At some point in the past a friend of mine had a foot injury. He was laid up, unable to walk, for about a week whilst the injury healed, sufficient to bear his weight. He was bereft. He could not work, he could not leave the house. He took it badly.
At the time we were fond of looking for stories in myth which may inform events in our current or past life event. We naturally looked to the story of Achilles. In myth he was dipped into the River Styx by his mother to make him invulnerable. She held his foot to facilitate this. His invulnerable heel was his weakness and this is where the spear that killed him hit him in battle. Today, a weakness can be referred to as a persons ‘Achilles Heel’. After suffering an injury to my own eponymous Achilles Tendon, I can attest to it’s disabling capacity. Achilles was a warrior and for a warrior and foot injury could be a potential fatal weakness.
We reflected on how neither he nor I were warriors. It was some comfort and a useful antidote to equating masculinity with combat. Myths are useful in the way they contain archetypal forms, patterns of phenomena or behaviour that transcend the time of the original story. They are like signposts from the past that point to the present. My recollection of the exchange with my friend seems to include some reference to another myth which pointed to the idea that a foot injury is a sign to rest and reflect. But numerous searches have not revealed any such myth.
In reality Achilles would have seen out his days resting his heel in carpet slippers if he had rested and reflected instead of going into battle. Indeed, maybe the myth points to a warrior resting and avoiding battle should they get a tendon injury in their heel.
On Tuesday the 19th October I tested positive for Covid 19. The government in their infinite wisdom decreed that give such an injury I should rest for 10 days. They wrote to me and said “You have tested positive for COVID-19. You must stay at home and self-isolate until 29th of October (including this date at midnight).”
I could still smell stuff. I had no temperature. But 2 flow tests showed positive. After a while I felt like a large dog was sitting on my chest. I got no worse but was exhausted and slept a lot. I was laid low for about a week. The chest restriction was scary and I could see that if it got worse it would this that killed me. CV19 is an upper respiratory illness. Untreated it would be a terrifying way to go. You would slowly suffocate.
I couldn’t do much bit sit, rest and reflect. So I reflected on Achilles. I figured that for 10 days at least my fighting days were over. The myth told me it was ok to be out of action.
My art making had reached a bit of a hiatus. I have been having a battle with my ‘Imposter Syndrome’. My art making included photography, performance, walking art, painting, poetry and prose, collage, music making, digital art and all manner combinations of the above. But fine art it was not. It had become, in the eyes of my imposter self, a meaningless mishmash of mixed-media. Given an opportunity to rest and reflect I decided to reflect on all the weird things I had done in the name of art, and pick a few to concentrate on. Be a proper ‘Artist’.
How to do it though. I decided to make a book. I would call it ‘Here’s One I Made Earlier – Retrospective of a Non-Artist’. It could be a work of fiction. I would be the unreliable narrator. I remembered a story about artist Joseph Beuys, about how he claimed his plane was shot down in flames and he was badly injured, and a band of nomadic Tartars had saved his life by wrapping him up in felt and fat. It was only partly true. But Beuys built his reputation as an artist on this story. He did lots of stuff that could be considered ‘not-art’, like living in a cage with a coyote. Beuys created his own myths. His story is told in ‘Fat, felt and a fall to Earth: the making and myths of Joseph Beuys’ here.
In the article, Olivia Laing the author says “All the same, by turning his injury into a fable, Beuys did make a clear statement of intent. War, fascism, nationhood, trauma and repair: these would be his subjects, but his approach would not be that of a historian or social scientist. What he was interested in was discovering and communicating in mythic terms how damage might be transfigured or transformed.”
The power of transformation is the power of art. Art preceded science but both act as forms of research. Science of the material world, art of the immaterial. Science is a form of art. John Berger is quoted in the article and says “In matters of seeing, Joseph Beuys was the great prophet of the second half of our century. Believing that everybody is potentially an artist, he took objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them … by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.”
My book making is going OK. My imposter has coughed, interrupted me, and opined that my retrospective ideas about my past as a non-artist are inaccurate. “I think you might just find that your ideas of yourself are just a myth.” he says. I am getting uncomfortable with the process I embarked on. But this just means the process is working. I am (as Berger says) taking “…objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them … by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.” and I am the spectator.
In retrospect my past is being transfigured and transformed by my act of making. Not sure what it will be transfigured and transformed into. But that is what art and research is all about. I am in the right attitude. I am available for outcomes but not connected to them. I am in adventure.
True use of art as an expression of experience and a reminder that art making can contribute to cultural health as well as personal health given a recent preponderance for ‘parades’ as demonstrations of power.
“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their superb forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”
A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.
Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew that he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from a disciple of Paul Klee’s. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of animosity that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet.
Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from bigoted brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.
He enlisted in the American Army, in a secret intelligence unit of German-speaking immigrants who were flown into Germany for the invasion of Normandy that backboned D-Day, the liberation of France, and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. There to do translation work and to illustrate posters and pamphlets rallying the troops, Lewen walked into one of the major concentration camps the day after it was liberated and saw what had happened to countless people who looked like him, who spoke the same language and dreamt kindred dreams — saw the would-be destiny he had narrowly escaped by making it to America as a refugee.
When he returned to New York with a wounded body and a scarred soul, he spent six months recovering at the VA hospital, then poured his surviving spirit into a stirring narrative suite of fifty-five drawings titled The Parade — a wordless, intensely emotional, consummately illustrated black-and-white charcoal meditation on the grim and abiding paradox of armed antagonism: that every war appeals to some primal part of the human spirit in order to gain its destructive momentum, and every war ends up destroying what is most buoyant and beautiful in that spirit.
