This spring, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to organize and curate The UnTeaching Project- a moving, changing exhibition inspired by the influence that teaching has had on my creative practice.
Working with students on the autism spectrum and underserved youth in Brooklyn’s public schools has been such a transformative experience for me; my experiences have changed the way that I look at, think about, and interact with others around the topic of art. Working in PS and D75 classrooms has also exposed me to other creators with the same passion and drive— fueled by their students and by the power of integrated arts. These Teaching Artists carry their experience in the classroom into their studio. To honor all of the amazing creators, on both sides of the classroom, I curated and organized “UnTeaching” at DUMBO’s The UnSpace. With the intent that, in coming together to share and discuss art (through free programing, a panel discussion and, of course, a gallery full of inspiring, accessible and sometimes interactive art works), integrated arts in education can be celebrated and we can all be reminded of the profound power the arts hold when they are shared.
The UnTeaching Project
Included the artwork of fine artists and educators Jeffrey Allen of Front Range College, Nichole van Beek of the Pratt Institute, Ryan Dawalt of PS 352x, Deborah Dawson of Marquis Studios, Elise Deringer of Studio in a School, Cindie Kehlet of the Pratt Institute, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow of School of the Visual Arts, Mackenzie McBride of Marquis Studios, Anh Thuy Nguyen of Hudson Valley Community College, Hiromi Niizeki of Marquis Studios, Ciara Ruddock of Marquis Studios, Project Art, The Children’s Museum and Arts for All, Aparna Sarkar of Saint Ann’s School, Christine Sloan Stoddard of the Art Deco Society of New York, Jennie Thwing of Farmingdale State College and Margot Werner of LAND Studio and Gallery, in addition to workshops run by Corinne Amato and Leela Le Noury of Open Art Spark, Siobhan Cavanagh of Marquis Studios, Seanan Forbes of Wingspan, The Leadership Program, Shadowbox Theatre and Anthropology Arts, Melani De Guzman of Marquis Studios, Michael Morales of Marquis Studios and Julieta Varela of Marquis Studios,
Cultural programs in New York and other urban cities provide opportunities for artists to become socially engaged and culturally responsive educators who reflect and engage with the communities that they serve. Teaching Artists (TAs) are so much more than artists and teachers, they are asked to be enthusiast, adaptable and authentic as they collaborate with a range of audiences to provide arts education to communities with little to no access to the arts. They are asked to question constantly, to prompt and inspire new or reluctant communities, to be flexible and responsive at all times, and to engage with all audiences through supplemental and in-school programing.
New York City is the center of the art world, and, while everyone should have access to the arts, the truth is that many urban youth lack basic access to arts education. Teaching Artist organizations aim to fix this deficit— to ensure that these communities have access to the arts. In doing so, Teaching Artist organizations give socially aware artists the chance to work directly with a community in order to give them the tools they need to reimagine their limits and challenge their beliefs about the arts. It is not obvious to everyone what the arts do, particularly those who have not been exposed to arts education. TAs are asked to be ambassadors for the arts; while one can clearly define the benefits of Science, Math and English in the classroom, TAs advocate for the power of the arts and integrated arts in education. They are asked to prove to a room of disbelievers that art is not just art, it is more than that — that art opens doors and changes the way people approach the world. Above all, TAs must believe in the work that they do and the communities that they serve.
Teaching Artists are asked to approach the arts in a way that most artist do not, they must reimagine community engagement and education through project-based learning; integrated art and STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) education; prompting and modeling; and other adaptive pedagogical pathways to the arts. Their art and pedagogy must bridge the gap between the average person and the artist in order to connect with people who may not see the value of the work that the TA does. To do this, they must rethink how we define, talk about and share the arts in order to expose the creative process through artistic and curatorial processes. This deep commitment to the arts reflects the Teaching Artist’s core values. It is because of this continued effort to bridge social, economic, geographical and educational boundaries that the Artist chooses to become a Teacher. The values of a TA are reflected not just in their pedagogy but also in their studio practice- the two become interchangeable.
