Making Art Appreciation Matter

In 2012, I sat down at the ChocoLaté Coffee Shop on North Decatur Road in Atlanta, newly christened a “professor” for the first time in my life and tasked with creating a real college-level curriculum for an Art Appreciation class. I was thrilled to be in this position, I felt extremely lucky to be in this position, and here I was with the creative freedom to write an entire class of my own. Maybe some of you remember being in this position and the sense of overwhelming responsibility you may have felt. I started by writing down a list of every subject, idea, and concept I’d learned about or seen in art that I found interesting, thought-provoking, and creative; any art experience that I’d had that had made an emotional impact on me. I pulled up lists of YouTube videos I’d saved; studies on color psychology and optical illusions; documentaries like Between the Folds, Rivers and Tides, and Exit Through the Gift Shop; books I’d read on art and creativity such as The Creative Habit, Understanding Comics, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain… I gathered the inspirations of my life together and stepped back to assess. What in my life had I viewed with wonder? I knew that if I did not find this content interesting, exciting, or impactful, I could not expect my students to feel that way either.

Mood boarding something fabulous

I originally conceived of this paper as a eulogy to the Art Appreciation class I taught for 5 ½ years at my current school, Georgia Gwinnett College. I also taught this class at two other universities, including teaching the course on-line. From my rough calculations, I’ve taught this course approximately 35 times to over 850 students. Georgia Gwinnett College (known as GGC) does not have a major or minor in Art, but has classes that feed into other art-related majors. Cinema and Media Arts Production majors (a film major with a goofy title to appease the Georgia Board of Regents), are required to take Two-Dimensional Design and Visual Literacy & Communication. Digital Media majors are required to take Two-Dimensional Design and Drawing I. I have also previously offered a Special Topics course in Visual & User Experience Design for Digital Media majors. While one could say Art at GGC is just a servant to other majors, but I’m excited that Art is working in concert with other majors so that the role art plays in our culture and job fields is made known to our students. Instructing non-art majors in Art Appreciation helped me learn to teach the relevancy of art to ALL students and all majors.

The Art Appreciation course is an “optional requirement” for University System of Georgia undergraduates, as an Area C core requirement where the students can take either Music Appreciation, Introduction to Film, Theater Appreciation, or Art Appreciation. Hundreds of incoming freshmen pass through this course every semester (as well as a few upperclassmen who realized last minute they needed to get this requirement out of the way!). In order to formulate a class that was going to work at GGC, I needed to take into account limiting factors. Firstly, the class caps at 28 students and is not taught as a studio class, which caps at 16, however, we were still completing studio projects. Secondly, because we did not always have a dedicated art space on campus, we did not always have an ideal studio setting in which to complete these projects. Instead, early on, we had desks set up with plugs for computers and carpeted rooms. Thirdly, and most significantly, most students passing through this class had little to no experience with visual art and most of them would never be taking a visual art class again in their college curriculum.

This is probably the most profound problem professors of Art Appreciation have to face, that you have this one, brief opportunity, (for me, just 35 face to face hours throughout the semester) to show these students the impact and influence art has and can have on their lives. This is not going to happen by drilling them on slides and the names of artists, it is going to happen by giving them an emotional experience with art. Maya Angelou states:

In a 2017 article review, neuroscientist Chai M. Tyng reported that, “Emotional experiences are ubiquitous in nature and important and perhaps even critical in academic settings, as emotion modulates virtually every aspect of cognition.” In order to make an impact on students taking Art Appreciation, we need to offer them experiences that will provide them an emotional experience with art.

A formative teaching experience for me was teaching at an arts summer camp at the Chastain Arts Center in Atlanta for two years prior to teaching college.

Our camp mascots, Totoro and Mister Giraffe, dressed in their finest

At the time, I wasn’t the biggest fan of kids, except that I know I loved once being one. To protect myself from the chaos that was intrinsically linked with small people, I opted to teach the oldest group of students: middle schoolers. However, I ended up loving this age because it was at the intersection of youthful creative thought and the emergence of technical ability. Middle school was the stage of life for me where I started sitting down in the living room with Bert Dodsen’s Keys to Drawing and began drawing my feet with one continuous line. It was the stage where I’d fill my school notebooks with doodles instead of notes. At camp, my students created living paintings, which were based on the music video “70 Million” by Hold Your Horses:

Left: The Scream, Right: American Gothic

Dadaist art, which kids really grasp the absurdity of:

The head moves along the blue arc. This is the most genius artwork I have ever experienced.

