What I Have Learned From “Other” Art Educators

What I Have Learned From “Other” Art Educators

Freedman, Kerry

The 2004 Studies in Art Education Invited Lecture

The Studies in Art Education Invited Lecture is presented at the annual meeting of the National Art Education Association. Each year, the presenter is elected by the Studies in Art Education Editorial Board as a leading scholar in art education. This year, the lecture was presented by Professor Kristin G. Congdon, University of Central Florida. Professor Congdon has published widely inside and outside the field of art education on issues including cultural diversity, community-based art education, and folk arts.

Kerry Freedman, Senior Editor

I have been studying folk art for almost 25 years. My interest in this area of art came from a job I had in the late 1970s, teaching art in a maximumsecurity jail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a new graduate with a master’s degree in art education, I had been taught to teach the elements and principles of design as they relate to great works of art. You can imagine how out of place and disconnected my teaching might have been had I followed through with that approach. Instead, I did a lot of listening and I followed my instincts. My inmate students didn’t want to draw and paint (and I couldn’t get paints in the jail anyway); they wanted to work with bright colored polyester yarns instead of neutral wools. While their aesthetic sense often seemed somewhat garish and strange to me, I not only facilitated their wishes in both art activities and materials, but I learned to value them (Congdon, 1984).

It was this 2½-year experience teaching women who generally had little formal education, rather desperate lives, and a profound desire to express themselves creatively, that made me want to do doctoral work to find out how to successfully and respectfully teach students I cared about deeply. These students are the individuals who are often left out, marginalized, and devalued.

And so I ended up doing doctoral work at the University of Oregon. A solid foundation for my academic career had already been established by June McFee (1966) and F. Graeme Chalmers (1978, 1981). The program promoted an anthropological approach to art education; it helped me articulate what I already knew to be important: That there are many artistic products and processes worthy of study and that they demand diverse approaches to understanding them. Much has been written on this topic. My intention here is not to focus on what we have called “Other” artworks and artists; rather I want to talk about “Other” art educators, those who are generally not part of academic settings. These are art educators who teach, but have perhaps differing approaches to learning from the membership of the National Art Education Association. Just as my early students in the Milwaukee County Jail had something to say about aesthetics, these “Other” art educators also have something to say about art education. This article is for them, and all the other artists and students and art makers I have encountered over the years who have used art and art processes in marvelous, inventive, and downright powerful ways.

The brilliant dancer and choreographer, Bill T. Jones, says, “Art asks us to look at ourselves and watch ourselves watching it” (Jones quoted in Roberts, 2004, AR 6). Because I have been trained as an art educator rooted in the established art world (and I might add that I enjoy being in this space), I am now, in some ways, looking at myself looking at artists and educators.

I do not wish to hide my perspective in this article. Kerry Freedman (2004) states that our social positions result “in different interpretive perspectives, regardless of claims to be objective” (p. 99). My perspective is anthropological and folkloric. It is rooted in democratic participation and inclusiveness. From this point my research grows and I acknowledge the ongoing lessons I have learned throughout the years from my dialogues and work with Doug Blandy, Laurie Hicks, Paul Bolin, and so many other friends and colleagues.

The lessons that 1 write about here have been imparted to me mostly from artists who have often been referred to as folk artists. But defining who folk artists are is controversial, difficult, and largely unnecessary for the purposes of this article, as I intend not to limit my scope to those who have been called self-taught, visionary, or outsider (a term I abhor). The lessons are framed as: a) a lesson about originality; b) a lesson about kitbashing; c) a lesson about communal work and networking; d) a lesson about languages; e) a lesson about transcendence, redefined; f) a lesson about the educated; and g) a lesson about who the teachers really are.

A Lesson about Originality

Certainly originality has been deconstructed in the postmodern dialogue, and you might think that I have nothing new (or original) to say here. Much has been written about the copy: we’ve been talking about it at least since Plato (about 375 B. C./1994), and in 2001, Doug Blandy and I published a Studies article on the fake. We looked at our obsession with Las Vegas and the current proliferation of so-called fine artists’ work based on kitsch, like that of Guillermo Gomez-Pefia. But the aspect of originality I want to analyze here is the power and importance of the copy that is a repetition. I want to suggest that there can be an aesthetic attached to having something that is remade in a particular kind of likeness.

