Teaching with Contemporary Art

Developing Themes

"Doormat: Welcome (Amber)," detail 1998, Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

“I have to say that my work actually started from my interest in the notion of space, particularly this notion of personal space or individual space. And that’s actually the result of contemplation on the idea of how much space one person can carry.”   – Do-Ho Suh

Creating a series of work- a collection of works around a big idea or question- is different than working with a singular assignment, notion, idea, or source of inspiration. Those of us who teach students how to work thematically face the challenge of getting them to think beyond cliches and “topics”. I mean, how many times can you hear, “I want to do a series of work about emotions,” before completely losing it??

Teaching students to explore their passions and the things they wonder about in a series of works is a worthwhile endeavor, though. Anyone who teaches an advanced placement class, for example, whether you love the College Board or not, knows this (and believe me, I side with those who feel the College Board desperately needs to catch up with the 21st century, particularly with regard to their visual arts portfolio offerings).

Just this past week, with a little questioning, exploring and brainstorming, a few students I am working with transformed their recent thematic work from topics such as “portraits” and “landscapes”, to themes and big questions such as , “How do our lifestyles affect evolution?” and “What IS normal?”

Spending the time to do what I call “front-end work”, which I have written about in this column on more than one occasion and involves students working with their teachers to craft good quality ideas, is always worth the effort. Students who spend days or even weeks working with ideas they aren’t invested in inevitably leads to mediocre art. On the other hand, if students do a little research, get inspired by different approaches to making art, and truly reflect on what is important to them, themes and big questions rise to the surface and ultimately lead to higher quality work. The challenge lies in getting students to slow down enough to GET big ideas and be inspired to go beyond first responses. Let’s face it, a good, juicy question always leads to multiple answers….


  1. B Guttman says:

    Joe, I completely agree with you. Art needs to be personal and the starting point needs to be personal, regardless of what the topic is. Simmilar to you, when I teach I like to support my students in understanding what is the exact feeling inside of them that feeds the energy of working on the peace. If the idea is not conected to a personal feeling, then the final product will be empty.
    I have noticed, that once studetns are more aware of this initiating feeling inside of them, their ideas and choices of visual expression cane move and reshape more freely.Sometimes I actually think that it would be a good idea to have emotional intelligence as a subject in basic art education.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Tell me more about what you mean when you describe “emotional intelligence”. And thank you for your comment!

  3. B Guttman says:

    Emotional intelligence is detailly described in Danile Goleman’s book. It basically covers 2 kindsof our intelligence: our ability to understand, be aware of what we feel and how we are ( called intropersonal intelligence by H.Gardner) and our ablity to understand, recognise, empatise, be aware about the feelings of other people (interpersonal intelligence byH. Garnder). Emotional intelligence is also connected to our abillity to handle feelings of ourselves and others, to know what to do about those feelings, and it is directly connected to the way we make decisions. It was shown that we make the most important decisions in our lives not out of inttelectuual and rational, but out of the emotional part of our brain. (Goleman also mentions that, butthere are several other authors on brain and in psychology who claim the same). It was also shown that emotional intelligence is connected to other intelligences we use, hence to visual-spatial intelligence which we use,for example, while making visual arts.( An interesting fact in my oppinion a bit out of topic: it was also shown that success in life is not very much connected to suuccess in school kind of learning, while it is highly connected to our emotional intellligence. )

    When our emotionl intelligence is more developed, we are more mature as people. When it comes to art education, I think, that if a student has higher emotional intelligence (when he or she is capable of understanding what is inside of him/her or others), then that student is also able to make better decisions while creating ( we often are now aware that during of process of making art our brain is constantly making decisions: how long and thick a line shoud be, how much to press the pencil on th epaper, what colour and where to aplly, etc). We are often not aware that we make decisions when we make art because art is so often made in the state of flow -( flow described by Mihály Csikszentmihály) Popele with higher emotional intelligence are also generally having more mature personality, which in my oppinion, is again reflecting in the maturity of their art works. Art students who are aware of their feelings are more likely to be able to find an artistic means to express that feeling more precisely. What this awareness gives to an aritist/art student is clarity which then potentionally brings more chance in clarity in his or her art work…Awareness of feelings can serve as a tool for artists…but it is uppon them how they use it. It can be anything from banal to master level- as with any tool used in arts.

    Well this is shortly what I ment…I wonder if this is giving you more clarity about the topic?

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