How to Make an Artist

“I definitely think I’d be a different educator if I wasn’t a socially engaged artist, and a different artist if I wasn’t an educator.”

Emily Fitzgerald

Last fall, my first term in the program, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for Emily Fitzgerald’s digital photography class. Her own background in social practice was evident throughout the class, but especially during the final project, where students created images for seniors at the Washington County Disability, Aging, and Veteran Services (DAVS). This project culminated in an exhibition where seniors could engage with the students and their work in-person. It was a great example of how social practice could show up in a classroom setting.

This term, since I am in a pedagogy class, I have been thinking a lot about how I want to function as a socially engaged artist and educator. In doing so, I’ve been reflecting on my experience in Emily’s class, how she chose to teach, and the effect it had on the students and their own photography practices. For this conversation, I got to talk with Emily more about our shared experience last semester and hear about her personal relationship to art and teaching.

Morgan Hornsby: How would you describe your practice?

Emily Fitzgerald: I would say that I’m a socially engaged artist and that I am interested in collective storytelling and collaborative image making. I have a background in photography and I use expanded documentary practices in a lot of my work.

Morgan: Do you consider teaching a part of your practice or something that’s separate?

Emily: I feel like it varies, and at different times I feel like it’s part of my practice. The exhibition that we did at the end of last term felt connected to my art practice. I definitely feel like it’s connected to my art practice, and there are times when I’m doing community workshops that are part of my practice. Teaching at the university level feels like it’s connected to my practice, but not necessarily a part of it, if that makes sense. It informs my practice, and my practice informs teaching, but it definitely is not always under the umbrella of my socially engaged art practice. I definitely think I’d be a different educator, if I wasn’t a socially engaged artist, and a different artist if I wasn’t an educator.

Students set up their exhibition, Stories Unwritten, at a gallery at Portland State University.
Photo taken by Emily Fitzgerald. Portland, OR, 2022.

Morgan: How do they inform each other, your work as a socially engaged artist and your work as an educator?

Emily: One of the ways in which I teach that feels very important to me is that I teach in a very relational way, and in a collaborative way. And some courses, it’s easier. Like right now I’m teaching a design thinking class in university studies that isn’t set up to be collaborative— it’s not in the art department, and it’s a much bigger group of students. But then I’m working with a lot of the same students from our photography class last semester this term for an intermediate photography course.

I think often there’s some sort of educational component, not teaching, but a workshop type model, that is part of my social practice. And I feel like the way I teach is very relational, which is also how I work as an artist. It’s very collaborative. So for instance, last term with the students that you worked with, the installation of the exhibition was completely collaborative, which was kind of a mess, and took a long time, but all the decisions were made together. The title of the show, which images were curated, and how things were hung— all of these things were collaboratively decided with the students. So I wasn’t saying okay, this is the way we’re going to do it, and I’m going to teach you how to do it. They’re really learning by doing and so I think that feels connected. And then the Washington County project felt like a social practice project in some ways because it was bridging two groups of people that wouldn’t often be connected, and it had a storytelling component. The students were making work for the senior citizens and the seniors were sharing their stories about the students’ work. So it was twofold in that way. 

Morgan: Can you say more about the origin of the Washington County project?

Emily: So that project started right at the beginning of the pandemic, at the beginning of 2020. I had never taught class remotely, and so I was thinking about ways to make it feel engaging and connecting, and to have a community-based component when everyone was on lockdown and at home by themselves. I connected with this woman from Washington County DAVS, and she said that all the seniors were in isolation, that they weren’t getting to see many people and they weren’t getting much mail. So the first iteration of the project was the students making images with engagement prompts that Washington County DAVS would then turn into postcards, and those postcards were mailed out to senior citizens in isolation. And so the seniors would look at the images and read the engagement prompts, or their caregivers would, and then they would have conversations about what they saw in the images. The assignment was for the students to construct an image— instead of a documentary photograph or a landscape or portrait, they were supposed to construct something that was whimsical and fun, and engaging, and maybe had a twist or brought in a question. Each student would have one image selected, and they could choose to participate, to opt in or opt out. So if they wanted to make work that was more provocative than Washington County felt okay with, they could opt out. So they were still making work for themselves. When the postcards were mailed out at the end of the course, they also got a set of the postcards from all their other classmates. 