My first example comes from Fremont, Ohio artist Bernadine Stetzel. I met her in the mid-1980s and made a videotape about her and her work, one that continues to shown on PBS stations in northwest Ohio. (For more information on Stetzel, see Congdon, 2000.) After making the video, Bernadine invited me to select a painting that I would like to own. She then repainted it and gave me the copy, explaining that the paintings in her home-literally hundreds of them-are like a scrapbook to her, and she never lets the original image leave her possession. After I moved to Florida, Bernadine continued to send me a painting a year-as a Christmas gift-always repainting something she owned herself. A few years ago she sent me another copy of the first painting I had selected, probably forgetting that I already owned that same image. Now I own two very similar scenes of Tiffin, Ohio, in the Fall. I love the fact that she values each scene she paints so much she can’t let it go-and that what I own is an extension of the piece she owns. In fact, from time to time, I now toy with the idea of hanging both my Fall scenes side-by-side. Perhaps two of the almost same image would be more powerful than one, due to the fact that it was reproduced more times than one.

Some Native Americans have learned to do their best work by moving in the footsteps of their teachers. For example, Bill Holm (1975) reports on Willie Seaweed and his son Joe:

[Willie Seaweed’s] son still carves and carves well. When he worked with his father, their work was almost indistinguishable. If Joe Seaweed made a piece, it was usually a mate to one his father made. The two worked side by side on a project-a pair of masks, sayusing the same compass, straightedge, patterns, etc. When Willie put the compass down, Joe probably picked it up and made the same size circle. And they used the same paint can. Joe tried his best to make his mask the exact mate to his father’s mask. So they look alike. They’re really Willie Seaweed in content. Later, when Joe worked alone, his work was different. You can tell. But with a group, or a pair, you can’t really tell-they look too much alike, (p. 253)

There are many ways to appreciate the aesthetic of Northwest Native American art, and it doesn’t preclude the work looking like one that was previously made. (I should also quickly note here that Native Americans are just as capable of being inventive while adhering to their traditions, which is shown from the making of beaded moccasins to beaded tennis shoes. For example, see the work done by Ralph Coe in 1986).

Perhaps in a similar manner to the look-alike totem pole, Freedberg (1985) reports that the aim of making votive objects is largely “to make the most exact copy possible” (p. 157). This includes anything made with papier-mâche, clay, or wax. Early folk painters, or limners, frequently painted from images they found in the popular press (Lord & Foley, 1965), the style and activities of Eskimo dolls are often owned by certain families (Fair, 1982), and the repetition of traditional quilt patterns is well known and valued throughout the United States.

We might also note the fact that the idea of copying as we have come to understand it is questionable. John Kane, who defended his reliance on photographic or printed sources, wrote:

All artists are copying nature. They see hills, the valleys, the trees and they copy those. If an artist sees something in a book he likes he will copy that, too, enlarging upon it or lessening it according to his requirements. So it makes no difference where he sees it, whether it is the work of nature or of another man [or woman] or work in a book. He is bound to react to the inspiration he feels. He will copy in part and adapt and take out what he likes. (Kallir, 1984, p. 53)

A lesson to us as academically trained art educators is that maybe we shouldn’t be so ready to stress originality. Perhaps there is power in the copying process, or we should rethink the meaning of the idea.

A Lesson about Kit-Bashing

I am currently working on a Florida Humanities Council funded website on four artists, one of whom is Diamond Jim Parker, a retired circus clown. Sadly, he passed away in December of 2003. Before he died he taught me a few things about creativity. He laughed at me when I told him I wanted to write about him as an artist (Congdon, 2003). Diamond Jim made miniature model circuses, and he never considered himself to be an artist; instead, he was a kit-basher. In other words, he purchased kits to make parts of his model circuses, then took them apart and reconstructed them as he invented new ways to creatively make animals, trains, trapeze artists, and various other figures that belong under the big tent. His circus displays filled every bit of his home, so much so that I was never quite able to identify the place where he slept. His love for model circuses was so intense that he was featured on the television show, Extreme Homes.

Not only did Diamond Jim Parker make his model circuses by kitbashing, he told me straight out that he was not an artist, but a hobbyist. In my mind, if Jim was a hobbyist and not an artist, then we would all do well to teach our students hobbies and give them kits to bash. Craft stores, often devalued by the so-called fine artist and many art educators, would be elevated in our curriculum and textbooks.

