On Vulnerability

“What I respond to in socially engaged art is a sense of vulnerability. When I see an artist being vulnerable and then I see people responding in vulnerable ways, that’s what I’m interested in.”


I first connected with Roz Crews the summer before I moved to Portland, Oregon. I had just been accepted to the Art and Social Practice Program and Harrell Fletcher told me that Roz, a program alum and instructor, had attended the same strange and tiny liberal arts college I had just graduated from (New College of Florida). I got in touch with her in an attempt to gather as much knowledge about this program as I could, and our first conversation clued me in to what I quickly learned could be expected from conversations with Roz: warmth, honesty, and genuine connection. Since that point, I’ve gotten to know and appreciate Roz’s teaching style by both being in a class facilitated by her and by hearing more about her experiences teaching elementary school. While I think about the kind of teacher and facilitator I want to grow into, I think it’s important to learn directly from those whose styles I admire, hence the following conversation with Roz. 

Olivia DelGandio: How would you feel about talking about vulnerability today?

Roz Crews: I like that idea. 

Olivia: I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability as it relates to teaching. I’d like to be a teacher who teaches with and through vulnerability, but with the teacher/student relationship there can easily be a lack of empathy that makes learning, and just being a person in that space, really difficult. I think you do a really great job of teaching through vulnerability and I’m interested to know your thoughts on this.

Roz: I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and I don’t think I’m naturally super empathetic, but I am naturally very sensitive and I’ve always wanted to be an empathetic teacher. I wanted to support students in all the ways that I could, and whether they are kids or adults, I really try to advocate for each person whenever I can. Sometimes that does wind up feeling like a maternal kind of role and personally, I never thought that critically about it until more recently when I started to recognize how much emotional labor goes into supporting students and the various needs that come up. You know, some years I’d have 300 students and if it’s elementary school then I’d have around 700 that I saw every week. So you can imagine that all of those people relying on and needing support from you can be challenging, especially when you’re an adjunct instructor or somebody who’s not necessarily feeling compensated for work beyond their “contract hours.” But in the same breath, I am so happy that I have been able to support people in times of need, and also just in their everyday regular life. Teachers have done that for me, and I feel kind of like I owe people that kind of support.

Olivia: It’s interesting to think about the teachers I’ve had who have played that maternal role and those who have been pretty against it. Maybe there’s some kind of middle ground where you can have boundaries while still having a deep connection to your students. What would that look like? 

Roz: I think it looks like developing a strong sense of self but not letting it affect you on a personal level or else you’ll be over involved in everything. So for me it’s been about establishing a strong sense of what I believe and then committing to that, but also being flexible wherever I can. My philosophy on education is that you are really going to get out of it what you put into it. That can be a controversial point of view; especially if students or participants are expecting a more traditional “banking model” of education: where students are perceived as empty vessels ready to be filled up with knowledge, an approach criticized by folks like Paulo Friere and bell hooks. I see teaching as an exchange. And that’s my boundary actually. I’m not really there to hold your hand through a situation as much as I am to present something to you and see what you think, and then, if it’s hard, we can talk about it. If it’s good and rewarding, we talk about it. For me it comes down to self-preservation and self-awareness, and I try to teach those things to students.

Photo of a passage Olivia highlighted in their copy of bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress, 2022, Portland, OR, photo by Olivia DelGandio.

Olivia: Totally. I’m thinking about the class I took last term, the pedagogy class taught by Alison Heryer. We had to write a teaching philosophy and I was thinking a lot about vulnerability and teaching and also reading a lot of bell hooks. Something she talks about is teaching through vulnerability, but having to be vulnerable yourself before you can expect vulnerability back from your students. I feel like that’s connected to this idea of boundaries and how vulnerable you can allow yourself to be with your students.

