Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Tuesday 09.29.15

Putting play in the process: Is play rigorous?

From: Stacey Salazar

As noted in recent reports like this one, many educators equate ‘rigor’ with pain, rigid thinking, harshness, and extra homework – a view that can cause curricula to become narrow and dull. In fact, understood this way, ‘rigor’ has little connection to the inquisitiveness, perseverance, and creative thinking needed for lifelong learning. However, I encountered an exciting definition for rigor in Maryland’s Howard County Public Schools, where I recently led a workshop for K-12 art educators.

Image-1_420A group of Howard County artist-educators use their bodies to create a visual metaphor for collaboration.

Using a slight adaptation of a definition published by Mindsteps (2012), Howard County says:

Rigor is a quality of instruction that requires each and every student to: construct meaning, impose structure on information, integrate individual skills into processes, operate within but be at the outer edge of current ability, and apply what is learned to more than one context and to unpredictable situations.

In reading this definition, it occurred to me that play is rigorous. Consider the following correspondences between play in the art classroom and Howard County’s definition of rigor:

Play provides openings for the players (students) to construct meaning through individual choice making.

Play affords opportunities for players (students) to integrate individual artmaking skills into processes.

Certain types of play, such as Pretend Play, encourage players (students) to work at the outer edge of their ability.

Since play experiences have no predetermined end, play might inspire players (students) to operate productively in unpredictable situations.

As your September Monthly Mentor, it has been my pleasure to share thoughts, strategies, and resources for putting play in the process. I hope these posts support you as you endeavor to structure opportunities for play in your art classroom – not only because play might be rigorous, but also because:

play is authentic to contemporary art making practices,
play is conducive to creativity and lifelong learning,
and play makes learning fun!

Thursday 09.24.15

Putting play in the process: “Wild and Safe” in the Art Classroom

From: Stacey Salazar

Ann Hamilton’s large-scale collaborative installation-performance is a provocative intersection of object, action, and context – creating a “wild and safe” sensation for participants. However, the more modestly scaled One Minute Sculptures by Erwin Wurm – which also engage object, action, and context – might more readily translate to the art classroom.

Image 1

When I was teaching at the high school level, and later in a pre-service art education program at MICA, my students considered the ways in which artwork like Wurm’s questioned cultural norms in museums, galleries, and other institutional settings.

Image 2

The students viewed Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers by Sounds Without Noise (which proposes a fresh way to engage with objects in the home) and Fred Wilson’s provocative re-installation of objects from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in the City of Baltimore.

Image 3

My students then developed their own one-minute-sculptures based on the prompt: Choose an object from your everyday life, and act on that object so that the meaning of the object is altered, or so that the way you normally behave in the art classroom is changed. Ultimately students structured a collaborative performance of one-minute-sculptures that unfolded over several minutes of class time. The humorous and subversive qualities of such artworks appeal to adolescents and young adults, allowing them safe, imaginative avenues for challenging institutional and cultural constraints. And it seems to me that the object/action/context process is similar to ‘pretend play,’ which scholars like Lev Vygotsky, Michelle Root-Bernstein, and Stuart Brown have identified as beneficial to learning and creativity.

If you would like to facilitate “wild and safe” experiences using object/action/context in your art classroom, a good beginning resource is How to Be An Explorer of the World, by Keri Smith. Her prompts can be done individually or collaboratively, are easily contained within a sketchbook-journal, and might be inserted as brief exploratory lessons that complement learning units you already teach.

Image 4

For my next and final post, I will consider the relationship between play and rigor.

Tuesday 09.22.15

Putting Play in the Process: The Objects We Play With

From: Stacey Salazar

Stuart Brown, cited in my second post, says that curiosity about and physical interaction with objects can bring about a state of play called Object Play. I wonder, though, might the context in which we engage with objects contribute to a state of play? And how might the action the player takes also be significant?

Image 1
The Event of a Thread, a 2012 participatory installation by contemporary artist Ann Hamilton, was a situation that evoked a state of play through an incongruous alignment of object, action, and context.

