Teaching with Contemporary Art

Talking with Art21 Educators: Jethro Gillespie and Jack Watson

Jethro Gillespie, his son and some friends at a TASK event

Over the past few weeks I’ve thoroughly enjoyed talking and e-mailing with two more of our current Art21 Educators, Jethro Gillespie and Jack Watson. Jethro teaches Studio Art, 3D Design, Ceramics and more at Maple Mountain High School in Utah while Jack teaches 2D Art and Art History at Chapel High School in North Carolina.

Similar to Julia Coppersmith and Maureen Hergott, whom I interviewed a few weeks back, Jethro and Jack have an infectious passion for the the things they teach and accomplish with students. Both look for ways to better engage their classes on a consistent basis and avoid “window dressing” projects that may look pretty but aren’t necessarily about very much…

Since participating in the summer institute, could you describe a significant change, improvement or extension of your teaching practice? Has the experience also in some way affected your own art making?

Jack Watson: There are lots of little ways that the Art21 experience works its way into my classroom – visual brainstorming with post-its, discussion prompts, the “parking lot” – but I think the most significant change to my pedagogy is reframing my curriculum within central questions, as opposed to objectives.  Like most teachers, I was trained to construct lessons rooted in standards with clearly defined objectives.  This is useful if you want your students to produce the same result, but frustrating and limited for working with open-ended ideas and contemporary art practices.  A framework of central questions opens the space to dialogue, ideas and possibilities.

As for my own practice, I’ve learned to embrace chance, and to focus more on the process than the product.  I think in particular of our visit to Oliver Herring’s studio in Brooklyn.  His work is so process-oriented, and he made such a strong impression on all of us that week.  I was most surprised that his studio was devoid of any of the trappings of a traditional artist’s studio: no easels, paints, etc.  Aside from some photos and a pile of TASK artifacts, I remember it being an open space full of possibilities- much like the classrooms we’re trying to create.  He might resist this metaphor, but it left an impression on me!

Jethro Gillespie: The most visible change in my own teaching since the summer institute is the inclusion of TASK parties. I’ve organized various TASK events with my own students at school and at 3 different conferences for fellow art educators since the summer institute. And to echo what Jack said, meeting Oliver Herring was for me probably the most memorable and inspiring part of that experience.

For me, TASK is so simple and so brilliant- I think the underlying, formative ideas behind TASK have to do with the relationship of the participants that engage with it, and also focusing more on the process than the product. As a teacher, having a TASK party with my students (right at the beginning of the school year) demonstrated and nurtured a genuine trust between me and my students, especially when it came to issues of power and control in the classroom.

In my first few years of teaching I tried to “manage” my class with some admittedly top-down, almost militant strategies in order to try and ‘control’ different situations. This ultimately left most kids feeling dis-empowered and often led to power struggles that I didn’t want to deal with. I’ve since tried to examine and focus my teaching practice on building a healthy and generative class environment in order to help students feel more empowered- especially when it comes to creating meaningful student art projects. Being involved with TASK has really helped me to re-examine my own teaching practice concerning these issues of relinquishing control in order to form relationships of trust with my students. And as an art teacher, TASK has also helped me shift my focus away from simply getting students to produce things, and towards getting students more involved with the process of creating.

Are there specific things you learned about during the institute that you’re still looking forward to trying or implementing?

JG: I’m looking forward to carrying out the unit plan that I created (about facts and fictions) with, among other things, the awesome materials from Art21. I think the Art21 films are great for classrooms. I really appreciate how concise and professional they are. I believe Wesley Miller said that they shoot 20-30 hours of footage for each featured artist, in order to glean the final 15 minutes of produced footage. As a teacher, I really appreciate that.

I’m also hoping to steal- and I mean this in the nicest way- some of the other participants’ lesson ideas. It was great to be with so many thoughtful, dedicated teachers this summer- I don’t think they’ll care if I “steal” some of the ways they thought about presenting big ideas and meaningful connections with their students.

JW: The institute was so intense – when I revisit my notes to look for an idea we discussed, I will rediscover three more that I haven’t tried yet.  Many of the ideas that have become regular parts of my teaching came from you, Joe! There are several I’m excited about implementing soon.  I loved the “Curating the Classroom” presentation, in which you led a discussion about war, peace and power through Exclusive videos by An-My Le, Carrie May Weems, and Krzystzof Wodiczko. This demonstrated that the videos could be used as instruments to guide the discourse or to get students to triangulate around an idea, as opposed to just presenting a video as a singular example, a singular voice, a singular solution.  I’m also looking forward to just getting deeper into the Exclusives and New York Close Up videos.  So much can be done with this content! The new website design will make it easier to explore these resources.

Jack Watson

And who are some of the other artists you’ve chosen to teach with so far this year? How do you think it has it affected what students are learning and the art that’s being produced?

JG: I have used videos featuring Glenn Ligon, Allora and Calzadilla, William Kentridge, Do Ho-Suh, Robert Adams, Oliver Herring, Ann Hamilton, John Baldessari, Walton Ford, Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, Gabriel Orozco, Robert Ryman, Yinka Shonibare, MBE, and Ursula Von Rydingsvard with my various art classes.

I have also used clips from Art21 exclusives about Mark Bradford and Jeff Koons, as well as New York Close Up segments featuring Lucas Blalock, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Keltie Ferris.

I think each of these videos are great catalysts for class discussion. The emphasis I’ve been placing on contemporary art in my school is affecting the way my students are thinking about and making their own art. I teach in a small suburban area, and most of the kids in my school come in with very traditional notions about art (realistic paintings of landscapes, portraits, or realistic sculptures).

