Contemporary Artists as Catalysts for Inquiry and Art-making | Debora Broderick

“My job is not to produce answers. My job is to produce good questions.” ~Glen Lignon, contemporary artist

When I first told my students we were going to be studying contemporary artists to help us think about teaching, they were understandably perplexed. My students, who are high school seniors interested in becoming teachers, wondered (a) why we were studying art in a teacher education program, and (b) why were we only studying contemporary art. What is it about contemporary art specifically that lends itself to supporting teacher education? In order to understand this question, my students first needed to grasp a little bit of art history, and how and where contemporary art fits in. It was also important that before we delve into the larger arts integrated project that my students would participate in over the year, I first provide some context and frame our work within the educational field.

I began with inviting Fabric Workshop & Museum (FWM) teaching artist Ryan Parker to our class. Ryan provided an overview of the museum and the many visiting contemporary artists the museum has worked with over the years. This overview included making a distinction between classical, modern, and contemporary art, and Ryan also made a case for the importance of contemporary art to modern culture. We defined contemporary art as a period that began after 1970, which continues to the present moment, and we identified that what makes the contemporary art movement distinct is not necessarily the form or medium, which varies greatly, but the ways in which contemporary artists critique, examine and comment on complex societal issues. This makes contemporary art uniquely suited for exploring important pedagogical issues related to teaching and learning.


It was through this exposure to FWM artists and their work that my students began to make powerful connections between contemporary art and developing an inquiry stance into practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Through learning about the artists, including Greg Ligon, quoted above, students discovered that contemporary artists seek to raise questions about critical societal issues—specifically, the intersections of culture, race, class, language, and identity. Students viewed images from many of the FWM artists, including Ligon’s exhibit Skin Tight (1995), a powerful exploration into the “symbolism of the punching bag and its connection to American societal ideas of black men, boxing, and rap music” (FWM, 2011).

Ligon’s work left my primarily white students unsettled, forced to contemplate their own biases and assumptions about race and privilege, and how these issues might play out in their future classrooms. In many ways, studying the metaphorical language employed by contemporary artists like Ligon, opened up spaces for us to talk about issues that are often incredibly difficult to negotiate in the classroom. We continued this trend throughout the year, using contemporary artists as catalysts for inquiry and inspirations for art-making. I would like to focus the remainder of this post on our exploration of two such artists and the artwork they inspired: FWM visiting artist Virgil Marti, and spoken word artist Shane Koyzcan.

American born artist, Virgil Marti created the unusual wallpaper Bullies (1992) from junior high school yearbook photos of his classmates, who at one point were his bullies. Marti’s work raises important questions still relevant today and especially important for my students: Why are some kids bullied? Why are some kids victims? What is the best way to deal with bullies? Marti’s work gave my students an opportunity to delve into this ubiquitous topic in new ways that challenged their thinking. I decided to pair Marti’s work with spoken word artist Shane Koyzcan’s (2013) video poem “To this Day,” which was inspired by the poet’s experiences dealing with violence and bullying in school. The video, a collaborative effort by eighty-six animators and motion filmmakers, features Koyzcan performing his poem over the animation. Koyzcan’s work recalls Marti’s Bullies, and reminds us that this issue continues to resonate in schools.

The aim in using these artists as inspiration was not to have students attempt to copy a particular artistic style or genre, but rather the goal was to have students engage with the artists’ ideas and respond dialogically through their own original artwork. After studying Marti and Koyzcan’s work, we asked students to investigate times when they have been bullied, witnessed bullying, or had been the bully themselves. After a rich classroom discussion, we asked students to develop an anti-bullying slogan, which they later silk-screen printed into their choice of an image of a billboard, cellphone or sign (Figure 1). Students also had an opportunity to print a large-scale fabric based on the group’s designs, which later became a banner (Figure 2).

Figure 1_DBroderick_ALTSpace5 small

Figure 2_Altspace5 small

Depending on their personal experiences, student work varied greatly, with some choosing to focus on social media, and the bullying they witness on Twitter and Facebook. One student, Ava, powerfully depicted a victim speaking back to her bully on Twitter: “@victim: Just because you can’t see me doesn’t mean I can’t hear you.” In her piece Ava illuminates the anonymous nature of 21st century bullying—that via social media, it can often be easier to simultaneously participate and distance yourself from bullying, and that we all need to be aware of what we post online.

Another student, Blair, chose to represent her slogan on a billboard, which reads: “Your second of “power” isn’t worth a lifetime of pain” (Figure 4). Blair uses the image of the handless clocks to reinforce the idea that for the victim, the pain from bullying can last a lifetime, and that a “second” of “power” over someone can have significant negative long term consequences.

Figure 4_DBroderick_ALTSPACE5 small

For Teegan, who told a story on the class forum about standing up for a fellow classmate when she was being bullied, chose to speak directly to bullies through her artwork (Figure 5). She writes in random form: “Despite what you say, I am: exciting, happy, amazing, smart, my own beautiful, outgoing, different, funny, helpful, loving. What are you?” Teegan’s message of strength and confidence encourages bystanders as well as those vulnerable to bullying to stand up and speak out.

Figure 5_DBroderick_ALTSPACE5

Through studying contemporary artists and engaging in rich classroom discussions, coupled with the act of art-making, my students were able to develop what arts education advocates Berghoff and Borgmann (2007) describe as “deep emotive intensity, intentionality as learners, and useful insights into human experience” (p. 22-23). Developing empathy and understanding via the arts is a powerful learning experience not only for students, but also for pre-service and practicing teachers alike.


Berghoff, B., and Borgmann, C.B. (2007). Imagining new possibilities with our partners   in the arts. English Education, 40(1), 21-40.

Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next      generation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lyndon, P. (2005). “Glenn Ligon: Interview,” International Contemporary Art, 12–14.

Fabric Workshop & Museum (2011) Greg Ligon: Skin Tight, 1995.

Leave a Reply