And yet despite how stirred those who saw it were by Lewen’s work, it fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered more than half a century later and resurrected in the final year of Lewen’s life in the stunning accordion volume Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey (public library), envisioned and edited by Art Spiegelman. It opens with the letter Einstein wrote to Lewen on August 13, 1951 — his most direct and impassioned statement on the political power of art:
I find your work The Parade very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.
It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view.
In consonance with his contemporary and fellow humanist Anaïs Nin’s ardent case for the centrality of emotional excess in creativity — “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” she wrote to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author whom she was mentoring — Einstein adds:
It is true that it is utterly wrong and disgusting if some direction of thought and expression is forced upon the artist from the outside. But strong emotional tendencies of the artist himself have often given birth to truly great works of art. One has only to think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daumier’s immortal drawings directed against the corruption in French politics of his time. Our time needs you and your work!
Lewen died days before Spiegelman’s gorgeous resurrection of The Parade was published, in the politically precipitous months leading up to the 2016 American election. He never lived to see the country that had given him refuge crumble into a republic of racism and xenophobia for four years, but also never lived to see the redemption of the republic in the subsequent election of a President who, in another time and another place, would have perished in a concentration camp.
Great article form Ciara McCabe from The Conversation (links below) with a UK focus, about having a hobby as a way to improve mental health. Ciara has provided lots of links to other sources including SAGE, and other great articles from The Conversation.
My experience reflects this, in that I found art making and walking art pleasurable, and the walking bit also promoted physical health and wellbeing.
With depression one of the features for me is overthinking, often expressed as free floating anxiety that seems to just come from nowhere and be about nothing. I worry about worrying.
But also the act of making stuff means that I get to think about something that is pleasurable, and outside my head and not inside it. It is also real stuff I can do and touch. It is grounding. And I end up with an art object or do a walk with a purpose to seek experience to make art or my walk becomes performance. Out of the experience, I learn something and make some real concrete thing, and that is affirming.
So the depressive thoughts that I would have had that have no purpose, get used up with doing things that become purposeful.
The art object, be it performance or an art object becomes a container for personal experience and personal material. Culturally, this always was a purpose of art. An undue focus on art as ‘Fine Arts’ and art markets has undermined this purpose.
Make art and don’t beat yourself up that it is not ‘good’ art. Bad art is still art, and you can be the only witness to your art making. Don’t give in to embarrassment. Stop making sense. Nobody will ever know what you made.
For some, having a hobby may even prevent depression.
The pandemic has taken its toll on many peoples’ mental health. Given the fear of the virus and the government restrictions on movement many may understandably be feeling more lonely, anxious, and depressed than usual. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even issued guidance on how people can look after their mental health during this difficult time. Key advice includes trying to keep a regular pattern of eating, sleeping, hygiene and exercise.
But a less obvious recommendation is to make sure you’re still finding time to do the things you enjoy. In fact, research shows that having a hobby is linked to lower levels of depression – and may even prevent depression for some.
Losing interest and joy in things you normally like doing is one symptom of poor mental health. Known as anhedonia, this is a common symptom of depression and is something patients say they would most like relief from – possibly because the drugs used to treat depression target other symptoms and don’t seem to alleviate it.
So, finding time for your interests and pleasures – such as a hobby – during lockdown could be one way of avoiding anhedonia and depression. In fact social prescribing is a treatment method where doctors can ask patients with mild to moderate depression to take up a non-medical intervention (such as a hobby) to improve their mental health. As antidepressants can be less effective in those with mild depression, this treatment strategy may still help patients with depression find relief from their symptoms.
So far, some studies have shown that social prescribing programmes that ask patients to take up hobbies such as gardening or art are beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.
Evidence also shows that even for those with clinical depression, certain psychological treatments – like behavioural activation, which requires patients to schedule in time to do things that bring them pleasure and joy – improve symptoms of depression. A wide range of activities and hobbies may play a role in social prescribing and behavioural activation, such as exercising, playing an instrument, drawing, reading or handicrafts.
The reason that finding time for hobbies can work has to do with how they affect the reward system in the brain. When we take part in a hobby that we enjoy, chemical messengers in the brain (known as neurotransmitters) are released – such as dopamine, a chemical which helps us feel pleasure. These feel-good chemicals can then make us want to do the hobby again, and feel more motivated to do so.
So even though we may not feel motivated in the beginning to spend time on a hobby, once we start it and feel the associated pleasure, this will kick-start our reward system and subsequently our motivation to do it again. This is something we’re researching in greater depth in our lab.
Alongside pleasure and motivation, hobbies can also bring other benefits. Physical hobbies can, of course, improve your fitness, and others can even improve your brain function. Research suggests that some hobbies – like playing a musical instrument – can improve your memory, while artistic hobbies (such as reading or board games puzzles) are reported to prevent dementia later in life.
So if you’re feeling lower than normal during the pandemic, perhaps try to find time to re-engage with some hobbies that you may have enjoyed in the past – or try new ones. You can also seek help or guidance from your GP or a therapist to find the best treatment for you.
Part of the work of Rewilding is that it is an idea about how place should be understood. A rewilded place is a place that helped along, then is left to make itself.
Given this we could understand rewilding at the urban fringe in art terms, as an artistically expressed idea in which native species make an urban place wilder through their own creative outlet, which is what wilderness, and art is, it creates itself.
You could say than, following this line, that Graffiti art was a way of rewilding urban spaces. An art form created by black and hispanic people in the cities and specifically the bits of cities that were, literally, wild places at the edge of the less wild respectable places, with Graffiti now ironically, partly gentrified as ‘Street Art’. Rewilding, takes place along a continuum, as does the urban fringe.
This is about Ben Wilson. Chewing Gum Man, who makes art from the detritus of human life. He starts his work with an ethos about who should control urban space, and about art as an act of making not selling. Truly an inspiration.
His work promotes a dialogue through art, about place and who controls it and what purpose art serves.