So that was the first iteration. And we did that many times, for several terms. And then last term when you were the TA, that was the first time I was back in person with the students, and we decided we wanted to do an exhibition at the end of the term. Instead of mailing the postcards, senior citizens could come to PSU and view students’ work and engage in those conversations in person. And we had an exhibition.

Morgan: How was the exhibition?

Emily:  It was mostly great. There were definitely some bumps and hurdles, I think working with bureaucracy can be that way. One thing that happened was that I was explicitly clear that I wanted all the students’ names on vinyl along with the title of the exhibition. And there was some misunderstanding, where the person that was the gallery coordinator, and the person working with the graphic designer at PSU, just had my name printed and cut, which felt really incorrect. So we did get to use that experience to have a conversation around authorship, and we did remedy it by printing the students’ names, even though it’s not the same as vinyl. So that felt difficult. And Washington County wanted the frames back after the exhibition, which they paid for, but thinking about reciprocity, I felt like the students should receive the frames since their work was being professionalized and utilized for this purpose. So there were challenges on a lot of levels. 

Also, the representative from Washington County DAVS said that the image selected for the flyer didn’t feel appropriate, which was really confusing, because it didn’t feel like a provocative image at all.

Flyer for Stories Unwritten, an exhibition at Portland State University.
Portland, OR. 2022. Image courtesy of Emily Fitzgerald.

We had these conversations around who makes the image, who has the agency, and who makes the choices on what’s being shown. And we, as a class, talked about what to keep in the show, because some of the students did create work that could be seen as challenging or provocative for a bureaucratic organization like Washington County DAVS or for senior citizens. There was some nudity, there was some text. But we decided that we wanted to leave everything in the show, and that if the representative from Washington County didn’t feel comfortable with those images being in the show, then she could make that decision. And she didn’t make the decision to take them out.

It was interesting, because what felt hard or challenging from the senior citizens’ perspective weren’t the images that we thought would be. It was all senior citizens with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and they came, and there were some great conversations. The students stood by their work and some of them asked them the prompts they had written. But most of them just had conversations about the pieces and what they saw, what it reminded them of, what it made them feel. It was such a learning process to make work for a certain audience rather than for your peers and class critique. So I think in that way, it was really great.

Morgan: Yeah, even with complications and challenges, it’s really cool that the students got to go through that with you. I think those are learning experiences that translate to everything in life, not just photography. Working with people is complicated.

Emily: Totally.

Morgan: One thing I really enjoyed about being in your class was seeing how different the work of each student was. Everybody was making such different things. It felt like over the course of that ten weeks, each person’s style became more and more their own.

Emily: Yeah, I think so too. I think I was just so impressed by how much they all grew and are continuing to grow in their voice and their style and developing concepts that are important and meaningful to them. 

Morgan: Is there a way you try to cultivate that or does it just kind of naturally happen?

Emily: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I ask the students to give me feedback at the end of the term, which is one of the ways. One of the things that they said that I thought was really nice is that in so many art classes, they feel like the instructors are teaching them a certain way to learn their style, or a style that they need to emulate. But in this course, they said that they felt empowered to find their own style and voice.

I do like to give a lot of agency and choice throughout the term. There are definitely technical assignments and benchmarks that they need to meet, and a basis of technical skill that I want them to learn and build and then be able to speak to, and a critical lens that I want them to use in terms of evaluating work. And then also, on top of that, I think it’s so important for them to be able to think conceptually, and for them to be able to understand why they like work, and to support them in finding why something works for them, or why something feels meaningful. And that’s different for everyone. So I think maybe it’s like a value that I place around agency and choice.

And I find that when I have more agency, I’m more engaged and committed and dedicated to something. So I think I want to give students agency too— if they’re interested in what we’re doing, they’re going to be more involved.

