Developing Artistry in Teaching: Ritual Art and Human Concerns

By Gradle, Sally | Art Education, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Developing Artistry in Teaching: Ritual Art and Human Concerns


Gradle, Sally, Art Education


I felt it would serve them better to develop their art based on others' memories, rather than their own. In this way ... the art content would originate with real student concerns rather than the ideas a teacher might readily bring to curriculum construction.

Sydney Walker (2001), known for establishing a strong link between big ideas and meaningful artmaking, suggests the issues and concerns of daily life-such as relationships, conflicts, or reverence for life, to name just a few-provide the greatest potential for shaping artful problems.

She clarifies that art problems have more successful solutions when they offer complexity of interpretation, flexibility in construction, and time to reflect before responding. I believe this list could also include communal support for the exploration of ideas (Kay, 1998). Kay explains that problem shaping in art is a transactional relationship that develops between artist and community. Because the artist and community both value how the problem was formed, developed, and communicated, meaning is derived from a shared perception that the solution acknowledges a significant problem.

During the spring of 2005, I taught introductory methods classes to preservice art teachers at a small public university on the East coast. My goal was to lead students to conceptualize themselves as artist-teachers who could understand that similar qualities in effective studio problems such as flexibility, diversity in outcome, complex interpretation, and shared dialogue in community are also hallmarks of artistry in teaching. Since contextualism as a grounding philosophy for teaching and learning shares many of these qualities as well, we looked at contemporary contextualist curriculum approaches (Jeffers, 2002; Marshall, 2002; Delaney, 1998) that suggest both content and meaning can be co-constructed by teachers and learners, can remain flexible and open ended, and can acknowledge the constant influx of real-life issues that arise in the daily lives of learners. The Reggio Emilia approach in early childhood education (Frazer & Gestwicki, 2000) is an example that has developed meaningful content from co-constructions by students and teachers. For adolescent learners, the 198 Gallery in Brixton, South London (Atkinson & Dash, Eds., 2005) has taken a contextual approach to looking at hard issues and sometimes horrific life events that found a voice in art.

In the methods classes, we considered that humans have always responded to challenges with artful participations, sometimes called rituals, which honor and strengthen community, elaborate on valued experiences, (Dissanayake, 2000), passages of time (Eliade, 1959), and life transformations (Highwater, 1994; Abram, 1996). We defined ceremony as a kind of ritual that helps one recall that there is significance to specific encounters that can be shared and remembered by all. Celebrations may also mark time or life passages-such as losing a first tooth, riding without training wheels, or reading the first primer-without necessarily adopting a ceremonial format.

In the art room, all of these descriptions of ritual events are greatly amplified when we consider that the creative responses of human beings are cultivated through participation in celebration and ceremony (Turner, 1969), and that a community of learners is solidified by these rich, shared experiences. Art as this kind of ceremonial participation or performance has the restorative power to acknowledge positive or negative encounters that mark changes in peoples' lives as significant (Perlmutter, 1999;Atkinson & Dash, Eds., 2005) and honor the context from which the memories are derived.

The Problem's Design

Because I wanted the preservice teachers to consider that participation with students in an art room could include performances or ceremonies that artfully incorporate both themselves as artist-teachers, and the students as active participants based on the immediate issues in a particular context, I developed the following simulated studio design problem. …

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