After doing my Solway Walk I went back to some academic and practice material, reconnecting with Augusto Boal on performance as a dichotomous, and thus creative, process. This connected with my experience of art making as performance as a journey of uncertain outcome. But some of my art making ended up with art objects. However the Boal stuff reminded me of other materials I had read.
In a book called ‘Using Art as Research in Learning an Teaching; Multidisciplinary Approaches Across the Arts’ by Ross W. Prior, there is a chapter that reiterated some of what Boal had to say about the ambiguity of the art making process. In Chapter 8 ‘The ‘Epistemic Object’ in the Creative Process of Doctoral Inquiry’, Carole Gray, Julian Malins and Maxine Bristow the authors, develop ideas about the art object which reinforces Boal’s ideas about aesthetic space but in relation to visual art and the arts object as part of an experiential process. It also talk about ways of viewing art that moves us away from the fine art exhibition, and towards ways of showing art product and process much more conducive to experiential learning. It is about art as research at postgrad level but we can think of art as experiential learning as a form of research or as a source of knowledge at many levels.
The Epistemic Object
Whilst Augusto Boal’s idea of performance containing the aesthetic space as a dichotomous space in which a person acts, witnesses and learns through their own actions, thoughts and feelings, the act of performance is highly experiential, and produces no object in the way visual art does.
In the article the epistemic object is understood as an object which, through engagement and experience, acts as a source of knowledge. In this sense the object could be a painting or an architectural model or the Large Hadron Collider or a diagram of a particle accelerator or the Sistine Chapel. The epistemic object or epistemic art contains ambiguity or uncertainty and thus can be a vehicle for inquiry and thus learning. So whilst ideas about what we we can learn form art is not without contention, as a perspective on art as experiential learning the idea may be useful.
It struck me that when I worked at Outward Bound two classic experiential learning, or ‘problem solving’ activities that could be understood as epistemic objects were ‘The Wall’ and ‘Barrels and Planks’ . Both used creative experiential activities as a source of knowledge. Both could also be understood as performance in the way Boal suggested.
Viewing and more importantly doing art, making art objects could, I suggest, be understood as epistemic objects. What interests me is the way this idea, adopted and hybridised by art based researchers could bring together ways of thinking about and engaging in experiential learning that could encompass science, the arts, outdoor adventure and the arts therapies.
In the article a number of ideas are presented about the epistemic object being ambiguous or dichotomous and open to interpretation and as such, through interaction, open to creative development or re-viewing. With the article the devil is in the detail. To paraphrase of quote parts of the article would loose a lot of the explanation. So a copy of the article is available for download on my blog under this post or can be downloaded here.
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s term ‘epistemic things’ is used as a starting point. Rheinberger is quoted thus. ‘An experiment […] is an exploratory movement, a game in which one plays with possible positions, an open arrangement’. The article continues ‘For an epistemic object to have the potential to develop scientific research, it must embody a degree of uncertainty to be useful’. He asserts that epistemic things ‘are by nature made to be surpassed’’
In the article the things that pass as epistemic objects include Crick and Watson’s model of DNA, made with lab equipment. Things used by architects to design buildings including sketches, drawings, plans, charts; photographs; project management tools – timelines, schedules, tables; virtual prototypes, scale models, and even machines and parts are epistemic objects. A design consultancy process in cited, where individual employees select ‘core value’ cards – a given set of random images – to visually express particular values that they each associate with their company.
Finally there is a wonderful description of how Antonio Gaudi designed the Crypt of the Church of Colonia Güell. ‘Gaudi’s stereostatic model.. brought together a set of inquiring materials – a wooden board, cords, cloth, pellets, photographs. From each catenaric arch (formed by hanging the cords from the board) small sacks of pellets were suspended. The structure was photographed. The final shape of the church’s future architecture was revealed by turning one of the photographs upside-down– indeed a productive thing.’ Read about it here.
To me an ‘experiment’ as described above by Rheinberger, could be an expedition, or a painting, or canoe trip, or a walk on a beach, or a drawing of an idea of experiential learning, or making a movie about a walk on a beach, or a map. All, like a petri dish or a painting, can be an epistemic object.
These are all things that could be understood as ‘thinking by doing’, ‘embodied cognition’ or ‘material thinking’. These could things used by artists, physicists, architects, musicians, geologists, sports coaches. The ‘epistemological object’ differs from the ‘model’ in how it is used and by virtue of it being incomplete, ambiguous, dichotomous, open or emergent. The interaction of the maker of the object with the object is what makes it a source of knowledge or creativity. The model tells us what we already know.
The article describes the role of epistemic objects ‘..is not to represent what is already known, but on the contrary, to come to terms with what is not yet known. The epistemic object is defined by what it is not (or not yet) as much by what it is’, and says artworks are ‘‘generators of that which we do not yet know’ inviting us to think and thereby are epistemic agents’.
My proposal throughout is that if we understand art making as experiential learning then the outcomes of learning are determined by the interaction of a person doing something in which, as Rheinberger notes above, they think ‘a degree of uncertainty to be useful’. This is endemic to art making, to the art object, to the epistemic object. So as a source of knowledge, a mode of discourse and exploration of experience, art making, in all it’s myriad and contested forms treats, like with like. It’s uncertainty matches the uncertainty of experience.
But in making art, how do we show what we have learned, in and of experience, if it is uncertain. The article goes on to link the epistemic object to the act of exposition. Exposition can be understood as being characterised by an exposure, a showing of all and an explanation.
The word exposition is now a noun, the name of a thing. Etymologically it is from exponere which is a verb, a describer of a doing. In the context of art as experiential learning, as part of a research discourse, the writers of the article think of exposition as more of an exposure of doing, thinking, of materials and process.