I’m not sure, what did you see in class?

Morgan: Yeah, I think that you’re right, that part of it is the level of agency. I think it also helps that you showed so many examples of photography, so that everyone can find something that is exciting to them. Over the course of the term, I felt like I witnessed many students become incredibly dedicated, and take photography very seriously. I felt like you did a good job of offering agency and choice while maintaining a high standard, or a high expectation of effort. The combination really seemed to work with the students. 

I really liked seeing students find photography they were excited about, because I know how cool that feeling is, to find work that is really inspiring, or that is connected to your practice or the way you see the world in some way. One of my favorite parts of class was getting to show students work I thought they might connect with, to be part of that excitement.

Emily: Yeah, I really appreciated that you were coming in with often more contemporary photographers or people that you felt would resonate with that particular person’s style. And I thought that was so helpful. The more voices are always better, so it’s always better to have more people and more perspectives. And I think that’s also like having your eyes as well as my eyes giving feedback, that’s so helpful. I love having guests critiquers for that reason.

How do you feel like your pedagogy or being an educator is connected to your practice?

Morgan: I’m still thinking about that, but being in your class really made me excited about teaching photography in the future. I’m grateful for the education I had in photojournalism, but it was a lot more narrow. In your class, it really felt like students found their voices.

And with the exhibition, I saw a great example of how teaching through a social practice lens could look, how it could be really inspiring and offer new possibilities. But from the beginning, I saw how social practice was showing up in the classroom.

Emily: Do you feel like it was showing up outside of that project?

Morgan: In the level of agency, yeah. Definitely in that project, but I think the level of agency throughout and knowing that it was building to that project.

Emily: I could definitely see it in that way. It’s really collaborative. Like this week in the intermediate course, the assignment was for them to collaborate with one of their classmates, which was an idea that came from the students last term saying that they wish they had an opportunity to collaborate with each other. So some of them are assisting, some of them are helping fill the set, and some of them are models. All different things. And not all social practices are collaborative, but all of my work as a socially engaged artist is collaborative. And so that feels also really important. It’s been so nice to see how they built a community in this course, and really know each other’s work and style. They can give feedback with the understanding of someone’s goals as an artist and I feel like that’s such valuable feedback. I got so much of that in the program, through being able to work with the same people over those three years. And now I’m still collaborating with several folks from the program. So to really know someone as a person, but also as an artist, is such an incredibly special thing.

Morgan: I think you told me this before we started class, but you really do get to know people differently when you’re looking at images of each other’s lives together every week. It does build a kind of intimacy and community. To me, that feels like what social practice is about: enhancing interaction through art and enhancing art through interaction. 

In that way, I saw social practice coming up in critique, when we were all looking at and talking about images together and how it did build a sense of community.

Emily: It’s so different to see people through their images, to see how they see. For this course, they’re doing a term-long project where they’re creating a series or a body of work around a concept that they’ll then present in whatever form they choose, so it could be images on the wall, or it could be a book or it could be an interactive slideshow, it could be anything. So we’re going to talk about form, and then they’ll have some additional interdisciplinary components like audio or text or drawing or sculpture.

It feels like such a gift to see people grow and evolve as artists. It’s so cool to see people who had never picked up a camera become really dedicated to the practice, and to be making amazing work.

Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist. She was born in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in Tennessee. Her photographic work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, NPR, Vox, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and The Marshall Project. @morganhornsby

Emily Fitzgerald (she/her) is a socially-engaged artist, photographer, storyteller, and educator. Through her work, she investigates what it means to collectively tell a story, equally prioritize the relational and the aesthetic, collaboratively make conceptual and visual decisions, and co-author a body of work with the ‘subject.’ Her work is responsive, participatory, and site-specific. Emily brings large-scale art installations into non-traditional, public, and unexpected places in order to deepen our understanding and reframe our ways of relating to one another. She is the co-founder of MATTER gallery and Works Progress Agency. Emily teaches photography, art, and Design Thinking 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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Portland, OR 97207