In this episode, Cindy comes to the realization that exposing students to works of art is not for the end goal of “appreciation.” It is much, much bigger than that.
Where is the passion, the delight, the wonder, the heart-pounding experience with art? Where is the feeling in your heart, that drop in your gut, that makes you a CHANGED PERSON? Let’s keep talking about THAT.
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 delight 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, this is Cindy Ingram and I am back for the Art Class Curator Podcast. Last week I gave you my rant, spiel, dissertation or whatever you call it, on why art matters and why we should be showing art to our students, what it gives them in their life and everything like that. And in that episode, I talked a little bit about why I don’t particularly love the word “art appreciation”, but that’s not really what it is. But that I don’t necessarily know what it is, what to call it, and then I started to think about it.
After I clicked stop and published it, I just kept thinking about it and realize that there’s a lot more that I wanted to say on this topic. And I got to thinking about, when people ask me what I do for work, I have a hard time telling them exactly what I do. You’re supposed to have this sort of elevator pitch, that on an elevator as it’s going up, you should be able to describe what you do to the person that you’re talking to in a concise way so that by the time you get to your stop, they’ve understood what you’re doing. I used to say that I help art teachers more creatively teach art history and art appreciation. Somewhere along the way I started to think, “No, that’s not exactly what it is.” Yes, I do do that. I do help art teachers more creatively teach art history and art appreciation; but to me, that’s not really what it’s about. It is about that personal art connection.
Now, what I have been saying is that I help teachers create powerful connections to art for both themselves and their students. I am happier with that as a description of what I do. Although to other people, they might not really know what that means. But to me, it makes more sense in my brain. There are places for art history and art appreciation, absolutely. But to me, they are cogs in a wheel towards a bigger goal. And that bigger goal is a personal, meaningful, deep connection with the work of art. And that has been my talking point really for the last year or so is thinking about those personal connections and what they mean to me and how we create them, and our students and what we can do to make it easier for our students to connect with works of art.
But I think before we can get to how to do it, we really have to understand what is a personal connection to art, why it’s important and move beyond that. To really illustrate what I’m saying here, I thought I would bring in an example of someone who has had a personal connection to a work of art. Now I’ve shared with you my personal connections to art before, and so I am going to bring it in Madalyn who is going to talk about an experience that she had.
One of my best friends, her name is Madalyn, she also works for Art Class Curator as the content manager. She does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for Art Class Curator, and we’ve been friends since our kids were little. Several years ago, this was before she started working for Art Class Curator in, I think it was 2016, we took a trip together to Chicago and we went to go see Hamilton when it came out in Chicago. And on our trip, we also visited the Art Institute, and Madalyn had a really powerful experience with a work of art while we were there. I thought since she does work for Art Class Curator, I would let her tell you herself about the experience. I’m going to cut in audio of Madalyn talking about her experience at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hello, Art Class Curator Podcast listeners. I’m Madalyn. I’m a longtime friend of Cindy’s and the organizer of all things at Art Class Curator. Cindy asked me to record myself talking about my experience with Monet’s Haystacks. But before I do that, I wanted to tell you a little bit about my own art background, which is to say that I don’t really have one. I didn’t grow up in a family that went to museums. We didn’t do arts or even crafts all the time.
I don’t really have any memory of my art classes until I was in middle school and when I was there I had an amazing art teacher. Her name was Mrs. Hughes. In her class, we only did studio art, but it was the first time that I felt like I could actually make art and not be terrible at it. I’m not a naturally skilled drawer or anything like that, but I do remember drawing my own shoe for her class and it was the first time that I actually felt proud of something that I had made, and that was super exciting.
But I always enjoyed art and I loved visiting museums as an adult and going with my kids, but it really wasn’t until I knew Cindy that I started making art a priority in my life. And it was on a trip with Cindy and some other friends that I first encountered Monet’s Haystacks. Of course everybody knows about Monet, but my biggest memory of Monet before that trip was a poster that my stepsister had hanging in her bedroom. It was one of his Water Lily paintings and had the bridge above it. It had one of those really kind of garish, huge borders and it had his name underneath. And I remember looking at it as a kid and just thinking it was so boring and wondering why she would want that on her wall.
I hadn’t really thought about Monet other than that, but now I was in Chicago and we were inside the art museum from Ferris Bueller. I was kind of goofily excited about that fact, and there was so much incredible art to see. There were these contemporary photographs that were amazing and there were sculptures that were… Oh man, they were so great. There was so much to look at. There was Van Gogh and Degas. It was amazing.
As we went through the museum, we kind of stayed together as a group, but there were three of us and we made our way through the rooms more or less at the same pace. But then we got to the Impressionism exhibit and Cindy and the other friend that we were with moved through it pretty quickly. They weren’t super interested and there was still so much great stuff to see, but I fell behind. I totally lost the group and ended up getting a lot of messages on my phone like, “Where are you?” But I couldn’t leave the room. I couldn’t leave that room. I’m actually tearing up just thinking about it. It’s still visceral and it’s been a few years since that happened.
