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….


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