CASE STUDY #1- SHAUN LEONARDO
Teaching Artist and world renowned social justice artists Shaun Leonardo is actively changing and reimagining the roles of arts institutions by turning major museums, such as the Guggenheim, into his classroom. Leonardo uses inclusive pedagogy, such as prompting and modeling, to invite a new audience into the museum. Leonardo believes that language is often what gets in the way of understanding different group affiliations; in order to bridge the divide between contrasting groups, he abandons language and creates an inclusive space for nonverbal learning. Leonardo asks participants to debate using gestures in response to prompts. In doing so, contrasting groups are forced to see themselves in the other. While language can divide us, we can relate to the feelings and emotions reflected through body language.
By removing the faulty language we use to defend ourselves from those with opposing views, Leonardo structures a nonverbal debate between four contrasting groups of Americans. During Power, Conflict and Vulnerability, Leonardo’s most recent performance at the Guggenheim in New York City, he created a debate about gun violence during which the words “gun” and “violence” were never spoken. Shaun Leonardo connects a range of social groups, removes conflict, and creates new relationships through the arts. Leonardo incorporates his pedagogy into his role as a museum artist, breaking the canon by reimagining what a museum can be and who it can serve by presenting socially aware, inclusive artwork in a major, historical institution.
Shaun Leonardo is not alone in his mission, many TAs are actively reimagining what the arts can represent and reinterpreting what it means to be an artist and an educator. It is artist like Leonardo, and their commitment to providing all audiences with access to the arts through their pedagogy, studio and social practice, that The UnTeaching Project was inspired.
While Teaching Artists are widely represented in urban schools, museum education programs, state and grant funded supplemental and cultural arts programing, universities and research institutions, their classroom is often considered separate from their profession as exhibiting artists. Their pedagogy is often removed from their art work, and, while the two are inherently interdependent, due to the nature and demands of a TA’s work, their artwork is shown alone. That is to say that only half of the work is on view— the other half of the work, which was cultivated as a collaborative effort in the classroom, museum, community center, etc., is not visible.
Traditionally, we experience a gallery or museum show as an onlooker— walking through the traditional white walled “cube”— occasionally we are prompted with supplemental writing about the exhibition. With such a model, artwork is only accessible to the artist, the art critic, the art historian and the art advisor: the traditional art show has been formatted to tell us how to respond rather than giving us the tools that we need to respond to the artwork on our own. This is where traditional art differs from the work of a teaching artist.
This lack of accessibility to contemporary and historic art is particularly evident in urban centers that are experiencing rapid gentrification. When an art gallery or cultural institution opens up in a “up and coming” neighborhood, they often choose to serve an audience other than the community that already lives there. This amplifies the divide between the original community and the institutions, restaurants, and commercial spaces that move to a traditionally low income neighborhood as a result of gentrification. Rather than approaching the arts as inclusive and accessible, cultural institutions present themselves and their exhibitions as elite; they continue to cater to a shrinking population of art collectors and artists rather than including their immediate community.
However, the issue of accessibility in the arts is rooted much deeper. It is an socioeconomic issue that effects all income levels and communities. We have been told that Art (with a capital “A”) is not something that everyone has the right to access. We have been trained by institutions to read about the art we see, rather than to interpret it on our own, with the subtext that we cannot interpret the artworks without assistance. While arts education should be a basic civil right, most of us don’t feel comfortable talking about Art. In America, Art has been used to divide social, economic, cultural and political groups, rather than to bring us together.
The intent of the UnTeaching Project is to reimagine what exhibited art can be: to highlight the total work of Teaching Artists, rather than to celebrate their teaching and artwork as separate accomplishments. By creating an active, participatory space, the UnTeaching Project is intended to bridge the divide between “artist” and “non artists” by creating a space where everyone can contribute freely to the art in order to produce a show that reflects and grows with the community. Above all, the UnTeaching Project was conceived to celebrate the artists, the teacher, and the participant by allowing them to be all three. In doing so, everyone is given the tools they need and once unrealized confidence to talk about and engage with the arts on a more personal level. The UnTeaching Project bridges the classroom and the gallery through prompting, modeling, questioning and other pedagogical methods in order to promote an inclusive platform where art can be used to mend and connect a fractured community and their experience with exhibited arts.
