Tackling Current Issues in the High School Ceramics / Sculpture Studio

Mosaic Collaborative
Students on the “Broken Mirror/ Mental Illness” Team working on their collaborative relief sculpture.

This particular blog outlines a few approaches to collaborative art practice used in a high school art classroom.  More specifically, it describes both general considerations and concrete activities that can be used to engage high school art students in collaborative art practice to address current social, political or environmental issues that are important and meaningful to them.

While difficult to measure, the learning goal of collaborative practice is to expand students’ idea of the possible in art as well as to engender greater social connectivity in the classroom and beyond.

I hope this blog might be a useful resource for other art educators in the field, or other teachers interested in exploring contemporary issues with their students.  I also hope to demonstrate how collaborative practice, when properly scaffolded, can be meaningful and generative.

[More concretely, this blog describes part of a spring art ceramics/sculpture curriculum that I implemented at Westwood High School, in my Ceramics 2 class, as part of unit called “Individual and Society.”  It discusses both the ideation (brainstorming) stages and provides examples of the final works.  Through collaborative process, students made original works in mixed media sculpture that addressed four current issues, chosen by them:

  • deforestation/ global warming
  • mental illness
  • global poverty
  • toxic national partisanship (i.e. extreme political divisiveness in the United States)

Through collaboration, high school students engaged in group conversation on a range of complex issues and demonstrated the ability to express their views constructively and creatively, across myriad viewpoints.]

While the entire unit is too long to document in full, I’ve outlined here a few of the pedagogical approaches I used to help students generate their own ideas and work collaboratively.  Given the length of this blog, I’ve organized the blog according to guiding questions. Please scroll through to see what questions might interest you.

For more specifics on the guiding questions of unit Individual and Society, please see my prior blog.  For more reading on why I started blogging and why I believe social justice and addressing current issues is important, please see the About page.

Boat Collab
Students on the “Overcoming Divisiveness/ Toxic Partisanship” Team, working on their sculptural boats.

How to keep the process student-driven in terms of materials, process and content, without everything falling apart?

For this unit, as the teacher, I had decided on the general challenge: “Use collaborative art practice to create an original work of sculpture, in ANY medium, that addresses a social, political or environmental issue.”  However, it was up to the students, working in groups, to figure out how to do that.  From my experience, students struggle a lot with this much freedom.  I hadn’t assigned them groups, given them a list of issues to choose from, or offered a list of materials that they could work with — no direction on these things whatsoever. This is a lot to ask. There are a lot of connections and decisions that need to be made, along with cooperation and collaboration with others.

To start, what I needed to do as their teacher was to create a series of structured experiences to help them move forward constructively with the brainstorming / ideation process.  I also needed to try and make the ideation fun, interesting and engaging, so students would take greater ownership of the process from the outset.

The “Suitcase/Global Poverty” team, working on their miniature clay figures.

How to keep the process both serious and fun?

There are many ways to structure brainstorming exercises. Some can be more serious than others. From my experience, it’s good to have both — some moments of that are more focused, logical, and rigorous, and other moments that are zany, playful, and fun.  I suppose that’s true of teaching in general: if you just do one or the other approach, students get bored.

There’s a kind of ebb and flow that’s good for the teacher to be aware of —  signs of engagement and detachment that one can play off of and create shifts.  For example, I prefer to start a project a little more on the serious side, to set an initial tone, but then later relax things, to allow greater freedom of discovery.  Sometimes, students interpret too much fun as frivolous, if it happens right from the beginning. Once I get to know them better as students, I try to remind them: “We can have a great time and still keep the bar high.” 

After some more structured starts (see examples below), from my experience, switching gears to something even silly can be good practice. For instance, I had one male student who was given a large box of markers to choose from for his ideation sketch and, instead of sketching, he proceeded to try and link all the markers together into one giant strand.  He thought this was pretty funny.  I thought it was pretty funny, too, so I suggested he go outside in the courtyard and see how high he could go. Two other students went out to help:


Before long, there were many students out there, trying to put all the markers together into a giant arch.  This was a ridiculous endeavor, of course.  However, it was an important moment: they were working together, and having fun!  I wanted students to understand these things: that collaborative art can be fun, that sculptures can be made out of any and all materials (including markers) and that through experimentation and play they will discover new and creative things.

