful things about tape weaving. A loom, in weaving, it’s a private thing. You work up your loom and you weave what you want to weave – it’s all you. But with the tape weaving, the beauty of the tape loom is that it is not just for one person: it’s all different people in the family that were weaving the tape. And to me that is just phenomenal! With a tape weaving, you had a bunch of different people weaving that length of tape. It wasn’t just one person as a tape weaver; that wasn’t their one chore. And so, to me, that was just an amazing concept: more than one person was weaving that piece of tape and you can’t really identify how much did one person do, before (they) got off the loom to do other chores, and someone else got on it later – if it’s raining or whatever, moving inside the house. You just have no clue. And to me, that makes it magical because it wasn’t just one person.
M: That’s a beautiful thought.
S: It was a shared piece of tape. It could have been one person, it could have been two, it could have been many people working on that because they were weaving yardage. They weren’t just weaving a couple of feet – they would put a huge warp on their loom, especially on the standing looms, and then weave it off. Not all at once, (but) whenever they had a free moment: so it was a continuous project.
M: Yeah, and it’s connective: it’s like connective tissue between people. Then and also now.
S: It’s very social, you know: tape has so many people’s hands in it. People have different tension; everyone weaves a little differently. That was something that I would always think about when I was weaving tape at Landis Valley, before a lot of visitors would come in. When I would be on these old historical looms, by myself, and (my) mind starts wandering and wondering about who was weaving, what was the purpose, (and) who was it going to be used for. There’s just so many questions out there: unanswered questions. But I think it’s beautiful to have unanswered questions.
MARY OLIN GEIGER (Mo) makes collaborative artworks, theater, performance, and the materials that live within those worlds and at their intersections. She is an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Program. For more information, visit mogeiger.com
SUSAN FAULKNER WEAVER has been weaving and teaching hand weaving workshops for almost 30 years. She began her studies at The Mannings Handweaving School in East Berlin, PA. Susan worked for a number of years as a Textile Educator and Demonstrator at Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, a PA German Living History Museum in Lancaster, PA. She is a member of the Central PA Guild of Craftsmen, as well as a Heritage Crafter in Lancaster. Her weavings are sold regionally.
Weaver, Susan F. Handwoven Tape: Understanding and Weaving Early American and Contemporary Tape. Atglen, PA. Schiffer Publishing, 2016.
Afro Contemporary Art Class at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School:
A Flexible and Responsive Pedagogical Approach
to Teaching Cultural Content to Young People
Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.
The Afro Contemporary Art Class (ACAC) is an artist project that I teach at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in North East Portland. The mission of the ACAC is to help young people of African descent to learn more about the histories and contemporary contexts that shape their lives, culture, and social realities. These ideas are explored through the study of contemporary artists and creatives as a conduit to—and a lens for—thinking through a range of experiences related to the African diaspora. The investigations begin with presenting an artist’s work to the class, teasing out the underlying contexts in the work, and then learning about the people, events, and outcomes surrounding those contexts. Then we engage in discussion, the reproduction of artworks, and embodiment of activities related to the various courses of study.
I attended the first session of the Afro Contemporary Art Class armed to the teeth and ready to teach. Much to my surprise, and matching a range of my initial expectations, the level at which I had prepared myself greatly exceeded what could be dispensed and or absorbed by those in the class. Also matching my expectation, the class, its participants, and the deploying content were all benefited by being sensitive to the room. And, that while beneficial, the amount of preparation I had projected for myself, became more about and for myself, than it was for the participants in the class. I found that while the content is heavy, significant, and nuanced, that the young folks’ inquiries were never what I had anticipated, and being responsive to their experience became complementary to their way of learning and the unfurling of my own personal discovery of the black experience. In essence, the search was the lesson, for all of us.
I had prepared a syllabus of questions as a way of exploring what I didn’t know, or what I was curious to learn, by teaching the class.
The following is a short excerpt from an interview with Paige Thomas, the primary staff helping to facilitate ACAC programming at MLK Jr. school, followed by the original syllabus of questions I had created along with some questions added by the students on our first day.
So that brings me to the next question. I approached this class with a syllabus of questions with the inquiries I was reflecting on as I got ready to teach the class. This was the only syllabus for the class, there was no, first we’ll do this next we’ll do that. And I’m curious, again, leveraging your awareness of approaching a class with a syllabus or even the very strict guidelines of a primary school teacher. What are your thoughts about this?
So you know that our school we’re a International Baccalaureate at Dr. King school, so one of the founding principles of an international baccalaureate education, it’s inquiry based learning, right? So it’s really guided by and shaped by kids. So you might have some overarching questions, but really you want kids to develop those questions andpursue the things that they’re interested in so that they are the agents of their own learning, and that they are invested in their own learning. They are the ones that are directing what that is. And that gives power to the kids, which especially for our kids [at King] that maybe don’t always see themselves represented in any kind of school culture. And like you were saying many who don’t necessarily fit into that traditional mold of school. That structure is perfect for them, which is why we wanted to have this opportunity for our students so that they have another way to experience learning and to make them feel like they were the agents in their own learning and that they had a lot of voice and choice and power in how they get to how they get to engage in their academics. While also having it be a different experience than perhaps what they have in other parts of their day. So I think that structure is really powerful.
Yeah, it’s interesting given that King school is an IB school. Are there ways that you see that this class was distinctly different? Because if you’re saying I leveraged an inquiry based method which I would never have claimed knowingly, but that the school is also already doing that.
