By Foot: Engaging Youth with Performance Art | Shaqe Kalaj

There’s nothing like inspiring and engaging the students whether inside or outside a classroom– in fact it’s essential. So last summer, when I started a visual art performance project on the streets of my community, I wanted to engage youth and adults first-hand in my process. I wanted to surprise passersby and stop them in their tracks.  I wanted them to ask me: “What are you doing?” or simply “Why??” I attained a crowd every time I performed my art, and people of all ages were amazed at my abilities. They wanted to know more and see more.

This project was actually inspired in the classroom and involves drawing various buildings in two small cities in Michigan, where I now reside. The unique aspect to these performances was that I drew and painted them with my foot. Yes, with my foot.

About two years ago I worked with some students with cognitive disabilities. When I was activating them in some drawing I noticed that their lines were alive and unstructured. As I studied their lines I wanted to see if I could create lines that were similarly unstructured. So I started drawing with my non-dominant hand, and then moved to working with my foot, which led to the idea of performance art.

Because of the nature of this project I set some criteria. The work needed to be representational and something the identifiable to the viewer and that is why drawing buildings on-site worked perfectly. I knew people were either going to think that I had a physical disability or that I was off my rocker. However, I was able to disprove both assumptions. Explaining my criteria allowed passersby to admire my skill and follow-through with the work. Many of the responses that I received were “I can’t even draw with my hands,” or “How do you do that?”

But to me the most exciting interactions I had were with young people.  One girl asked me, “Do people think you are crazy?” I responded, “I would be crazy if I was bad.” Afterward she asked me to show her how to draw with her foot and entertained herself with this non-traditional drawing approach. In another instance, I was drawing during a city festival when a girl screamed, “I can’t believe it!” She was in disbelief that anyone could actually draw with their feet. She became a believer after she looked at my drawing. This project really brought my teaching outside of four walls and into the world.

When I was on site I had a sign that said “ART? Foot? Why?? Ask.” Having this sign encouraged viewers to ask the questions they were already thinking of and helped start conversations that, in turn, spurred more interest and intrigue. When people came up and asked me “Why?”, I gave them a sheet that explained six distinct reasons. I also gave them a postcard that showed finished art work completed with my right foot.

One evening, three junior high school students across the street asked if they could come and see what I was doing. They were sincerely interested in the “why.” In our conversation we talked about the social role of the artist. It was here when I saw  clearly that the artist the and teaching artist is one and the same. I saw the possibility of the performance work I was doing as a way to interact with the community and create connections that go beyond a school or structured class. It was here where I saw the work I was doing as an artist become a link to a bigger idea.

Now that this project has moved into the community, it will move back into the classroom. I will also be presenting about this work at the national Arts & Healing Conference in May 2012 in Detroit. My hope is to take this project to Veterans Administration hospitals and to others who may need to engage alternative limbs in creating. You can be part of the Foot Revolution; click the link to learn more.

Leave a Reply