In this episode of the Art Class Curator podcast, Cindy talks about why art matters and what makes art connection so very important for our students and for the world–from creating more connected and empathetic humans, to understanding and connecting with the past, to learning how to slow down and become comfortable with uncertainty.
Meaningful connection with works of art just creates better people. Period.
- My Speech I gave last week at ASKLIVE
- Deep Space Sparkle Podcast Interview: How One Art Teacher Overcame Debilitating Challenges to Achieve Her Dream: AME 121
- What do kids learn from looking at art?
- Judith and Holofernes Paintings: A Compare and Contrast Art Lesson
- Cultural Art Group Research Project
- The Two Fridas – Art Discussion Lesson
- The Ultimate Collections of Artworks to Show your Students
- Art Class Curator Podcast Ep. 32: 7 Ways to Spark Curiosity
- Art Class Curator Podcast Ep. 30: Perfection = Failure
Hello and welcome to the Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator and the Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration, from the daily delights to creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders and let’s get started.
Hello everybody at Cindy Ingram and I am back for the Art Class Curator Podcast, and I’m going to start today’s episode with a little bit of story of something that happened to me last week, which inspired me to create this episode. Last week… Today is December 3rd. Actually, it was the week before last. I had to go to Austin for a business conference. And what was exciting about this particular business conference is that they asked me to speak on stage about the success of my business and how I started it and that sort of thing. And I was up for a prize, which I did not win, but I got to speak on stage to about 700+ people and told the story of how I started my business, why I started my business and all of that.
I had my speech all prepared. I don’t know that I’ve ever really told the full story on here, but I did tell the full story on the Art Made Easy Podcast with Patty Palmer. I will link to that episode in the show notes if you really want to hear the full story. But in a nutshell, it was about six years ago, I was 370 pounds. I was making $37,000 a year as an online art teacher. I had two small kids, and I was feeling a lot of debt and just feeling pretty stuck. And I always knew that, one, I was good at what I did at teaching, and two, I really wanted to do something great with my life. I wanted to travel, I wanted to do all this stuff, but I was really sort of grounded in terms of my weight, in terms of money, all sorts of things.
And I listened to a podcast episode on… The website used to be called Art of Simple. I don’t know what she calls it now. I know she’s changed it, but I listened to this podcast about a woman who traveled the world with her family. She took all of her kids. She was a blogger, so she worked from wherever she was at, making money from wherever she was at, and that’s how she supported her family on this year-round trip around the world.
And so I listened to that and I was just really blown away by the possibility of that and realized how completely stuck I was in my life. I couldn’t fit into even one airplane seat. If I wanted to travel, I couldn’t. I mean, I could, but it’s extra money, and not to mention the stamina, not to mention the job and the husband’s job and the little kids, all this stuff. I realized, I wanted nothing more than to do that, and then I couldn’t because there was so many things blocking me. And so that is really what inspired me to start Art Class Curator.
I started the website within a month or two of listening to that podcast. I just started writing about art. I originally was going to write for mainly homeschoolers. I figured homeschoolers need to learn more about art, but then I really quickly realized that teachers were the audience that I really want to serve the most because that’s the background that I have. And I started my business, I eventually got to leave the classroom. I lost a lot of weight. I lost almost 140 pounds, and really made a lot of my dreams come true, which is pretty awesome. Anyway, I encourage you to listen to the interview with Patty Palmer if you want to know even more detail about that.
I was about to go up on stage to tell this story about how I just decided one day to do it and I did it, and really it was about taking the action. But before I had to speak on stage, I had an interview with somebody on the team of the company who was throwing the conference, and she was interviewing me about my business and what I do and the story. What I really realized as she was asking the questions was that the art is the story. And I did have the art woven into my story about how I was impacting students and teachers, how it was much bigger than just a job for me, that it was about changing the world, and I had that in there and I had art on the slides.
But as soon as she started asking me questions, those were the questions that she started to really dive into is why I did the art, what is my personal connection to art, what impact has art had on my life that led me to where I’m at today? And I stepped back and I realized, I was like, yes, my story of how I started my business is inspiring. A lot of people don’t take the big moves that they want to take and just sort of keep doing the same old thing, wishing for something better. I decided that wasn’t good enough for me.” But in the end, it’s the art that has driven me since well before any of that. It’s since I was a kid, I was driven by the art, and I’ve always been driven by the art; and to me that was really powerful.