The article goes further and suggest it is ‘…the sharing of thinking processes and the revealing of methodology; and perhaps most importantly it invites participation in order to enrich and expand understandings from the inquiry,’ and ‘There is a didactic element to the notion of exposition, as far as it teaches how, and as what something may be seen without determining outcomes.’
Visual examples can be found in the article of recent PhD art as research doctoral expositions. Here.
In showing art in the fine art context, the exhibition could have the quality of a museum, with lots of explanations, or it could seek to rely on the capacity of the artworks to speak for themselves. The explanatory method can tend to give a fixed account of the art made. The art speaks for itself is fine, if you speak art in the same way as the artist. Grayson Perry suggested in the BBC Reith lectures that all galleries should have a big sign at the entrance that says ‘YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIKE IT ALL’. He did and exhibition of work by renowned artist and rank amateurs. He said he liked the idea that when people first walked in nobody knew who made what. They just found stuff they liked.
A big part of what I want to get as is art not ART. The making art rather than the viewing of ‘Fine Art’. Art as doing not viewing. We cannot all be artists but we can all make art. We can make art as a way to learn something about your experience, of art making, of what your art is about.
When I was at school I got a grade ‘A’ in Art and Physics. It took me 50 years to get back to the art thing. But the thought of me showing my art in an exhibition is horrific. At school you had to be wary of being good at art ‘cos if your art was good it got put on the wall. In my school that meant you had sold out. ‘Teachers Pet!’.
But my exposition is here, in my showing and sharing. I want to show you what I made and my thinking about my making. The trick that I am working on is to find a balance between being too rigidly didactic and teacherish and too vaguely arty and obscure. My goal is to show so that you may find some thing you like that resonates for yourself. But like Grayson Perry says, you don’t have to like it all. In this sharing, I am sharing my finding my own way.
With a bit of time we can work out for ourselves what is going on.
In the article there is a quote from an arts researcher, Schwab who says ‘One may even say that there is something inherently gentle to exposition considered as introduction, a relief, perhaps, from the obligation of being a ‘work of art’, in the serious sense of the word.’
Art as experiential learning begs you to take notice of the art you make and what happens when you make it. Exposition could be seen as an antidote to feeling compelled to make a ‘work of art’, and show it like a sellout, and instead make some art and tell us what you did and what it was like, what you learned and then share with us what you made. We can work out what it means for ourselves.
A great, well researched article from ‘Artfully Learning’ about Fröbel the US educational pioneer. As early as the 19thC he did some very interesting work with learning outdoors and through the arts, including ‘Foebel Gifts’ shown above, designed for open play.
Visit Artfully Learning here. The site by Adam Zucker in the USA, describes itself as ‘…an experiential and critical cross-examination of the fine art world and the educational sphere’. There is a great article on Joseph Beuys called ‘Experiential Learning: Art Against Colonialism’ and some great links at the foot of the post.
If you are not listening to the 99% Invisible podcast, I highly recommend that you start! Two of the episodes from their archives are specifically of interest to the discourse on the complementary relationship between pedagogy and art. The first is a discussion about how Friedrich Fröbel’s architectural wherewithal changed the shape of education; the second episode presents an informative analysis of Isamu Noguchi’s imaginative modernist playgrounddesigns. A follow up blog post by educator and pedagogical researcher, Dr. Louisa Penfold (I highly recommend following her as well!), cites both Noguchi and Fröbel as key innovators of playful learning and modern aesthetics. For those of you who are frequent readers of my blog, you know that I love to write about the benefits that play has on our social, emotional, cognitive and artistic development.
In Dr. Penfold’s response to the episode on the 99% Invisible podcast, she makes a connection between Noguchi and Fröbel, both of whom influenced modern thinking around art, design, object-based learning and play. Fröbel and Noguchi lived centuries apart, but they were both drawn to exploring ways people learn through their interaction with others, their surroundings and the material world.
Fröbel was a leading figure for educational reform during the 19th century. His work with young learners led him to establish the first Kindergarten, as well as a curricula based on socialization and experiential discoveries (his work has been well documented on this blog). Fröbel was inspired by Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Pestalozzi is significant as a precursor to early childhood art education, because his pedagogical methods underscore the importance that drawing has on a child’s development. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional and embodied approach to educating children. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity and cognition. He took Pestalozzi’s aesthetic educational philosophy further by introducing three-dimensional objects, which utilize art and design as active mode of interacting with the world.
Fröbel realized that the way to educate the whole child is through mindful and tangible activities, which led to the invention of Fröbel Gifts, a set of material-based educational tools that inspire active learning through playful and critical thinking. Fröbel’s own term for this thoughtful action is ‘freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Fröbel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design, they are highly successful in their intended learning results. The Gifts were revolutionary concepts for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with tangible means to make insightful connections to the world around them. Fröbel Gifts are intended to be used sequentially and under instructional guidance, in order to build upon children’s prior knowledge and experience. Their three-dimensional abstract and geometric design enables the child to construct realistic understandings of abstract spatial relationships by discovering the function of aesthetic forms within natural and material environments. As Penfold explains, “wooden blocks could be used to teach numeracy and counting. Then the same blocks could be used to build a house, allowing children to learn about concepts such as height and size. Finally, the block house could be used to construct a story and teach literacy and language skills” (Penfeld, 2020). This methodology and philosophy of turning abstract thinking into tangible results, is in line with the architectural creed “form follows function.” This simply means that the purpose of a structure should inform how it is physically shaped.
The influence of learning via Fröbel Gifts is noted by the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set as a child and has mentioned how playing with the blocks encouraged his groundbreaking work: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (George, 2000). Wright’s innovative concept for designing buildings that adhere to their natural environment, is testament to how using Fröbel Gifts can unlock creative and critical thinking.
