I never thought I would write this, but here we are. I am officially in Graduate school. Honestly, I’ve thought about and gone back and forth with it for a long time. I originally applied for Boston University in 2016, was accepted, and then deferred for a semester. Then life circumstances happened in early 2017, so I didn’t pursue it. In 2017 I left my middle school teaching position and found a new home teaching AP Art History in a new district, which was a lot to adjust to.
Fast forward to Spring 2020, and the Pandemic happens. We never return to school after Spring Break, finishing the year online. Fall of 2020, we begin a hybrid teaching model, and I feel like a first-year teacher again. To be honest, it was one of the most challenging years of teaching ever. I was a web designer, curriculum specialist, emotional learning specialist, and television show host, all rolled into one. Well, in a nutshell, that’s what I was doing – there were a million other things, of course. Everyone LOVED us! Admonished us for taking care of the needs of students in an “unprecedented” time. Facebook groups popping up to “adopted a teacher” for Teacher Appreciation Week. I got a tote bag filled with cards and goodies, which was very much appreciated. Then everyone HATED us for just teaching what we were asked to teach. Last year students were struggling with being back on campus full-time all over the nation, and we had to reteach how to be in school.
I realized throughout this time that I wanted to make a more significant impact on my students and help facilitate change in my district, but most importantly, I wanted to help more teachers. So last summer, I enrolled at Boston University Online to finally get my Master’s Degree in Art Education, focusing on Leadership and Advocacy.
SURPRISE! I’m actually 7 months away from graduating, one more 7-week class, and then the capstone. I’m excited, and I’m nervous, but I’m ready!
When the world shut down over COVID-19, my first instinct as an art teacher was to use creation as a coping mechanism, for myself and my studio students. For my art history students it was clear that I had to use the historical context in a different way, so I showed this work to my upper level art history class: Toilet Paper Hell by Ichiro Fukuzawa 1974. (If you scroll about halfway down the link, you’ll find the image.)
This Japanese surrealist artist responded to the run on paper products sparked by the oil shock of 1973. In the time of all things quarantine(and all memes toilet paper related), I felt that this was a way to look at our similar situation, and therefore observe the power of art and how artists respond to world events. OR how world events influence the artist. Their final assignment of the year was to find and research any artwork that was created in response to a historical event and create a short presentation.
My students surprised me with a long list of works influenced by some serious world events, and even personal events of the artists. I’ll list just a few examples that my students submitted, including, but not limited to:
The Problem We All Live With. Norman Rockwell, Oil on canvas, 1964.
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. Michael Richards, Sculpture. 1999.
Bootleg Mining. Elizabeth Olds, Lithograph, 1936.
La Hara. Basquiat, Acrylic and oil paint stick on canvas, 1981.
Fast forward to May/June 2020 and we now see the streets lined with protestors for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Out of this art has been a huge way in which many express their sorrow, their anger and their desperate need for change.
Now this is where the art history lesson begins. Below you will see what we in the art world call a “Pietà” or translated from Italian meaning “the pity”. This is imagery that many early European Christians would recognize as Mary, mother of Jesus, holding the dead body of Jesus after he has come down off the cross. The image here is Michelangelo’s version, which shows a younger and calm/serene version of Mary, however there are others that are much more gruesome, try looking at theRöttgen Pietà, which is what we study in AP Art History.
So I will back track a little here, but stay with me. Images depicting Mary and Jesus prior to a certain time in history, typically depict the two as holy and divine figures, distant looking with stoic faces of reverence and maturity. However, as we see in the various renditions of the pietà this is a very emotional moment in which Jesus is limp in the lap of Mary as she cradles him like a child and she is typically mourning, or showing pain at the witness of her sons death. The pieta was meant to bring a sense of humanity and emotion to these divine beings. Jesus wasn’t just some far off distant divine figure, but he too felt the suffering of the human race.
Fast forward to 2014. In response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice and the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement, an artist by the name of Jon Henry begins a photographic series entitled Stranger Fruit*. He photographs African American Mothers with their children in a pose reminiscent of a grieving Mary holding Jesus in The Pietà. Henry is portraying every mothers worst fear, in a manner that mirrors the inevitability of death. Henry does not use his work to simply react to “what could be” the future of these sons, but he is responding and raising awareness to the systematic racism and inequitable treatment of Black Americans by the police in our country.
As art historians, we recognize that art is a release – a way to record our emotional response to the events that are happening all around us. Art also serves as a way to document history and remember what was. But we must also recognize that art can be a catalyst, a way to challenge the societal norms, to challenge the way that people think or view a situation.
Most importantly I know that art can be a call for change.
We are surely in the midst of a moment that will change the face of art and history forever.
If you would like to know more about Jon Henry and his work, he is participating in a lecture tomorrow evening June 9th, 2020 at 7-8:30pm EST. The lecture is free for the public so click THIS LINK to find the Zoom information.
A few resources are linked below if you would like to know more:
The title of my post is a little misleading, as the artwork we’ll be looking at today isn’t actually titled The Impact of a Book.
“Book VI: El Castillo.” Brick wall and book. Jorge Mendez Blake. 2018.
I showed this to my Post Art History Seminar class. Jorge Mendez Blake melds literature and his love of architecture into large sculptures. Your eye moves along the wall, noticing a slight convex wave in the center. Upon closer inspection you see that the cause is not what you might think, a tool perhaps, but a book. The book in question titled: El Castillo. Without delving to much into the context surround Blake’s work, my students begin to ask questions, and make assumptions about the meaning.
Discussion leads to how small ideas can make giant impacts, a ripple effect as it were, and our role as citizens of the world to help effect change. It’s a great way to start the semester and get my students thinking about art and its impact!
How do you create academic conversations in your classroom at the beginning of the year? Share below!
I sent my art history students out into the school to capture some “found art” and create a Title, Date, Artist, and material ID with a short description for their work. These are just a few of the Contemporary works that my students “created” during their scavenger hunt. Such a fun activity!
How do you help your art history students get out of the classroom and make an impact on the community? Share your thoughts below!
I might be a little late to the party sharing this here BUT my Art History Club and Post Art History Seminar class have created a podcast called ART AS WE KNOW IT! So far we’ve created 4 episodes and we’re creating more content as you read this! Check out these episodes on Spotify (Search Art As We Know it and scroll down to podcasts to find us) OR check out these links below to Buzzsprout where our podcast is hosted!