Letting the class spill out into the courtyard at this moment and play with markers helped get these points across, however indirectly.  It also gave us a good laugh, which brought us together and opened students up to the prospect of working together as a class.


How to use visual maps to promote discussion and ideation?

Visual word maps can be a helpful way for students to get started.  In our unit, students identified, both as individuals and a group, issues that they cared about.  Given that I had two classes, I had each class make their own map. These were their collective responses:

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 11.28.24 AM

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 11.26.54 AMAs an initial exercise, this was interesting. For one, it allowed both classes to see major trends within their group (with repeated words/phrases becoming increasingly larger on the word maps) as well as differences between the two classes.  We discussed the maps as a group. Students commented on how some issues were very personal or local to our school, while others (like global warming) were much broader in scope.   Students began to express initial interest in what kind of issues they might want to address.

I also took the opportunity to share with them the word maps created by former students (see here for context) and posed the question: “Comparing your word map of issues to the word map by middle schoolers from urban Boston, what are some of the primary differences that you notice?”  Here is one of those maps:worditout-word-cloud-1776413.pngThis was an interesting question that allowed for students to engage in a deeper discussion of issues that many people face, both locally and as a nation. This last step definitely encouraged students to begin to think beyond their own immediate community when addressing possible current issues.

After completing the visual maps, I had students engage in several different on-line exercises — starting with open-ended questions based on our group word maps, and continuing with research on contemporary activist artists. These exercises combined a certain degree of introspection (questions that drew out individual student voice) with some external research (questions that encouraged students to expand their understanding of certain concepts like “how art can be used to address a contemporary issue”).

Banksy, “Shop Til’ You Drop”

How to introduce contemporary artists into the ideation stages?

Engaging students in study of contemporary art is important to deepen the quality of their thinking on what is possible in the world of art.  This can happen at any time during a project, but it’s often most helpful for students towards the beginning of a project. In our project, as larger themes began to crystallize, I designed more focused questions and inquiries around relevant contemporary artists. (Just to clarify: I didn’t know how many issues, or groups, would emerge. There ended up being two groups per class, but I think the process could have succeeded with fewer or more groups.)

To give some examples, when I learned that one group wanted to create miniature tree houses, I introduced them to the artist Charles Simonds and his miniature Dwellings  and asked them to watch and respond to a video by him on his installation art process.

I found similar links, however direct or indirect, for the other groups as well.  The second group had decided it wanted to address the theme of mental illness and planned to use broken mirrors to create a mosaic piece. I asked them to research the work of Isaiah Zagar and the Philadelphia Magic Gardens.  Zagar both worked in mosaics and suffered from mental illness; I hoped that learning more about his work might trigger some the group to think more creatively about possible responses to mental illness.

My third group chose the issue of global poverty and discussed creating tiny people out of clay, perhaps somehow trapped in a cage or other structure (it ended up being a suitcase).  I had them look at the work of Do-Ho Suh and, in particular, his use of tiny figures in sculptural installation. Do-Ho Suh’s work has to do more with questions of individuality, rather than poverty, but he frequently plays with scale, which seemed an important focus of this group’s vision.

The final group chose “toxic partisanship” (or rather OVERCOMING toxic division) as their theme. Since this was the most overtly political issue, I recommended that they research and answer questions on the graffiti artist, Banksy. Banksy’s work is overtly political, and often addresses paradoxical questions about power and the role of the individual in society. I thought his work might appeal to this larger group of students.

What’s the point of utilizing common student forums, like google docs, sites and threads?

There are many ways to allow students to interact and brainstorm with each other. Of course, they can all make sketches and post them on a common bulletin board, then discuss.  Then they can use post-it notes to give feedback, or they can answer a prompting question, such as: “What is the greatest strength of each idea? What is its main downside?”  This is important as a way to develop students’ visual thinking and creative problem-solving skills.


However, it’s also great to utilize on-line forums, when possible, to bring students together. The key is to get them out of the feeling that they are sharing their thoughts primarily with YOU (as their teacher), but rather, with each other.

In our class’s case, I had students post their responses to our common class website, where all students could see each other’s responses, or to shared Google docs, which allowed students to read and comment on each other’s ideas.  This combination of individual writing and group sharing is crucial, in my view, to the success of collaborative art practice. It ensures that all students are participating on equal footing and, given that students are graded on an individual basis for these tasks, there is accountability.