In contrast to the directional and linear intent of Fröbel Gifts, Noguchi’s modernist playground, Play Mountain (created in 1933 as a sculptural model), was designed to be pragmatically challenging and open-ended. Despite the conceptual differences, the pedagogical impetus behind Play Mountain reflects Fröbel’s concept of freiarbeit, or free play. It also utilizes a combination of three-dimensional forms in order to strengthen children’s concrete understandings of the world around them. Unlike Fröbel Gifts, Noguchi’s playgrounds were not meant to be approached in an orderly fashion. Noguchi’s playscapes had none of the traditional playground equipment. He intended for the sturdy surreal objects and earth-like forms to inspire unbridled imagination. His philosophy was that a playground without any obvious guidelines would help children think critically, embrace ambiguity and become more open-minded in how they observed and interacted with their environments and each other (all these elements are habits of mind that the arts teach us, see: Burton, 2000 and Eisner, 2002). Noguchi’s pedagogical outlook is a key tenet of non-directive play, which is a method that educators and mental health professionals alike use to elicit children’s self-expression.
Noguchi is well known for his abstract sculptures and his modernist furniture. While his fine art is largely non-utilitarian, he struck a balance between function and form through his world famous ‘Noguchi table.’ Noguchi’s liberal explorations into natural, synthetic, abstract and concrete objects, also led to the creation of very unique and astonishing playgrounds. Each of Noguchi’s playscapes are distinctive in that they provide an educational experience for people of all ages. For the youth, they are a whimsical source of unfettered activity, while adults can closely observe groundbreaking public works of art and landscape architecture.
Noguchi created numerous models for play spaces, but only a few of his designs were actually constructed for public use. Play Mountain was one of the initial playgrounds that Noguchi imagined. Around 1934, Noguchi attempted to incorporate Play Mountain into New York City’s urban recreational infrastructure, however, he was unable to convince Robert Moses, the city’s Parks Commissioner. Play Mountain‘s design, which simulated environmental modulations and architectural wonders (like pyramids and ziggurats), would have seemed alien to Moses and other straightforward urban planners. As art historian, Shaina Larrivee explains, “playgrounds, a relatively new priority for New York and other urban areas, were decades away from a renaissance that would embrace experimentation and promote “creative play” (Larrivee, 2011). Noguchi’s playground designs were also ahead of their time from an art historical perspective. The consideration and incorporation of the surrounding landscape within large scale sculptural art was not truly emergent until the Land Art movement of the 1960s (Ibid).
The first actual playground Noguchi realized was only a temporary structure, located outside of Tokyo, called Kodomo No Kuni or ‘The Children’s Country.’ It was built in 1965 for the national holiday, Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Year). In the mid-1970s, Noguchi’s Playscapes was established in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. (see: Lange, 2019). In his design for Playscapes, Noguchi envisioned an all encompassing educational landscape, complete with a shelter, a classroom, art studios and an office space. He intended for the space to be utilized throughout the year by school groups and summer camps, as well as the general public. The playground equipment is more akin to abstract sculpture than the typical jungle gyms, slides and swing sets seen in most playgrounds, however, every abstract and surreal form is highly functional in encouraging self-directed play. As writer Aria Danaparamita describes, “Rather than dictate a play activity, the structures invite creative interactions. Kids can climb, swing, and roll around in the Playscape’s spiral tower, play cubes and modernist geometric structures with integrated slides and swings” (Danaparamita, 2013).
Noguchi’s last major project was Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. The park is a 454 acre amalgamation of Noguchi’s ideas and designs for playgrounds and land art, including Play Mountain. Although Noguchi passed away several months into the project’s planning, his friend, the influential Japanese architect Shoji Sadao, carried on with the logistics and construction. This monumental public space, which includes one of Noguchi’s most elaborate play spaces, opened to the public in 2005, 17 years after Noguchi’s passing.
Fröbel’s Gifts and Noguchi’s playgrounds are exemplary models for inspiring children’s development within the natural and material world. Their contributions are a testament to how creativity and compassion can inform and benefit social, cultural and cognitive transformation. Both Fröbel and Noguchi were compelled by an array of modern art, design and architecture during their time, and in turn they influenced future generations of artists, designers and architects who work with children and/or develop educational materials.
Education is a form of social architecture and adheres to the adage ‘form follows function.’ Educators are astute and adept in scaffolding instruction and supporting their students throughout the phases of their development. Educators also physically set up their classrooms in order to build strong social, emotional and cognitive frameworks. The tangible classroom space should be a place that welcomes social discourse, collaboration and both guided and self-directed learning. Artists and educators have a unique position as designers of social and cultural blueprints for generations upon generations to explore, expand and renovate. Through the exploration materials and aesthetic experiences, and being engaged in scaffolded instruction and free play; educational infrastructures are developed, which are essential for our society to operate and progress in a holistic and critical manner.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Burton, Judith. “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 41:4, 330-345, 2000.
On November 18, 2020, I went to Dubmill Scar in Allonby Bay, the English side of the Solway Firth, to walk. I went to walk as art. Guided by the art therapies and experiential learning, I make art outdoors to explore and express personal experience. I work with the outdoors as art.
Most of my art making revolves around a series of place based projects. For this project on the Solway, I started with walking, but walking as a creative act. Walking in the space, I try to pay attention to what is happening with an attitude of openness to experience. I seek to be in the space as an experiment to see what happens rather than be in the space as a venue for activity. The art is the experience, and the experience is the activity.
This walk needed a large space with open access and no boundary fences, and at the bottom of the tide, briefly, the Solway has a lot of walking space. The Solway does this by being eternally transitory. It is always in a state between high and low tide. The border between Scotland and England, it belongs to nobody but the sea, the sand and the things that live there. These things need no fences or footpaths. I have been visiting the Solway for years. It is never the same twice. It is a space open to possibilities, and as such, a place of creativity.
