Monthly Mentor

Heidi O'Donnell (December)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. December's monthly mentor is Heidi O'Donnell. Heidi is a high school art educator in mid-coast Maine with twenty years of experience and an insatiable appetite for learning new things. She holds a MEd in Built Environment Education, a BA in Visual Arts, a BS in Arts Education, and a minor in Art History, all from the University of Maine at Orono. Heidi is a recent graduate of the NAEA School for Art Leaders and serves as a National Art Honor Society Sponsor. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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« A Media Detox at the Cedar Point Biological Station | Main | Stress, Change, and Mindfulness at the Start of a School Year »

August 08, 2017

Reflecting on the Unknown, Perseverance and Discovery at the Cedar Point Biological Station

From: Jody Boyer

Nearly 10 days after my artist residency at an active field station I am still pondering how to connect scientific investigation to my classroom pedagogy. What exactly does that look like? Is it the creation of STEAM lessons, alignment to standards, or integrating the scientific method into my arts classroom? While thinking through these questions this morning I distracted myself from the complexities of the problem by reading a wonderful article in which writer Maria Popova explored how artists work in the realm of the unknown. Popova quoted sculptor and installation artist Ann Hamilton  from her essay “Making Not Knowing” – “One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know. “

As I reflected on the first day of my art residency at Cedar Point Hamilton’s words rang true. That first  morning I felt an overwhelming sense of the unknown. I had researched and created for myself a framework of investigation for the week, brought a myriad of supplies with me and set up my workspace. Everything was prepared. But standing at the beginning of the metaphoric path of the artistic process all I felt was lost. Lost in the unknown. I often feel this way in my studio practice. But in a new environment, free from distractions of family and work, the aura of not knowing was sharp and knife-like. Instead of wallowing, I did what I had come to Cedar Point to do, I got to work. That first day I experimented, got frustrated, kept pushing, and created 12 small mixed media pieces. Those first 12 pieces are clumsy studies exploring a new amalgam of materials and processes. I am not happy with any of them. But they are a starting point in a new way of making. They are a discovery into the unknown.

Boyerwk2_photo1Artwork is Progress: Alternative Photography Experiments Exposing Under Plexiglass at the Cedar Point Biological Station

While thinking about discovery my mind also wandered to lunch on the third day of my residency where I overheard a group of students discussing their frustrations in regard to their search for parasites within dragonfly larvae. One student in particular, Silverio Barrio, mentioned he had collected and dissected 24 dragonfly larvae before he found a single parasite to analyze. Barrio’s frustration was clear, but so was his sense of accomplishment at discovering a parasite on his 25th dissection. One aspect of a field station is to bring scientific research to life by giving students an authentic experience of field research. Clearly an authentic experience was at times not what the students were expecting. This reminded me of aspects of practicing and teaching the artistic process and I was curious.  How is it that scientists continue to push forward when they face difficulty? Where does the drive to continue come from when the process seems to be not working, potentially even failing? What feeds the will to continue when faced with seemingly endless barriers?

After lunch I visited the Cedar Point biology lab and introduced myself to the young man I had overheard. I asked Silverio if I could chat with him about his frustrations. With grace he immediately apologized thinking I was concerned about his demeanor, but I expressed that I was interested in how he managed his frustration. In our conversation he mentioned that other students in the course had dissected over 100 dragonfly larvae before finding a single parasite specimen.As I looked down into a jar of dragonflies, I was reminded of my own visual research back in the Lubber Lab on the other side of the field station.  The day before I too had felt a road block in my creative process. Silver and I discussed how we approached these instances of scientific and artistic frustration. We both are driven by a sense of discovery and find solace in the perseverance of working toward our goals.

BoyerWk2Photo2Silverio Barrio, at center in red shorts and blue shirt, and other students searching for dragonfly larvae in a Rural Ogallala Pond.

Now thinking back to my initial question of how to incorporate scientific investigation in the visual arts classroom. Perhaps it is not the alignment of standards, the use a traditional scientific method or STEAM lessons that I need. From my time at an active field station I learned that scientific investigation and artistic investigation are really not that different. What I need is to foster a classroom environment framed by the quest for discovery and builds perseverance for failure. Whether you are searching for new parasites in the guts of dragonflies or embarking on the creation of new art the quest for meaning and understanding likely starts with jumping into unknown waters and often requires you to keep searching regardless if you can see the bottom of the pond.

BoyerWk2Photo3Standing at edge of a Rural Ogallala pond, wondering what is in the water.

-JB

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