These small writing tasks also serve as a formative assessment for me to make sure that students are grasping some basic aspects of contemporary art thinking and practice and translating that to knowledge they can use themselves.  For example, one student’s response to Banksy’s work gave me confidence that this student was able both to analyze contemporary art and apply this understanding to her own group work. She wrote:

“Banksy deals with numerous political and social issues, especially the wealth gap, in a way that is interesting and creative. Most of his works focus on the disunity that exists like the corporate world versus nature or the common person. Our project could be like his work in the aspect that it is not overly complicated but addresses disunity is a way that is humorous or clever. We are trying to convey the disunity that exists within America and how it can be overcome.”

Shared forums serve another purpose as well.  Allowing students to use common forums means that they can read each other’s work and respond to each other’s ideas which encourages cooperation. Here’s an example of one group’s shared document, brainstorming on a possible visual symbol to explore as part of their group’s theme. In this case, I designed the format for the worksheet, and they supplied the content and then responded to each other’s content through the editing features:


How to help students value the drawing stages?

Students don’t always value the drawing/sketching stage of a project.  They often want to skip this stage and move on to the “fun” part of the project — the making stage — without doing the necessary creative problem solving.

In our project, we did not start with drawing, but with research. From there, after considerable initial discussion, reflection and study of contemporary art, it seemed a good time to finally start “thinking” with images — i.e. to start drawing.  While students had formed groups, identified themes and even considered materials, they still had not spent any time sketching or designing what the actual art piece might look like. As an art teacher, this is an important point in the process because, typically, this is the moment when students are ready to speed up and jump in. However, typically their visual ideas are not well formulated yet and still need some work.

(To be frank: I still struggle myself a lot with finding ways to get students to slow down during the designing stages of projects. There is some kind of inherent tension between more logical and more intuitive ‘discovering’ in art making, from my experience. Collaborative art making, however, demands considerable pre-planning and conceptual consensus-building, in order to succeed. A lot of decisions have to be made before the more intuitive, hands-on making can begin.)


As luck would have it, we ended up doing the drawing and designing during the first couple periods of the day. I guessed that my students’ brains were likely to be sleepy (as a more nocturnal soul, I’m often amazed that I can coherently teach at 7:30 in the morning!)  So, we started the day with (yes, deliberately corny) “Ideation Pods” and hot chocolate. It’s a treat, of course, but also sends a message that ideation is important — worth a little splurge.  Then, we talked about pods and seeds as a metaphor for how important an idea is to the final product — it’s the most important thing!

While we had some food, we looked at a lot of images of contemporary art that I had them research for homework (called “image flooding” by my friend and mentor, Barbara Moody). Again, the goal is to build students interest and motivation in taking the drawing/ designing stage more seriously by demonstrating that it is important to you as a teacher and reminding them of the excitement of possibility in the world of contemporary art: such a wide playing field.


How to play cards to overcome divisiveness?

One of the most interesting aspect of teaching, for me, is finding that curious balance between stepping in as a teacher, and then stepping back.  Ideally, in an art classroom, the teacher can take a more supportive role over time, helping the younger artists find their voice and mode of expression.  But there is still a lot of guidance that is not only necessary, but helpful, so it is a delicate process.  In this process, I wanted each student voice to be adequately valued, but also wanted the collaborative process to help students as a group identify which ideas were stronger than others and learn to adopt those ideas and modify them to make them better as a group.  These steps required a rather constant stepping in and stepping back.

A good example of stepping in, strategically, occurred with one of the four design groups. As I mentioned, the two classes had coalesced into four “teams” and each team had an issue they wanted to tackle. Each group had thoughtfully chosen their theme and was starting to transition towards collecting materials and brainstorming form and construction.  However, of the four themes — mental illness, global poverty, deforestation and toxic partisanship — the most challenging, in my view, was the last.

Apart from the obvious reason that political divisiveness is tearing at the social fabric of our country and government, the more delicate reason was that this group of 11 students included young people who identified themselves with a range of political ideologies, including typically progressive, conservative, and independent views.  The group was also the largest, and was somewhat divided in smaller sub-groups of like-minded individuals.

Fortunately, the entire group agreed that partisanship and political division had gotten so toxic that it was an extremely negative thing for our country and prevented positive change. In other words: it was a bad thing that needed to be overcome. However, beyond that, the group did not seem very cohesive.

