THOUGHTS on ART from 2021

Some people hate art. That’s the most surprising thing I learned this year when I stepped into high schools as a teaching artist. NYC is an art capital, but hundreds of our public schools don’t have art programs. And many students “hate art.” How is that? When I was in school, art was fun, an easy “A.”

To be fair, I hated gym class, and how can you hate gym—all you do is run around, play games? But it’s not much fun when you lack physical coordination. And I hated math because I did not understand it. There is no joy to be had when you do not have skills to employ and enjoy.

“Art is boring,” said a student.

I prod him. “Is it boring? Or is it just that you can’t draw the ideas in your head the way you envision them, so it frustrates you?”

“Yeah, that.”

Most people equate art with an ability to draw. While drawing is often a big component, it is not all of art. Art is also about color, design, IDEAS, expression, therapy, exploration of materials and thoughts. So that is where I went in my workshops: let’s de-emphasize the drawing, but tell me about your idea, play with colors and composition, experiment with mediums.

City Canvas Project

For example, you can do a lot with rectangles. This basic shape involves minimal drawing skills but allows for visual complexity when you throw in color, patterns, and composition. I designed a workshop for William Cullen Bryant High Schoolers, in which they created cityscapes by cutting and collaging rectangles. I’ve included a few of the resulting images here.

I stayed with this principle of composing with simple rectangles as I designed a 4’x55′ artwork around the theme of “home,” commissioned by ArtBridge and NYCHA. The piece will be printed on vinyl and hang across the street from the high school at Woodside Houses. It is part of the citywide program, City Canvas, which strives to bring art into communities.

Mural for South Bronx Community Charter High School

At South Bronx Community Charter High School, Thrive Collective assigned artist Fermin Mendoza and me to work with seniors to conceptualize and paint a mural for their beautiful brand new building. The mural was an opportunity for seniors to leave their mark on this new school, an opportunity to say something. In our first week, we asked students:
Who are you as individuals?
Who are you as a community?
How might you visually represent yourself?

Working with folks who do not regularly practice art—foisting on them a new way of thinking, i.e. a visually creative mindset—initially feels like brewing soup from an iceberg. 

Because where does one start in art? People dread drawing. Drawing is daunting if the last time you made a picture (that didn’t involve your phone) was when you were six. But everyone does have ideas—ideas of who they are, observations about the world, thoughts they want to share. Students made sketches with notes. Some used phones or laptops to find images to trace. We harvested ideas.

Who are you? Students answered: scholar, leader, gamer, creative, intelligent, inventor, fun, open, talkative, quiet, comfy, kind, explorer, artistic, polished, steadfast, outgoing, beautifulWho are you as a community? Students answered: cooperative, different, diverse, hardworking, brave, ambitious, intuitive, resourceful, flexible.

A few weeks later I presented students with the first draft of the mural design. That is the moment we saw connection. I explained: Here is the Grand Concourse flowing from the boombox; here is the crumbling building; do you recognize your ideas? Here is the girl with the giant afro—you drew her again and again—black stars representing freedom. And the garden of flowers, representing the diversity in your school—you planted this idea. You demanded a phoenix, and I agreed because you said your school is resilient.

First draft of SBCCHS mural design

Below are photos of a giant blank wall being transformed into a vibrant painting for SBC. To transfer the image, we projected the design onto the 45′ x 14.5′ wall, then traced it in gray paint, section by section. By November, the new building had still not been cleared for student occupancy, meaning seniors could not paint yet. While waiting for clearance, Fermin and I colored in the highest areas of the wall that required ladders and scaffolding. Students and faculty joined in December. Artists Jodi Dareal, Lourdes Rojo, and Emily Gooden helped bring it home, finessing the final details.

Why is art important?

Because expression is a fundamental part in our human nature. Because we are visual beings. We are communicators. We love to see ourselves mirrored in words and pictures. It is how we learn about ourselves. So how could art not be a part of our education? How could art ever not be a part of us? #BringArtBack

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