Here is a wonderful video that captures the experience of Hamilton’s installation. I, too, participated by swinging on a swing, reclining under the floating fabric, and weaving my way through caged birds, spoken words, and wrapped bags. I also spent time watching other participants and listening to the murmur of conversation punctuated by squeals of pleasure. This was no ordinary gallery experience; the attendees seemed to be at play. The objects (swings) were an invitation to action (to swing) in a context (a gallery exhibition space) in which swinging – or even touching an artwork, for that matter! – is normally an unacceptable behavior. Hamilton's arrangement of the objects in space invites the viewer to break this cultural boundary. For me, mounting the oversized swing and gently rocking my body back and forth through the cavernous exhibition space brought about simultaneous sensations of risk and repose – or, as a participant quoted in the video says, feeling “wild and safe” at the same time. Perhaps this is also an apt description of being in a state of play?

For my next post, I’ll share a strategy and resource that might inspire “wild and safe” experiences in the art classroom.

Thursday 09.17.15

Putting Play in the Process: Exploring Materials

From: Stacey Salazar

As you may have noticed, the two “Packet Prompt” examples instigate exploration of materials within a set of constraints. Exploration of materials is frequently a way in which artists – professional or student – engage in states of play. In my contribution to Connecting Creativity, I note how artists Richard Serra and Richard Prince, and lighting designer Ingo Maurer, have described the way in which, as emerging artists, play brought about discoveries with a very specific material: lead (Serra), magazine images (Prince) and light bulbs (Maurer). Relatedly, sculptor Jessica Stockholder and painter David Hockney work within constraints that liberate them to explore a wide range of materials.

A number of art education scholars have advocated that the exploration of materials be an important – even essential – component for student artmaking. In July, Mary Image 01Hafeli, author of Exploring Studio Materials, visited the MA in Art Education at MICA and engaged the graduate students in an range of strategies for exploring materials.

Mary invited students to a “buffet” of materials, suggesting they explore a material with which they were not entirely familiar or comfortable within a very limited time period.

Image 02

Other exploration prompts followed, which scaffolded the students through levels of collaboration (pairs, small groups) and through diverse explorations. Ultimately, Mary challenged the more than 20 participants to collaborate on installation-as-process.

Image 04
Constraints included:

– a three-hour time limit and two rotating teams of ‘makers’ and ‘composers’ (process),

– a gallery wall in MICA’s Lazarus Graduate Studio Center (format),

– a shared sensation of a poem (concept),

– the materials on the “buffet” (materials),

– and a collaborative sense of ‘rightness’ to the composition (visual form).

The students were deeply immersed in the process: collaborating, making, responding, and composing – as the process unfolded over several hours. When the day concluded there seemed to be an even stronger sense of community and a shared sense of investment, elation, and accomplishment.

Image 05
The resulting installation remained on display for the final weeks of the summer.
Image 06
More on putting play in the process to come, next week!

Tuesday 09.15.15

Putting Play in the Process: Constraints in “Packet Prompts” [part two]

From: Stacey Salazar

Art educator Jade Giorgi, a recent graduate of MICA’s Master of Arts in Art Education program, adapted Packet Prompt so that it would be an exploration appropriate to introduce a sculptural design unit with third-graders. First, Jade and her students examined images of non-traditional chairs – some made out of non-traditional materials such as pencils, tennis balls, or cardboard – and discussed qualities that made chairs ‘good.’ Then Jade presented each student with a sealed plastic bag labeled with the student’s name, containing a selection of found and recycled materials. Packets in hand, Jade prompted students to “create a prototype for the BEST and most AWESOME chair that you can, using only the materials inside your bag, scissors, tape, and glue.”

The constraints Jade imposed were:
       Use only the sculptural items in the bag (materials),
       a time limit of one class period (process),
       a prototype tabletop scale (format),
       and “most awesome” chair (concept),
       there were no limitations on the design of the chair (visual form).

