Research Is Constant

“Research has so much to do with agency, and whether or not you feel like you have the agency to research something a certain way, or to intervene in an institution. Agency has a lot to do with identity, privilege, and context.”

I​ ​have been a tertiary audience member to Roz Crews’ practice since beginning the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University, and have been influenced and driven by the work she has done with specific people and places. I appreciate her diverse practice which engages people across multiple aspects of life. She lets her research guide her experience facilitating projects within educational systems, traditional gallery environments, and other localized places. Her collaborative, self-initiated, and interdisciplinary work provides a great look into a socially engaged practice. I invited Roz to share her approach to research, mentorship, and teaching.

The following interview took place on November 16th, 2020 over Zoom, connecting Roz Crews in Florida and Emma Mitchell in Oregon.

Emma Mitchell: ​How would you describe what you do in one to two sentences?

Roz Crews:​ If you asked me this three or four weeks ago, my answer would have been so different. Right now, I would describe what I do every day as: I go to work at an elementary school, and I teach art to kindergarten, first, and second grade. I’m also an artist who studies education and research methods, and I think a lot about how institutions both support and oppress our drive to learn things. Now I’m kind of in this new phase of in-depth research as a full-time elementary art teacher in the same district where I went to public school as a kid.

Emma:​ I was excited to learn that a master’s degree from the PSU MFA Art & Social Practice program granted an opportunity to teach in early childhood education systems.

Roz: ​It’s shocking. It’s been such an interesting process and experience. When I first looked into getting certified by the state when I was offered the job, it seemed like they were not going to accept my degree as a Masters of Fine Art because my transcript didn’t include things like “painting” or
“sculpture”. It took a little bit of navigating, but I worked with an amazing person from the school board’s human resources department who is an expert about teacher certification regulations. He was immediately able to persuade the state officials. I just had to send in my transcripts, and let them know that in fact, it is an art degree even though I’m not a painter or a sculptor. That was a really insightful conversation to have with the certification person. I’m really glad that it worked, and I think so many opportunities will come from this.

Emma:​ What experiences of yours do you feel ended up qualifying you to teach more traditional art methods?

Roz:​ That’s so funny. I don’t necessarily have the “required” qualifications. I’ve always loved drawing and painting. I’ve always studied it on my own, and a little bit in college. I also learned a lot about object oriented art and performance while working as a curatorial assistant at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Kristan Kennedy was one of my mentors; she loves telling me about paintings and installations and sculptures, and I love asking her about them.

So, I have this casually acquired knowledge…plus, technically I have an MFA. Having an MFA qualifies me as an art teacher working “in my field.” Because I’ve taught college for a couple of years, that qualifies me for the general knowledge portion of the K-12 teaching certificate, too. My work with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art
(KSMoCA) since 2014 showed the principal who hired me that I am dedicated to working with children. By working there, I gained real experience working with kids in an authentic way, developing art workshops and projects, and facilitating various projects with the school. The principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, where KSMoCA is located, was one of my references for the job.

I have these relationships that support the fact that I am qualified, even though I don’t have an elementary education degree or experience as an elementary classroom teacher. In Oregon, I’m not qualified for the temporary teaching certificate I have now. For me to get a teaching certificate in Oregon, I’d have to do two more years of graduate school and get a master’s in education. Here in Florida, because I already have a master’s in my field of art, I don’t have to do any more school. Right now I have a temporary certificate that qualifies me for three years, and to earn a full certificate, I’d have to do ESOL training, pass an art subject test, and complete the beginning teacher mentorship program that I’m in now. It’s like I’m qualified and not qualified at the same time. Honestly, there’s a huge shortage of teachers right now because of COVID, so I think that may have helped me too. They need people and in my case, I know a lot about art. They could tell from my interview.

I love the question of qualification. How do we know if we’re qualified to do something? Who gets to decide if we are or are not qualified? I think I’m interested in those questions pedagogically and conceptually. I’ve been making work about these questions for a while now. In particular, my projects about research—research has so much to do with agency, and whether or not you feel like you have the agency to research something a certain way, or to intervene in an institution. Agency has a lot to do with identity, privilege, and context.

