Be it Art

A reflection about art and all its meanings

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Art Education: The Attunement to the Subtle

“Art is the most effective mode of communications that exists.”

John Dewey

newIMG_0202Future teachers will find the process of building a personal teaching philosophy an important exercise in developing into a successful teacher. A teaching philosophy is the culmination of ideas about who one is as ‘teacher’, how the student is perceived as ‘learner’ and how one’s particular subject matter brings teacher and learner together in a dynamic full of complex learning issues.  It is about creating an appropriate teaching approach to the lessons, as they present both abstract and concrete concepts, and to the students who need a positive and emotionally safe environment to learn in.

I believe art is a very special subject to teach. The question of ‘what is art?’ has no correct answer. To begin to teach a subject with gray areas and fuzzy edges poses a challenge from the start.  All other core subjects have more defined margins and are more clearly assessable.  Many of the values of learning the visual arts are esoteric and almost spiritual in nature, with each individual drawing from the arts what is personal. I have asked myself how to distill and contain a broad and margin-less subject and still manage to teach it with depth and wisdom.

newIMG_0200 copyTo answer this question, I begin with defining my core purpose for teaching the arts in school. The core purpose for teaching the visual arts is to teach each student how to see, and through this refined sensibility, deeper thinking follows. The study of the arts reaches far beyond the skills required to master the mediums of painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking and photography.  The process of learning the skills to see and think is the purpose of teaching art in school.  An artist who stands in mastery at her easel has accomplished far more than color theory and perspective. She has learned to see and to think deeply.

I want students not just to identify or recognize things in the world, but also to really see them. They practice seeing by looking closely at a single leaf and noticing the many shades of green on its surface, or seeing all the visible colors in clear glass, or finding the symbols and allegory in old masters’ paintings. It is an attunement to the subtle. Once a student is attuned to the subtle, they process and consider more about the world. This skill not only makes great artists, but great human beings as well. Teaching students to see and think deeply cannot be taught concretely like math, but must be modeled or allowed to unfold through experience and maturity.

newIMG_0196To perceive more makes people more mindful about issues and creates deeper and broader thinkers, opening humans to growth and personal transformation This idea is also supported by Elliot Eisner who is emeritus professor of Art and Education at the Stanford University School of Education. He is a contemporary author who wrote the book, The Arts and the Creation of the Mind.  Eisner wrote, “Working in art is a way of creating our lives by expanding our consciousness, shaping our dispositions, satisfying our quest for meaning, establishing contact with others, and sharing a culture.”  Then he added,  “work in the arts also invites the development of a disposition to tolerate ambiguity, to explore what is uncertain, to exercise judgment free from prescriptive rules and procedures.” [i] Eisner’s comments reflect my belief that art education should be experienced by all students, regardless of their future interests, because it teaches them lessons that will influence and make an impact on their future perspectives.

My core purpose for art education defines the centrality of my teaching while other important, supportive lessons wrap around it in layers. The next layer of important lessons an art education concerns the practice of concrete skills, the correct use of materials, learning the descriptive language of art, and a solid base of art history and art criticism. Here is where my teaching philosophy fragments and, while maintaining a state of organic development as the students learn to see, I become a master of production as students practice skills like drawing and painting, and learn to speak about art while they learn to analyze and criticize. These lessons make up the tangible elements of a good art education. My philosophy resembles ‘Experimentalism’ in that my primary concern is to teach students to think effectively. [ii] As students learn to see, they will combine their knowledge of the sublime with their honed technical skills and begin to create meaningful works of art.

new gp IMG_0519The next layer of art lessons that I envision wrapped around the lessons of skill connects art back to our inner selves and to the relationships of the things around us. Art becomes about personal experience. The next layer of lessons promotes creativity, imagination and problem solving, self-expression and play. It is a time of experimentation with emotions, materials, colors and mediums.  Experimentation yields experience. Through this experimentation, students learn representation, or to intelligently and accurately translate an ephemeral idea into a concrete form that can be shared and discussed.   Once again, Elliot Eisner in his book, The Art and the Creation of the Mind, comments on the importance of experience in education, “Experience is central to growth because experience is the medium of education.  Education in turn is the process of learning to create ourselves, and it is what the arts, both as a process and as the fruits of that process promote.”[iii]

At this point, students are called to use all the layers of their art education experience. They must now use their developing artistic skills, their knowledge of color, form and composition and their aesthetic experiences, and move on to infuse all of this with personal expression and their ability to see to create complete works of art. John Dewey believed that the complete process of making art moved art beyond being a material object and became about a life changing experience. Dewey commented on the intellectual demands of an artist in the following statement:

new-IMG_0023Any idea that ignores the necessary role of intelligence in the production of works of art is based upon the identification of thinking with the use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words.  To think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and mathematical.  Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on among those who pride themselves on being ‘intellectuals’. [iv]