Yeah, you know, in classrooms we can let kids ask questions, but we also are mandated by state and national standards to make sure we get through a prescribed amount of curriculum or some prescribed standards. So I think that the way that you had inquiry, it was much more open ended and it was much more responsive to kids needs and to kids experiences.
Afro Contemporary Art Class Syllabus of Questions
By Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.
Why is it important to study Black history?
What is Black history?
How does one separate or manage the trauma from learning the complexities of Afro history?
Can Afro history be taught by examining the work of contemporary artists?
Is it possible to learn Afro history guided by the inquiries of young people?
How much is too much to learn for a young person?
What proportion of good to challenging content is appropriate?
When does African history become African American history?
What parts of Afro history are important to include to help a young person understand contemporary contexts?
Who are the most important people in Afro culture to include?
Is Afrofuturism a part of Afro history?
What does Afro history include?
Which history is more important, Local or Global?
Is it important to include Afro histories from all continents?
What is Black Thought?
What is a black identity?
What is Black Activism?
What is gender in the black community? Is it different that it is in a non-black context?
Where does the mixed race experience fit into Black History?
Is learning the history of your own family constitute as Black History?
What are the differences between Black History, African American History, and African History?
Afro Contemporary Art Class Syllabus of Questions
By the students
Why do artists do things?
Isn’t it important to include EVERYONE in the study of Afro history?
Can one tell when they’re mixed?
Does it hurt when people of African Descent get culturally significant piercings?
Are Michael’s piercings culturally significant?
Does Michael’s tattoos represent African History?
Does Michael’s shirt represent this class? What we’re learning about?
Was Dread Scott named after Dred Scott?
Why was Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated?
Trans Boxing Conceptual Exercises
Trans Boxing is an art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people. Over the past three years we have developed a praxis that is experimental, disciplined, and responsive. The educational components of the project extend beyond what is typically experienced in most boxing clubs. In addition to providing high-level boxing training to groups who have been traditionally excluded from the sport, we have facilitated education for our partner gyms around trans and gender inclusive practices, provided teaching opportunities for participants, and have given lectures about our work across the country. Myself, my collaborators (Hill Donnell and Liv Adler) and the participants of the project also informally educate others–– family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues–– in an ongoing way, through casual conversation. Trans Boxing functions as a medium through which to engage in dialogue about broad complicated topics like inequity, gender, inclusion, history, power, and accessibility. This mediation has given me the ability to talk about my own personal experiences indirectly, and has allowed me to use metaphors and symbols to explore these experiences.
The practice of gender and the practice of boxing mirror each other: they both represent a discipline which is created through the repetition of embodied gestures and actions. Over time, the accumulation of these actions results in the formation of a cohesive subjectivity. The self– as theorized by John Dewey, one of the founders of Pragmatism–is an organization of habits, that is always in relationship to its particular situation, or context.
My in-progress project, Trans Boxing Conceptual Exercises, uses the rituals of boxing training to explore this relationship between the self and its context. In the project, participants are invited to follow a set of instructions and submit documentation of completed “exercises” which formalize the rituals of boxing training. The project serves as an educational resource, providing practical and useful information for a wide audience, while also re-claiming the day-to-day practices of the boxer and framing them as conceptual works in and of themselves.
The instructions included in this project support a pragmatic approach which facilitates embodied knowledge, inquiry, and experiential learning. The exercises can all be done at home or in your neighborhood using ordinary materials. In addition to the educational potential of the exercises, through representing their own experiences and presenting it to a wider audience, participants also occupy the role of the teacher. This, along with the documentation, installation, and distribution of the work will further expand the pedagogical potential of the project.
Throw These Punches: Jab, Jab, Cross, Hook, Cross, Hook.
Make a video (10-20 seconds or so) of yourself doing the following combination: 1-1-2-3-2-3. (1=jab, 2=cross, 3=hook) The video does not have to include your face, or even your hands, but some part of your body should be included in the shot. The video can be edited/cropped.
Make a Slip Bag
A slip bag is a small, weighted bag which hangs at eye-level and swings in a pendulum-like motion. The bag is used primarily to practice bobbing, weaving, and slipping punches. The instructions for this exercise are to make a home-made slip bag and install it in your bedroom. Take a photograph of the slip bag with the flash on. The slip bag should be the main object of focus. List the materials used.
Take an Epsom Salt Bath
After a workout, take a bath with Epsom salt. If you have a fan in your bathroom, turn it off so that the room can fill with steam. The bathwater should be hot. As the tub is filling up, pour in 4-5 pounds of Epsom salt. Run your hand through the water to break up any clumps and to make sure the salt has fully dissolved. After you’re done with your bath, and before your drain the tub, take a photograph.
Shadowbox in a Public Place.
Find a location in your neighborhood that is traditionally busy, with pedestrians, shoppers, people waiting for the bus, etc. Shadowbox for 3 minutes. Leave. Record the date, time, and location where the action took place.
Teach Someone How to Throw a Jab.
This can be done through in-person or virtual instruction. After some practice, ask the person you taught to send you a short (1-3 paragraph) written reflection of their experience.
Take a Picture of the Inside of Your Glove.
The photo should only include the interior of the glove and should be taken with the flash on.
- Make a Slip Bag (tennis ball, sock, handwrap, curtain rod) Ada Jane McNulty, New York, NY. 2020.