I was standing in front of these canvases that had stacks of wheat painted on them. I mean, it sounds really boring, but there were tears in my eyes as I stood there, and even now as I think about it. There was just so much beauty. Those flat, boring colors that I remembered were not in Monet’s work at all. There was texture and depth. And even though the subject was, I mean, arguably maybe kind of mundane, he brought so much majesty to it. There were other paintings of his there too. There were rivers and bridges, and I think I remember one with that house.
And I loved them all and I went around the room, but I kept going back to the section that had the haystacks and just standing there not able to pull myself away from looking at all the little bits of color and the strokes and the layers of paint. They were all depicting different seasons and different times of day, so the colors were different. You could tell there were some that were really early morning and then others had those deep, rich colors that can only be sunset. I couldn’t really think of then why I couldn’t pull myself away from them. I was just mesmerized and it was impossible to leave the room until I just absolutely had to.
But I’ve thought about it a lot since then and I think there are a lot of reasons why I was drawn to them. And for one, I love nature. I love taking walks and being outside, but I’m busy at work and I have two kids at home. They’re homeschooled, and there’s just always other stuff to do. Not to mention the fact that I live in Texas and most of the time it’s super hot, and so going outside and being in nature, it’s not my priority. But sitting here thinking about it, I think it should be.
Yeah. Because Cindy, she has this Reflect Connect worksheet and it’s where students think about an artwork and they kind of examine like the symbols and stuff in it, and then the last step is they have to think about what actions the artwork actually inspires them to take in their own life. And if I’m being honest, the action that I feel like I should take is to make sure I’m taking more nature walks because I miss that and I don’t do it enough. Yeah, I’m going to do that in the mornings, so I don’t turn to ash. I’m going to try. I’m going to let art inspire me to do that.
But anyway, the way that Monet captures the beauty of nature, it made me connect with those times when I have made the time for a walk, whether it’s going down my street or it’s going on a walk in the woods with my kids. Honestly just looking at those paintings, I felt like I could walk straight into them. I felt like I could step into them and like walk across the moors of Britain. I don’t even know where it was, but that’s how I imagined it. Like I was going to be a Jane Austen character walking across the moors and it would be just beautiful.
And since that trip, I’ve talked a few times about putting on my Impressionism-colored glasses, instead of a rose-colored glasses. We tend to use rose-colored glasses when we’re talking about being optimistic or overly being too optimistic, but I personally have a tendency to be more negative, at least in my own head. And I think it’s easy to get caught up in little frustrations of life and just not notice the beauty and not be joyful when we could be, but the beauty is everywhere. And I really truly believe that we can choose delight, and art is such a great way to connect to that.
I’ve always said that the sky, especially on a beautiful day when it’s just this clear, brilliant blue and there’s these huge puffy clouds in the sky, it looks like an oil painting and it’s the same way at sunset whenever there’s just that perfect explosion of color. But that’s real, that’s not an artwork. It’s just reality, and that’s the world we get to live in. Our sky actually looks like that. And looking at Monet and looking at the work of other Impressionists, really, it captures that feeling for me so perfectly of being connected to nature and being connected to the world and feeling my best, and really choosing and reveling in the delightful parts of existing.
That’s what my Impressionism-colored glasses are for. It’s just a way to put them on and remind myself that there is beauty in the world all the time. And we can look for it and we can concentrate on it and meditate on it and focus on it. I mean, that’s what Monet did. He painted so many haystacks and he was trying to capture the light because you couldn’t do it on just one canvas. It changed and it was beautiful in its own right every single time. Yeah, that was my experience, my tale of Monet, and I’m excited that I got to share it with you and I am going to hand it back over to Cindy now. Okay. Thank you. Bye.
I just want to thank Madalyn for coming on and sharing her art story. I just beamed ear to ear the whole time I was listening to it. Not only do I just really love hearing about people’s connections to art, almost as much as I enjoy having them myself. It’s really empowering and wonderful for me as an educator to know that… I’m not Madalyn’s teacher, but because of me, she had a powerful art experience and I think that’s amazing.
What’s I love about her story, there’s so much in there that I can pick apart. How she made that personal connection to nature. How it really wasn’t something she necessarily thought of then, but after some reflection on the personal connection, she realized she had that connection and made this sort of proclamation on what she’s going to do differently based on the artwork. Because I think awareness and self-awareness is all well and good and wonderful and those personal connections are powerful, but when we learn from them and take action based on them, that makes it just even more exciting.
But why I wanted her to share her experience is that… She has a really powerful, personal connection with Monet and that personal connection didn’t end at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2016, she’s continued that. She has seen Monet in a couple of other art museums. We went to the Monet exhibit when it came to the Kimball here in the DFW area and it was just as powerful for her. Maybe not just as, but it’s still powerful for her. Like her computer backdrop is the Haystacks. That is something that she now holds dear in her heart.
