Each year the National Art Education Association holds a conference for a few thousand people and streams of art teachers, art professors, artist-educators, museum educators, administrators, starving artists, starving administrators, student teachers, writers, bloggers, and art-product-pushers descend on a convention center somewhere in the country to present panels, give workshops, share research and think through ideas for teaching visual art in and out of the classroom. But this annual conference, like any I’m sure, also has its share of problems and challenges. Over the past two years NAEA has booked huge convention centers without wi-fi access and continues to run a head-spinning number of workshops and presentations, simultaneously, that are literally one-time affairs (last Friday I counted four different presentations that I wanted to attend… all at 4pm). If you do your homework going in, you usually have a few things that you MUST see (or participate in) over the span of the conference. The rest of your time is ripe for pleasant surprises or disappointing Powerpoints in rooms without windows.
Being the optimist I am, let’s talk about a truly pleasant surprise.
This past Saturday I had the opportunity to share a stage at NAEA with five impressive Baltimore high school students and Carrie Mae Weems. It was my job, if you can even call it that, to moderate a Q&A inspired by Carrie Mae’s season 5 segment after developing questions with the students and teachers using the Art21 season 5 educator’s guide. The students chosen by Carolyn Sutton and Lauren Selig, teachers at the Park School and Baltimore Freedom Academy, were Thomas Jones, Laila Phillips, Alex Marion, Mihija Cox and Ken Greller. To say that the conversation which took place on that stage Saturday was transformational is not pushing the envelope. I know because I have listened to a digital recording of the interview about five times through over the last three days alone.
Now if you have heard Carrie Mae Weems speak before, you’re probably not surprised that she managed to create a beautiful and moving experience with five high school students in conversation. But what I found so inspiring and interesting was how the conversation shifted back and forth between talking about Carrie Mae Weems’ work and the work of the students….
Carrie Mae Weems: It’s such a pleasure to be on the same stage with you. I wonder about who are the people that you care about? What do you care about as a young artist? I know that Ken, you’re interested in theater and Albee as a playwright, but what do you think about? What’s on your mind when it comes to the arts and your practice?
Ken Greller: I think figuring out your practice as a young artist is really important. It’s very subject to change as a student when you have all these “non-art” responsibilities in your life. You could wake up at 5am and do your art work until you have to go to school but that’s hard. But then again if that’s what you want to do…
Carrie Mae Weems: You do it.
Ken Greller: And you’re probably a happier person for it, albeit sleep deprived. I personally think about how to become an artist ALL the time and not having to be other things, especially over the next few years. I like the idea of practice as nourishment. I think that’s a really good way to think about it.
Tune in next week to Teaching with Contemporary Art as I highlight many special moments in this broad and stimulating conversation about the work of Carrie Mae Weems, teaching about social justice, art practice and living passionately.