- Take a Picture of the Inside of Your Glove. Liv Adler, Brooklyn, NY. 2020.
- Throw These Punches: Jab, Jab, Cross, Hook, Cross. Kerry Thomas, Long Island, NY. 2020.
Remote Learning Amongst COVID-19
Winter term concluded with uncertainty. Over spring break, news surfaced that spring term would be taught remotely; this affected me both as a student, educator, and as an artist. My first independent teaching opportunity was about to begin, teaching Introduction to Sculpture at Portland State University. I never questioned if teaching sculpture online was possible; I was excited about offering tactile experiences, using everyday materials, and offering new skill sets from the comfort of home. Looking back on my education, I always felt empowered and inspired when I utilized the techniques I learned at school in my daily life. Twelve students enrolled in the class; I began by sending a survey to learn about their situations, desires, and accessibility. I learned that everyone wanted to work with clay, apply various building techniques, and work together; I designed my syllabus in response to the feedback.
I talked with various faculty across multiple universities and departments to discuss the possibilities that this time held. Collectively, we jumped into the term aware of our shared emotions, restrictions, and dedication to our fields. I learned that many sculpture classes were cancelled due to material and space restrictions. Critiques were addressed with various alternative approaches. Individual meetings became more frequent, and education became more individualized to student needs. Physical learning experiences became more focused on verbal communication. Adjustments were made on a whim and the majority of classes responded in the moment.
Internal dialogues between myself as a student and as an educator have impacted my experiences navigating online learning environments immensely. As a student, I am able to experience multiple different approaches to remote learning and respond to what is working and what may not be. I was able to shape my own class in response to my experiences in multiple online classrooms.
As a student, the term began quite overwhelmingly. I felt concerned about what I would be able to get out of school without being present with my cohort. As an educator, I wanted to do anything I could to assure that taking our online class would not affect their educational path and program curriculum. Being in both of these roles simultaneously influenced one another. The dedication and motivation I see in my students aided in my own motivation for my own homework.
Since our critiques rely heavily on documentation, I used this opportunity to focus on the importance of quality documentation. Students were creating strong sculptural work from their homes and I found it really important to consider presentation and place. Some students incorporated their homes as an essential element to the work and some students camouflaged their homes to provide clean backgrounds.
Drue Kutka is a second year student pursuing their BFA in Art Practice. They have shown great enthusiasm, dedication, and innovation during the stay-at-home-order. Within the following conversation, Drue and I discussed the decisions behind a recent project and the challenges and benefits of working creatively from home.
Emma Duehr: Throughout the course of our term together so far, you created a couple works in response to COVID-19 safety restrictions. How has the coronavirus impacted the work you are creating?
Drue Kutka: The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced my daily life to the point where it’s impossible to not think about it over the course of the day. When I leave the house it isn’t just keys and wallet, there’s a mask on that checklist now, too. I think that the coronavirus has impacted my work the same as any event within my life would have, it’s just one of the things I think about most right now, so I’ve aimed to express my thoughts and feelings surrounding it through some of my art.
ED: Can you share the inspiration for your work in our most recent body casting project? What was this process like for you?
DK: The body casting process was one of trial and error. The overall process of creating the cast is one I feel I learned a lot from that will be applicable when thinking about how to use a 3-D space. Given the chance to cast a piece of myself I found it fitting to create a piece that focused on how I was feeling, it felt very personal to use a copy of a part of me. I wanted to create something that looked so much bigger than it actually was, in order to describe the feeling of being trapped by the garbage I create. That pose of reaching up evokes a sense of helplessness, one where people can feel the body’s inability to escape, reaching out of something is a last ditch effort crying out for help. The garbage used in the piece is all garbage I created and chose to use as I found the single use items present throughout the piece to be overly wasteful. I don’t think it would have read the same had I used garbage I didn’t create. ( See Image )
ED: What are some of the challenges you have faced over this term due to Remote Education? What are some of the benefits?
DK: Other than that I’ve found this term of remote learning to be much more beneficial than not, it has allowed me to create larger pieces than I think I would’ve been able to had I been going between two locations. I’ve enjoyed the chance to work at more of my own pace. Having the space I live in turned into the classroom has allowed me to continue working on projects at times that class would not have, whether that be first thing in the morning or after campus buildings would have been closed. Although, it can be tough to really focus on classwork when home is the classroom setting, sitting down and working on a project or assignment for a couple hours can feel nearly impossible when you’re the only one in the space working on something. In addition, tutorials on how to use materials can prove difficult, it has been interesting to try new materials and not be able to ask questions as I am doing so.
With three weeks left in the term I continued to reflect, notice, and respond to the situation and changes happening daily. Below are questions I asked various educators and their responses.
Why is education important during this time we are currently experiencing? For yourself and for your students.
Lucy Cotter: I couldn’t imagine forging ahead with ‘education’ right now if that meant teaching a preconceived curriculum with little or no space for the particularity of this moment. This pandemic will no doubt have an impact on our lives, on our educational institutions, and on the sectors in which we work for several years, and in some cases permanently. I appreciate that education provides a forum and platform to digest the changes as they are happening, to look forward collectively, and to break what is for many people a time of social isolation in positive and constructive ways. Teaching is always meaningful, but now more than ever.
Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.: I think education is always important, however I find that this time is maybe… less important to focus on traditional education outputs. I think we have an opportunity to rethink what we want education to look like, but I feel like the importance of maintaining it during a pandemic is maybe less important.
