Teaching with Contemporary Art

Exploding a Theme

Photo by Dana Swann, Nyack High School, New York.

This week began with one of my advanced classes looking into the paintings of season 6 artist, Rackstraw Downes. As students start up a thematic series of their own work I wanted to see if we could “explode a theme” and “frame” Downes’ paintings in three different ways- as a topic, a theme, and as a question.

After viewing the segment, students had little trouble describing Downes’ work as topics and themes (popular choices being “Landscape”, “Vastness”, “Clarity”, and “Precision”), but they came up with very few ways of characterizing his work as a question.

Determined, I continued a similar discussion using a series of work produced by one of my past (and present) students, Dana Swann, who just happens to be an extraordinary photographer. Dana described her series from last year, Instruments, and how it began as a body of work about musical instruments. But on the way to compiling twelve completed works of art she realized that musical instruments was only one way of looking at the theme, so we decided to explore What is an instrument? Soon, Dana was shooting everything from tools to utensils to makeup- all the while creating beautiful compositions and engaging the space, not to mention the viewer.

Photo by Dana Swann, Nyack High School, New York.

It’s a worthwhile challenge to make sure students are exploring good questions and not just “settling” for popular topics and ideas often inspired by not much more than boredom or the pressure of satisfying an assignment. When creating a body of work around a particular idea, students can go beyond knee-jerk choices such as Emotions or Portraits and get deeper with questions like What makes us laugh? and How can portraits convey more than likeness?