Teaching with Contemporary Art

Taking the Long Way Home: Working With a Theme in a Series

Amy Sillman, Untitled (object on table), 2007; courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

One of the students in my advanced classes is taking on the theme of “looking vs. seeing” for her first semester portfolio. She wants to explore the things people tend to overlook (or under-see) and over the next four months will create about a dozen works of art that explore the theme from different angles:

  • What does it mean to see something?
  • How is looking different from seeing?
  • When you really see something, how do you know?

And this is just one of the many outstanding themes students are exploring. Others include:

  • Picturing sound
  • The relationship between drawing and photography
  • Fear
  • Beauty and youth
  • Fairy tales and false promises

I even have one student who wants to explore, visually, particularly elusive phrases connected by the word “and” (such as “body and soul”).

Asking students to not only work thematically, but to work thematically in a series allows for the kind of immersion that most teachers dream about. Testing, unfortunately, has many of these teachers flitting from topic to topic trying to “cover a curriculum” that will surface on some standardized test vs. making space for students to become invested in exploring a theme and the big questions that go with it.

But getting to a theme that a student really wants to explore is perhaps the hardest hill to climb. Prior to choosing themes in the fall semester, I asked students to do a LOT of sketching as well as research into artists that have similar passions, ideas, or approaches to making art. We did a lot of exploring and talking about what makes us particularly happy, angry, confused and excited. We made lots of lists and notes. In just two weeks I have shared the “portfolios” of artists such as Eleanor Antin, Marilyn Minter, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Amy Sillman, Sally Mann, Cindy Sherman and Barry McGee, to name a few.

In order to visualize working in a series, students need to see artists that not only work this way but think this way. Artists that do this especially well, and I am sure to bring into the classroom soon, include Dana Schutz (who happens to have a great show at the Neuberger Museum right now), Mark Rothko, Diego Rivera, Carrie Mae Weems, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Nancy Spero, Collier Schorr, Rineke Dijkstra, William Eggleston, Robert Mangold and Mary Heilmann. Too often, students expect to generate great ideas by staring at a blank piece of paper and waiting for lightning. Instead, I encourage them to visually “wander” in order to compare the ideas they have with other artists, or compare the approaches and processes that some artists use with their own in order to inform their work… and ultimately inform the series.

How many of you get the opportunity to work with students on developing a body of work around a theme? What are your experiences? Are there other artists you use to illustrate working in a series? Share your stories with us!


  1. Paintings says:

    Thanks for a great post.

    I, as a student understand you.

  2. Alok Johri says:

    Hi, I just happened to read your post. Well speaking from personal experience, when I went to an art school in ’86, just after a year my Head of Fine Arts Faculty told me not to study paintings after looking at my work, he said you are a born artist, you need to learn that will help you pay for your paintings. without giving much thought I took his advice and now when I go to classrooms across the India to talk about art and photography; I tell students to follow their heart and not bother about themes, series and so on. Its like the spiritual practice, 20 people could be meditating at the same time in a same room but each will experience something new and different. For me art process is very similar to spiritual practice where each piece is a state-of-mind. Why do we have to research or dig deep into the reasons on whys, hows and whats? You cannot learn about an artist by just looking at a series but a series of serieses done over the years. It is as natural as breathing process, after a point you don’t question why are you breathing? it does not make any sense to question that. I hear a lot from artists of all experiences that they talk about the ‘ideas of art’ for me ‘an idea’ is a solution to a problem and therefore its a design project and not art. Art has to come naturally its only then you are able to say so much more that can be read for long.
    Today when I look at my own work, I feel I am so free of conditioning, if I had studied paintings, probably it would have taken me yeas to uncondition the learnt process in order to produce something naturally comes out of me. If my work reflects the impression of influence from another artist, it does not mean I am influenced by another artist but its probably the other artist too went to through the same process and that’s when you really learn about another artist, another life, the nature, the process of evolution and so on.

    It is disheartening for me to see the work around the world produced by young artists in a mass-production kind of way where the language of work is so similar and I question ‘is the conditioned living become such a norm that individuality does not exist anymore?’.

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    Thanks to “Paintings”! I am a very confused about Alok Johri’s comment, though. Your dept head told you NOT to study paintings after looking at your work?? Sorry, but that seems like a real disservice to you. Artists can only grow by looking at the work of other artists and my experience tells me that students do poorly working alone, without touchstones for influence, waiting for lightning to strike, and without any real guidance along the way. Telling students to “follow their heart” seems like the classic cop out and not really facilitating growth. Asking students to look at a variety of series produced by other artists- even classmates- can go a long way when it comes to helping them expand on ideas and processes that they are struggling with.

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