Interviewing Local Artists: A Curriculum Resource in Art Teaching

Article excerpt

This article addresses the role local artists can play in helping teachers and students learn about one another across the socially defined differences of race and ethnicity. African American photographers Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun discuss their art in terms of the cultural heritage and social conditions in New Orleans and their personal commitment to community needs. The insights gained from these artists indicate that art is considered a means of preserving the history of African Americans and New Orleans traditions and a way to defuse the harm of racial stereotypes. The use of the interview is discussed as a practice for art teachers who are striving to understand their students and the communities they live in and who want to integrate concepts into their art curricula that are relevant to students' lives and that challenge nations of White supremacy. It is also seen as a practice for students of color who can gain a meaningful sense of the history and traditional values of their own communities that have been hidden by the larger social and educational agenda of assimilation.

School curricula continue to exclude the art, cultures, histories, and experiences of certain racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Historically, their exclusion has had grave implications for society, creating perceptions of difference between self and other, and between the majority and those who have been relegated to the margins. The nation's story we are taught as children determines who we identify as "American" and who we perceive as "different," creating a gap between social reality and how we understand that reality (Pinar & Castenell, 1993), and perpetuating stereotypes that limit the opportunities of those who are considered "different." The history of people of color whose visual cultural expression can be seen in much of the American material environment has been so hidden that social stereotypes make their labor and the conditions of their lives almost invisible (Takaki, 1993). Even committed teachers can experience a sense of cultural misunderstanding when working with students from low economic and/or diverse racial and cultural backgrounds (McElroy-Johnson, 1993). Yet, according to interviews with students of color, those teachers who care and hold high expectations for them are the most successful (Nieto, 1996). How then can art teachers better understand their students and their students' families who live in economically and racially marginalized communities? How can teachers provide art instruction that will empower these students to challenge the social stereotypes that can circumscribe their lives and control their minds, so that they will be able to define themselves and their roles in society in positive ways? What classroom practices can help students gain perspectives about art that are often overlooked when art is considered an expression of universal truths?

Many art educators have abandoned the modernist belief in the formalist, functionless notions of art as creations of individual great artists living outside social and cultural boundaries. They have instead posed possibilities for curriculum and instruction based on postmodern theories that parallel postmodern developments in art. In 1990, Efland discussed abandoning the conception of universal truth in favor of local and personal narratives. Zimmerman (1990) suggested a curriculum approach based on a feminist model that would consist of using regional content and ways of knowing the world and inspiring students to produce socially, historically, and geographically relative art. Milbrandt (1998) described a curriculum designed to involve fifth-grade students in the study of postmodern artists who critique contemporary social and ecological issues. Some art educators have also called for the study of local artists because they represent a unique perspective that is accessible to students. Ulbricht (2000), for example, feels that "By talking with self-taught artists, students can learn how art functions for artists and public in the community. …