Roz Cruz: I’m finding that people are learning new things that might not have been possible before. The kids I’m working with are spending way more time with their parents, learning about their habits and rituals in a way that wasn’t possible when k-12 school was in session. I really like that.
Michelle Illuminato: The truth of the matters is that this is a time where I am doing everything I can to keep students in school because of this situation. If they’re in class, there is creative activity and a group of people outside of their family that cares about what they’re doing. I’m there to give another layer of support. This is a time that I really feel that I am shifting some of my approach by saying, “What can I do to help you?” If we can help the students to be successful, in whatever way that means right now, that is what is important.
Do you think the forced term of remote education will have a long term impact on your teaching and art school structures?
Jason Stecklein: I have been forced to use many forms and tools for teaching that I never would have if not for this situation.
MI: I am thankful I got this glimpse into a very different way of teaching, a different perspective, especially one that is so directly opposed to my normal mode. It’s very personal too, being at home. Students see me in my living space. I see theirs. I feel like I know them more personally. I have been doing short individual meetings each week. These are more productive than my individual meetings in the classroom, and I might just keep doing them this way. I’m also learning new ways to create community, like Zoom chat rooms and Flipgrid for students to share and critique their creative work.
LC: I do think it will have an impact on art school structures. Businesses are currently noticing that they have cut costs by having workers work from home. As the educational institutions grapple with their own financial insecurity, it is likely that some of the current “temporary”. structural changes will remain for the longer term. I will certainly remember this period of teaching, but it’s too early to tell whether or how it will impact my teaching in the long term.”
AMBSJ: I think for me I’ve really realized that education is an exciting avenue for me and if teaching remains online, or not, I have a strong presence in an online format and am looking forward to seeing what kinds of opportunities I can leverage that being the case.
RC: Yeah, I think so. I’m not teaching at the college level right now, but I started teaching an online drawing class for people between the age of 3 and 150. It’s taught me that I don’t necessarily need the institution to do what I want to do…so I’m pretty excited about that.”
Have you altered your expectations from your students?
RC: Definitely – I never really cared about grades (I went to a college without grades), but now I’m more adamantly opposed to the grading system. I believe it’s truly harmful, and I think the process of grading is way too motivated by a teacher’s egos.
AMBSJ: I had always intended to subvert the traditional structure by telling all the students they were getting A’s in the class, and that it was their responsibility to show up to class and help to build the collaborative community. I think that I approached it exactly the same, but everyone has realized how important it is to help hold the space of class. I have been intentional to be direct about expectations and how they are NOT designed around fulfilling the assignment. How they’re specifically designed to help them in their own practices and that their investment.
LC: I’ve been very aware of the heightened mental health challenges brought about by the quarantine, which has altered my approach to my students somewhat. I see that some students need extra support and material to work with to help keep up their motivation, and others may not be able to achieve the mindset to do focused work. I have tried to make space for these different states of mind and to provide individualization as well as group learning to make even more space than usual for individual concerns and questions.
From your experience so far, how has COVID-19 affected what elements of life to bring into the class? How has remote education expanded or reduced the conversations?
AMBSJ: The shift to a completely online format is certainly different than what was originally planned for my class “Object and Social Context,” however we’ve been able to stay engaged as a class and produce meaningful connections and new work. The format for how the work is being produced has shifted slightly and opened broadly to center the individual making practices of all the different students in class.
LC: I have consciously expanded conversations to allow more space than usual to address how this moment in time produces the conditions in which we discuss, consider ideas, and engage with materials. I feel that this has expanded the conversation in a number of ways. However, not meeting new students in person has also had its limits. The things which do not happen as a result are more elusive but still palpable to me as an experienced teacher and presumably also to the students themselves.
What alterations have you made to your curriculum that are creating an exciting alternative? How has this time affected your prior approach?
RC: Everything is much more open-ended than I would do in a university setting, and I think I’ll bring this back into the university with me when I return.
JS: The videos that I produce can incorporate interesting simulations and visualizations that we would not have easily had access to in in-person classrooms.
LC: I have introduced some topics that would normally not be an area of focus in my classes, which I feel are important facets of the pandemic and quarantine experience. I have also tried to acknowledge my own challenges during the quarantine to keep the frame of conversation as horizontal as possible. In my view theory necessarily comes from daily life and always remains in dynamic relation to the everyday. As we are in the midst of a phenomenon that is unprecedented it’s exciting to make that fact especially palpable for the students. We all know that the thinking we are doing has not been done before. Theory is unfolding as we think through this experience and try to articulate it to ourselves and others.
I am really grateful for the opportunity to teach a class remotely, as it may have never been an experience I would have been offered from an institution. My experience throughout this period will impact future teaching opportunities. Of many, one major take-away from this experience is experiencing the importance of community within the classroom. Nurturing the community between people in a class has cultivated intimate connections through this period. Responding to our situations together has helped build deeper connections with classmates, students, and educators.
no one (except one adult) said, “I’ve learned to draw better:” what really matters in a drawing class
When the crisis caused by Covid-19 erupted, my work as an adjunct professor was ending, and my freelance projects suddenly dried up. Before quarantine, I worked in an elementary school as part of the artist-run King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), where for almost two years, I taught an experiential class about curation for fourth and fifth graders. At KSMoCA we work intergenerationally in a K-5 public school with kids, college students, teachers, and administrators, seeking innovative ways to integrate contemporary art into the daily lives of elementary students. A friend suggested that I try teaching online classes for kids since everyone would be out of school. In an attempt to quickly scrounge together an income, I decided to pursue the dream I had set aside years before: to teach a “drawing class.” An online group formed under the guise of drawing, focused on imagination and problem solving—skills that will surely be necessary in the aftermath of the global pandemic. Because I missed my undergraduate students so much and I was seeking ways to stay connected to friends and family across the world, I decided to open the class for people of all ages. To bring together a diverse and dispersed group of people in a time when the phrase “social distancing” was becoming normal felt like the most immediately helpful thing I could do.