In order to reimagine who the gallery can serve, the objectives of the gallery and the audience must be altered to include an untraditional audience. Teaching Artists work every day to share art with the unassuming or unbelieving— and for that reason, their work is made with constant conscious and unconscious consideration to its accessibility. In collaboration with workshops, teaching artists and community, the UnTeaching Project changes the way that all audiences engage with a traditional gallery.
Fundamental to this paradigm shift is programing. By providing unique programs and workshops, including music, performance, interactive installations, animation and technology, poetry, dance and recycled arts, the gallery was constantly activated and interactive in a new way; thus providing an entry point for everyone, despite their backgrounds. Through constant and diverse programs, the UnTeaching Project provides an alternative means to connect with visual and exhibited arts. Programing is not only educational, it also allows visitors to collaborate through participation; authorship is removed resulting in a project that is constantly growing. Workshops and Programs offer a means to engage with and interact with art on a more personal level.
The workshops inspired by the UnTeaching Project took many forms— subject to the pedagogy of the instructor as well as the response of the participants. Some workshops were formatted as a straight forward, project-based class, with a definitive leader instructing a group, while others were organized around a more open format, one that allowed people to come in and out of the room and to contribute to the prompt when and if they felt moved to. Many of the workshops lived on throughout the duration of the UnTeaching Project without a clear leader, rather, each visitor was given the unique opportunity to engage with the work personally and respond of their own accord. Throughout the exhibition, the show evolved constantly to reflect each individual who entered into the space, rather than just the artists or the curators. The TAs provided the audience with the tools and prompts they needed to interact with the artwork and to create something new.
The Rhythm Workshop, Michael Morales, The Unteaching Project
CASE STUDY 2
Teaching Artist MacKenzie McBride reimagined her lesson plan in order to create an interactive installation in which participants are guided through a series of possible pathways. At each station, she prompts the participant with questions that allow everyone, despite their educational, creative and cultural background, to engage with her poetry. By giving participants the chance to engage with her work at their own entry point, and the freedom to chose how they will respond, McBride connects her pedagogy to her poetry. In the same way that she guides her class to better understand and digest language through a variety of untraditional tasks, Mackenzie McBride is mapping out a physical pathway that leads to engagement.
Similarly to Shaun Leonardo’s Power, Conflict and Vulnerability, McBride understands the specific, attached connotations that language holds, and, while Leonardo removes language in order to create a clear means of communication, McBride celebrates the different associations each person has with specific language.
Fundamental to McBride’s pedagogy and creative practice is to remove “preciousness” (which we so often associate with gallery art) from engagement with her work. While her work is intimate and vulnerable for McBride and the participant, it is also active and physical. After participants have cut, painted, illustrated, blacked out, rearranged and added to McBride’s poems, they are guided to add their new poem to a growing installation of wheat pasted poems. Once shy and timid participants conclude the workshop by confidently adding their poems to become a permanent fixture of the exhibition. To McBride, removing “preciousness” means that people are not scared to engage with her work, it does not mean that her work is not personal. This differential between what is valuable/finished and what is meaningful/process-based is often lost when artwork is transferred from a classroom/studio setting to a gallery.
While some Teaching Artists use a workshop format to make work that is immediately engaging and emblematic of a classroom, this is not the only solution to making work that bridges Fine Art and Pedagogy. Fundamental to a TA’s pedagogy is prompting, modeling, advocacy and inclusion. Whether conscious or unconscious, most of the artwork done by a TA is conceived of or inspired by experiences in the classroom, and for that reason, if we look close enough, we can see the connection between the TA’s artwork and their pedagogy that relies on these four tenets.