In order to orchestrate such vast developing qualities in my art students, I believe another approach to teaching must be utilized; teacher as guide and companion. As stated by Herbert Kliebard, in his metaphor of curriculum as ‘travel’, the teacher’s job is to now plot the route, and gently guide the students without rigid expectations down the path toward mastery.[v]

The final layer of lessons I see wrapped around the central goal to teach students to be deep thinkers and seers, is to move art from a deeply personal place to the public arena where it becomes part of the culture. Students will begin to learn how to represent their ideas and through their representations, to communicate.  As Elliot Eisner explains, a culture grows through the exchange of ideas and people’s responses to art fuel new thoughts as the creative cycles continue.  Therefore, artwork contributes to culture in that it furthers education and enriches other’s lives.[vi]

new IMG_0181The final process of moving students’ artwork into the public is again accomplished as teacher being guide and companion.  I, as guide, need to forge the path and walk the blossoming art students into the realm of public art. This is often a fragile and vulnerable time for students as they learn to trust the message of their work, take criticism and speak publicly about their ideas.  This is a time for unconditional support and celebration of their work.

The ‘art’ of teaching art is about empowering each student.  Art is not simply the regurgitation of a package of prescribed ideas, but about original, new ideas flowing from the internal spaces of each student.  This makes the production of art a vulnerable exercise.   Any human who is required to share anything about him or her self can only be expected to do this while feeling safe in a positive and supportive environment. Therefore, the art classroom must be set up to facilitate confidence, freedom, experimentation, safety and acceptance.

These qualities are fostered by establishing respect in the classroom.  With respect follows trust, honesty and safety.  Respect must be required not just between teacher and student, but between each student as well. As a teacher I can foster these qualities with a gentle approach, by listening, supporting and guiding with constructive critique.  The environment must be interesting, open and fun and not reduced to punitive measures to prod students to move forward. All of art’s great lessons will be lost is if the learning environment does not allow the lessons to seep down and resonate on an emotional level.  Actually, I believe this about all learning; that learning is successful only if synchronized with the body, spirit and emotions of the learner.

newIMG_0192 copyAn example of how I saw this in practice was at an after school program I tutored at for a teaching practicum.  Each element of the program, when isolated, seemed to work well. There was a snack, an active exercise, math, reading, homework time and a large group exercise. The program fell short upon combining all the elements together in the classroom. The missing ingredient to what seemed like a perfect program was the lack of integration of the activities with the children’s spirit or essential energy. In other words, the activities were burdened with punitive controls and the flow from one activity to another was not easy and organic, but stressful, so the best activities had little effect.

Good teaching is not just about the subject matter and good classroom management, but about loving people and drawing from a deeper level of emotions and sensitivity while teaching ‘up top’. Students are often governed by more subtle influences like hunger, peer pressure, self-doubt, and boredom and family stresses.  Their behaviors and their level of academic engagement are often a meter of how strong these other powers are in their life.  While ultimately they have to be held responsible for their academic requirements, guiding them to mastery will come by working with these outside pressures and not simply punishing their effects on the student’s performance.

In summary, my teaching philosophy begins with holding true to what I believe to be the central value of an arts education: to teach the students to truly see and think deeply about our world.  A solid arts education is made of many different facets from the technical skills of drawing and painting, to the important connection of our inner lives to our art, to developing good representations of our ideas to moving these ideas into the public and contributing to the growth of our culture. Each of these educational elements requires a different teaching approach. The mastery of some lessons can result from hard work and practice, while some lessons are learned over time as students unfold in maturity and gain experience. Art, as stated earlier, is a subject with no clear margins, so its mastery is dependent on drawing holistically from a person’s being. No one teaching method can successfully be used to help a student develop all the diverse qualities needed to become an ‘artist complete’. Coupled with the complex task of teaching art, comes the challenge of providing the nurturing environment to in which to complete this task. The best art lessons, again, are lost if the students are not receptive.  The best environments are constructed from respect, safety, a sense of fun and gentleness in handling the soul of the learner.

Note: All the of featured artwork is done by the students at Edgewood Campus School under the direction of their art teacher, Ruth Vander-Horck

[i] Elliot W. Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 3.

[ii] Carl A. Grant and Maureen Gillette, “Chapter Nine: Pursuing an Education” in Teaching in the 21st Century: Introduction to Education

[iii] Elliot W. Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 3.

[iv] John Dewey, The Art of Experience (New York, Perigee Books, 1934), 46.

[v]  Herbert Kliebard, “Metaphorical Roots of Curriculum Design,” The Teachers Record Volume, Volume 73, Number 3, 1972, (accessed August19, 2011).

