Teaching with Contemporary Art



This week’s Teaching With Contemporary Art column is written by Carolyn Sutton, Director of Arts at The Park School in Baltimore and a member of Art21’s National Education Advisory Council.

Last October, inspired by the spirit of sustainability, Betsy Leighton, Lower School Principal at The Park School of Baltimore, challenged her students to consider the environment as they thought about Halloween. She coined the phrase, Hallowgreen, and students and teachers set about collecting various recyclable materials for costumes. Cardboard, empty containers, fabric scraps, old computer parts and broken toys filled “help yourself” boxes for the students to select from. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to introduce our youngest students, in grades pre-k to 5, to the contemporary artist Nick Cave.

Nick Cave’s Soundsuits are fabulous creations, made of thrift store finds, twigs, plastic bags, discarded thcotchkes, and just about anything else that strikes his fancy. Children loved seeing his work and guessing the materials they were made from, and seeing a video presentation of people inhabiting them. They enjoyed learning about his process, too. Often, Cave’s Soundsuits are assembled by a multigenerational, multicultural group of volunteers in his Chicago neighborhood.

With the second Hallowgreen Challenge underway, I visited Obi Okobi’s fourth grade class at Park. The students talked about how Cave’s work influenced their thinking about artists in general: Naomi said he had stretched her thinking about what art is – that it can be much more than drawing or painting or sculpture. Olivia noted that he has the freedom to bring together two things he loves – visual art and performance – into something bigger and better. Henry commented that the pieces could be interpreted lots of ways, which the students found exciting. They were inspired by his use of materials and several talked about their own costumes using unusual materials. Connor plans to head to antique stores to look for inspiration. Atira thinks she may fashion her outfit using empty snack food wrappers. With the election in mind Naomi plans to become an election booth. Gabe wants to be a domino, and the entire class helped Meg work out possible materials to make wings for a butterfly. Last year the halls were filled with students dressed as computers, recycling bins. Max was a bubble-wrap snowman last year, and there were three lovely ladies (sisters!) dressed in gowns made entirely of blue plastic grocery bags.

While we often think of contemporary art and how our older students might respond to it, we are always pleased that our very youngest students are so enthusiastic about it, too. Nick Cave is one reason why.


Cave, chair of the Department of Fashion Design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, brings together his interests in fashion, performance and sculpture while making reference to African ceremonial costumes. Watch a video of Nick Cave, produced by United States Artists: