Aspects of Artistic Processes
From: Jen Childress
The National Core Visual Arts Standards place emphasis on the mental habits artists either intuitively or purposely employ in order to generate artistic work ideas and move them through a process of change to a point of completion. I am delighted to finally see these all important ways of thinking – artistic problem-finding and problem-solving – become the core of art curricula. Though some artistic thinking processes are utilized across domains, some are unique to the arts. Between art forms many processes overlap, but some are even unique to each type of artistic manifestation. My April posts will focus on the thinking processes used by visual artists and how to integrate them into lessons and curricula in selective, meaningful ways.
My quest to figure out how artists think differently began in graduate school in the 1980s while at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan (MFA, Sculpture). Although certainly my artist colleagues were quirky or subject to neuroses, most were stable, usually cheerful people who could talk intently about post-modern theory one minute and in the next breath, the tensile strength of say, steel. In fact, the artists I knew mirrored the general population when it came to personality types, but they did differ in some ways. We were always in search of new sources, new ideas and new visual expressions, and used each work as a stepping stone to another. Artistic work was a way to appreciate, investigate, and understand the world we lived in, even when work was political or dark. Inspiration and sources were wide-ranging and eclectic, resulting in an ever-curious mindset. Because of this open-minded attitude towards pursuing ideas across disciplines, I read what became a seminal book and inspiration for my graduate thesis, Looking Glass Universe: The Emerging Science of Wholeness (Briggs, J.C. & Peat, F.D., Simon & Schuster, 1986).
The first chapter applied Thomas Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts to what was currently happening in the sciences, such as chaos theory and related ideas. I became convinced that artists and scientists shared many similarities in their investigative mindset, and that there were parallels in art history and science when it came to paradigms and paradigm shifts. I sensed a larger whole that both art and science provided different, but overlapping pathways to understanding.
A few years after graduate school, I became certified to teach art K-12. Soon however, I ran into that pernicious, enduring public attitude that artists are crazy, that art is unnecessary, and that making art requires only emotion, not thinking. Of course, today we know that this idea about the separation of the brain’s capacities into discreet areas of left and right, rationality and emotion, is at best misleading; and that the brain’s networks are much more complex and integrated. Unfortunately, even artists and art teachers embraced that old left brain/right brain saw to explain the differences between artists and others. I thought, why does generation after generation perpetuate this myth of the insane artist - the other- the outlier…artists do think differently in some key ways, but they are still using their BRAINS not some other body part. They need alone time to work and think – but so do writers and scientists. They tend to be independent and investigate odd things and unusual connections, but so do explorers and scholars and detectives and psychologists, just in different media, so to speak. And truth be told, I didn't see non-artists displaying any superiority when it came to “rational thinking.” While the answer to why? has centuries old-roots in Western civilization, I knew I could not change such deeply seated beliefs. But I could find out and make public- through my art curricula, research, and writing what kinds of thinking artists engaged in, for what purposes, and when. Hosted by the New York State Art Teachers Association, the New York State Education Department, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (featuring researchers from Nelson Goodman’s Project Zero), summer seminars in portfolio assessment, and work with NAEP pilots in visual arts assessment helped me focus on the generative, iterative, refining, and reflecting aspects of artistic processing during my career as a middle and high school teacher of art.
After I began teaching at the college level in 1998, I heard Charles Dorn present at an NAEA conference, and my mind was set on fire after reading his book, Mind in Art: Cognitive Foundations in Art Education (Routledge, 1999).
Several chapters investigated different approaches important artists had to developing a body of work. I particularly remember Dorn’s descriptions of how Jacob Lawrence spent hours in the library and thoroughly grounded his work in meticulous historical research. From Dorn, I moved on to writings on cognition and art by Howard Gardner, Elliott Eisner, Geoffrey and Renate Caine, Arthur Efland, Olivia Gude, Sydney Walker, and many others. I also collected published studies on neuroscience investigations into how learning happens in the brain, and when available, neural studies connected to creativity and visual art.
The first piece I produced for my students to help them plan thinking like an artist into their lessons (and shared with fellow teachers in conference presentations), was titled “Aspects of Artistic Process.” The first version grew over time from about 15 traits in 2002 to more than 30 in the 2011 version. I’m happy to share it in this blog for fellow teachers to download, consider, provide feedback, copy, and/or share. Between 2006-2009, my summer graduate classes eventually expanded the list, and put it into a chart that indicated whether each trait could be categorized as primarily creative, critical, social, and/or emotional. Then we looked at curriculum and individual lesson plans, and using our chart, analyzed all the different kinds of thinking that were needed for each step or activity. My students and I were amazed at the complexity of thought, and the agility needed to frequently switch modes in a typical art lesson. We also used it look at dull lessons and analyze what would engage more student learning, and different kinds of student processing. I’ll provide that chart and an associated poster in a future post.
The field of neuroscience is now producing study after study on how the brain processes creativity and even visual art-making, though music is still the subject of much more investigation than the other art forms. I’ll share some of those findings throughout the month, in the context of actual art lessons that include carefully selected aspects of artistic thinking, produced by my former pre-service art education students.
Coming up in my next post: A 6th grade lesson based on self-taught Aboriginal artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye. For an overview of her works, see a student researcher’s YouTube presentation (DatGuyMatt, 2016, February). It ends with Big Yam Dreaming (1995) which will be featured in the lesson.