Thus we see that materials, process, and format were very limited; the concept was somewhat open as students could define the qualities they considered “most awesome” and the design, or visual form, was entirely open to any possibilities students could conjure.

Image 1
Jade’s observations of the activity as it unfolded suggest a state of play in the art classroom. Below, in italics are descriptions of Jade’s classroom, followed by, in brackets, possible connections to play.  

The students were excited to receive a packet with their name on it and to unpack the gallon-size packet. [Play as a voluntary activity.]

Image 2
Jade noticed the students were very engaged and that students helped one another with technical issues and frequently shared the possibilities of their – flying, food and drink providing, transforming, swinging, or relaxing – chairs. [The spontaneous talk about the work at hand might indicate that for some students, there was a diminished consciousness of self or of time passing.]

Image 3
Some of the students took it so far as to write Pottery Barn a letter explaining why the store should carry their chair . . . others wanted to paint their prototypes, and some asked if they could make a second chair . . . [Students’ spontaneous proposals for how to extend the project might be comparable to a player taking risks or making changes in order for the “play” to continue.]

Jade structured this opportunity to play as a materials exploration to introduce her chair-design unit. For my next post I’ll share another experience (and a new source!) for materials exploration.

Thursday 09.10.15

Putting Play in the Process: Constraints in “Packet Prompts”

From: Stacey Salazar

“Packet Prompts” is an example of an assignment featuring constraints that are intended to spark creative thinking. I give each participant a sealed plastic bag containing a prompt and a dozen humble materials – inserted in a random fashion – such as fabric, string, a crayon, a playing card, a magazine image, and tape or glue. In this way, each packet is unique but all contain a similar array of materials.

Image 1
Constraints I imposed were:
– the items in the bag (a material constraint),
– a thirty-minute time limit (a process constraint),
– a page in their visual journal (a format constraint),
– and a prompt evoking a personal memory (a conceptual constraint).  I have had great success using prompts from Donald Davis’s book, Telling Your Own Stories.

Image 2
I impose no constraints on visual form. In this way, participants are empowered to alter and organize the packet contents in any manner that best captures their personal memory.

Image 3
The severe time constraint and limited materials seem to compel participants to ‘just do it!’ In addition, the format, a visual journal page, seems to be a safe space – in that the journal is often free from expectations to ‘make-art-with-a-capital-A.’ Significantly, in my view, the act of delivering the materials in a personal packet draws a participant in, like a player to a game, because, as one student said, “receiving the packet is like getting a gift!” – the recipient wants to open the packet and discover the contents.

Below are a few examples of prompts accompanied by the visual responses:

Show us the one place in all the world that you would like to have built a house.

Image 4
Can you tell us about a favorite childhood hiding place or secret thinking place?

Image 5
Can you remember a night your parents never found out about?

Image 6
Can you remember a trip that you would not want to have to take again?

Image 7
For my next post, I will share how a fellow art educator transformed “Packet Prompts” for use in an elementary-level sculpture unit.

Tuesday 09. 8.15

Putting Play in the Process: Using constraints to engage students in authentic play

From: Stacey Salazar

Too much freedom can paralyze creativity. Constraints, or defined limits, are intentionally placed parameters that give us a starting point, a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome, which opens up diverse creative possibilities. In the introduction to his 2015 book, Play and Participation in Contemporary Arts Practices, scholar Tim Stott states that “Play’s openness, and the freedom of players in play, derives from the operation of constraints” (p. 5). Similarly, nearly 50 years ago, in his classic essay, Design and the Play Instinct, noted designer Paul Rand wrote that, “a problem with defined limits, with an implied or stated discipline (system of rules) that in turn is conducive to the instinct of play, will most likely yield an interested student and, very often, a meaningful and novel solution.”

Working within the constraints of a ‘memory of summer vacation,’ a limited palette of tempera paint, and some differently-sized brushes, this fourth-grader discovered that by banging the paper with two small brushes of identical size, held side-by-side in his fist, he could form marks similar to footprints he recalled seeing as he ran along the beach in his new red swimsuit.