Considering the circumstances and my proclivity towards depression, especially in times of uncertainty, I knew that I would have to find a way to make the “class” very enjoyable for myself. For that, casualness and experimentation are key. To help prevent the wrong kind of expectations, I decided to call it Drawing Time—just a time to draw. I advertised the meeting times on social media, and I sent it to my email list, asking for an optional $1-$20 per session. It was really important to me that anyone could participate, so I let people know directly that if cash were tight, please don’t pay! Just come and participate. Next thing I knew, the Zoom window was filled with mothers and their children, design professionals from India and Panama, college students from past classes and projects, and artists seeking companionship. The ages of participants ranged from 3 to 75.
People in the drawing class have expressed pure delight in learning and drawing alongside such an age-diverse group. It’s a novel experience because so often in the United States, we’re segregated by age—in school and beyond. Typically, we think of “peers” as being people with similar ages, but I’ve been really inspired by the way the group has adopted each other as peers despite their differences in age. About a year ago, I met Alan DeLaTorre, a coordinator at the Senior Adult Learning Center at PSU, which works with the university to allow senior auditors to enroll in almost any one of Portland State’s nearly 5,000 classes. I was really impressed with Alan’s commitment to raising awareness about the benefits of pedagogies that embrace learners of all ages, so I reached out to see if he could offer any insights for this essay. He now works as the Age-Friendly Cities program manager in the City of Portland Oregon Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and in response to a question about the value of intergenerational education, he explained the important positive impact of people learning from the unique experiences of different generations and the way that experience can help combat generational conflict. He referenced a variety of outcomes including: improved well-being, self-esteem and health; development of stronger links to the community; improved interpersonal skills and communication abilities; and increased knowledge and understanding of life-long career environments. Despite all these benefits, he also acknowledged that systems of age segregation and perceived or real generational conflict can be major challenges to this type of education.
In the early weeks of Drawing Time, I found it really challenging to make an hour long class interesting for people with widely different backgrounds, experiences, vocabularies, interests, and desires. I realized quickly that I wouldn’t be able to make the class everything that everyone wanted it to be, so I had to narrow in on what I wanted it to be and define that clearly for external audiences. I decided on a format that privileges the younger drawers with the majority of the class spent on short, strange prompts designed to get people thinking and drawing in ways outside of their norm. Because the participants change daily, I try to always remind people that anyone under the age of 14 takes priority in the class, and when we’re sharing about our work, the younger folks always get to go first. I think it brings awareness to the adults that kids have equal amounts if not more to offer in this setting. I found my adult friends positively responding to the first few “lectures” I gave as introductions to the content that would be explored via prompts in each class. Some early examples of these lectures included: a brief overview of my favorite cartoon characters; an explanation of how various games and toys like Polly Pockets, Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and doll houses have influenced my drawing style; drawings of and in kitchens with examples by Annie Pootoogook and David Hockney; portraiture but through the lens of pareidolia featuring a discussion of paintings by artists like Laylah Ali and Heidi Howard; and abstract emotions with a focused analysis of Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out. I love preparing and researching these talks, but I try to keep them short so I don’t bore everyone.
I sent a questionnaire to a variety of regulars, some of whom I’ve known for a long time, like my mom (age 60), and others who I met through the group, like Raizel (age 6). Everyone that I surveyed agreed, learning together with adults and kids is “cool.” Raizel said, “It’s cool! Cuz in normal schools you have to be in a certain grade to be in the class. [Learning alongside adults] makes me feel more grown up.” Her mom, Amy Beedon, who typically works on her computer while Raizel’s in class, noted that she sees her daughter acting independently and sharing confidently with the group. Maggie Heath, an adult multi-disciplinary artist and arts administrator said:
Working with the younger students is totally beneficial. I feel like I am able to give myself permission to get weird. Maybe it is a “you don’t need to try as hard” to be perfect or smart or be better than others, because you are not in competition…and in turn it allows me to activate my creative potential more genuinely. I’m amazed by the creativity that young kids have, and being around them lets me get back to my own. Maybe for adults, being in a class as a peer with a child allows us to go back to childhood and be less serious. And maybe for children it makes them try to take themselves more seriously, or to try in a different way when there are different skills or thought processes that are not child-like, but are being explained in ways by adults that are accessible to all levels.
Most of the adults shared sentiment similar to Maggie’s, emphasizing the way working alongside kids has challenged their typical process or experience of “negative self-talk” during artmaking. I think the class paves the way for people to break down their own barriers in a creative process they’re developing for themselves. When I asked people to remark on what they’ve learned from the class, no one (except one adult) said, “I’ve learned to draw better.” Instead, people discussed the ways they’ve become more open-minded, found community, discovered artists who were left out of their art history lessons, loosened up their idea of what constitutes a drawing, discovered new approaches to quickly expressing thoughts through drawing, realized the way drawing can express emotions, and observed ways that art and critical theory can enter into discourse designed for kids and adults by refusing academic jargon and “art-talk.”