Then I changed my speech after I had that interview with her. It was the morning of the speech that I had that interview and then I realized I was like, “No, it’s about the art.” I needed to add more of the art story into it. I went back and added the art, more of the art. And I started to get, after I gave the speech, a lot of people in the audience kind of stopped me in the halls for the rest of the conference and told me that they really connected with the art story and how it’s really meaningful to them. I talked to someone else who told me that the mission of getting people to connect with art is really near and dear to her because she grew up in a family of artists, but she didn’t consider herself an artist. She just went away from it, but that there are other ways into the art.
It was really a great moment for me to step back and realize what we’re doing in our Art Class Curator is super special. That this is not a normal thing that a lot of people have in their lives. And I learned by giving that speech to a bunch of online business people… They were not educators. Most of them actually are educating in some form or fashion through their businesses, but that they found that to be meaningful and that that awoke in them something that they remembered that they loved or something that they wished they had a part of them or something like that.
And I realize like this message is bigger than than me. It’s bigger than you. It’s a worldwide goal of all ages to connect people with works of art. I started to think about what makes art so special? Why is it that I have spent my entire life finding ways to connect with it and helping others connect with it? What is it about it? I got to thinking, and this kind of been mulling in my head ever since this experience at the at the speech, that no matter what was happening in my life, I always had art with me. And every moment of my life there was some sort of either a creative outlet like writing or drawing, but also just experiencing art.
One of my very early memories of art is actually of seeing the Lion King at the movie theater. I’ve told this story before, you might’ve read it. I think we put it in an email at one point. But when I was a kid, I was obsessed with Disney movies. I grew up in Amarillo, Texas, which is in the Texas panhandle. To give you an idea, the closest big city to us was like a six hour drive away. We didn’t have art museums. We had culture, the traveling theater and different things, but really it’s pretty much like smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
I hadn’t seen real art before other than what was at my school or what we did in art class, so I never got to really experience connecting with works of art as a child. The next best thing to me was Disney movies. I used to want to be a Disney animator until I realized that it was just drawing the same thing over and over again in slightly different positions. And I was like, “Oh, that sounds terrible.” I was like, “That doesn’t capture what I love about these at all.” But Lion King really for me was the big one because I lived a block from a dollar movie. And in the summer it was at the dollar movie, I went to see it 12 times at the movie theater. And every single time, I would cry at Circle of Life. As soon as it opened up on this screen and the sun and then all the animals and the song and the music, everything in me just erupted and I was just in love, total love, with that movie.
And it wasn’t until years later when I started studying art history and learning about art and then even teaching about art that I realized that was an aesthetic experience, that was me emotionally connecting to art at that moment in my life, and that is magic. That experience, when you see something that someone else has made and you connect with it on such a deep level that it moves you to tears or your heart pounds or you’re shocked or something physical happens in your body when you see it, that is such a powerful, powerful, amazing, amazing thing.
I realized that I’ve always sort of had that connection or that ability to connect with art. And to me, connecting with art is a lot of things. It is about connecting to the person who made it; so looking at an artwork, feeling what the other person on the other end felt; seeing a bit of them; seeing parts of them that only can be seen on canvas that they probably don’t even know about themselves; seeing all of their pain and their, their joy and their culture and everything just connects you deeply with another person. I would say a lot of our lives, I’m sure that you guys maybe feel this too, but there is a lot of disconnect in our lives. And so at those moments of my life where I have felt like I couldn’t connect or that there was something personal that kept me from connecting, that I had art as a way to connect.
An example of this is, I have been been binge watching The Crown on Netflix. I think I’m still in season one, maybe in season two. But on the episode I watched the other day, and this really isn’t a spoiler, there was the scene where Winston Churchill was getting his portrait painted and he was looking at the art of the guy who painted his portrait. And then the guy who painted his portrait was looking at artwork from Winston Churchill because Winston Churchill was a painter as well. And there’s a scene where they’re both in their own studios, totally mesmerized by a work of art from the other person. And then it turns out, they were seeing pain and they were seeing the depth, and they were seeing like bits of the person in the painting. And then they had a conversation afterwards where they were talking about these paintings and what they saw in them, and it turns out both of them had had a child that died as a child and that they were both responding to that pain in the painting.
I don’t know if that was a fabricated story. It most likely was, but I really loved that that scene that you can see the depth of a person through the way they apply the paint to the canvas. To me art is all about connection, connection to self, connection to the person who made it connection to the past. Looking at something made a long time ago helps you understand what they were going through a long time ago, helps you understand the path of history and what people have gone through in different times in real ways. You can read about communism or something like that, or you can learn about the Holocaust and you can hear and understand the scope of it, how horrible it was, but then you can stand in front of an artwork created about that topic and understand it in a whole new physical, visceral way.
