art and transition

The following are my personal observations of a workshop attended by six Faculty Associates from the Professional Development Program, Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

In Preparation

Usually when people decide to take part in a visual arts workshop, it is because they already have some experience or interest in making art. This workshop was different. This 3-hour session was part of a larger exercise that called upon the Faculty Associates in the Professional Development Program at Simon Fraser University to reflect on their transition from one pedagogical culture to another (themselves as teacher to first year Faculty Associate, to second year Faculty Associate, to returning teacher). It was designed to bring attention to how we negotiate cultural transitions, the forfeiting and attainment of privileges embedded in each culture and our perceived identities within these cultures.

The workshop in visual art was one of four workshops offered (each in a different discipline). Participants were asked to choose the discipline with which they were the least familiar. Consequently, participants came to the visual arts workshop because they had little, if any, experience working in the visual arts and with art materials. One participant phrased her relationship with art as, “I’m afraid of art”. Another, “Think of someone who has been locked in a closet”.

I made the decision that it was more important for the participants to leave with an experience than a product. As one participant gently reminded me later, “The experience is the product and the product is the experience”. And while I focused on creating room for an experience, they created both experiences and products.

The premise was to engage participants in using and experimenting with some common materials used in art making. I introduced the session with a brief explanation of basic colour principles and a demonstration of various art materials. To create a form to work with, they broke into groups of two and traced the outlines of their bodies on large pieces of paper in any position they liked. They would then work on one tracing of themselves and one of their partner's.

In keeping with the concept of transition, I asked them to conceptualize and explore aspects of self and other through the application of pattern, line and colour. The only real direction I gave was for them to consider what colours, patterns, textures they thought would best represent themselves, what colours, patterns, textures others might use to represent them, how they would like to be represented, how they would represent someone else, and where they believe they hold their core identity in their body. And, one last thing, if they wouldn’t mind painting their hand and leaving an imprint somewhere on their work - the handprint being a visual symbol of identity.

I suggested that they primarily work with two or three colours and/or patterns and to not feel that they had to cover all of the white space; that the white space could work as a colour. Also, that they could consider the outline of the figure as merely a shape; not as a person to be filled in with features and physical characteristics. I explained that both positive and negative space are active agents of balance.

In Process

Once the bodies were traced, the participants quickly became absorbed in their individual pieces and settled into quiet motion. I believe they were able to connect quickly with the work because the forms on the paper were already personal. Also, working with another person to create the body tracings had already created a collaborative, intimate atmosphere.

Given the tone in the room, I moved to the side and began working on a tracing of my own body. Other than some intermittent basic guidance with materials, I became one of the participants. It was an exploration – nothing more. No expectations. No hesitations. Apprehension and dis-ease seemed to dissipate.

The participants filled large areas of white paper in quickly, working the whole page at once, an important part of process for an artist. Working large meant they had to physically move around the piece, most of them working on the floor. They boldly laid down large patches and waves of colour that connected visually as they reappeared in other parts of the work. They moved line freely, emotively embedding the bodies with life and authenticity. They calmly, carefully, placed detailed specs, dots, smears that culminated as fire, dance, movement when viewed from a distance.  And, this is what happened:

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The results were open, creative, full of life and colour. They read as whole and balanced. They were both primitive and ageless. While the participants had the body as an initial shape to work with, they moved beyond that shape, using it only as a starting point, as a place to expand from. They demonstrated a freedom that echoes Picasso’s statement that it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child.

And while the overall results were quite extraordinary, it was the level of sophistication that arose in the details that I found the most intriguing. They were full of spontaneity, personal style and voice. Here was where they explored and exposed their unique, individual styles in the process of reifying their identities.

Unknowingly, they were beginning to build a repertoire of images, ways of leaving marks, combinations of colours, decisions of what they might keep for the future, what they might omit, what felt integral. While perhaps amateur as artists, they were obviously wise and mature as individuals. This is not my projection of another’s experience, this is the experience of making marks, of transition, of transformation. In the process of expression we make decisions.

Core Identities

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Patterns and Textures

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In Observation

There are a number of elements that provided space for the participants to move past inhibition and gain enough comfort in experimenting with the materials to simply express.

They had a traced image of the body that provided a place for beginning; an anchor. Their only task was to make marks and apply colour, which alleviated the pressure of having to be able ‘draw’ to feel creative. They were presented with a number of questions in regards to representation that provided some direction. Where, how and to what extent they explored these questions would be their decision. Finally, the exercise was situated in the larger context of transition and identity.

Providing the participants with a framework that included various degrees of direction, choice and context laid the groundwork for an opportunity of exploration rather than expectation. The participants were able to reconsider mis-conceived and/or pre-conceived notions of art making and their capacity to participate in this discipline.