Alexander Calder’s mobiles (with my favorite being a “bat mobile”):

The “bat mobile”

and, my very favorite, a “Zeus” filled of mythical hybrid animals:

The “Zeus”
Mer-Lion, Medusa, Flying Red Hedgepanda, and the Minotaur, complete with dead cow and dumbbells

How could I get my college-aged students to remember the experience, or experience for the first time, this joy of creativity and creation? How can we create these memorable, emotional experiences for our students?

For their first essay assignment of the semester, my Art Appreciation students write three paragraphs about their most significant art experience. This could be any art experience, not just limited to visual art, as long as it is something that was significant and memorable for them. The students are encouraged to use vocabulary related to their senses. What sort of colors did they see? What sounds did they hear? What textures were in the artwork? This assignment serves multiple purposes. Not only does it fulfill the goal of reminding students of their formative art experiences, but it also gives me an initial read of students’ writing skills and their interests in art. I often refer to these essays throughout the semester when a certain student’s interests come up in the class, which they often do, especially when we start to talk about the connection between music and art later in the semester.

One advantage we’ve always had at GGC for Art Appreciation is a $10 studio fee, which can give us the opportunity to buy art supplies and sponsor field trips and experiences for our students at a very low cost. Some field trips and experiences included visiting the High Museum in Atlanta, a glassblowing studio, a screenprinting studio, and viewing public art on the Atlanta Beltline. Getting out of the classroom and seeing real businesses creating relevant and influential art increases our students’ awareness of art in their everyday environment. Working artists have also come to campus to work in collaboration with students on public artworks and to hold workshops. Participation in a permanent work of art for the campus gives our students a sense of pride, an investment in, and a connection to their college. Moreso, these experiences create enjoyment for students. Hopefully these experiences helped my students create connections between these ventures and those early, formative art experiences.

In the second week of Art Appreciation, I bring my college students back to those formative art experiences when we review the different stages of drawing researched by Betty Edwards. These stages progress from scribbles to landscapes to eventually to what Dr. Edwards calls the “crisis stage” of drawing. In the crisis stage, students want to create increasingly realistic drawings, but become frustrated when their skills do not match their perceptions.

I’ve always found this illustration by Van Oktop to be an apt description of the crisis stage, which occurs somewhere between step number 4 and step number 5.

I ask the class, “How many of you drew when you were kids?” and all the hands go up, then I ask, “How many of you have drawn in the past year?” and most of the hands go down. After discussing visual metaphors and analogical codes, I get these students to draw again by creating visual mashups of an animal and an everyday household object. The students are asked to look for visual similarities between the animal and the everyday object by examining their basic shapes. They then get to experiment and play with a variety of drawing materials and are encouraged to explore different types of line. A pair of glasses becomes a wolf’s body:

Student work

a stapler becomes the claws and shell of a crab:

Student work

and champagne glasses become the horns of a giraffe:

Student work. Why is the giraffe in space? The world may never know…

The students are not graded on their drawing ability level, but on the strength of their visual solution.

When teaching Art Appreciation, I divided the students’ work into five gradable areas: Participation and In-Class Work, Visual Art Assignments, Weekly Quizzes, Written Work (including an oral presentation), and a Final Group Project. When I first started teaching at GGC, we could only use one particular textbook, if we were going to use one at all, but had complete creative freedom for the rest of our class content. The book was broken into two sections: art techniques and (mostly Western) art history. It seemed unnatural for me to present the semester to my students in this manner, almost chopping the semester up into two separate classes, so I decided to pair up chapters from the book to associate an art technique with a particular period of art history. One of my favorite pairings in the class was to combine printmaking with the art of Asia, during which the students would learn about the history of printmaking throughout Asia and how it contributed to the spread of Buddhism, ending up with the history of ukiyo-e printmaking. Ukiyo-e prints were described as images of a “floating world,” meant to capture the ephemeral moments of our lives. Katsushika Hokusai is one of the best known artists who worked in this style, which was popular in Japan in the late 1800s but was adopted by Western artists such as Mary Cassatt. For the project, my students had to come up with a design that showed an “event of their everyday lives,” such as their walk to class, a conversation with a friend, or playing fetch with a pet. I asked, “What are the experiences of your day-to-day life that are impermanent, fleeting?”