For this walk, the space was needed to recreate an image of an idea I worked on previously on about making art as experiential learning. My background in experiential learning has introduced me to a number of models of how we learn from experience. In all of them, there is an image of simultaneous movement, around a circle and along a line.
Plan Do Review Cycle
Kolb’s Learning Cycle
Using this idea and image of learning from experience as a starting point I reflected on my own art making and drew a sketch of experiential learning with art making at it’s centre to see how it might look. I wanted to move this idea between artforms. Each artform has it’s own intelligence, and shows things from another point of view. It is used in the arts therapies and is called multimodal working. It is an interesting technique. To aid with this I decided to film the walk.
As a starting point for how a model of experiential learning from art may look, I drew this.
First draft of a model of art as experiential learning.
In this model the looping line is my passage through time, through my life. The central bit is my encounter with art making. When I make art I learn something and this loops out back into my life and informs my next round of art making.
There a sort of sequence to this. I think about making art, then witness and pay attention to what I am doing and my senses when I make the art. The art form, the material of the art making has an intelligence of it’s own which can tell me something. This is an idea from artist and research Paul Carter called the Intelligence of Material (IOM). As part of this I also engage in reportage of my experience, which is what I am trying to do here. Writing and reporting helps me understand what I am thinking. In formal art based research, this is called exegesis, meaning interpreting arcane texts.
At the time I was also thinking about Rhizomatic Knowledge from Deleuze and Guattari and Bubble Charts as I felt that my experience of art making had an adimensional or three dimensional quality, hence the images at the bottom
But the bit I wanted to work with were the big recursive loops through art-making and back into life, where I did more formal research of artform, ideas, the work of other artists, theories of learning or art-making. So off I went to the Solway, with it’s big unimpeded wide open spaces, always in movement between states, and thus ripe for creativity to walk this image of an idea about experiential learning.
It is difficult to create and analyse at the same time, so my intention was to be in the space and the moment, witness what happened when I was walking as art, then reflect and report later on moving an idea from an image to an act of walking.
Generally what happens is that what I learn through the experience of art making acts like a cascade of dominoes, expanding out into inspiration to new art making, connections to theories and practices of art making and learning and insight into place and personal experience.
Over a series of posts to my blog I want to follow the cascade of ideas and art-making that will come out of the walk, then curate the posts into a themed collection of ideas, practices, artworks, a bit like a magazine. Over time I want to do a series of magazines covering different topics relating to art, experience and the outdoors.
In the next post I want to describe what happened when I did the walk of an image of an idea about art as experiential learning.
Catherine Wagner, Naval Postgraduate School, Metallurgical Classroom, Monterey, CA, from the series American Classroom, 1986, Gelatin silver print.
The more I think about and engage with it, the more social distancing feels like an art movement. Although social distancing emphasizes staying home or at a physical distance from others; this practice parallels the concept of social practice art, where works of art are realized via engagement through human interaction and social discourse. It is important to state that social distancing does not mean dropping out from the collective culture. The nature of social distancing is to exhibit empathy so that more vulnerable members of society can minimize their risk of becoming sick.
In order to practice social distancing effectively within art and education settings an individual should seek to make social, emotional and cognitive connections to others via methods and actions that can be applied remotely. Thankfully, because we are social animals, the internet has been transformed by cultural producers to incorporate a variety of actions, events and resources for living, loving and learning artfully while observing and enacting social distancing.
This page is an extension of a recently published blog post called Art Education in an Age of Social Distancing, which includes examples of how art education can be effectively implemented while students and teachers are outside of their classrooms. In the section below, I will continually update a list of tools, technology, inspirational themes and lesson ideas for making, viewing, presenting and responding to art. So stay tuned and bookmark this document for your reference.In addition to the links below, I have created a sharable Google Document titled Artfully Learning’s Online Art Lesson Plan Outlines for Social Distance Learning, where I have developed several lesson plans and ideas for educators and home-school teachers to utilize with their students in remote settings. Please read the disclaimer/introduction statement in the document if you plan to use any of the lessons.
Art Prof has specifically been developed for artists and educators to interact remotely on a global scale. Founded by seasoned artists and educators, Art Prof features video tutorials for students to learn technique and skill building, as well as live critique sessions, where students are mentored by a team of experienced art teachers. In fulfilling their mission of “removing barriers that exist due to the cost of higher ed & private classes,” the site is completely free.
Do you not have access to your studio or classroom art materials because you are staying home? With many art stores temporarily closed, it is time to get creative with your art supplies. Luckily, the D.I.Y Art Materials Pinterest board has you covered. The board features resources where you can learn about art supplies that can be made at home.
The Arty Teacher is a great website for lesson ideas, assessments, demos and much more. The Art Home Learning page on the site is very useful for supporting remote learning and extending classroom-studio-time to the home.
Artist, Allie Olson, is creating daily web-based participatory learning videos for kids ages 2-6. Olson makes learning fun through a unique blend of somatic and social and emotional learning. Her videos are sure to inspire your young ones at home! Check it out by taking a virtual trip to Allieville!
Danny Gregory is hosting daily live drawing sessions on YouTube, where he shares a lesson from his archive of lessons and invites participants to work collaboratively on the assignments.
The Corona Quiltis a communal art making project that utilizes the traditional aesthetics and socially engaged process of quilt making to address the fears, anxieties and stresses related to COVID-19 and living in isolation. The idea of the project is that these individualized expressions will be viewed within a collectivist lens. The quilted squares from participants are uploaded to social media.
St. Jerome Writing (after Caravaggio) from the Instagram account Covid Classics (see below for info)
Since museums across the world have had to temporally shutdown, many have shifted their exhibitions and galleries online. Through Google Arts and Culture, you can use your fingers to roam the halls of arts and cultural institutions and view countless works of art in the comfort and safety of your home. You can also check out famous sites and landmarks with Google’s ‘street view.’