There is that artwork in Budapest that has the shoes, bronze cast shoes along the side of the river where they knelt Jewish people by the river and shot them and they fell into the water and they had to leave their shoes. That makes those stories from history real in a way that just hearing about it does not. It connects us to others, connects us to the past and it connects us to yourself.
I’ve had multiple experiences in my life where I have looked at a work of art at the right time, at the right moment in my life, and that work of art just zinged me and told me exactly what I needed to know in my life. It taught me things about myself maybe that I didn’t know, and I think that’s an amazing tool that we can teach our students to find a ways to personally connect with work of works of art.
That is one of our big goals really over the last year. We’ve renamed our membership to the Curated Connections Library and have added that connection piece to a lot of areas of our program because connecting with an artwork through some sort of personal connection is so, so valuable. And yes, we can learn the history of an artwork, we can learn about artists. But when we have a personal connection to it, when we see something in that artwork that reminds us of something in our lives and it helps us move through something that we’re going through, that’s where that magic is. And that’s why to me, I don’t teach art history or even art appreciation. I hate saying art appreciation even though it’s like the only word to describe that I know of. But to me, it’s about our connection and it’s getting students to connect.
Art also introduces you to other worldviews and exposes you to the world outside of yourself. I was on the way the other day to… I went to go see a musical Dear Evan Hansen, which was amazing. But I was with a friend and we were driving in the car on the way to the show and talking about which musicals our kids have seen or heard, and which ones we’re willing to share with them and which ones are not quite ready for. But we were just having this general conversation and Dear Evan Hansen has some sensitive topics that my kids are not quite old enough for, but it’s perfect for a high school age student. And then we talked about Rent and when you could show your kids Rent.
And I’ve already introduced my kids to Hamilton because it’s just bad words, that’s fine. But the other stuff, there’s a lot more to to discuss with a child. And we started talking about how important it is though to expose our kids to stuff like this and to show them art from other countries, art from other types of people that they don’t sort of see in their normal everyday life; so they see that the world is not just there small existence in their suburb or whatever, that there’s a much bigger scope too what is involved in our world.
One of the examples that my friend had given was that she has been showing her daughter, they’ve been watching together Queer Eye For the Straight Guy on Netflix because she doesn’t have any gay people in her family. There’s not a lot in this community we live in that she wanted to make sure her daughter knew that there are other ways of living that are just as good and the same as our way of living in that.
It’s really important to, to teach our kids that and expose them to as many different things as we can so that they are sort of educated citizens of the world, that they are knowledgeable and empathetic and respectful and all of those things. And art can be a way to have those conversations, when those conversations are so hard that we can use art as a tool to help us connect.
One of my favorite memories as a teacher was when I was teaching community college. That was my first teaching job outside of teaching in the art museum. And what I would have my students do every semester was… Because I was trying to fit in way too much stuff in a college art appreciation class, but I wanted to make sure that non-Western cultures who were represented in my classroom, so I would have a unit where students would be in groups. They would be assigned a culture from around the world and they got to choose the time period within the culture. Actually, they got to choose the culture too. I just made sure that everyone was covered and they had to work as a group to research about their art. They had to present it. They had to lead us in an activity or discussion about the artwork and stuff like that.
I always loved that, one, because doing those group presentations was pretty easy for me. I got to sit back and watch, but they really had an experience of learning about something new and talking about it. And for some of these students, it was a very new thing for them. I taught community college, I think it was like 2007 until 2011, I think, about, and so it was right at the time of the Iraq war when I was in the community college classroom. We had a student in one of my classes who is Muslim and his group did an Islamic art presentation.
And I remember it was a Saturday class. It was a three-hour long class and so we had a break in the middle and they were right before the break. And they did the presentation, and then I always say, “Oh, does anybody have any questions for the group?” And kids in the classroom started asking the student questions about his religion and about his culture, and about what he believes and what he doesn’t believe, and what he thinks of everything that’s going on, and the stigma that Muslims face in this world. I’m getting chills just thinking about it because it was just a moment of community and understanding and education. And there was a student in there who at the end of that class was changed because he had that conversation, and art gives us that opportunity to let those conversations happen.