From this prompt, each student created a drawing that was transferred onto a 6”x4” linoleum block that they carved using the relief technique. Students were instructed to experiment with creating different textures within their print and were challenged by thinking in inverses, that what they carve away is what will NOT show up in the print, and that their print will be a mirror image. (One student, after carving words into her print and realizing they were backwards when she printed it, found a quick solution by flipping the print on Instagram… NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW.) This project was one of the favorites in the class, with students working in silent harmony, slowly chipping away at their blocks with the carving tool, allowing the images to gradually reveal themselves.

Student work

When learning about Modern Art and Abstract Expressionism, we learned about Wassily Kandinsky and his artworks that he entitled “compositions,” meant to bridge the relationship between visual art and music. It is largely assumed that Kandinsky experienced synesthesia, actually SEEING colors and shapes when he heard music. I then challenged my students to think about what color the note C is, what shape is the sound of a trumpet, and what line is the voice of a singer. I play four movements of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a series of 10 musical compositions Mussorgsky composed after visiting a memorial exhibition of a friend’s artworks. Mussorgsky’s work in the 1870s actually became an inspiration for Kandinsky in the 1920s. The students render one watercolor painting for each of four movements, using either representational imagery or abstract imagery, as Kandinsky did, to show what they think the music “looks like.” I was amazed about the coincidences of similar imagery throughout the class, especially pictures of a cat chasing a mouse for the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and crowns and flags for “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Apparently music really can evoke our collective memories. Along with the printmaking project, students often cited this activity as one of their favorites of the class.

Because we only have a semi-dedicated studio space, the space for storing 3D artworks is extremely limited. The first couple of years I taught Art Appreciation I taught an architecture unit in which we studied vernacular architecture. Students chose a biome from a stack of index cards, such as jungle, savannah, arctic, etc, and constructed a small 1’x1’ architectural model of a home that would be suited for that environment.

Student work

After spending a few semesters with sculptures lining the walls of the classroom, I slimmed down my 3D curriculum to talking to my students about the global history of sculpture. We review how many different cultures all used sculpture as monuments to their values and beliefs, the Greeks creating sculpture of the human ideal, the Egyptians creating monuments to their leaders in the afterlife, the Kingdom of Benin and China’s Qin Dynasty creating monuments to their ancestors, and Japan creating monuments to the axis mundi connecting the heavens to the earth. I then ask the students to write an essay on a value or belief that they personally hold, and ask if they were to build a monument to this belief or value, what would it be? What material would you make it out of? What location would it be located in? Would the monument be static or kinetic? What symbolism would you use to emphasize your belief or value? I ask the students to again use aesthetic language and the elements of art to describe their monument, but they can also include a color drawing of their vision for the monument. All of these projects connected history with culture, and culture with self.

Student work

As I learned more and more from art history books over the years I taught this course, the preference and attention of these books for Western art is stunning. Only a sliver of every text I encountered focused on non-Western art, even when we have copious records of the art of the Muslim and Asiastic worlds, among others. This focus on the art education world only teaching what is easy, what you can show slides of, what you can find authors of, is why the indigenous arts are disappearing slowly, or, as in the Brazil National Museum fire, in an instant.

Image from the LA Times

60 Minutes spent an entire segment on how scientists spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours attempting to read the burnt scrolls of Pompeii, while, in the meantime, the history of an entire country is destroyed because a museum cannot even afford basic fire prevention. At the least, despite the dearth of information in textbooks, an investment in educating students about global arts needs to be a focus in our Art Appreciation classes.

In my unit on indigenous art, I begin by telling the students a number of a creation stories that are connected to a particular artwork. I then ask the class if these stories were believed by these cultures to be the literal truth of the history of these events. Some students say yes, some say no, many say, “in a way.” I then introduce my students to the concepts of mythos and logos, as presented by Karen Armstrong. Graham Richards writes in a review of Armstrong’s philosophy, that, while logos “refers to our practical and problem-solving understanding of how the world works, our grasps both of physical cause–effect relationships and how to exercise social power over others,” mythos “refers to those broad frameworks of value and meaning in terms of which we conduct and evaluate our lives and experience of the universe as a whole. A mythos is not a body of empirical propositions but a way of being and experiencing. It is what gives life its point.