Emma:​ Roz, thank you so much for sharing that. I am also really interested in expanding traditional qualifications. I feel like there is a fear or pressure to be an expert that can hold someone back. When beginning a new project, I frequently associate research with qualifications. How do you research? I am also curious if you see research as a social practice?

Roz:​ Yeah, I love that question. I’ve been thinking about how embodied and experiential my approach to research is. I first learned about research through public school, and I was not enchanted. I wasn’t interested in it at all, and I never wanted to do a research paper. Then in college, I started taking experiential learning classes and a lot of my college coursework included independent study projects instead of
pre-designed courses determined by a professor. I got a lot of opportunities to learn collaboratively with my professors and with other students, too. Through that process, I realized I could be researching or learning by participating in community, talking to neighbors, or leading workshops for kids. Being an assistant on my archaeology professor’s project was an influential experience for me. My approach to research now is rooted in the experiential, embodied, and participatory. Going out, doing things, talking to people, trying things out…I’m interested in experimentation, and I’m uninterested in being told what to do. Now I’m asking myself, do I think of research as a social practice?

Emma:​ Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Sometimes I feel that my conversations, interviews, and engagements with people is where the art lies. I am incredibly aware of the learning occurring in those moments. I’m starting to see it as a form of social practice, experiential learning, and/or research.

Roz:​ I don’t exactly know if I think of research as a social practice. I’ve been spinning the question around in my head. While I was in the Art & Social Practice program at PSU, I spent most of my time practicing in public​. I think I went a little overboard with experimentation… I probably did somewhere around 50 “projects” in the three years of graduate school. They weren’t big projects or important ones, but they each offered me the chance to learn something new about socially engaged art. It was fast-paced experimentation, in public view.

Thinking about it now, all of those years feel like research. I was researching how to be a social practice artist. I don’t know if any of those projects are worth anything on their own. The value lies in the group as a whole. They represent sincere curiosity and a willingness to make mistakes in public, accept those mistakes, and move on. I learned how to own up to the consequences of my mistakes, and I learned how to apologize to strangers and acquaintances. That was my social practice in grad school. After school, I started to spend more time planning and thinking through my projects. So my research phase of the work at this point is not as big a part of the actual project. It’s more of a precursor to the project; research as a precursor. The research often is social, and it’s often participatory and experimental, but it’s usually before the project starts. Then I’ll do a project based on the research. So, for me, research is a social act but it’s not really my socially engaged art anymore. Maybe it was for a while…

Emma:​ I really connect with what you shared. For myself, sometimes the research fuels a project, and sometimes research becomes the project. When research is a precursor, you can select what aspects of the research to bring into practice. Do you still see the whole research process as a part of the project? Is the relationship, the experience, the research, and the outcome all one project for you?

Roz:​ They’re together in my interior mind and my heart, but I wouldn’t describe the project to a public audience at an artist talk by explaining all the background research. I love that there is complexity and layers to how projects develop. ​I was invited to present a performance work for a performance and comics festival in Czechia — I did a lot of research ahead of time. The festival’s theme was ‘taboo.’ I don’t know what is taboo in Czechia, though I know what’s taboo in my own life and what is taboo in American culture broadly. I did a lot of research trying to figure out what is taboo there. The research included reading stuff online, looking at a lot of imagery, looking at and studying the architecture of the building where this festival was happening. I actually did some baking as part of the research. None of that even entered the project; the project wound up being completely different.

In this context, I like that we can talk about the fact that I research how to make a dessert as part of a project and the process of it, and in other contexts, I wouldn’t bring that up, because it sort of derails the purpose of the end project, which ultimately became about labor and the gig economy during the global pandemic. Within this conversation, it doesn’t really matter what that project was about. It’s more important to highlight the narrative that research doesn’t necessarily start in one place and go on a linear trajectory to the end. You know, it goes all around. That’s what I usually teach students, it’s not like you go to the library with a question and you develop your hypothesis, and then you simply find the answer you predicted. It’s complicated, and there are many things that get in the way of a tidy conclusion.

Emma:​ I think that is a great lesson to learn early—letting research guide your understanding and inspiration for a project. I’ve never taken an Introduction to Social Practice class. What is a main objective you had when teaching that class?