Smithsonian’s Open Access allows you to download, share, and reuse/remix approximately 3 million 2D and 3D digital items from their collections. The list of downloadable content will continue to expand. The Learning Lab is full of lesson ideas and curriculum guides for utilizing the Smithsonian’s expansive collection for inquiry-based learning.
Take a trip through time to view some of the first known works of art through virtual reality and Vimeo tours of the Caves of Lascaux.
SmartHistory is a tried-and-true, popular platform among educators for viewing and learning about art history. They have an enormous selection of video and textual guides for learning about art, architecture and artifacts throughout the history of the world.
The closure of schools has put many students’ shows in limbo. However, as art schools cancel MFA exhibitions, one Instagram account has stepped up to the plate. Check out the Social Distance Galleryfor virtual BFA & MFA thesis shows.
Studio visits are an essential way for the creative community to socialize and experience new and exciting work in intimate settings. However, just because we can’t physically visit each other’s studios, doesn’t mean that studio visits should be canceled. A Google Doc has been created where you can list your availability for virtual studio visits. Quarantine or not, this is a great way to connect artists who are miles apart in physical distance. Virtual studio visits have the potential to expand the reach of artist’s work and the communication between the artist and viewer.
Artsolation is a multidisciplinary online academic platform on the study of visual cultures. It was created by Lauren Rozenberg and Laura Scalabrella Spada as a response to feelings of isolation, realities of social distancing and fearful uncertainties about the future. Artsolation is intended to circulate research and reflect on a multitude expressions related to visual culture. It is an interactive site, in that they are seeking contributions from emerging and established academics. The creators “welcome short article submissions from all fields and career stages, but especially the voices of young academics, writers and artists.”
Transmission is a platform for connecting creatives across the world and promoting their work during this period of disruption due to the global pandemic. You can currently check out the work of featured artists and you will soon be able to view livestream performances of music and other events and read published pieces like short stories and poems. Last but not least, there’s an open call for art for an online exhibition.
Artstepsis an app that enables users to upload their art and curate it within a digital gallery space.
Sam Haller and his three roommates have taken an artful approach to their time at home by recreating iconic works of art using household objects and props. They post these recreations on an Instagram page called Covid Classics.
If you found these materials useful and/or inspiring, please consider making a contribution to Artfully Learning. You can contribute whatever you feel that these educational resources and lesson plans are worth to you. Since 2017, Artfully Learning has been a labor of love. I make no income whatsoever from this blog despite the countless hours spent researching and writing content. I value the support and feedback from readers like you! It is your participation that keeps this blog going!
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So decided to do art as research to turn bird flight into visual art and my reflection into poetry.
A cup of coffee.
A pad, a pen and a blue pencil.
An hour timer.
A back garden with a comfy seat.
I sat and watched the birds in my back garden. I used the blue pencil to do a light outline of the tree and hedge in my garden as a guide. The blue pencil is an idea from illustration. Blue does not photocopy well, so you can sketch in pencil, then ink in, and when photocopied, the blue does not show but the ink does. This does not always work but I thought I would give it a try. I then recorded all bird flight in ink over this blue pencil image of my garden.
As I sat there I reflected on how chilled this was. Birds came in little bursts, like they moved about in bunches or family groups. Different birds moved in different ways. Sparrows were fast and direct. Starlings did a fast wobbling amble. Corvids were slow but assertive. Two seagulls rode a thermal.
It was clear that though we get used to seeing birds on the ground, their world was all air and trees. I was struck oddly by the idea that a bird knows the ground like a whale knows the sky. The bird and the whale must know about the sky and the ground, but for each, the sky and the ground don’t figure much in their lives.
The experience made me realise that the birds in my garden, which I found very familiar, actually lived a life that was very alien to me, in the way that a whale would not know anything about the sky or land beyond their aquatic life in the ocean. All in all it made me realise that diversity occurs very close to home as well as in the depths of the oceans on the other side of the world.
I wanted to share the image, just as I drew it. I also wanted to make the insight into birds and whales as a poem, not as a dry description.
There’s a common misconception that the best way to encourage children’s creativity is simply to get out of the way and let them be creative. Although it’s certainly true that children are naturally curious and inquisitive, they need support to develop their creative capacities and reach their full creative potential.
Supporting children’s development is always a balancing act: how much structure, how much freedom; when to step in, when to step back; when to show, when to tell, when to ask, when to listen.
In putting together this list, I decided to combine tips for parents and teachers, because I think the core issues for cultivating creativity are the same, whether you’re in the home or in the classroom. The key challenge is not how to “teach creativity” to children, but rather how to create a fertile environment in which their creativity will take root, grow, and flourish.
The list is organized around the five components of what I call the Creative Learning Spiral, a process that encourages children to imaginewhat they want to do, create projects through playing with tools and materials, share ideas and creations with others, and reflect on their experiences.
For each of the five components, I’ve suggested two tips. That’s a total of 10 tips. Of course, these tips are just a very small subset of all of the things you might ask and do to cultivate children’s creativity. View them as a representative sample, and come up with more of your own.
1) Show examples to spark ideas
A blank page, a blank canvas, and a blank screen can be intimidating. A collection of examples can help spark the imagination. When we run Scratch workshops, we always start by showing sample projects — to give a sense of what’s possible (inspirational projects) and to provide ideas on how to get started (starter projects). We show a diverse range of projects, in hopes of connecting with the interests and passions of workshop participants. Of course, there’s a risk that children will simply mimic or copy the examples that they see. That’s OK as a start, but only as a start. Encourage them to change or modify the examples. Suggest that they insert their own voice or add their own personal touch. What might they do differently? How can they add their own style, connect to their own interests? How can they make it their own?