By rejecting typical norms of an art class, like offering critical feedback and teaching specific technical skills associated with drawing, I’m hoping to make space for people to develop their own style and process. In an anecdote from Lynne Werbel, she describes the way the class has helped her heal from past art education trauma:
I used to love drawing, until I was a Freshman in college, and took a drawing class. I was the only non-art major in the class, and the teacher would point to my work and say, “This is what we’re trying to avoid!” Needless to say, I dropped the class, and stopped drawing. Your class has allowed me to start enjoying making art again! Thank you!!
Hearing people’s reflections on the class and the way it has offered them a space to build confidence as an artist has made me very reflective about my own pedagogical practice. I’m asking myself, “What is the point of art education? How can I support people to become the artists they want to be? How can I acknowledge and respond to the various goals each artist has for their work in the course? And how can I inspire people to be more inquisitive, more willing to speak up, and more able to articulate their ideas through art?”
The work has also led me to a really critical realization which is that I want to encourage artists in my classes to refuse my assignments. Rather than encouraging people to strive towards mastery, or teaching that there is a hierarchy of techniques and approaches, my objective is to teach people how to think for themselves and design their own goals. In order to do that successfully, I have to support, embrace, and motivate people to break the rules. Maggie Heath reflects on this aspect of the class:
I had an art teacher as a child that told me not to worry—not everyone can be an artist. Sometimes I think about Mrs. Harla and I think about how much she missed the point of teaching art to young students. She had a rigid structure of what art was and if you didn’t fit into it, you didn’t flourish and you certainly wouldn’t be nurtured into flourishing. I thought of her when you said something like “So our next drawing is going to be 3 minutes and you are going to draw xyz. But you also don’t have to. You can break the rules. You can do the opposite. You can do x and z. Or you can also do nothing. It is up to you.” To give permission for rule breaking allows the students—both children and adults—to remember that deviating from the rules does not have to be considered deviant behavior. It is simply a different way to interpret what is in front of you. And it also implies choice for the student, which I think is huge.
In Drawing Time, I offer very specific prompts each day. Things like, “Draw three baby animals that you hand delivered” (based on a dream I had where my dog had puppies but one was a gray roach and the other was a tiny version of the pink Courage the Cowardly Dog) or “Draw many of your favorite animals cascading out of a basket” (borrowed from a scene I saw of a little girl in my neighborhood who was carrying a basket shaped like a rabbit filled with four tiny brown puppies). Both of these prompts came from a session that was simply about “Spring Scenes” inspired by my deep desire to feel positivity in a sea of quarantine dread. Most people drew the baby animals and the basket filled to the brim, but Moe (age 8) drew colorful spiral geodes. After each prompt, we usually hear from a few people about their drawings. This time Moe spoke a lot, and he described each new geode in relation to the prompt. For example, he said something to the effect of, “In this drawing, the reason you can’t see the basket handle is because you’re looking at the bottom of the basket and the animals are on the other side.” He had really great explanations of each drawing (which mostly all looked the same) that deeply related to the prompts. At that moment, I realized the class is for learning to talk about and describe your process and your practice. This is something I really value in art—hearing artists talk about their work—so I was excited to see it coming through in the class. Another attendee, Benjie (age 6), has a similar talent for explaining his drawings, and it was really exciting to watch the details grow in his work while his explanations became more and more elaborate each class. Moe and Benjie are exactly the kind of students I’m interested in teaching because they’re able to listen, refuse, imagine, produce, and offer new possibilities all at the same time.
Now that I’ve had the experience of organizing and developing my dream class with no syllabus, no burdensome grades, and no exorbitant tuition, I can’t really see how I’ll go back to the university and fit into such rigid structures prescribed for “learning.” I know that I’ll continue trying new ways to teach online because I’ve really enjoyed having people together in a shared space despite being hundreds and thousands of miles apart. I’m sure that I’ll use this experience to stay closer to my own flexibility and responsiveness. With so much freedom to experiment and explore various approaches and formats within a tight framework (1 hour, twice a week, rotating cast of classmates), I’ve grown more resilient and assured in my approach. I also feel grateful for the opportunity to work with people who genuinely want to be there—in fact, that’s probably my favorite take away from the “class” so far. After this experience, as a student, I will never again attend a class that I don’t want to be part of. Learning and teaching are so joyous when the participants are willing to check in with themselves and each other to see how things are going. If they should shift, then they shift! To be able to integrate my life and interests so deeply into my teaching practice and share that with a willing audience is a true pleasure. If you’re currently enrolled in a class that you hate attending, please get out.
Roz Crews is an artist who makes work about education, friendship, and community-formation. She teaches research and social practice classes at Portland State University, and during Covid-19 quarantine, she’s teaching an intergenerational drawing class on Zoom. She’s a program manager at the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, a museum inside a functioning K-5 public school, where she curates a public lecture series, edits publications, and organizes exhibitions with the Student Curatorial Committee made up of 4th and 5th graders.
Water & Nature as Education
Brianna Ortega with Jobi Manson
Brianna: So I just wanted to first ask you can you tell me a little bit about your past history leading up to your practice with Sēfari And what on your journey has led you to focusing on nature?