This was a good moment for me to intervene.  It made no sense for them to want to tackle toxic divisiveness and then not tackle any hard issues or create more cohesion in their own group. As their teacher, I challenged them not to jump right to the making, but rather to first explore the topic in more depth by modeling what good dialogue and active listening looked like across viewpoints.

Given the range of student views in the group, I told them: “Your design team is like a microcosm of the country… If you want to overcome national divisiveness, why not start here?  Is it possible for you to sit around and talk about hard topics in a friendly way?”  Thankfully, they were up to the challenge.  (On this note: I don’t think this would necessarily work with every class. This group, despite differences, was particularly eager to take this challenge on and was open to hearing each other out. However, creating a safe space for discussion is often the main prerequisite to having these kinds of great class discussions. I’ve had them in all kinds of interesting situations, with a wide range of students. In that sense, I would encourage teachers to try and see how things proceed.)

We decided to discuss controversial issues, as a group. However, in order to make this process a little easier and more fun, I designed a little card game. I wanted to create some kind of sense of safety, fun and simple “rules,” so a card game seemed a good solution. The goal was to really hear each other out, and potentially to learn from each other.


To make the process even less threatening, and more fun, we started by talking about food: each person tried to persuade the group that a certain unusual food that they loved was really great. We went around the group in a circle, so that each student participated. For example: one Irish student talked about Irish pudding (which apparently is fried blood), another student talked about bubble tea with avocado (which sounds gross but is apparently really good) then we “voted” with our self-designed cards. We gave these cards specific meanings:  

  • RED cards = a heart = I feel you; I wholeheartedly agree; I’m with you at heart
  • BLUE cards = an eye = I see you; I respect you; I give you props for sharing.
  • GREEN cards =  a leaf = I’ve learned something new; you’ve shifted my perspective.

Part of the idea of the card colors was to take stereotypical colors, i.e. Red = Republican; Blue = Progressive, etc, and give the colors a new meaning that was about mutual understanding and respect instead of divisiveness. The idea, in sum, was to shake up the stereotypical filter that those colors represent. In that way, a color did not represent a certain label (with all of the linked connotations), but rather expressed a personal feeling about a particular issue. We agreed we would not talk about individuals, only issues and ideas. Here are examples of the handmade cards, which were made by cutting index cards into thirds and then hand-drawing:


From there, we transitioned to current issues. Each student chose an issue they cared deeply about (on any topic!) and then we had a group discussion about it. Then we voted by holding up a card. Interestingly, the longer we did this, the more I saw green and red cards appearing, instead of only blue. While I was hopeful this would happen, I couldn’t be sure it would.

In the end, the group engaged in discussion and debate openly and calmly, over the course of three full classes (47 minutes each).  I did not initially intend for the discussion to last so long, but decided to keep it going as long as students were engaged. Students explored a whole variety of issues, including: immigration policy, global overpopulation, water usage, feminism, freedom of speech (also hate speech), gun rights, land usage and conservation, drug abuse and pot legalization, racism and racial slurs, and stress and mental illness.  The range and complexity of these issues attested to both students’ concerns and their interest in tackling hard topics with each other.

Overall, the whole process far exceeded my expectations. Students were engaged, often with multiple people wanting to talk at a time, but always waiting and hearing each other out. The card game gave the discussion structure and allowed everyone to respond to each issue, if only by raising a card.  The discussion was inspiring and a solid reminder of the importance of allowing students to express their heartfelt views in a safe and constructive way.

How to gauge impact?

To gauge this team’s opinion of their collaborative discussion, I asked students to respond via Google Form to the following questions:

  1. What are your impressions of our group conversation up to now? Has it been interesting and engaging? What have you learned?
  2. Have we succeeded, at least somewhat, in bridging divides? How so?
  3. Have your opinions shifted or changed at all, through our class discussion? Has it made you think of toxic partisanship differently?
The questions start more broadly, gauging interest and engagement, then narrow their focus to consider impact.  The results were encouraging, demonstrating that students overwhelmingly felt that the group conversation brought everyone closer and was engaging and worthwhile.
Here are several examples of student feedback:
  • “I think that the group conversation was interesting and I was really intrigued by everyone’s viewpoints. I learned a lot about what everybody thinks and learned more about important issues.”  
  • “Yes. I think the first step is always getting your voice out. I also think a big part then is learning how to listen to other people.”
  • “I think having different discussion was interesting and allowed us to learn and comment on various viewpoints. I learned a lot about free speech and what constitutes as being a hate crime.”
  • “I thought our group discussions went well. We were able to get all of our ideas out for the most part, and we learned some new things. I learned that not everyone will agree but you can see their side more clearly.”
  • “It has been both engaging and interesting and I think it was very helpful. I definitely learned to be more respectful of other peoples feelings and ideas.”
  • “I think that it has been interesting. I felt as though we were all familiar with each other to feel comfortable sharing out our thoughts and views on these topics. It was I think that something that people learned is that just because someone thinks differently from you doesn’t make them your enemy.”
  • “I think we have succeeded in bridging the divide in our class because we were able to respectfully disagree and communicate with each other.”
  • “Yes. I think that each of us were able to listen to each other, and respect our opinions, even if they are different. This definitely helps bridge division.
    we opened up and agreed with other opinions.”
  • “Yes I think my opinions shifted through some of the class discussions. It has made me think that toxic partisanship may not be as “toxic” as it was previously thought of. It could be easier to overcome than previously perceived.”
  • “My opinions have not changed much but it has made me think that people need to work out divisions.”

By the end of our discussion, students in this group were definitely eager to move on to the making stages. Nevertheless, they seemed to enjoy the openness and exploratory nature of the group discussion process and certainly modeled decency, kindness and respect to each other.

Suitcase-dotted lines

When should a teacher cross that line?

Designing a card game for one of the teams to help them engage in more meaningful conversation was a fairly major “stepping in” for a student-centric project.  I did so, as I mentioned, because it was such a delicate issue they had chosen and the group lacked cohesion.  However, there can be other times, at any stage in the making, when it is similarly helpful for a teacher to step in.

Another example of a moment when I felt it useful to step in was with the “Suitcase/Global Poverty” team. This team had chosen to create a wall inside of a suitcase and to populate it with emaciated people, as a way to illustrate the tragedy of global poverty and the trap that many impoverished people find themselves in.

At one point, this team had very decisively painted a white, dotted line on the horizontal plane, indicating a road.  They wanted to create an urban feel, but they clearly had not considered symbolism.  I discussed this with the group, and asked them to consider the symbolic meaning of the white dotted line and how (whether) that meaning supported their intention of giving the feeling of the suitcase being more like a cage.  I asked them to consider what other kind of lines might support the feeling they wanted to create, better. They immediately recognized that a double yellow line better conveyed their message.

This was obviously a clear stepping into the process and content of their work. However, I wanted to make sure that if they intended to keep that white line, that they could defend that decision.  It is always a questions as to when (and whether) to “cross that line” with students in the art classroom. I don’t claim to know the answers to this and likely I don’t always get the balance right.  I try to trust my intuition and my knowledge of that particular student’s needs at a given time.


Another related example had to do with the Overcoming Divisiveness team. They had decided to make two boats: one designed to float and another designed to sink, as a way to express their views on possible directions for our country (working together across differences vs. apart). Some of the boys in this group demonstrated leadership early on by harvesting saplings out of their backyards and woods to use as a frame for one of the boats. This initially went very well and they made significant progress building a frame. At this point, I planned to entirely step back from this group.


However, at one point it became clear that the scale they were trying to achieve was much too big to finish by the end of the term.  Furthermore, as a form it wasn’t in sync with the other members of their group who were designing the “sinking” ship.  So, given that I had some prior experience working with bittersweet vine, and I knew a spot on my way to work where I could harvest this vine, so I took it upon myself to get students in this group more pliable wood materials and also to soak it for them so that they could get it to form into a boat quickly and without snapping.

I ended up making several trips, over the course of a few days, to harvest these vines each morning, a process which was rather funny (leaving the house early each morning at 6:30 am with a giant pair of clippers to rummage around in the woods and fight the tenacious vines out of the trees) but it was something that I knew would work to accomplish what they wanted and I wanted to help them succeed. With the proper materials, they were able very quickly to work all together to build the forms they had envisioned and to move on to the finalizing steps.

Car:Vines  BoatCollab

Why is student-centric learning (the teacher stepping back) so important?