2) Encourage messing around
Most people assume that imagination takes place in the head, but the hands are just as important. To help children generate ideas for projects, we often encourage them to start messing around with materials. As children play with LEGO bricks or tinker with craft materials, new ideas emerge. What started as an aimless activity becomes the beginning of an extended project. We’ll sometimes organize mini hands-on activities to get children started. For example, we’ll ask children to put a few LEGO bricks together, then pass the structure to a friend to add a few more, then continue back and forth. After a few iterations, children often have new ideas for things they want to build.
3) Provide a wide variety of materials
Children are deeply influenced by the toys, tools, and materials in the world around them. To engage children in creative activities, make sure they have access to a broad diversity of materials for drawing, building, and crafting. New technologies, like robotics kits and 3-D printers, can expand the range of what children create, but don’t overlook traditional materials. A Computer Clubhouse coordinator was embarrassed to admit to me that her members were making their own dolls with “nylons, newspapers, and bird seed,” without any advanced technology, but I thought their projects were great. Different materials are good for different things. LEGO bricks and popsicle sticks are good for making skeletons, felt and fabric are good for making skins, and Scratch is good for making things that move and interact. Pens and markers are good for drawing, and glue guns and duct tape are good for holding things together. The greater the diversity of materials, the greater the opportunity for creative projects.
4) Embrace all types of making
Different children are interested in different types of making. Some enjoy making houses and castles with LEGO bricks. Some enjoy making games and animations with Scratch. Others enjoy making jewelry or soapbox race cars or desserts — or miniature golf courses. Writing a poem or a short story is a type of making, too. Children can learn about the creative design process through all of these activities. Help children find the type of making that resonates for them. Even better: Encourage children to engage in multiple types of making. That way, they’ll get an even deeper understanding of the creative design process.
5) Emphasize process, not product
Throughout this book, I’ve emphasized the importance of making things. Indeed, many of the best learning experiences happen when people are actively engaged in making things. But that doesn’t mean we should put all our attention on the things that are made. Even more important is the process through which things are made. As children work on projects, highlight the process, not just the final product. Ask children about their strategies and their sources of inspiration. Encourage experimentation by honoring failed experiments as much as successful ones. Allocate times for children to share the intermediate stages of their projects and discuss what they plan to do next and why.
6) Extend time for projects
It takes time for children to work on creative projects, especially if they’re constantly tinkering, experimenting, and exploring new ideas (as we hope they will). Trying to squeeze projects into the constraints of a standard 50-minute school period — or even a few 50-minute periods over the course of a week — undermines the whole idea of working on projects. It discourages risk-taking and experimentation, and it puts a priority on efficiently getting to the “right” answer within the allotted time. For an incremental change, schedule double periods for projects. For a more dramatic change, set aside particular days or weeks (or even months) when students work on nothing but projects in school. In the meantime, support after-school programs and community centers where children have larger blocks of time to work on projects.
7) Play the role of matchmaker
Many children want to share ideas and collaborate on projects, but they’re not sure how. You can play the role of matchmaker, helping children find others to work with, whether in the physical world or the online world. At Computer Clubhouses, the staff and mentors spend a lot of their time connecting Clubhouse members with one another. Sometimes, they bring together members with similar interests — for example, a shared interest in Japanese manga or a shared interest in 3-D modeling. Other times, they bring together members with complementary interests — for example, connecting members with interests in art and robotics so that they can work together on interactive sculptures. In the Scratch online community, we have organized month-long Collab Camps to help Scratchers find others to work with — and also to learn strategies for collaborating effectively.
8) Get involved as a collaborator
Parents and mentors sometimes get too involved in children’s creative projects, telling children what to do or grabbing the keyboard to show them how to fix a problem. Other parents and mentors don’t get involved at all. There is a sweet spot in between, where adults and children form true collaborations on projects. When both sides are committed to working together, everyone has a lot to gain. A great example is Ricarose Roque’s Family Creative Learning initiative, in which parents and children work together on projects at local community centers over five sessions. By the end of the experience, parents and children have new respect for one another’s abilities, and relationships are strengthened.
9) Ask (authentic) questions
It’s great for children to immerse themselves in projects, but it’s also important for them to step back to reflect on what’s happening. You can encourage children to reflect by asking them questions about their projects. I often start by asking: “How did you come up with the idea for this project?” It’s an authentic question: I really want to know! The question prompts them to reflect on what motivated and inspired them. Another of my favorite questions: “What’s been most surprising to you?” This question pushes them away from just describing the project and toward reflecting on their experience. If something goes wrong with a project, I’ll often ask: “What did you want it to do?” In describing what they were trying to do, they often recognize where they went wrong, without any further input from me.
10) Share your own reflections
Most parents and teachers are reluctant to talk with children about their own thinking processes. Perhaps they don’t want to expose that they’re sometimes confused or unsure in their thinking. But talking with children about your own thinking process is the best gift you could give them. It’s important for children to know that thinking is hard work for everyone — for adults as well as children. And it’s useful for children to hear your strategies for working on projects and thinking through problems. By hearing your reflections, children will be more open to reflecting on their own thinking, and they’ll have a better model of how to do it. Imagine the children in your life as creative thinking apprentices; you’re helping them learn to become creative thinkers by demonstrating and discussing how you do it.LCL IntroductionMitch Resnick introduces the main ideas of Creative Learning, and how they are inspired by the way children learn in kindergarten.
Mitchel Resnick is Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab. His research group develops the Scratch programming software and online community, the world’s largest coding platform for kids. He has worked closely with the LEGO company on educational ideas and products, such as the LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits, and he co-founded the Computer Clubhouse project, an international network of after-school learning centers for youth from low-income communities. He is the author of “Lifelong Kindergarten,” from which this article is excerpted.