Jobi: I would say that nature has always been my place of refuge, and it was always the space where I could go to be myself and let all my cares drift away. Nature has always been my canvas, for me to explore myself, and for me to express myself, and most importantly for me to find myself. So in that way, it is something I have been in relationship with my whole life very intimately and very wholeheartedly. I grew up on the easter shoreline of Maryland, so my backyard was the Chesapeake Bay, and it was this kind of nautical undertone, where the waterline had started before I was born and has carried with me through life. I grew up on the Bay. I spent so much time as a child walking the beaches in search of the perfect stone, that is the most beautiful and radiant color green and nature was always a place that satiated my limitless curiosity.
Brianna: So I was curious at what point did you know you wanted to share this with other people and invite other people to this immerse learning experience?
Jobi: That turning point for me happened after I graduated from the Hoffman Process, that was the first time I had ever been introduced into very tactical practices of exploring the way my mind worked. What motivated my creation of Sēfari was to help people reconnect to the physical sensation of being alive so they could perhaps make different choices that were more balanced, that were more harmonized with the world we share with a lot of people and other organisms and creators. It was an effort to help reestablish sensory connection in our bodies and create a practice that allows people to be with their entire emotional spectrime so that they may inhabit their lives very differently and what that would create a foundation for in terms of possibility. Does that make sense?
Brianna: Yeah that makes sense. Creating a space for people then they can go back out into the world and have a new awareness of how they fit into collective society
Jobi: Yeah to help people gain a sense of self and not just self of sense from a physiological standpoint not only just a mindfulness, but also more holistic embodiment of one’s life, one’s embodiment, and one’s relationship to the natural world. If you can’t feel that relationship, then you are disconnected from it. If you are disconnected from anything, it is impossible to feel, and when it’s impossible to feel it is much more challenging to consider the realm of others’ experience beyond our own. It’s essentially a technique that is created, crafted, and designed to help people move beyond social paralysis.
It is to bring people back to themselves and bring people back to nature. That is the simple of it. And where did it begin? It began with awareness and understanding how important that is as a tool to navigate life.
Brianna: How does slowing down in noticing become part of your practice in all of this?
Jobi: I have this thought that came to me about two weeks ago around slowness, and in my work I love to explore language and how language shapes our understanding of reality and then I think about how different aspects of life speak different languages and to me the language of nature is in its most pure form is pure vibration, pure movement. So in order to experience communication from nature we have to slow down to nature’s pace. Nature moves very differently in time than we do, There is a very different relationship to time in nature, time moves in cycles of repetition and evolution and slowness to me feels like the hidden discipline of grace and how majesty and of reception and of listening. To me slowness required in order to perceive the really dynamic spectrum that nature speaks to us through, with, and in.
Brianna: It’s interesting how so much of what we can learn can only happen through slowing down.
Jobi: I can remember how I struggled as a little kid. Math was so hard for me to learn it was so hard for many reasons. Part of that was because at that time I had so much difficulty focusing and I wasn’t able to establish for myself a foundation understanding for myself the language of numbers, and so what happens when you miss core elements of the learning process it makes it very difficult for you to build on those things. For me slowing down in anything that I am doing, but very specifically if I am trying to listen to the natural world, is a way for me to both deconstruct and focus on one thing at a time rather than be overwhelmed by many different things happening simultaneously. This is the nature of nature. When we slow down, we are able to decontract the intricate process that is happening all around us. When we can hold our attention in that way, we are led to places unexpected and unknown. Slowness is a gateway to original discovery and a necessary byproduct of cultivating a relationship with nature. Whether we choose to, there are so many different mediums to reference here to talk about means to witness the processes of nature. The most obvious is to become a gardener or be a farmer, you are very much tied to the cycle of transformation and how different stages have very particular process associated with them. Well, our lives are no different. We are nature.
We–physiologically, emotionally, spiritually, physically–are always undergoing these transformations and these cycles and we return to everything with fresh eyes. Over and over again. That is the process of integration and of holistic materations, but so many of us are disconnected. Even if you just think about living out here in Los Angeles, California. California doesn’t have the same kind of seasonality that other places and landscapes possess and we are always in this state of the harvest. The summertime, the sunshine–there is a certain climate that that breeds and it can be heatnistic if it is not kept in check. It’s not possible to always be in creative conceptualization and dreamtime, and I am talking more about the cultural and social implications of cycles. Different places have different nature and how does that nature shape the conversation of the cultural and social functions and the way that that space moves. Different places are known for different things. Los Angeles is known as this story time and this infinite dreamland, but what does that mean when you live here and you are building relationships with people it’s actually really interesting. People can seem over idealistic, or naive, or have a childish sense of living. You look around and think there is an insane amount of wealth here, going beyond someone’s wildest dreams. I think that speaks to the landscape of inherited nature. I don’t think those things are not connected.
Brianna: I like how you are bringing that back to more of a climate scale on earth. I like the question, “How do some climates affect how we learn or get inspired?” because I have lived in many places with opposing climates.
Jobi: For me, I like to think about our emotional world or our inner landscape as very similar and connected to the weather. It is always changing, weather operates in certain climates, in certain cycles, in certain processes over particular landscapes. The landscape of our inner world is constructed of our narrative of our history. Our feelings are the weather that moves across that landscape when we are aware of the landscapes. We can better understand the cycles of emotional change, of emotional change, of weather change that are going to be present in particular territories.
