Born in Rutland, Vermont, Todd Elkin is a visual artist, writer, researcher, activist and arts educator currently living in Oakland, California. He has an extensive visual arts background including work as a professional printmaker and freelance illustrator. He is currently the Fine Arts Department Chair and an art teacher at Washington High School in Fremont, California where he focuses on co-designing (with students and other teachers) and facilitating student-driven, art-centered trans-disciplinary curriculum, fostering cultures of critical thinking and reflection.
Elkin is a senior faculty member of the Alameda County Office of Education’s Integrated Learning Specialist Program. An Art21 Educator since 2011, he has been a mentor and presenter in the program and Summer Institute since 2015. As an educator, Elkin is motivated by issues of social justice and equity in matters of race, class and gender and he’s committed to creating spaces for students to engage in relevant lines of inquiry about these and other important themes. In 2016 he co-authored an artist’s book with Arzu Mistry, entitled Unfolding Practice: Reflections on Learning and Teaching. Elkin and Mistry are currently working on their second book.
Art21: Why do you believe the thinking and practices of contemporary artists are important to incorporate in the classroom? What do students get out of it that they might not otherwise?
Todd Elkin: I really believe contemporary artists are ideal role models for youth. They model self-driven proactive dispositions, cycles of inquiry and innovative strategies. They push against all kinds of boundaries in ways that can open doors for young people who are questioning the status quo. Contemporary artists are engaged in a continual process of empowered self-assessment that embraces failure, uncertainty and chance as important elements of their practice. They show up in the studio and battle it out each day in ways that model a growth mindset for students.
Also, many contemporary artists’ work is research, and involves a process that often results in new insights, which then trigger new inquiries. Their artworks can be excellent catalysts for dialogue and the construction of meaning in and outside of classrooms.
Contemporary artists understand that the world is an inherently transdisciplinary place, which means that they must adopt transdisciplinary approaches. They are both critical thinkers and critical changemakers. Contemporary artists perform functions that other types of practitioners do not. They effect transformations, operate simultaneously on intellectual and emotional levels, and dwell in liminal, interstitial spaces. Many of the attributes and attitudes of contemporary artists stand in stark contrast to compliance-based classrooms. These qualities are so useful for students to see, and Art21 has opened such an important window onto all of these processes.
Art21: Why were you initially drawn to the Art21 Educators program?
TE: I first heard about the Art21 Educators program from Lois Hetland who had been working with the program in its first couple of years. Lois had just come back from the Year 2 Summer Institute and she described an amazing TASK party that Oliver Herring led, with tasks like “have a tea party for the queen” and “start a revolution.” This was the first I’d heard about TASK. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more about Oliver’s work and the program. What I found out made me want to apply, so I did and was accepted for Year Three. It was one of the best personal and professional decisions I have ever made.
Art21: How would you describe the Art21 Educators program?
TE: The Art21 Educators program is a powerful professional development experience, but above all for me, it is a community. Joe Fusaro (and previously, Jess Hamlin) in collaboration with Art21 Educator alumni have developed a set of experiences that honor what is exciting about the possibilities of teaching with contemporary art, as well as providing incredibly useful tools and support. In doing so they have also created a supportive, growing and connected family of educators. The Summer Institute is an intense week of engaging with art and artists, workshops where educators share developing practices and socialize with colleagues from diverse backgrounds who share a passion for contemporary art and innovative teaching and learning. The school year following the Institute is set up so that Art21 Educators can give and receive support from each other and alumni mentors. Taken together, all of these elements combine to enhance Art21 Educators’ practices in profound ways.
Art21: How has Art21 Educators changed your practice?
TE: The program and the friends I’ve made through Art21 Educators have become a core part of my practice. Both literally, in the sense that I am in frequent communication with many of my Art21 Educator colleagues, and also in the sense that what I have learned from all of them informs my teaching and my life on a daily basis. We are continually sharing new contemporary art and teaching discoveries with each other, and we have each other’s backs in the inevitable times of struggle in our classrooms. Being connected with Art21 Educators as a mentor has been just as much of a learning experience for me, as I am continually learning from my Art21 Educator mentees.
Art21: How do you continue to stay involved with Art21?
TE: In a few different ways: First through the Ning, the Art21 Educators’ online platform, which I visit as often as I can. The Ning is the program’s hub of documentation and communication and is an awesome resource on any given day. I have formed collaborations with my fellow educators from the program, we’ve presented together at conferences and collaborate informally through our parallel classroom practices.
I also continue to come back as often as possible to the Summer Institutes—I was involved in the Institute planning this year and have presented at them for the past couple of years. Since 2016 I have served as a mentor to several of the new Art21 Educators. I’ve done this together with my good friend and fellow Year Three educator Jack Watson, and this year with the awesome Jocelyn Salaz. Mentoring together with Jack and Jocelyn allows us to be in dialogue and to give each other feedback in an ongoing way.
Art21: What are you most excited about for the upcoming school year with Art21?
TE: Mentoring, for sure. Jack, Jocelyn and I have a brilliant quartet of educators from all across the U.S. that we’ll be supporting. Though as always, we’ll be learning just as much from them as they are from us. I also have collaborations planned with Year 6 Art21 Educators Stacey Abramson and Nick Kozak—both of whom I love and admire.
Art21: Describe a specific work of art, artist, or exhibition that has recently inspired you or your teaching practice.
TE: This year’s Whitney Biennial was a big inspiration to me. Its sprawling diversity reinforced a sense of wide possibility in terms of what we can call art in the twenty-first century—from actual interpersonal interactions in and through the work of Asad Raza, to interactions with text in Frances Stark’s hand painted enlargements of pages from Ian Svevonius’ Censorship Now, complete with her notes in the margins. The sense of possibility embodied by the Biennial informs my teaching practice in a variety of ways, not least of which is the way it reminds me to switch things up as much as I can in the classroom.
Also, in these challenging times it is so affirming to see contemporary artists unabashedly engaging in myriad ways with the issues of today. Maya Stovall’s site specific performance video Liquor Store Theater, created in Detroit, moved me in a profound way, as did Lyle Ashton Harris’ immersive photography and sound installation, Occupy Museums’ piece about artists’ debt, Kamasi Washington’s beautiful video work, and the paintings of Tala Madani and Henry Taylor. Though not all of this work will find its way into the teaching and learning in my classroom, the sense of engagement with the world in this and other exhibitions of contemporary art serves as a continual model for what teaching and learning can be at its best.