The process that Diamond Jim described has elements of the Do-ItYourself movement. Zines, self-made small magazines that take images and text from other places, are, in some respects, similar to Diamond Jim’s kit-bashing process. Doug Blandy and I wrote about this process in a 2003 Art Education article. Zine making and kit-bashing model circuses is all about hip-hop, montage, and collage.

Imagine if, instead of teaching our students to act like an Impressionist, (paint an Impressionist painting) we consider what would happen if we told them to kit-bash Impressionism. This would be “moving out,” “getting on down the road.” And if we call it hobby art, then maybe we should all join the club.

A Lesson about Communal Work and Networking

One of the problems with an over-emphasis on formalism in the field of art education is that it limits the exploration of meaning. Saper (2001) writes: “Formalist art attempts to critique representations of ‘reality’ in favor of representation as realization, and the emphasis on formal structures disrupts the supposedly unobstructed view of a slice of life” (p. 83). While folk artists sometimes instruct their students with formalist lessons, it is rarely the focus of their creative activities. Rather, the focus is more on the connection to everyday life and other people. It passes along ideas, values, and ways of being. Others pick it up and incorporate it into their own creative expressions and needs. This art, in Saper’s terms, can be said to be networked. One obvious way that this happens is with quilts. Traditionally, it has been about gossip, information, and song. It is also about form and function, and connections over space and time. Quilts comfort. They involve meditation and centering, quiet, but also noise. They move from place to place and continuously take on new meanings as they strongly root themselves to a particular story. Quilts connect ideas, meanings, and people.

Miami artist Eusebio Escobar makes artwork related to the rituals of the religion Santaria. Like the quilt, Escobar’s artworks take on new meanings as they are used in ceremonies, and become worn, ritualized, and sacred.

If modernism taught us that art “denotes nothing other than itself (Burgin, 1987, p. 12), then the work of most folk artists is different because it aims to be used. If modern art “with its ideological emphasis on linear sequences of formal change” and its claim that it transcends social forces, is about isolation and the individual, then postmodernism (McEvilley, 1992, p. 86), and much of the art that has been called “folk” is about cultural spaces and places, social forces and group identities. And the educational space that goes with it is shared, contextual, and sometimes lacks individual ownership. It is at its most powerful when the educational process comes from someone already culturally connected to the learner. The stage, so to speak, has already been set.

A Lesson about Languages

“Linguists now estimate that half of the more than 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world will become extinct by the end of this century” (Hitt, 2004, p. 52). In many cases, this is the language of one’s ancestors that frames the way a culture sees the world. If all these languages die out as predicted, there could be an article in the paper every 12 days on the “death of the last speakers” (Hitt, 2004, p. 58). Hitt tells us that over the last few decades the big fight in linguistics has been over English First. Happily, this is no longer the battle. Now the question is: What will be your second language? In our field of art education, I believe we talk too much in one language, the language of the so-called fine Art World (capital A, capital W). In order to enrich ourselves, we need new ways of thinking, talking, and teaching about art.

Not all artists and artist/educators talk like we do. I wrote about this idea in a Studies article published in 1986. James Thomas, a Mississippi artist who made clay skulls said, “If you ain’t got it in your head, you can’t do it in your hand” (Ferris, 1970, p. 96). Iron worker Philip Simmons says he “arrives” designs, and other Black folk artists refer to it as “getting futures,” referring to dreams or visionary processes (Vlach, 1981, p. 91). Carpenter (1961) reported that Eskimos (this is his term) often trusted what they heard over what they saw, saying “Let’s hear what we can see,” instead of “Let’s see what we can hear” (p. 128). Numerous other examples can be found in my 1986 article.

My point here is that so much art is misunderstood because we don’t know how to move into the languages of artists (Congdon, 1986). J. B. Murray (1908-1988), a man from rural Georgia who didn’t read or write the English language wrote his own. As he watched others view his work in an Atlanta gallery, he commented to his friend William Rawlings, “They don’t understand do they?” (Padgelek, 2000, p. x). Murray believed that God was moving his hand and working through him when he wrote and painted. For some visitors, he explained that holy water enabled him to read the writing that God channeled through him (Padgelek, 2000). This may be similar, in some respects, to the writings of James Hampton, who made the now famous Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, discovered in Washington, DC in 1964. His writings, like those of J. B. Murray, appear to come from another place (Horwitz, 1975). These may seem like extreme cases, but they represent the idea that we as university trained art educators, part of the so-called fine Art World, often miss the key message of an artist because we don’t understand the language. Or worse, we continually make it about our language alone.

