Art Reach: Pedagogy and Process at the FATE Conference
"Seemingly impossible to standardize through “neat” little projects, the evidences of higher learning, like empathy, ethics, and creative problem-solving are often not pretty."
As I think about assessing how students learn within the dynamic framework of the college-level art classroom, a blank piece of copy paper floats across my mind. I see fear on that blank page. How do I measure student progress? Where’s the grid, the anchor, the matrix, the learning outcomes? Studio, tradition, art, research, and technology - these are the buzzwords that blanket my thoughts as I think about what needs to get covered in the slippery territory between technique and concept in the studio.
I jot the title of the FATE Foundations in Art Theory and Education panel I am attending in my sketchbook: Teaching the Unteachable. Mary Stewart of Florida State University, a seasoned teacher and author of Launching the Imagination: A Comprehensive Guide to Basic Design, is speaking about the absurdity of a rubric for qualities like “empathy” during the 9 A.M. session at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis. Her co-presenters, Josh Jordan of Montclair State University and Chris Kienke of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Art and Design, match her tone with evidence of student exercises that look like a cross between a writer’s journal and an artist’s sketchbook. There are scribbles and lines that look more like parts of a grocery list than a newly polished project, coupled with stacks of recycled thrift store objects, plastic sheeting and duct tape that looks like garbage-can overflow. Seemingly impossible to standardize through “neat” little projects, the evidences of higher learning, like empathy, ethics, and creative problem-solving are often not pretty.
If you are an art educator, it takes a backbone to recognize that what look like doodles, detritus, and crumbs may actually be an upgrade on the scale of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the markers of learning art, design and drawing. These presenters not only recognize this, they project it on the big-screen. They fill the blank page in the crowd’s imagination with the ordinary, the dismissible. They are heavy lifters, a gift to those in the audience who have seen years and years of the best work in top museums, college studios, and galleries, who still find themselves thinking about the worst drawing on the first day of foundations studio class. This is the one the student did not like because it did not look like the still life, but the one you love because it is so stupid, so bad, so wonderful, and so full of potential. You know the piece. It looks like some pile a gallery assistant created while unpacking the “real” show.
My mind wanders back to last few weeks: A working spring break filled with the calculations of sixty-six Art Foundations Portfolios that we viewed, rated and documented the week prior. The Texas Tech University School of Art helped their Foundations students find their name on a wall and practice handing up their portfolio. The blank page floats back through my imagination; this time it has a couple of hand-drawn question marks scrawled across it. Our rubric for the portfolio assessment ranked three categories:
1. free-hand drawing maturity
3. commitment to material.
I labored over these categories in front of my computer, desperately trying to tie them into our BFA Capstone rubric, as well as our Foundation’s mission statement, all at the same time trying to be economic with my words. However, while standing in front of each portfolio, I quickly realize that the categories were not always met by the students’ work. For example, due to the flexible sequencing of our classes, some students declared themselves art majors but had not yet taken a Drawing course. Zero for Free-hand Drawing Maturity on that one. Other portfolios only show drawings. Zero for Composition and Innovation on that one. Overall, with a 1-4 scale (4 as the highest), we averaged 2 in each category. Satisfactory. A student group rated us as 3 in each category. Good. At this point, I have an internal argument with the score Excellent.
Go away. You have undercut my ability to teach students the power of art, design and drawing. You, with your polished photorealist images and immaculate craft. You bully. Quit it with the big shadow over our Foundations Program. Quit it with the deep authoritative voice of power over our doodles and thinking. Quit baiting our students with unrealistic goals and unproductive competition. Quit turning our Foundations class into a Graduate Seminar. Let us be. Let us learn how to draw a sphere in proper perspective. Your evil stepsibling, Entertainment, distracts our silence as we try to quiet our minds and draw the damn still life or mix the correct color.
Again, I am confronted with a blank piece of paper…this time a literal sheet of paper from Sundeep Srinivasa, Director of INDIGO Artpapers. This sheet came from his booth in the publishing and materials room at the conference. I am walking around with it on the last day, a physical manifestation of the paper that was knocking around in my head for the past few days. It is beautiful. I do not see anything on it. I see everything on it. I envision it in my living room on the table. I dare myself not to hang it, or draw on it, or pierce it with push pins. I love it for its big, white, blankness. It is my detox from the conference arguments, ideas, and rants. On the way home from the conference I carry it by hand, unwrapped through three airport terminals: Indiana, Chicago, and Dallas. In the Dallas airport it was it commented on as it made its way onto the luggage rack. The ticket agent wanted to know what type of “wonderful art” I was going to create on it. I smiled. I was too tired to explain that the residue of the journey back to Lubbock was the artwork. All the dings and marks and hand oils that accumulated on it during my checking and sitting and ordering coffee and shuffling my baggage and going-to-the-rest-room was on that paper. And all the ideas for this paper were accumulating on that piece of paper. That paper was my art room. My studio. The ticket agent could see it. He got really excited about that blank paper. He saw the potential.
The FATE Conference was hosted by Heron School of Art and Design, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Images provided by Carol Flueckiger