And I talked about that a few episodes ago and the Perfection Equals Failure episode. But that, yes, those conversations can be really hard and you get so worried about messing things up, but they can change lives. Really important. Understanding other worldviews, feeling heard and represented, learning how to connect emotionally with other people and with yourself, all of that happens when we connect with a work of art. All of that is about that connection, but there are so many other ways that art is valuable in our students’ lives.
Another one is focus. I’ve done a few reader surveys over the years with Art Class Curator and one of the common themes that come up is, students don’t want to look away from their phones for five seconds because they can’t be an engaged. All they want to do is be on their phones. They have really short attention spans and this and that. And when you put an artwork in front of a group of students and you spend 30 minutes to an hour talking about one artwork, that teaches the students that, “Hey, you guys need to slow down. Focus, slow down.” It doesn’t have to be boom, boom, boom. Going from one thing to another that you can facilitate a lesson where you could slow down and really explore the content.
And I always say when teaching art appreciation, art history that it’s about the quality of the learning experience rather than the quantity. You could have a lesson where you go through and teach all of Renaissance art and you show them artwork after artwork, after artwork, after artwork, after artwork. Click, click, click through all the slides, 60 slides in a lesson to where you’re only saying a slide every minute. Or you can choose five representative artworks from the Renaissance and really dive into those. Really spend time looking at them and analyzing them and having the students find those key points rather than you telling them. Sitting and focusing, it’s going to give our students way more then if we were to just hit them with fact after fact, after fact, after fact, activity after activity, after activity.
Another thing that art gives us is a comfortableness. That’s not a word, comfortableness. Is a comfortability? Actually, I have no idea what word I’m looking for. Is a comfort? Maybe just comfort. A comfort in dealing with uncertainty. We are not used to being uncertain. We have phones in our pockets that have the answer to every question, every question you want to ask, it’s in there; and that is amazing.
I talked about in that last episode, the Curiosity episode, that that’s amazing because the more we know, the more we can be curious about and so that sort of is a never ending, feeding cycle of wonder. We can just keep being curious. However, think about a time when you really wanted to know the answer to something. You’re in a conversation with someone, something comes up, neither of you can remember the answer, but you don’t want to be rude and get out your phone because you’re having a lovely conversation. But then both of you are sitting there dying inside because you have to know the answer to this random thing that doesn’t matter.
That uncertainty is really anxiety producing because we like to know the answer. We’d like to close the loop. But art, there is no right answer. When you’re teaching about a work of art, once it leaves the artist’s hands, it has thousands of different meanings. It can mean one thing to one person and mean something completely different to someone else. To the artist, it means something else; to the art historian, definitely something else. And even different days, one day I could look at a painting and have a certain reaction to it. I could come back the next year, have a totally different reaction because things have happened in my life that have made me a different person.
When an artwork and a person meet, you’ve got the entire history of the person. You’ve got their personality, their emotions, their traumas, their stories, their family, their everything that’s happened in their life. When the artwork is in front of the person, you’ve got the context, you’ve got the symbolism, you’ve got the colors and the form, you’ve got the context… I already said context, but you have all of the things that make up that artwork. And when those two things meet, there is no one way to do it because that combination will never ever be the same. Even if I go to look at one artwork today and then go back tomorrow, chances are it will be a completely different experience.
We have to learn to be okay with that. Okay that if our students ask us what does this mean in an artwork that we say, “I don’t know, what do you think?” And not rush to find the answer because there is no “the answer”. And the students, giving them that opportunity to not know the answer, but to be able to come up with their own answers, that doesn’t happen. That does not happen, so we can provide that for our students and it’s so amazingly powerful.
Dealing with the uncertainty, focus, critical-thinking skills, we could pose questions in front of artworks that get the kids to think about things in their lives, in history, in anything in a completely different way. It can have them chat. You can ask a question that would just completely challenge all assumptions they have about the world, all assumptions they have about what art is, what an artist is or isn’t. There’s so much that can happen in front of a work of art. Coming up with stories and symbols and meanings, and that all comes from within the student. That doesn’t come from you. That doesn’t come from the book. It doesn’t come from anything other than that interaction between the artwork and the student.
My token example for critical thinking in front of an artwork is, I love to have students compare Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes with Caravaggio’s. We go through the whole conversation. This one has more diagonal lines. This one has more straight lines. This one’s more bloody. This one’s not that. The women are different, their positions are different, their expressions are different, all the differences. What they have in common as well. But then at the end you say, “Hey, okay, which one of these was painted by a man and which one of these was painted by a woman?” And so they look at it, they pick their answer. You have them raised their hand and vote. It’s 50/50 split most of the time, where half a right and half are wrong. Then you ask them for their reasoning.