It’s all connected right? We all have these, I think anybody who is an artist has an intimate relationship with nature. Nature provided the emotional support. Whatever structural safety was lacking nature filled that naturing role. So especially for artists, nature is quintessential in our lives because it taught us how to perceive our world and create our world through our senses. What we were seeing, what we were feeling, what we were tasting, what we were hearing, what we were touched by. Nature is the most profound artistic teacher there could be. It is like we are in this classroom of life being nurtured by the great mother herself. I think as we slow down and learn to watch and more important to listen and interpret those things that’s where our creative expression comes from, it is the synthesis of that process.
Brianna: Yeah so I want to loop back into speaking into your social practice with Sēfari inviting people to connect with nature in different ways to essentially learn about themselves through nature and things outside of themselves.
Jobi: It is meant to be both an inward and an outward exploration it is essential bringing them into the intersection of their perceptions, of their sensitives, and of their relationship to those things, and then using all of that as a catalyst to learn how to trust themselves beyond their fears and learned how to let go of perceived control. Learn how to really merge with the flow of life. Obviously water is the perfect medium and metaphor to catalis that sort of bond. I am interested in helping people move from their mind to into their heart space and into the vibrational connection we have with life around us because until we are anchored in that space we move very haphazardly. We move out of fear versus stillness.
Brianna: So comparing your practice to other forms of education in a classroom, how do you feel learning from nature and learning from water specifically is equally as valid as learning from humans?
Jobi: I think all human beings the way we learn or learn, teaching, and education is shared in the Western world is a very limited practice of interaction, with knowledge. I think that human beings learn most deeply through experience and through the creation of their own emotional imprint and or memory. The best way that I know how to learn for myself and the most impactful way is that I learn with longevity instead of an insitninatious burst of absorption that could potentially leave me. I am interested in helping someone create new memories, new acrutruaur, and new neurological thought patterns, I am interested in helping someone recircut the way their mind functions and to do that I need to do a few things.
In my practice, I have to create a container or I have to be in a structure where someone can feel completely safe. Until the mind is relaxed, the body is ready to respond. The body is in a sort of fight or flight mode. It is really important to create an environment where somebody is really relaxed, that is number one. Number two is that when somebody is learning new material for the first time, the more deeply their senses are immersed in that process, the more deeply their mind is going to create a deeper imprint of the memory. So sent, our senses are very interwoven inside of our brains with our memories and our memories is how we perceive time and space, meaning our relationship to whatever we are doing in that moment. So to me, the most powerful learning experiences are the ones that are most activated with our senses. So where does that happen? In nature. But where does that really happen? In water. So our senses inside of our brian were formed and created in a water environment inside of our mother’s womb. So our senses relax in water because they are safe, the return to a memory or an energetic imprint of safety in a way that no other environment can procure for us. So sensory learning is really powerful in water.
Brianna: Thanks for explaining that and how it all ties together. I think a lot of people don’t think about the scientific, or even biological, attributes of how they are navigating work. It is cool to hear that side of it.
Jobi: I am very interested in the longevity of learning and the anchoring of knowledge in my physical body so I can recall that information through a process of repetition. But also I want to be in the world of knowledge, not separate from it. Especially when I am in some sort of creative expression process. I want to be in those worlds, not an outsider.
Brianna: How would you consider using water as a form of education in traditional academia?
Jobi: I think there are so many ways of creating processes of using water to open the mind and body so that one may enter the space of intuitive creativity or instinctual creativity to me that is operating from a place of sensory awareness. That can be done, that is what I am learning right now among this time of covid. So much of what I have been proficisizing over the past 5 years since I have started this is “we need to be in nature” and yes that is true. That is an end goal for me, to live in harmony with tha and to help others embody those shifts as well but also more practically we can have different ways to incorporate the element water from a sensory perceptive without being fully immersed in it. Whether that is having some sort of practice, like a tea practice, we are in some way interacting with the element. Say we have water as a relational teacher in the room with us while we are creating. And I don’t know what that looks like, maybe that is a great tea practice, engaging with water, consuming and seeing how it moves within us. Maybe that’s painting to water color before going into a creative exercise. There are infinite ways of thinking about having a really creative relationship to water and how that opens spaces within us. I am very interested in implementing practices of water as a means to deepen, soften, and dynamically affect our creative process.
Brianna: Yeah, thank you.
Jobi: The most important thing to remember is that water as a medium is responsible for creating all life on the planet. As a chemical component or as a vessel for life to evolve everything originated and began in that space. So what could that have to teach us about water’s infinite creative potential. To know water is to know ourselves, our bodies, our water, our brains are 90% water. If we are not looking at water as a means to expand our creative perceptions, what the hell are we doing? Like to me that seems so obvious, but it is not obvious. It’s complicated. It’s complex. It is infinitely dynamic. It’s a countitive space of relativity. Water is so dynamic, and it is beyond our perceptions. But, in that way I think we can learn from it in ways we haven’t even begun to explore. That is what I am interested in.
Jobi: I think that that act of valuing one’s own experiential cultivations of knowledge versus learning from what others have learned. I think both are valuable, there are certain teachers, there are certain mentors, certain concepts that are fundamental that are pointing us in our path of individuation and integration creativity. All of those are foundationally important, but allowing oneself the space and value of one’s own learning process is more important. To understand how I perceive anything, whether it is a piece of information or whether it is slowing down to listen to the trees… I will remember it differently if I have my own original experience, not an purposed experience from someone else’s perceptions.
Educational Interaction Schemata