I hope that the kids see me care about contemporary art and issues and big ideas. I hope that showing them these videos and discussing the ideas inside of the videos will be able to expand their perceptions about art, make relevant connections about their own lives, and hopefully help them have more meaningful experiences in my classes. I think, as a whole, students have been making more thoughtful and meaningful artworks.

JW: I just finished a semester-long unit on Systems with my advanced-level students, and we watched segments from all four artists in the Systems episode.  Of those, I expected John Baldessari to resonate the most with my students – his work is accessible, straightforward and funny (just like him!). But I think his work was perhaps too conceptual for them – it didn’t manifest in their ideas about their work. Many of the students in that group pointed to Allan McCollum and his concept of “picturing a million” as being influential to their work.

In another class we are focusing on memory, and the Mike Kelley segment started some fascinating conversations about trauma as a common thread in student work about memory.  Right now, we’re working on confronting stereotypes in a printmaking unit and Michael Ray Charles’ segment has been extremely important to us.  It’s impossible to be neutral or deal in superficiality when you view his work, and the academic, almost analytic demeanor he uses to discuss the racially charged content helped students view the content from a less emotional perspective.

Both of you mentioned TASK and I was wondering if you could talk a little more about what your experience has been like using TASK in and out of the classroom. What kinds of things do you think TASK teaches?

JW: I first experienced TASK as a participant at Oliver’s TASK Party at UNC in 2010.  I went with my wife and a small group of students, and even though I was blown away by the joyous atmosphere, the fantastic creativity and the transformation it brought out of people, my first thought was “There is absolutely no way I can do this with my students.”  In retrospect, everyone was having such a great time, I don’t know what I was afraid of.  Well, I do know: To do TASK correctly, you need to give complete autonomy to the participants, and this is something that is not in a teacher’s nature, deferring authority to his or her students.  It seems so risky.  It invites anarchy, chaos, naughty pictures! This fear, it turns out, is totally irrational.  Oliver dissuaded such fears when he told us (and I’m paraphrasing here), “If you are given the opportunity to shape your own environment, you are not going to do something anarchic or destructive”.

I found this to be true when I started hosting TASK events at school.  There is still, I think, a difference between a “TASK party” which is elective and operates under the assumption that all attendees are willing participants, and a classroom-based “TASK event” which is compulsory and is presented as a school activity by an authority figure.  But despite this distinction, TASK was able to create a transformative and creative atmosphere.  It’s an effective ice-breaker/team-builder, it opens up the students to each other, but more than that it opened up the space to creative possibilities. This is what TASK demonstrates effectively that school generally does a poor job of teaching: How to make something out of nothing, how to use the talents of others, and how to revel in the act of making rather than celebrating the achievement of having made something. And above all, how to have fun!

JG: My experience with TASK in the classroom was largely positive. First of all, I think it helps establish a healthy and empowering, student-centered environment, which is so important to my job as an art teacher. I’m always hoping that I’ll be able to help kids be more creative, and then I came across this quote by artist Harry Callahan:

I don’t think you can teach anyone to be creative, all you can do is give them an environment.

So to me, the creation of an empowering classroom environment is one of those things that’s hard to do in a public high school classroom where I’ll have up to 36 kids at a time. When I introduced TASK to my class, it was sort of like telling them, “I trust you, I want to hear what you’re saying, and its okay to be funny. I think your ideas are valid and worth exploring.”

When I started off my class with a TASK party, I was pleased to see that instead of total chaos, wasted materials and broken equipment (which I admit, I was worried about), the kids were great. They even helped clean up afterward.

I remember one of the things Oliver Herring told us regarding his experience with TASK. He said that when you essentially put kids in a position that allows them to “step over the line,” most of them won’t, but it’s healthy and empowering for them to know that they could. If anything, it created great memories for the students, and helped them to loosen up and get to know each other in an accelerated way.

One last question… As we get ready for season 6 are there any artists you’re particularly excited about? 

JW: I know that Marina Abramović and Ai Weiwei are going to get a lot of airtime in my classroom, so I’m particularly excited about their segments. This year, partially as a result of the Art21 Educators program, I am focusing on the idea that artists can be agents of change and social justice, and in that sense it’s necessary to rethink the notion of “art objects” as an end, but rather as a vehicle for ideas and a catalyst for conversations and actions. Marina Abramović and Ai Weiwei demonstrate this well.  Their work is so simple, yet so powerful.  And not at all what a student would expect to be doing when they walk into my classroom!

Beyond that, I’m looking forward to seeing David Altmejd, Mary Reid Kelley, and Glenn Ligon.  I’m attracted to these artists for various reasons, but each one presents an idea and a process I find interesting and challenging to incorporate in the classroom.  Like Jethro, I’m also just really looking forward to learning more about some artists I’m not so familiar with!

JG: When I first saw the list of featured artists, I was immediately excited about Ai Weiwei, Lynda Benglis, Marina Abramović, and Sarah Sze, because I was somewhat familiar with their work. I have already checked out Glenn Ligon and love how he talks about the “gestation process” of ideas. He also describes the process of “making” as more than just layering a message into an object. I’m really excited to use his segment in my classes.


Many, many thanks to Jethro and Jack.

And don’t forget that the application period is now OPEN for the Art21 Educators summer institute here in NYC from July 2-10, 2012.

Tune in next week, since we’re on a roll with interviews, for part one of a special conversation with Janine Antoni as we prepare for the National Art Education Association conference here in New York.