In addition to being a teaching artist I am a doctoral candidate at Teachers College. For my dissertation research I’ve been observing museum education programs that bring artists who have work on view in the museum together with young people. I’m interested in programs like this because the work I do occurs in museums however my students don’t encounter my artwork in the galleries. My research simply aims to describe interactions that occur between artists, young people, and educators involved in these programs.
The experience I wish to reflect on here occurred in multiple spaces at one museum. Each environment was an essential component of the lesson and added to the students overall understanding of the artist’s complex process and artwork. This instance stood out to me because the environments I teach in are not always utilized in this way. I learned a lot from watching this experience unfold.
Collaboratively planned by the museum educator and exhibiting artist, the program was designed for an elementary class. The artist’s artwork is best described as “living sculpture,” an installation comprised of the artist’s personal items and herself. Unlike the galleries around it, the installation was filled, cluttered even, with items. The items were diverse, some art materials, some tools, household items and furniture, essentially it was an artist’s studio. The arrangement of the studio shifted day to day as the artist reacted to the environment of the museum.
Before entering the studio installation, the educator greeted the students in the lobby of the museum, guided them up to the installation and instructed them not to touch the artwork. The students respected this rule and entered the installation quietly, with curious eyes. The artist greeted the group and prompted them to walk around. Knowing that the students had seen a photograph of the installation prior to their visit, the artist asked, “Have you noticed how the studio changed?” The students affirmed through nods and muffled uh-huhs.
Minutes later the group was gathered on the floor. The artist introduced herself and attempted to engage the students in conversation about art and her artwork. The students were shy and there was minimal participation. The artist’s lack of familiarity working with children did impact the effectiveness of the dialogue, however, thinking quickly and intuitively, the artist invited the students to go back among the items in the installation to retrieve items. As soon as permission had been given to engage with the space physically, an energy shift occurred. The students’ movements quickened, the noise level grew, and smiles were visible. Noticing this difference was eye opening.
With direction from the artist about what color items to look for and select, the students collected objects and arranged them in a designated area of the studio. In all, the students collaborated on three different arrangements. The first arrangement appeared random, a pile of items one on top of the other. Without interference from the educator or artist, each successive arrangement became more thought out and purposeful. While constructing the last arrangement, the students talked with each other; they waited to see the items before choosing the placement and at one point, they evaluated the arrangement and made adjustments.
Building upon this experience, the students created individual collages with fragments of paper and magazine. Rather than doing this in the artist’s studio, the students were taken to various spaces throughout the museum: an adjacent gallery space, the museum courtyard, the museum lobby and a conference room. In each new space, the students worked out of their own “mobile studio,” a plastic bag filled with materials and tools. This allowed them to experience an art making practice, similar to the artist. Their subsequent work was shaped by what was supplied but also by each environment visited. Additionally, the students’ were on exhibit in the museum, just as the artist and her studio were on exhibit.
Although I have yet to do analysis for my dissertation, this experience has impacted the way I view the environments I teach in. Seeing the students activated by the space was inspiring. I am now interested to hear from other teaching artists about how they have utilized a classroom or alternative teaching environment as an essential component in their lessons. Do you have an experience to share?