Folk artists have taught me to listen to what they say, and how they say it. They are often interested in my opinion, asking questions about how I would define them or how I might judge one piece over another. I see my responses as an exchange of information, learning from them how I might widen my perspective of the world, and become a better art educator for all groups of people. Their words instruct; they tell us how to see, how to understand, and how to value what has been made.

A Lesson about Transcendence, Redefined

We are used to thinking about transcendence in relationship to aesthetics in terms of Kant’s (1790/1952) or Schiller’s (1794-1795/1967) approach. It is a place of freedom, of play, and universality. From this perspective, art objects move us out of our daily routines, into a space of Truth, and Beauty. While I don’t deny the power and importance of transcendence experienced from this perspective, there is another way of thinking about the experience of transcendence that 1 continually hear from those who have been called folk artists. It is an approach that, I believe, could be more powerful and easily understood by children. It is about transcending our circumstances, making dreams a reality, and creating worlds that meet our deepest and most pressing needs.

Walter Flax (1896-1982) was a man who wanted to join the navy more than anything. He loved ships. Using materials he found as a lifelong scavenger, including toasters, clocks, old telephone dials, light bulbs, a sink drainer, and a lamp shade frame, he made his own fleet of ships, hidden back in the woods of Yorktown, Virginia (Rosenak & Rosenak, 1990, p. 126). He explains, “When the first war came, I wasn’t smart enough… When that second war came, I was too game-legged” (Horwitz, 1975, p. 116). Reflecting on his creation of 100 ships, he says, “I’m gifted thataway. Sometimes you got something you can do-other people can’t do it” (Horwitz, 1975, p. 117).

Also using found objects, Leslie Payne (1907-1981) built replicas of planes he had seen as a child. While he never had the opportunity to fly in a “real” plane, he loved them so much that he took imaginary flights. He enlisted a group of young local women to “travel” with him and kept a logbook of his trips (Rosenak & Rosenak, 1990, pp. 233-234).

While Flax and Payne found ways to deal with lifelong dreams that eluded them, Annie Hopper (1897-1986) used her art to comfort her from loneliness and to spread her religious beliefs. Diagnosed with what psychologists call eidetic ability, she could make out shapes of animals or people in everyday objects, most often driftwood. Her small home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was full of sculptures illustrating Biblical scenes, 280 in all. Some scenes had almost 300 figures in them. For Annie Hopper, like so many other artists, making art brought her out of a deep depression (Ingalls, 1995).

Florida resident, Kurt Zimmerman is another artist who uses art to transcend his circumstances, in his case to work his way out of mental illness. Born in 1925 in Germany, he came to the United States as a young boy. When war broke out, he was asked to serve his new country by bombing his native home. As a result, his emotional health deteriorated and he went through a series of depressive periods and mental health counseling. Drugs didn’t stabilize him, but making art does. He says it gives him peace. Many of his paintings depict flying animals. Sometimes he picks up road kill; he paints these animals, flying, healed, full of energy, in a transformed state. His bright colors and fluid brush strokes all contribute to his ideas about movement and transcendence. As his animals move beyond their earthly difficulties, so too does Kurt Zimmerman (personal communication, October 2, 1999).

While these artists haven’t had students in the way that most of the membership of NAEA has, they all have profound messages to convey as educators. In these last cases, they give us an understanding of transcendence that is worthy of our study.

A Lesson about the Educated

I believe we too readily categorize ourselves as the professional and key art educators in the United States and beyond. We see ourselves as educated professionals who know best when it comes to teaching about art. And I would agree that we do know a lot; but we listen too little to others who make and educate about the processes and products of art making. The “Other” art educators are defined as we define ourselves. McEvilley( 1992) states:

The other is not other except in its difference from self. It is brought into existence by the selfs apprehension ofthat difference. The other and the self are simultaneous. They come into existence at the same instant and recreate one another at each succeeding instance, (p. 147)

We think of the “Other” art educators as self-taught, visionary, and outsider, terms I have long dismissed as defining a diverse group of artists. If one uses these negative descriptions about their work, it would make us (as members of NAEA) central, normal, and educated. But these ideas are built on fallacies. For the artists described here are at the center of their art making, they are educated in extraordinary ways, and like any other artist, they have visions and ideas of what to create and how to remake their worlds as better places to live.

