Teaching with Contemporary Art

Working with Memory

Paul McCarthy, "White Snow and Dopey, Wood", 2011. Image: artobserved.com

Up until recently, I was unaware of how difficult it is for some students (and perhaps adults) to reach into their memories and use a past event, sound, place or even scent to influence the development of a work of art. A few weeks ago as part of a larger sculpture unit exploring how memories can be represented, I asked one of my classes to sketch two different memories in three different ways for a total of six small drawings. The three ways included:

  1. Sketching the actual memory as best they could- no shading or intricate details necessary at first
  2. Sketching an abstract representation of the memory using shape, color, texture, etc.,
  3. Choosing a word that somehow describes the memory and then finding a way to draw or design the word itself as a representation of it.

Getting students to think about the two memories in three different ways, I had hoped, would allow them to explore what they recalled in more detail. But I was amazed- no, floored- at the number of students who “couldn’t think of a memory to try” or students who bitterly complained they “didn’t want to draw a memory.” I kept thinking that the assignment, which was part of an introduction to representing memory three-dimensionally, was broad enough to have students reach back as far as they liked in order to share a fun, funny, bizarre, bitter or celebratory memory and influence their initial brainstorming. But getting these first sketches done was pure agony for some.

Now that we’re further into this particular unit, I look back on that first week and wonder how I may have started off differently. I thought a lot about what students needed in the beginning in order to more freely explore their own memories and share them. In the end it was no surprise that I came up with basically my own advice, given to other educators many times before… Share better examples and do more “front-end” work.

While I had asked students to draw two different memories to start, I hadn’t shared very many artists at that point who use memory to inspire their own work. I also hadn’t asked students to talk with their parents or family members about what they remembered about their own childhood, just as a way to trigger certain ways of thinking. Sure, we had discussed and briefly looked into works that gave specific memories form, such as the Iwo Jima Memorial and Janine Antoni’s “Moor”. We even had the opportunity to talk about how memory is constructed and the fact that specific events can be remembered very differently by people who experience them together. But we didn’t do enough to get good quality ideas going in and as a result I have quite a few half-baked sculptures (both literally and figuratively) that explore memories even the students themselves consider inconsequential.

Looking back a few weeks, and looking forward to trying this again in the future, I would share a more diverse range of artists and art works that specifically deal with memory in various ways. I would consider sharing Josiah McElheny’s work and paintings by Susan Rothenberg. I’d (carefully) select works by Paul McCarthy and perhaps Judy Pfaff, Mark Bradford and Mike Kelley. I would even include a range of works by surrealists such as René Magritte.

Working with memory presents challenges, like many themes and ideas we choose to teach with, that are terribly difficult to get rolling without an organized, broad and juicy introduction. Still, the great thing about teaching is that we get to continuously reflect on our work and make it better for the next time around.