[vi] Elliot W. Eisner, The Arts and the Creation of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 7.


Dewey, John. The Art of Experience.  New York: Perigee Books, 1934.

Eisner, Elliot W. The Arts and the Creation of the Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Grant, Grant A. and Maureen Gillette, “Chapter Nine: Pursuing an Education” in Teaching in the 21st Century: Introduction to Education

Kliebard, Herbert. “Metaphorical Roots of Curriculum Design,” The Teachers Record Volume, Volume 73, Number 3, 1972. (accessed August19,2011).





The Art of Collagraph Printmaking

Bruce's moon newI have fallen in love with collagraph printmaking.  This unique process produces both a print and a relief. A hard base, like pressboard, is used to glue down objects such as cardboard, string and fabrics to create a design and a texture.  I like to use mainly torn matte board and construction paper. A polymer acrylic medium is used to glue and seal the textured objects to the base board. Once the collagraphic plate has dried, it is ready to make a print.

black and red collagraph 1Etching ink is used to ink the plate.  My method is to apply black ink with a cotton rag and a stiff brush. Mineral spirits is used to dilute the very concentrated ink and help spread it across the plate. Inking the plate is very important. How thick the ink is applied and where it is rubbed away or left in the cracks effects the final print.

While the plate is being inked, heavy printing paper is cut to the correct size and soaked in a water bath. To make the print, the inked plate is set on the press and the blotted printing paper is dropped accurately on top. The plate and paper are sent through the press at a moderately tight setting. The correct press setting both transfers the ink and creates a distinct relief.  The print is lifted off the plate and set aside to dry.

I choose to add color to the print by use of water colors and colored pencils. The plate is permanent and can make multiply prints.



Try This: A Unique Drawing Exercise

Jen's copy of %22The Conversion of St. Paul%22

Do you keep a sketch book?  If you are like me, the quick drawings in my sketch book are free and spontaneous, while often my ‘real art’ becomes tight and controlled.  I fight getting locked into my approach to drawing, I get scared that letting loose will take my drawing/painting into a place of no return…..Here is a really great exercise in approaching drawing/painting that forces you to ‘let go’.

1) Pick a painting, photograph or other digital image that can be altered in Photoshop – (better yet have a trusted friend pick an unknown image for you so you do not know what you are going to draw/paint)

2) Open the image in Photoshop and rotate the image upside down

3) Go to Filters: Blur: Gaussian Blur and blur the image so only contrast is evident. Save image.

4) Continue to reduce the blur of the original picture, sharpening the image in small increments and save each stage as a separate image. Now you will have a bank of images to work from.  Draw or paint the image starting with the most blurred version, and moving to the sharpened image.  At the last stage, turn the image right side up and compare your art to the original.  I guarantee you will have a freer, more fluid version of your drawing than if you tried to create a copy from the original. Here is my example:

I picked the painting, The Conversion of St. Paul, by Caravaggio

Here is a picture of my final charcoal drawing:

Jen's copy of %22The Conversion of St. Paul%22

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Art as Beauty, Art as Sublime

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by PicassoProfessor Shad Wenzlaff, at Edgewood College, recently asked his Art History class to site works of art that they considered beautiful and others they could consider Sublime.

Prof. Wenzlaff offered quotes by Gavin Hamilton as well as Edmund Burke to help formulate the perceived difference. I found this question intriguing and offer up my opinion of work that fall into these separate categories.

To put a framework around the following quotes, here is a brief note about art in the mid1700’s. At this time, Europe entered an era of Enlightenment. People began to base their thinking upon reason and order. New discoveries in science were being made and shifts in philosophy were giving ‘mankind’ great confidence through intellect. (‘Man’ being gender neutral!) This new thinking gave way to a revival in classical art from ancient Rome and Greece.  Within this new context, art theorists began to discuss beauty in art.

Cavin Hamilton provoked discussion among other Enlightenment era art theorists by stating:

“According to strict classical theory, the visual arts were concerned with the production of beauty, and therefore could not engage in any kind of theme that produced distortions of extreme emotion, as this would interfere with the display of pure beauty.”

Edmund Burke responded to Hamilton’s theories, but went on to revive the role of  The Sublime in art:

“Beauty was generated from our sense of love and attraction, the sublime from our sense of aversion and fear.”

If we adhere to these theorists’ definition of art that is strictly beautiful we would be inclined to find work based on aesthetic merit, with little overriding emotional display – especially of anything negative or disturbing. Here are examples I believe to be simply – beautiful

  • Doryphoros, by Polykeitos, c. 450-440 BCE Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples
  • David, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
  • Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1484-1486, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
  • Symphony in White NO.II: The Little White Girl, by Whistler, 1864, Tate, London
  • Blue Dancers, Degas, 1899, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

On the other hand, work that could be considered Sublime, can be beautiful, but carries with it an emotional charge, often dark, thought provoking and sometimes uncomfortable.

  • Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Bronzino, 1540, National Gallery, London
  • Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch, 1505-1515, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
  • Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Picasso, 1907, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • Olympia, Manet, 1863, Musee d’ Orsay, Paris

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Wrestling with Modernism

There are endless writings and discussions based on the question of : ”what is art?” This question is fun to grapple with because there is no universal, correct answer. Must it be beautiful? Must it have moral purpose?  Each of us as artists contributes to ‘art’ in our unique way, and as viewers, take from it what resonates with our individual souls. Art fills different needs for different people, and the definition of ‘good art’ has changed depending on the cultural context it was created in. As we look back through the history of art, we see art serve many purposes from pure, ideal beauty to the ancient Greeks, to spreading religious dogma through the commissions by the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages. As time passed and art patronage moved from the church, to the aristocracy to individuals, to gallery representation, artists themselves changed their role in art. They moved from being ‘skilled’ craftsman serving a patron to individuals with power to direct and express themselves through their art – hence the gradual emergence of the age of Modern Art and new concepts of beauty.

We as a culture are just far enough outside the bubble of Modern art to begin to see it objectively (as juxtaposed with Post Modernism). I am currently reading the book, Has Modernism Failed?, by Suzi Gablik.  Gablik has raised some good (and controversial) points about Modern Art: its loss of tradition, its disassociation from spirituality and disconnection from the general public. In my opinion, she sees the work of this era as a movement of self-indulgence for inner world of the artist. Gablik expresses that modern art has become little more than a commodity in Western society. She emphasizes that art must serve a social need to have value. Gablik calls on art to speak of social responsibility, morals and stress anti-consumerism. She suggests that what modernism really needs is a return to “soul.” She argues for “reintroducing the artist in his role as shaman – a mystical, priestly, and political figure”.  Gablik also gives me the impression that the artist needs to reflect or acknowledge the traditional rules of ‘classical’ art once again – reel in the concept of ‘anything goes’. “Rebellion and freedom are not enough,” she states, “Modernism has moved us too far in the direction of radical subjectivity and a destructive relativism. At this point we might do well to make the most of a few well-observed rules again”.

What she is missing in her critique, I believe, is the simple recognition of art’s aesthetic value and its power to transform the spirit through beauty and form. Art can serve as a mode of change both as ‘social activism’ art and through privately touching the soul of the individual through simple beauty.

Has Modernism Failed?

motherwellThe public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with. (Robert Motherwell)




pollockThe modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and other inner forces. (Jackson Pollock)

Modern art did not just happen. It came as a result of a deep reversal of spiritual values in the Age of Reason, a movement that in the course of a little more than two centuries changed the world.  (H.R. Rookmaaker)

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Figurative Sculpture – Anagama Kiln Fired Ceramics

Click on pictures to enter gallery

Last year I was given the opportunity to fire my work in an Anagama kiln.  David Smith, a professor at Edgewood College is an expert in the building and firing of these unique kilns.

Anagama kilns are an ancient style, wood fired kiln originating in China and later brought to Japan where they were used to fire tea ceremony ware.

The Anagama kilns I have seen are about 20 feet long and have a main firebox at one end and a chimney at the other.  Along the 20-foot body are stoking holes where wood is placed during the firing.  The green or bisqued ceramic pieces are loaded into the kiln on shelves.  A carefully planned path for the air and flames is important to ensure good firing. The wood fire process produces a wide range of beautiful surface effects due to exposure to fly ash, added salts and the effects of the flame. The kiln is fired 24 hours a day for up to a week to reach temperatures hot enough to vitrify the clay (2500 degrees).

Playing with Community

I love the concept of ‘community’ in art; creating pieces that relate to each other. For the last firing, I created a set of abstract figures of different sizes and varying gestures.  The pieces are free-standing and can be moved in relationship to each other. As each figure is moved into relationship to another, different emotional dynamics are created ranging from intimacy to abandonment.

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Art of the Day – Kathe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945)

In the Hands of God-Kollwitz

In 1988, The Milwaukee Art Museum published a small booklet of the small-scale sculpture in their permanent collection.  This is where I fist spotted a relief sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, a German artist, called: In the Hands of God. (1935)  I was truly taken by this piece and thought I’d share it with you.

Kollwitz mainly drew pictures in black and white, was a relief printmaker and created bronze sculpture.  Most of her work addresses death, despair and poverty.  Although her images are often emotionally unsettling, she captures these human conditions with such raw honestly.

She is definitely an artist worth further exploration.

The images of her work below are arrange in a gallery.  For a closer look, click on an image to enter the gallery.