I’ve thought a lot about how much choice is too much in the art classroom. When does freedom become excessive and actually limit student achievement?  There are some teachers who swear by choice-based, “Teaching for Artistic Behaviors” classrooms and argue that student-centric, choice-based classrooms are the only approaches to teaching that truly mimic what artists actually do.  Students in these situations generate content and context, identify and access materials, and create original forms — with minimal creative intrusion on the part of the teacher.

I agree with this approach to a large extent. I believe in teaching artistic behaviors, for many reasons.  But also believe that there are times when students do need and benefit from more guidance.  On this issue, I agree with the art educator, John Crowe, who along with “what advice he would give to emerging educators” (see link above), also argued for all three of the models of teaching, from the more teacher-centric (I do it: You do it), to the less teacher-centric (I challenge: You wrestle) to the more student-centric (You choose: I support). All are valid and important approaches to art education, I feel, when used in tandem.

Overall, I prefer having my collaborative practice units (which decisively fall into the “You choose: I support” category) at the end of the school year. I feel that students at this later stage are more prepared to engage in collaboration with their peers and more confident in their own abilities as creative problem-solvers. They are more able to understand how materials interact and resonate in sculpture and more capable of understanding possible approaches to building in mixed media sculpture.  All these things set them up for more success within an entirely choice-based, collaborative project.

Some members of “Treehouse/Deforestation” team self-dubbed “Treehaus” (a play on my last name: Jellinghaus), which also happily allowed me to teach them a little about Bauhaus. 🙂

In terms of the benefits, I believe deeply in the importance of student-centric, collaborative work.  At some point during students’ art study, I believe it is important for them to have the opportunity to choose their own materials, define and direct their own process and engage in collaboration with others.

Collaboration deepen friendships, allows students to have fun and creatively problem-solve with others.  Even students who choose to eventually work independently often engage in group ideation work in a way that brings greater social cohesion and togetherness to the class as a whole and allows very different people to appreciate each other more. With collaborative, student-centric approaches, there tends to be more joking going on, and, admittedly, some time is “wasted” in the fun, but the general atmosphere is productive and spirited, and students often demonstrate a greater sense of engagement and ownership.


Member of the Team “Broken Mirrors,” preparing their ground. These students organized and brought in their own materials from home. They also formed their own chat group and shared with me that their friendships had deepened through their group art work.

After the completion of their artworks, students ended the unit by creating a “pop-up” exhibit in the school’s courtyard.  We invited middle school art students to attend (the middle school is in walking distance) and hear about their work. This culminating event added a feeling of celebration to the process and allowed younger students to think about how art can engage broader social or political issues, along with their older peers. I stepped back completely from this process and enjoyed watching the older and younger students interact.


How to approach students who don’t want to collaborate?

I did have two students who preferred not to make art in a group.  As a teacher who is interested in creating student-centric experiences, it was important for me to listen to these students carefully and understand their motivations.  Both students had a clear vision of what they wanted to do (in place of the collaborative project) and how they intended to achieve this.  I told them that I wanted them to take part in the group ideation process, to benefit from that learning, and then to see me again to discuss and see where they stood.  Both students engaged in the ideation and then chose to move in their own artistic directions, working independently.

I believe it is important to differentiate in moments like this and not force students to do something they absolutely do not want to do.

One student, in particular, expressed early on her own views that “of course people have different views — people are different! What’s the problem with that? That’s a good thing!” She eventually translated this appreciation of different perspectives to her sculptural installation of approximately 20 small, mixed media sculptures, hanging in installation against a gate. Her artist statement read, in part: ” In my eyes, art does not have to be pristine and perfect.  Plenty of absolutely wonderful art comes from random experiments, not thinking too logically. And that is what I tried to do here.  I’ve tried to create simple, random modules, all different from each other.”   Her work reflects her personhood — one that desires to be decisively free of political ideology and didactic message and instead to rejoice in pure form. Here is a detail of two small modules she designed as part of her sculptural installation. The pieces were designed to contrast with playfulness and fun against the severe bars of the school gate. She also participated in the middle school tour, by presenting and explaining her work.  As her teacher, I appreciated the fact that she did not go against her desire to see her own vision to fruition.

Detail of modular sculpture installation by Daniela S.

Why write artist statements?

Artist statements often provide groups to clarify their message for the viewer, but also serve as a summative assessment for the teacher.  Artist statements allow the teacher to see if students can put their visual thinking into words. It also allows the teacher to see if students have grasped larger meanings and conceptual frameworks for their work.  From my experience, there can be a lot of learning that can happen, even after the art work is made, through the writing of an artist statement.