In Caravaggio’s, the woman is really sort of dainty. I’ll put a link in the description show notes about this artwork so that you can… I have a blog post about this activity that you can check out. It has a PowerPoint with the artworks on it as well that you can download. But she’s kind of dainty and she’s kind of pushed back. I’m doing the motions as if you can see me. And so they’ll say, “Well, a woman is more dainty and more hesitant, so I think a woman would have painted that.” And then someone else is like, “No, the woman is way more powerful in the Gentileschi painting. She’s really buff and she’s really in it and she’s passionate, so it’s definitely a woman.”
The reasons are split every time. And then the students can really kind of see what their biases are about gender and what that means, and a really kind of eye opening and fun exercise. And also that one works really well for your observations. If you ever want a really good observation lesson, that one is a great one if you teach high school, especially. Elementary might be a little bit bloody so just watch out for that.
We’ve talked about the personal connection, the connection to past. We’ve talked about focus. We’ve talked about dealing with uncertainty and critical thinking. Another thing that it helps with students is to understand the images. Think about the existence of your student and how many images they see on a day to day basis. It’s staggering, ads on the games on their phones, Instagram and social media advertising, TV and stuff too. But just everywhere they look, picture after picture, after picture, and they take so many pictures too.
And looking at art and interpreting it, seeing what artists do to create meaning and message and manipulate your emotions. Those are things that you can help your student understand is that images are used to manipulate your emotions and advertisements and all of that. And so more time in front of works of art means more visual literacy, more understanding of the role images play, and how images impact you and how they impact you in a negative way and in a positive way, get you to do things you wouldn’t normally do, stuff like that.
Okay, I’ve got three more things about why art matters. This is a long list I have in front of me here, and that is art experiences, looking at interpreting, engaging with art is going to have crossovers into other subjects and into their future. Not just, “I don’t care about the math grades,” however, I mean I do, I guess. I don’t know. Looking at art and talking about it is going to help you with communication, with collaboration, with connection and empathy. And all of these things are going to make people better people, make your students better people.
They’re going to leave school having a better understanding of what it means to be good person. How to talk to people, how to communicate, how to look for details, those are all skills they’re going to use day to day in their jobs, more than anything that they’re going to learn in other classes. I mean, I’m not saying the art is the best subject, but art is the best subject. We help create better people, more productive people, more educated people, more empathetic people, more curious people, more wondrous people. We do that by showing them art.
If you have any hesitation at all on should you do this, how should you do this, I would just say, do it. Get artworks, put them in front of your students, talk about them. We have a lot of resources that are at artclasscreator.com to help you do that. Visit the show notes at artclasscurator.com/33 and I will link to some of the things I talked about today, but also some of my favorite activities to start with. If this is something you’re kind of new at, I have some of my favorites that I would say The Two Fridas is one I always like to start with, but we have a lot of lessons on the site that are ready to go.
I think I got all my points on why art matters, although I do think I skipped curiosity and wonder. Yes, I did. I could edit this back in, but I’m not going to. I’m just going to talk about it now that art makes us more curious, makes us more delighted at the world, more connected to the world and more. joyful about the human experience.
Go back out there, keep making those better people through your lessons, and I would like to hear about it. Please send me an email or leave a comment on this post or on Instagram and let me know what art does for you. And if you’ve listened to past episodes of this podcast, I had guests and I would ask them what artwork changed their life and they shared their stories. I really want more people like you listening right now to share your art story so that we can add those onto these podcast episodes where it’s just me. Because I think hearing other people’s connections to art is just as moving as having one yourself sometimes just hearing about that. Please, you can send me a voice message, just record it on your voice memos app on your phone and send it to Cindy at artclasscurator.com and you might end up on podcast. Thank you very much for listening. I will be back next week with another topic. Thanks so much. Bye.
Thank you so much for listening to the Art Class Curator Podcast. Help more art teachers find us by reviewing the podcast and recommending it to a friend. Get more inspiration for teaching art with purpose by subscribing to our newsletter, your Weekly Art Break. Recent topics include the importance of seeing art in-person, famous and should be famous women artists, and 21 days of art from around the world. Subscribe at artclasscurator.com/artbreak to receive six free art appreciation worksheets.
This week’s art quote is from Zelda Fitzgerald and she says, “Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold.” Thanks so much for listening. Have a wonderful week.
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