Roz:​ I love that class, I haven’t gotten to teach it in a while. It’s the first class that I ever taught. So it has a special place in my memories. The students that were in that first class are also important to me; I have an enamel pin of a hand holding a flower that I wear often, and I got it from a student in that class as a gift when she graduated. The objectives were based around expanding how people thought about art because a lot of times people came into the class expecting that it was a social justice class or a community art class or something that I wasn’t necessarily emphasizing within the course. My goal wasn’t to make everyone have the same idea of what social practice is; I didn’t care about that. I was interested in expanding from whatever point somebody was at. Some people came into the class thinking art is only 2D drawings, maybe they weren’t an art major and stumbled into the class through another entry point. I tried to use the assignments as an opportunity to open people’s minds to different processes you could use as an artist, including things like walking, and baking. We were practicing unusual forms of exchange, challenging social norms, and putting ourselves in situations we might not normally be in (of course, safety was a priority). Overall just expanding the tool belt of the artist to include social interaction.

I was also trying to draw from whatever students were passionate about outside of their art practices, or outside of their design practices, and my goal was to use the class to build on those interests. I found out that people can be understandably shy about sharing their passions. I kind of assumed that people would want to automatically share and talk about that stuff with me and the class, and that wasn’t true. It takes a lot of relationship building and trust establishing before you can understand how someone’s practice is interdisciplinary. I realized that part of my goal was to teach people how to feel comfortable opening up about those things (if they want to…). Maybe unearthing passions was part of the class, too.

Emma:​ I’m sure that is a really useful exercise. I feel that social practice is responsive to one as an individual, one’s experiences, and then gathering to respond to those things. I think starting those conversations early is super important. In my experience working with younger people, they frequently have a preconceived idea of art. The more I get to know them and their interests, we are able to expand in deeper directions specific to their passions.

Roz:​ Yeah, it’s always important to ask questions, no matter what age someone is. I like starting with questions about who someone is as a person, and then slowly we move into questions about the content. I think that’s why teachers and mentors are so important and so wonderful. In my life, I’ve had the great fortune to find mentors that are good at asking me the right questions. Without them, I would probably be a bit lost in all of my eccentricities. Having mentorship has given me structure and given me pathways forward that I just wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Emma:​ I agree completely. With my prior knowledge of your mentorship at KSMoCA, other projects that feature mentorship, and your current teaching role, what would you say are the similarities and differences between teaching and mentorship?

Roz: ​In the last few years, I’ve been much more comfortable in the mentor role than I am in the mentee role. I think switching back and forth between the roles is a super humbling process and maybe should be part of official mentorship programs. I play around with that reversal a lot in my practices as an artist and a teacher. One example is my mentorship with Moe at KSMoCA. He’s a third grader now, and he teaches me more than I teach him at this point. He often tells me that he’s ready to begin teaching photography to other kids, and he has already taught me a lot about dance. I’ve found that when you give kids the opportunity to teach, they’re excellent at it. Of course, I think I teach him things, too, but I try to downplay it. I embrace that sort of exchange in my style of mentorship, and in my teaching. I think my philosophy comes from Paulo Friere who rejects the banking model of education in which students are “empty vessels” to be filled with knowledge He proposes the idea that all students are people who come to class with whole lives of experience and information, and by acknowledging that and sharing the role of teacher, we can have more humane and dignified interactions in the context of schools.

Right now I have a mentor that was assigned to me through the beginning teacher program at my district. She is an amazing teacher who has been teaching in public schools for twenty years or more. I’m learning so much. I am trying to be very open to everything she suggests because even though I’m used to being a mentor now, I realize there are SO many things I don’t know about teaching. Luckily, she can help me learn those things.

I think mentorship is really about openness both on the side of the mentee, and the mentor, because otherwise, no one will be able to grow or offer insight. Occasionally I’ve mentored graduate students over the last couple years, and I’ve had both positive and negative experiences. Sometimes people are very open and excited about their growth and their potential. Other times, it seems like maybe people aren’t open to that, or maybe there is some kind of block in the way. This makes it difficult to understand the mentee’s goals. If I can’t understand where someone wants their work to go, it’s hard to know how to help them get there. I think that’s true across different ages, but when I work with younger students, they are open to anything—there’s hardly ever specific goals. The questions mentees ask me vary across different age groups, but it’s interesting to look for commonalities. I do explore this in my art practice.