At least in the United States, we live in one of the most logos periods of history, in which spiritual and philosophical contemplation of our world is confused for ignorance. Dismissing myths as “fake news” makes us lose the value they do have, of their ability to answer the questions we cannot answer with science: “What is the difference between right and wrong?” “What does it mean to love?” “How should I treat animals or other humans?” “How should I live my life?” The creation stories I share with my students recall the rules of a storytelling night in Atlanta I attend, where the stories presented “Do not have to be factual, but they have to be true.”

After I present the creation stories, I then present the students with a Lakota Winter Count, called a Waniyetu Wowapi. In Lakota culture, Waniyetu Wowapi translates to “winter count,” and serves as a calendar of the history of the tribe, a winter measured from the first snowfall to the first snowfall. Instead of measuring these years by numbers, as we would on a Roman calendar, we measure them in images, one symbol representing the most significant event to happen to the tribe in the past year.

A Winter Count history, painted by Oglala Sioux artist Dawn Little Sky, part of the Cook Collection of American Indian Artifacts

I had the privilege of seeing one of these winter counts, not at the Met, not at the MoMA or any of the other celebrated art museums, but at the South Dakota State Historical Museum in Pierre, South Dakota, when I was working at a youth center on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation after college. (To emphasize again: regional and indigenous art museums matter.) I then have the students write a list of the events of their lives and they must decide what the most significant, memorable, or important event that happened to them in each year of their lives. I encourage them to, for the years they may not remember, to go to family members to tell them, with their imperfect, subjective, non-logos memories, the myths they remember about their lives, the stories they tell over and over. The students come up with a symbol to represent each of these events and record them as a winter count is, in a spiral beginning at the center of the page and spiraling outwards, emulating the cyclical timeline of mythos vs. the linear timeline of logos. Some lists were very short, very simple, others were full of memories and detail. The year their father died. The year they fled Bosnia. The year they were adopted. The year they went to Afghanistan to fight in a war. And slowly, throughout the 5 ½ years I taught the class, memories of 9/11 showed up at about five years old, but slowly faded from most of these timelines.

At the end of every semester, my students study public art, and I show them the work of Shepherd Fairey and the documentary by Banksy Exit Through the Gift Shop. Atlanta has a wealth of public and street art and with my Honors section of Art Appreciation, they used the “Living Walls” street art app to discover artworks along the Atlanta Beltline. I then give my students a number of options to create a public artwork of their own. I would often pair with offices around campus, such as the Office of Diversity, that wanted student art for display. One of the most popular options was called “Free Art GGC,” based on the Free Art Friday concept out of Atlanta, where local artists would create a small piece of free art and leave it somewhere around the city with a message on the back that says “Keep this art, it is yours.” The students who shared their art around campus included a hashtag and often the discoverers of their art, as well as the official GGC page, would share it on social media so it reached an even larger audience.

Student work
Student work

The final option was to create a “happening” or living art piece, inspired by the group “Improv Everywhere” and the art groups of the 1950s and 60s. Some of the happenings ended up being silly, some interesting, but one of these happenings showed to me that these students would not forget what they had experienced in my class.

In the weeks prior to creating this project, I had shown the students examples of concept art, including Yoko Ono’s wish tree. In this project, students were able to write their wishes down on pieces of paper and then tie them to a small dogwood branch outside of the library. My students created a video on YouTube of a retrospective of the project, in which you see the tree covered in more and more cherry blossoms of paper. (Although the student took the video off of YouTube and it is now sadly lost, I fortunately grabbed images from it for a previous presentation before it was taken down.)

At the end of the video, they made a list of some of what their fellow students had written down. This is what my students wished for:

And, most importantly, of course:

While I may forget what my students said in this class, while I may forget some of the projects my students did in this class, because of experiences like this one, I will certainly never forget how these students and their work made me feel. From the comments I’ve received on this class, I think many of them will remember this as well.



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