CASE STUDY 3
Niizeki Hiromi is a visual artist whose installations reflect her interest in the realities of everyday life. As a Teaching Artist, she has taught for decades in Tokyo and New York City. Her work as a TA is fundamental to her artwork and her life outside of the classroom and the studio. Working with children reminds her of the rarity of everyday life that she captures in her installation work. In New York City classrooms, Hiromi teaches origami classes and a hybrid class called “Inclusion” in which she partners students from public elementary schools with students on the autism spectrum who attend special needs schools the function remotely from normal K-6 education. She dedicates her pedagogy and artwork to making accessible art that conducts community and reminds us of our similarities, rather than making artwork that is merely a luxury for the wealthy. Hiromi arrived in America as a Japanese immigrant without any training in English, rather, she learned to speak from her students. For that reason, she wants everyone to be able to interact with her work, despite their abilities.
Hiromi begins each class by prompting her students in order to create a personal relationship that allow them to give pure and honest responses. She does the same in her installation by creating a intimate experience in a public place. She makes a point of asking open ended questions in both settings. While her work is incredibly personal to her, it is also personal for everyone who engages with it. She includes participation as she sees it to be a crucial and unavoidable part of life. Because she working as a TA, she is constantly thinking about her work in relationship to others, particularly those with limited access, and adjusting her work to become more inclusive and to better reflect New York City by celebrating the work of immigrants, women, children, and outsiders.
Hiromi talks about her experience as a professional artist, and how her work as a TA has not only effected her work but also how she talks about it. She says, “Now, when I am invited to talk about my artwork on panels I feel okay about it because I have been a teacher for 30 years. I am very open and funny when I teach, but when I am talking about my art I feel shy. I am aware that I am Asian and not many Asians are teachers— I am breaking the norm by being outgoing and a teacher. I want my students to know where I come from. To know my name. To get to know me.” With this in mind, Hiromi actively blurs the lines between her identity as a teacher and her identity as an artist.
CASE STUDY 4
Another method used to bridge the classroom and the exhibition space is to showcase student work alongside professional work. Ciara Ruddock is a visual artist and TA who is inspired by the “feel good” moments of art making, in her classroom and in her studio. Ruddock placed her students work next to her own in the context of the UnTeaching Project; side by side, the influence one has on the other is emphasized. Her collaborative classroom paintings were initiated by a shared prompt with the intent of creating a painting made from a place of joy. Professional artists often loose the joy they once had as a result of deadlines, obligations and financing— by highlighting the joy and hope of a child’s painting, Ruddock hopes to tap into the deeper idea of why we create art.
Prompting and warm ups are key to Ruddock’s pedagogy and art making. She uses these tools to provide her students and herself with a vantage point by which to enter the creative space. By creating paintings purely from general prompts, she is able to create a free-flowing environment that fosters and celebrates the joy of making, which she believes is the most fundamental of the human natures. Ruddock’s studio practice is interwoven into her teaching, and as a result, her artwork has changed in response to her students. Now, she paints abstract paintings without the same fear of critique. Rather, she has learned to embrace the meditative, feel good moments of art making. She says, “Before I worked with kids, that wasn’t something that crossed my mind. I never thought about what was sitting inside my brain.”
New York City is full of Teaching Artists, all of whom have found unique ways to integrate their pedagogy and artistic practices in order to reflect and include the unique communities that they serve. It is the TAs job to be an ambassador for the arts in underserved communities, but also to continue to integrate the arts and provide inclusive arts programing outside of said communities, through their own arts practice.
By showcasing the exclusive work of TA’s in an art gallery, the UnTeaching Project is a crucial platform that invited everyone, despite their ability, socioeconomic standing, culture, and training in the arts to engage with contemporary art in an active and visceral way. Through the UnTeaching Project, art bridges urban communities and celebrated diversity, inclusion, and education, rather than creating divides.
In addition to reimagining the role of an artist in an urban environment through social justice and inclusion, the UnTeaching Project creates a platform where pedagogy and artistry can live in the same space, through workshops, installations, lectures and displayed artworks. Thus, a space is created where everyone is welcome, everyone is engaged, and everyone is an artist.
The UnTeaching Project
UnTeaching is routed in New York City and will continue to grow through participation. All teaching artists and educators are welcome to apply for the next iteration of UnTeaching, which will take place this Fall in TriBeCa.