Specifically during the ​Center for Undisciplined Research (CURE)​ at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a project I did during 2017 and 2018 when I was the Artist in Residence there, and ​When
research can be a rainbow… (WRCBAR) ​ which I made as the Artist in Residence at Lewis & Clark
College. ​WRCBAR​ was kind of a bookend to a series of work exploring how casual interactions and research are intertwined. In both of those projects, mentorship played a big role. At Lewis & Clark, I worked very closely with seven undergraduate students from various disciplines to develop and manage the exhibition. Through working together, I hoped I would help them gain skills, and I hoped they would learn from seeing how I did things. They were paid employees, but they were also a bit like mentees. They contributed a lot and made the project what it was. It wouldn’t have existed without them. It was this kind of strange employee-employer relationship, a mentor-mentee relationship, and a student-teacher relationship all at once. That was great. It wasn’t very complicated at all. It was really sweet and really rewarding. And I’m still in touch with most of them.

Back to discussing the differences between teaching and mentoring, there definitely are differences because a lot of times mentorship is purely about a relationship, at least in my experience. Oftentimes it has more to do with life skills and not necessarily specific art or academic skills. It can be a lot more casual than teaching, and there doesn’t have to be tough learning moments that can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching. But…I do think those moments often happen in good mentorship. You are teaching and learning.

Another big difference I can think of is the responsibility of a teacher to reach every student and offer them an equitable experience within a class or program. As a mentor, you don’t have to do that! In teaching, I have a specific series of objectives and goals that I have to teach everyone. My job is to teach everyone those things, to reach every student, or to at least try to reach every student. This is true with almost every kind of teaching. With mentorship, it’s funny, because there are two kinds that I’ve had. One is where the mentor is hired and specifically assigned to a student, and in this type, they don’t get to choose each other. You can run into more contentious moments, kind of like you can in teaching, because you’re not choosing your mentees, and they’re not choosing you. I’ve also had positive mentorship situations where the person selected me and wanted to have that exchange, or I selected them and they agreed to the relationship. I think that the process of selection is a pretty key difference. It’s not always possible in mentorship, but it’s rarely possible in teaching. You can never predict who will be in your class. That’s the biggest difference I can think of.

Emma:​ That’s a great difference to point out, thank you for sharing that. I’m interested in how you may look back at your project ​Drawing Time​ now that you’ve started your first teaching job in elementary school. You are now teaching a full class that was assigned to you in more of a formal institution after facilitating a non-traditional virtual art group.

Roz:​ ​Drawing Time​ came out of a really manic moment in my life when the pandemic started. It was the second week of shutdown in Portland, it was the third week in March. One day I made 10 paintings because I didn’t have anything else to do, and it inspired me to begin drawing multiple pictures every day. I didn’t have a teaching contract anymore. I didn’t have projects or speaking engagements; everything had been canceled. It was the first time in my adult life where I felt like there was nothing to do.

I was talking to my friend, Rebecca Uchill, who is an art historian, and I told her about all the drawings I was making. She said, “Why don’t you teach classes for kids, lots of people are doing classes for kids online, plus you love working with kids!” Because I had never taught a class online, I felt nervous about it, but I realized quickly I could do it any way I wanted. I got excited about how I might advertise the class, and how casual it could be. I decided to start a class that was just about drawing from your imagination. We never talked about the elements of art or anything like that, it was just about drawing together online. I thought I’d open it up to anyone—my college students, my mom, my friends that are kids, my friends that are teenagers, and I wondered what would happen if I brought all these people together in one Zoom session. I just started doing that, I guess I advertised it on Instagram, and I sent it to my email list.