Roz: Yes, and I certainly have been influenced by bell hooks and I think that’s where my relationship to vulnerability and teaching comes from. Vulnerability in the classroom is complicated. Certain things, I’m happy to be super transparent and vulnerable about. This was especially true when I was younger, I was like an open book. And I use that in my art practice too. I use the strategy of: I’m going to tell you whatever you want to know about me so that you will want to participate in this project and so we can have a shared sense of vulnerability. I do that in my artwork, but I also do it in the classroom and it’s changed over time in both contexts, but more specifically in my teaching because there’ve been some situations that have happened that I’ve been alarmed by. These things have shifted my willingness to be vulnerable with students and the public. It’s become harder to want to share, even though these situations are far and few between, considering all the students I’ve worked with and all of the public places I’ve put myself into.

Olivia: But situations like that can make a big impact.

Roz: They can, yeah.

Olivia: Considering all those things and how difficult it is to ask people to be vulnerable, how do you make the classroom a safe place?

Roz: I’ve really developed a strategy for quickly acclimating students to the situation that we’re going to be in for the next 10 or 15 or 36 weeks. Part of how I think of making a safe-feeling space is by trying to be vulnerable to some degree myself, more so with grad students than undergrads, and then I share even less about myself with kids. I also always create community agreements in the beginning of a class so there’s a sense of accountability. If something does happen, we can refer back to this document which includes things like “move up, move back,” which is about creating space for people who might not necessarily love being the first to talk. A lot comes up when we make the community agreements, which I find super useful as a starting place. Of course, uncomfortable things happen throughout the class, and you can come back to community agreements. 

Olivia: You started talking a bit about vulnerability in your art practice. I feel like there are some similarities in how you think about vulnerability in terms of art versus teaching, but also ways that these spaces are pretty different. How do you think it shifts when you’re trying to be vulnerable in the classroom space versus in your own practice?

Roz: For me, the classroom and my practice are pretty intertwined. Even though I don’t think of my teaching as my practice, there’s a lot of times when, in my career, they have intersected. I’ve done a lot of projects at schools and I’ve also taught in schools and so sometimes I’m doing a project in the school where I’m teaching. Recently I did a performance. I was really struggling with the whole fifth grade at my new school and I was pretty desperate, so I was like, I’m going to go off the books here and just sort of see what I can do to build trust with this group. With one class in particular I said, “Hey I’m going to be doing this performance artwork and I would like it if you guys would help me create a score for the piece.” I explained what a score is and the whole time we were talking they were so engaged because I’m talking to them about something that’s really in my life and that they don’t know about. They were excited about it and I told them they could choose everything that I do during the performance; they were totally in control of this performance and I wasn’t going to change anything that they decided on. And I did everything they said, I followed through on my promise. I’m very committed to doing what I say I’ll do. So that’s one example of how my teaching intersects with my practice and involves vulnerability and trust building. Other times I’m more vulnerable in my practice than in teaching because I have less to lose when it’s not something I’m doing in an institution. 

Photo from tell us how you became so close to art, Zoom performance for UNF Galleries, Jacksonville, FL 2021, courtesy of Roz Crews

Olivia: I love that project. Do you have any other thoughts on this?

Roz: I think talking about vulnerability in the context of social practice is really important. What I respond to in socially engaged art is a sense of vulnerability. With a lot of projects, I see people putting up personal, emotional, and mental walls and that can make it hard for me to respond to the work. When I see an artist being vulnerable and then I see people responding in vulnerable ways, that’s what I’m interested in.

Roz Crews (she/her) is an 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 a specific art gallery. Her work manifests as publications, performances, conversations, essays, and exhibitions, and she shares it in traditional art spaces… but also in hotels, bars, college dorms, Zoom rooms, and river banks. As part of her exploration of the oppressive qualities of schools, she worked for two years as a full-time art teacher at a public elementary school in North Florida during the pandemic. She is currently a manager of community engagement programs for a collecting museum in New England. 

Olivia DelGandio (they/she) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through the work they make, they hope to make the world a more tender place and aim to do so by creating books, videos, and textiles that capture personal narratives in an intimate manner. Essential to Olivia’s practice is research. Their current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity. 

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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