Reflecting on folk art in general and Thorton Dial Sr. more specifically, Jane Fonda says, “A lot of people mistake this art as being quaintly regional.” To refute this idea, she explains, “For instance, Thorton Dial is an artist who is pained by the fact that he’s illiterate, but that doesn’t stop him from doing pieces about Bosnia or women’s suffering in Africa” (quoted in Rowan, 2001, p. 35).

Purvis Young (2001) knows the importance of history. The horses he often paints are about freedom for the Native American, an important idea not only because African Americans seek freedom, but also because so many African Americans have Native American blood in them. This is especially true in the Miami area, Young’s home space, where runaway slaves found refuge in the swamps with Seminoles. Reflecting on why so many Black people live by the railroad tracks he says, “One way of knowing your environment is understanding the history” (Young, 2001, p. 403). Young spends long hours in his local library reading art history books and he listens to The History Channel and The Discovery Channel on television when he paints. He says:

I been listening to Hollywood all my life. Now I be listening to documentaries based on true stories…. As I get older, man, I’m getting to find out some things. I see how Russia played a key part in World War 11. And black soldiers, too. I heard a black lady was talking about a cemetery for them in Miami and she say if she don’t tell it, ain’t nobody else going to tell it. Some things you just don’t see in history books. (Young, 2001, pp. 403, 415)

And in keeping with his belief that books don’t educate about the entire story, he takes old books and re-envisions the history, based on his way of knowing the world.

Artists aren’t uneducated because they didn’t learn like we did. Education happens everywhere, all the time. It just takes an inventive, curious, and determined individual to get an education. One simply interacts with his or her world with purpose and reflection. I believe that we pay too little attention to the “Other” educated people and what they have to say about both art and learning.

A Lesson about Who the Teachers Really Are

Northwest Coast Native American Lena Jumbo says, “I learned to weave when I was five-my grandmother used to leave my work at the door, and when I came in from playing she’d say my work was crying for me” (Steltzer, 1976. p. 74). And Greg Lightbown claims, “My teachers are the shadow and the light-and, of course, all the other carvers, and the ones who lived before” (Steltzer, 1976, p. 21). Levi-Strauss (1975/ 1982) reminds us that “Whether one knows it or not, one never walks alone along the path of creativity” (p. 148).

Two Florida model boat builders learned to create their artworks not from certified art educators, but from experiencing in their own cultures. Ray Singleton (1923-1997) made model fishing boats after he got injured and could no longer fish for a living, and Steve Phillip Stavrakis (b.1928) builds model Greek sponge boats as a tribute to a changing industry in Tarpon Springs, Florida (Congdon & Bucuvalas, in press). Their lessons come from lived experience. They know (or knew) boats like they know their own lives, and not because of art education classes as we know them in our field of study.

None of us really believe that we are the only ones who teach others about art. We just don’t act like we know this. If we did, our curricula, our pedagogy, and our identities might be very different.

Postscript: A Word about Visual Culture

It only seems fitting that I should acknowledge our field’s theoretical move toward visual culture studies, especially since this approach widens the kinds of objects and artists that are studied. If what visual culture studies does is democratize art and aesthetics insofar as it makes that which has been invisible in the Art World visible, then I’m all for it. And if the point of this approach is to show varied artifacts from all over the world in their “aesthetic and ideological complexity,” (Dikovitskaya, 2002, p. 4), then I think we are moving in the right direction. Furthermore, if visual culture studies “deconstructs” grand narratives and creates situated and partial accounts of the past where subjectivity is not hidden and positions of authors are no longer “disinterested” (Dikovitskaya, 2002, p. 4), then I feel pride in where our field of study is going.

I have an interest in making my values known, and I have an interest in diversifying not only the artworks we study but also the way we see and acknowledge education and educators. We need to culturally decolonize ourselves as a field. If only we are seen as art educators, then we impoverish both our students and ourselves. By labeling the Other teachers as educators, we open up our educational systems to a vast array of possibilities that are connected to people who have important things to say. We may have begun to let their messages as artists into our worlds, but we have yet to acknowledge then as educators, people who can teach us how to build on our teaching strategies.

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