All of a sudden there were like 150 people signed up to get the emails every week. I taught a class twice a week for 10 weeks, and every class was different—anyone could drop in or out at any time. I planned the sessions in advance with themes and lectures, and each one lasted for one hour. We would get through five to seven drawing prompts that lasted anywhere from one to ten minutes each. I got really into making the lectures, excited by the challenge to make them appealing to such a wide range of people. I would talk for about ten minutes in the beginning of class about something like Polly Pocket, Rocko’s Modern Life, or the Disney Pixar film ​Inside Out​ . Knowing that I was designing the lectures for six and seven year olds, I would also sometimes throw in appropriate adult humor to keep the adults intrigued. We often looked at contemporary performance and painting as part of the class, too. ​Drawing Time​ is weirdly inspired by SpongeBob, the kids TV show. I think that show does an amazing job of infusing a kid show with adult-level jokes, and also educational things.

Emma:​ I think ​Drawing Time ​ is an amazing project; it was adaptive and innovative and useful for so many. After teaching a freely structured class and transitioning to a more structured routine inside an elementary school, how do you see your social practice background coming into your work now in that field?

Roz:​ I know it’s too early to know how it’s gonna manifest. I think that one of the things that’s very clear is: I have learned so much about working with people from being a social practice artist. As an artist who collaborates and cooperates with many different people and institutions, I’m always learning about conflict resolution. I think those two things have already been huge assets for working in an elementary school. The other thing I’m appreciating about my background is my practice and experience organizing projects and preparing for events. A lot of my practice has been about preparing frameworks for people to have experiences within, and teaching at this level is very similar. Everyday I prepare materials and lesson plans ahead of time so the students can drop into class and have a meaningful and fun experience in 45 minutes with minimal amount of stress, preparing things in advance so that students can have a positive learning experience. I’m very responsive, resilient, and flexible because of my social practice life as an artist, and that benefits me in the classroom, too. There are endless things that come up, and I’m happy to report that so far, most of those things don’t stress me out! I’m surprised because I think the last time I was teaching by myself in this kind of context with little kids, I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve grown a lot, and I’m still not good at it. I’m excited that part of my life practice has translated into me becoming a more effective teacher.

In terms of art skills, I think I have lofty goals of social practice at the elementary level. One of my dreams may be to infiltrate the curriculum design of Florida public schools and help initiate a shift. As part of that shift, maybe we could include social practice in the lesson plans. At this point, I’m sticking to very traditional media because I’m still learning how to “manage” the classroom and present relevant lesson plans, but I spend a lot of time focused on sharing a diverse range of contemporary artists. In some ways, the kids have very clear expectations around what art is and what they’re going to get to do in art class, but I’ve noticed that those expectations can change quickly. As long as you set up a procedure for how something’s going to happen, they’re pretty quick to say, “Alright, I can do this.” So I guess it’s just about setting up the procedure to shift the expectation.

Emma: ​Would you say you are in the research phase of this new chapter?

Roz:​ Yeah. There’s just so much. I have a lot of ideas for projects already, but I am just getting to know all the office staff, the custodians, the principal, and the other teachers, and how they do things and figuring out that dynamic. I’m so used to being friends with my bosses, and now I have a boss who is really like my boss. I love her. She’s so impressive, but she’s my boss. Hopefully, a friendship will grow with time. Today she showed me photos of a DIY craft project she did at home over the weekend. She said she felt inspired by me to try doing it even though she had never tried something like that before. It looked great.

Emma:​ I am excited to see where this new chapter of your life and practice will take you.

Roz:​ I’m happy to tell you what I’ve learned through doing this stuff. Teaching just makes me excited every day. I wake up curious about what students are going to say, and I look forward to finding out what they’ll teach me.

Roz Crews​ ​(b. 1990) is a white artist, educator, and writer whose practice explores the many ways that people around her exist in relationship to one another. Recent projects have examined the dominant strategies and methods of research enforced by academic institutions, schemes and scams of capitalism, and the ways authorship and labor are discussed in the context of contemporary art production. Her work manifests as publications, performances, conversations, essays, and exhibitions, and she exhibits it in traditional art spaces…but also in hotels, bars, college dorms, and river banks. She works at a public elementary school as a full-time art teacher in rural North Florida.

Emma Mitchell ​(​b.1995) is a project-based artist, educator, and curator living and working in Portland, OR. She is the Director and Curator at the Portland Plant Museum, Artist Mentor at KSMoCA, Founder and Creator of the Sexual Violence Symposium, and teaches within Portland State University’s School of Art and Design. Emma is in her third year of pursuing her MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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