These statements were written primarily by one or two of the collaborative team and then viewed and revised by the rest of the group.

How did the final projects turn out?

I feel the unit was successful.  Students engaged in variety of materials, outcomes and decisions. Each project was unique and a complete surprise to me — meaning: I had no idea what the outcomes might be — which is one of the true joys of working in this student-centric way.

Here are the final works:


Artist Collaborators:

Danielle Y., Lauren O., Max M., Matt M., Alec B., Miles H. and Omar E. 

Artist Statement:

The idea of making treehouses came from our mutual interest in raising awareness in global warming and preserving our planet. By incorporating both natural objects and processed natural materials, we contrast the natural world vs. what mankind takes from nature. This tied into our message because it shows that without the structure and support of our planet and all it has to offer, no human being (nor animal) would be able to live a sustainable life. This contrast/balance can be seen in all individual pieces that make up the “Treehouse Village.”

Inspiration for the Treehouse Village came from originally seeing Charles Simond’s ceramic pieces of miniature communities that he placed throughout cities or different locations. Our initial idea was to make a life-size tree house in the courtyard that students could “escape” to.  However, through the planning process, we advised against that idea and moved towards the process of making miniature tree houses. Every group member had different ideas as to what the end image would look like, so we all split up into mini-groups.

All portraying the same idea, some groups took to making their tree houses out of natural wood, while others resorted to more processed wood. One piece features a popsicle-stick house hanging in the center by a twine string. This is symbolic because it is a metaphor for how we, as humans, are reliant on nature and everything it produces. Though all the pieces were individually made, they are intended to unite together and project the larger purpose  of protecting the environment and taking care of our earth.




Artist Collaborators:

Abaigael B., Mandy H., Bella M., Celia P., Liam R., and Mia S.

Artist Statement:

We wanted this piece to reflect the idea that due to societal pressures, we often view ourselves negatively, seeing only our “flaws” and insecurities. The broken mirror shards come together to form the figure of a life-size person, to symbolize the broken view we have towards ourselves. The scrap metal pieces that make up the background were scratched to allow the shiny copper to show through, to speak the truth that it is what is behind the surface that is truly important, rather than focusing on outward appearance and one’s self perception. We all struggle with self image ourselves, and wanted our piece to stand as a reminder to all who undergo the same issues. We are all strong and should be comfortable in our own skin. Our own self worth should not be measured in other people’s views of us or society’s standards.

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Artist Collaborators:

Alia J., Olivia V., Lauren C., Gillian C., Nicole Y. and Wyatt R.

This project is a suitcase with little people in it to represent poverty and homelessness. The suitcase itself represents people being on the go and not having a stable house or place to live.  We showed the starvation and poverty through the little people we sculpted and how their ribs are visible to show how they have not eaten much and are poor. The people are small in contrast to the suitcase to show that they feel smaller and of less importance than the world or higher social classes. On the suitcase we drew a double yellow line in the street to represent that the people cannot cross. We also added in the brick wall on the background of the suitcase with graffiti to show the bad living conditions that the people live in. This symbolizes that they are trapped in this life of poverty and cannot come out of living in this way.



Artist Collaborators:

James D., Jason M., John R., Madeline M., Katie W., Makayla F., Jackie D., Brian F., Chris K.

For our final project, entitled, One Nation Divided, we address the current political partisanship in our society.

We did this by creating two boats — one which is designed to sink and the other is designed to float.  The sinking boat represents political partisanship that is toxic – when people with different ideas vilify each other and can’t work together to solve problems. On the other hand, the floating boat signifies people working together across ideological differences.

Before beginning our project, we found it important to debate hard subjects that were important to us. We agreed on being active listeners and open to this debate as a way to respect or differences and thoughts. In this conversation, we incorporated cards to show if we learned, loved, or understood our peers’ beliefs. Some important issues that we talked about were immigration, gun policy, drugs, feminism, racial slurs, overpopulation, water usage, stress and mental illness, freedom of speech (and hate speech) etc. These topics gave us new perspectives about how we perceive the world around us. Thus, we created unity in our classroom by bringing the different opinions of our class together while also increasing trust for better collaboration. And as a result, we shared our mindset with the world by representing our message in the form of these two boats.

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