As the end of the school year approaches, students take their last tests, turn in portfolios, and prepare for the next year. It’s a busy time, but exciting experiences present themselves. Such an experience occurred at Hillcrest High in Kari Bennett’s studio art classes. Her Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate students enjoyed a visit from local artist, Maddison Colvin. Colvin, an artist in residence at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, lectured and led students in a project.
Kari Bennett described the experience. “Maddison started by showing some of her own artwork, including some examples of image mapping she had done. The students were really intrigued by her work, particularly a watercolor bug series based on the swarming and grouping habits of insects. She also brought along a sketchbook, which was perfect for this group to see because it had both drawing, painting, and writing in it. It was as much a journal and an exploration of ideas as it was a sketchbook, which is exactly how these students are supposed to work. She brought a box full of beautiful little images of everyday objects painted on individual cards. On the back of each card, she had typed everything she knew from experience and memory about that particular object. The students really loved the typewritten information on the back and several asked where to get a typewriter.”
In describing her lecture and discussion with the students, Colvin focused on the idea of individual knowledge. “We looked at informational art (maps, anatomical drawings, botanical/naturalist paintings) from antiquity and talked about visual art’s ability to transmit or record information. This type of information about location, appearance, topography, etc. can often only be accessed through images, and at one point in time, all of those images had to come through an artists’ hand. Then, after the invention and popularization of photography, we had a much simpler and more direct way to transfer visual knowledge from one spot to another. Now, for example, the easiest and most accurate form of mapping is through satellite imagery, not meticulously hand-drafted atlases.”
Colvin continued, “Artists, therefore, are in the position of taking the visual language of informational art (the appearance of mapping, the systems of scientific documentation, the techniques of naturalist painters) and appropriating it into their own art. Rather than these artworks communicating something universal, they communicate the knowledge or idea of the individual artist.”
After her lecture, Colvin led students in a mapping project of their own. “We each drew a map of the United States from memory on transparency sheets. This reflected our individual knowledge. Then, we took these transparencies and projected them onto a single sheet of paper, tracing each one on top of the one before. Eventually, we had a map of the United States that represented the classes’ cumulative knowledge. Then, we added another layer of data to the map by applying different colored dots. The dots represented different levels of experience, including where we were born, places we had lived, places we had visited, and places we could picture but hadn’t necessarily been to. When this data was put on the map, we made observations about how our knowledge was biased towards our own geography (the western United States), which was fairly clear and well-populated with experiences. This was repeated to a lesser extent in the northeastern US, which students were familiar with, as well as with Florida. However, the midwest was a mess of chaotic lines and very little experiences, and we had a discussion about why that might be. In the end, we had a pretty interesting art object on our hands.”
Mapping shared experiences led to a deeper understanding of the artistic process. According to Kari Bennett, “The students found the exercise really thought provoking, which was perfect for this group. They want to think and explore ideas and this was a great project to get them thinking. We followed up by responding to the experience in their sketchbooks and by coming up with other possibilities for this approach to making art. “
Why is such an experience important to burgeoning artists? Bennett responded, “What I think is so valuable for these students about having these guest artists come is that they get to see the artistic process from a living, breathing, working artist. (I’m afraid they see their
teachers as teachers before artists.) They get to see how they work, what they do, and why they do what they do. It excites them and exposes them to the kinds of possibilities available. It makes art and being an artist a little more real for them and inspires their creativity. It inspires mine too! These artists always bring something new to the table. As a teacher, I can’t possibly expose them to everything, and these experiences bring in fresh, new, thought-provoking ideas. I would do it more often if I could because the students love it.”
Not only is the experience beneficial to students, it also proves beneficial for the artist. Colvin commented, “I loved working with the students at the school. They were insightful, interested, engaged, and had interesting observations and questions. It was great that they were so game to try a pretty nontraditional collaborative art project. A positive experience all round!”
MADDISON COLVIN, from “Typologies”
Colvin continued by discussing why such visiting artist opportunities prove so important. “I think it’s helpful for students to see that there are artists working in their community. It’s an all too common conception for students that art isn’t feasible outside of school, or that they’ll have to make their art a certain way for it to be well-recieved, or that they’ll have to move to New York to make a living. The chance to see artists working in a wide variety of media and subject matters within Utah is great. It encourages students to pursue a thoughtful and highly individual artistic practice and encourages them to see that practice can lead to a successful body of work. While we didn’t have time to do this during my visit, I think it would be wonderful for students to visit one-on-one with artists and get some form of individual critique. This kind of outside perspective was always what spurred me on to new and interesting things as a student. “
Thank you to Kari Bennett for providing photographs of the event. And thank you to our kind community partners for making such visits possible. A special welcome to our newest partners in Murray, including California Pizza Kitchen, Macaroni Grill, and the Cheesecake Factory. The Foster Art Program Blog couldn’t do it without your support!