Image 1

The concept of constraints comes from several sources beyond visual art. Early in the 20th-century, psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote that play is a novel form of behavior that liberates a child from societal constraints. More recently scholars argue that in the complex system that is “student-centered learning,” it is the teacher’s role to structure activities built on constraints that are authentic to a particular discipline.

Constraints authentic to art and design are readily apparent in the practices of Neo-Dada and Fluxus artists, in client-based design like that of Paul Rand’s, and in contemporary performance art such as that by Oliver Herring – whose Task Parties feature a box of prompts submittted by participants, which might say: “Paint your lips pink and kiss someone,” or “Start a revolution.” Many professional artists carefully choose constraints to bound their studio investigations and thereby increase the space for discovery and invention. My colleague, Karen Carroll, identifies five categories of constraints authentic to art and design: materials, format, visual form, concept, and process.

For my next post, we’ll look at an art assignment through these five categories of constraints.

Thursday 09. 3.15

Putting Play in the Process: What is “authentic play” and how does it relate to creativity?

From: Stacey Salazar

What makes a given experience, play? In his book,
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Image 1Opens the 
Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
, Stuart Brown notes three essential components of authentic play: it has an inherent attraction that draws the player in, thus making involvement voluntary; play allows the player to experience a sense of freedom from time and a diminished consciousness of self; and the player engages in play for its own sake, hoping it will continue for as long as possible. “Authentic play,” therefore, might be considered to be experiences in which these three characteristics are present.

There are correspondences between authentic play and the ways in which creative individuals have been described, as the chart below summarizes:

Correspondences between PLAY and CREATIVITY

From theories of Play

From theories of Creativity

play is a voluntary activity engaged in for its own sake, without a predetermined end

creative individuals exhibit passionate engagement in their creative practice, often without knowing the form the final outcome will take

play induces a diminished consciousness of self

creative individuals experience a sense of “flow” when engaged in their work, decreasing their awareness of time passing

the player will take risks or make changes in order for the “play” to continue

creative individuals take risks in their work and persevere in the creative process

These play-and-creativity connections are amplified by the fact that play is found throughout contemporary art practice. Artists like Richard Serra, Jessica Stockholder, and David Hockney have spoken about the importance of play in their artistic processes. For additional examples across a variety of materials and processes, I suggest two sources: this episode of art21 and Chapter 7 of Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Artmaking.

Since play and creativity correspond in theory and art practice, it follows that if your colleagues and administrators are in favor of nurturing student creativity, you may find support when you structure authentic play experiences in art lessons. For my next post, I will introduce the notion of constraints, and how those might be harnessed to elicit authentic play experiences for art students.

Tuesday 09. 1.15

Putting Play in the Process: An introduction

From: Stacey Salazar

It is my pleasure to be the NAEA Mentor for the month of September. Some of you may know that I am on the faculty at the Maryland Institute College of Art where I direct the Master of Arts in Art Education program, working with amazing graduate candidates who are experienced art educators teaching in schools and communities around the US and the globe. You may also know that much of my research has explored studio art and design education in post-secondary settings, an interest that began many years ago, while I was teaching studio art in both high school and college settings. It was during those years that I began to explore the ways in which my art students might authentically investigate contemporary art practices as they undertook their own search for meaning with tactile, visual forms. In particular, it Image 1seemed to me that play-as-creativity was significant to both professional and student artists, some aspects of which I considered in my chapter, “Fiat lux: Creativity Through Play,” in the 2015 NAEA publication, Connecting Creativity: Research and Practice in Art Education, edited by Flávia Bastos and Enid Zimmerman.

In my work as a teacher of studio art pedagogy, a maker of art, an art education researcher, and as director of the MAAE program, I become every day more convinced that structuring opportunities for authentic play in the art classroom is of central importance to 21st-century art education. Therefore, for my posts as your September mentor, I will share a few strategies and resources for “Putting Play in the Process.”

For my next post, look for a definition of “authentic play,” some thoughts on the relationship between play and creativity, and two excellent resources on play in contemporary artmaking practice.