She has this emotional connection to Monet and I, on the other hand, don’t have an emotional connection to Monet. When I see Impressionist art, I can appreciate it for what it is, for what it did in the history of art, for the massive shift that it was from Realism into Modern Art, for its beauty, for its color, for its liveliness, for all of those things. I went to Monet’s Garden in Giverny on my first Art Class Curator summer trip and enjoyed it. I thought it was amazing, added a new respect to it, seeing how he composed his gardens, but that’s about where it is for me. I can go and I can enjoy it. I even went to the Monet exhibit that came to the Kimbell Art Museum in the fall and mainly because Madalyn wanted to go do it and I went with her. I appreciate it.
And I’m also not completely opposed to the idea that at some point in my future, I will have an emotional connection to Monet or personal connection to Monet. That something in my life could spark something that causes the art to move me in a way that it hasn’t yet. I mean, so I’m saying I have not had a personal connection to Monet, but that could just be not yet.
How can we have two profoundly different experiences, and three, think about everyone else who goes to see Monet and some people don’t even appreciate it for the contextual stuff that I had said. They just feel like, “What is this?” And then there’s someone on the other end too is crying and personally connecting to it and years later has it as the background of her computer. It made me think about a lot of different things, but mainly that appreciation is not the end goal. Yes, I want them to appreciate the artist’s choices, the history, how challenging the media is, all of that stuff. How it changed art, how it changed art history, all of that. But, that is not where art stops.
I did a little bit of a research here on what is our art appreciation because I say it and I’m never happy with it like I told you last time. I found a definition here. This is from the Artyfactory, artyfactory.com, I suppose. Actually, I don’t know. I think it is. And it says, “Art appreciation is the knowledge and understanding of the universal and timeless qualities I identify all great art. The more you appreciate and understand the art of different eras, movements, styles and techniques, the better you can develop, evaluate and improve your own artwork.”
Okay, yes, those are good goals, I think, understanding the universal and timeless qualities that identify all great art. One, the word great art, that’s a whole other conversation about art theories that we can talk about another time. I made this list of things that make up art appreciation or that can lead to art appreciation and that is better understanding; more exposure to the art itself in different types of art; increased knowledge because like we talked about in the Curiosity episode, they need to know more in order to be curious; more experience in front of quality time spent in front of artwork; more engaging interactions with the artwork.
All of those things do lead to our appreciation, but then what next? Is art appreciation the end goal? I was in a program at some point and I honestly cannot remember which program it was, but there were some questions about goals in it, like what are your goals? And then they made you keep answering the question, so what, at the end of everything. Say, all right, I want to make X amount of money, so what? You’re like, so that I can support my family, so what? Why do you want to support your family then? Then you just keep asking yourself, so what, so what, so what, so what, until you get to the very core reason why you want something.
And so I started to think about, okay, so what? Why? Why do I even do this? Why do we study art appreciation? So what, so what, so what? Now, I’m too lazy… Well, I’m not lazy. I just didn’t feel like doing it, to go through so what, so what, so what for this. But it got me thinking that really art appreciation is passive. It’s dispassionate. It’s only one really small part of the overall equation of what makes an engaging, powerful, personal, meaningful, emotional, passionate connection with a work of art. It’s only one small part of it.
Even the word appreciation itself, I looked up that definition and the Google definitions that it pulls up said, “Recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.” When you look at an artwork and have a powerful personal connection, and I think back at all the times I’ve had powerful personal connections, it’s not necessarily about recognizing and enjoying the good qualities of something. It’s about what I talked about last week of everything behind an artwork, the intent, the colors, the form, the media, the context, the subject matter, the themes, the symbolism, where it was made, why it was made, what it was used for.
There’s all of that about an artwork, and then there’s all of that about the person who’s looking at it. What they had for lunch that day. Did they have a fight with their mother the night before? What traumas have they had? What happy moments have they had? What makes up that person is going to interact with what makes up that artwork and create that powerful, positive experience. And it’s not about just appreciating the artwork, it’s about experience it on a deeper, more visceral, personal gut level.
In art appreciation, where is that passion? Where is that delight and that wonder? Where is that heart-pounding experience that you get when you’re in front of a powerful work of art that’s personally meaningful to you? Where is that feeling in your heart and that drop in your gut that makes you a changed person? That’s not in art appreciation.
What we’re doing in Art Class Curator is not art appreciation. We are helping kids appreciate art. We are helping teachers appreciate art. We are introducing, we are exposing, we’re helping you understand. We’re doing all of the things that lead to art appreciation, but we’re not doing it for the end goal of appreciation. We’re doing it for the end goal of making better people, of making people who are passionate and who are connected and who are emotional and who are thoughtful and mindful and all of those things. We are making people who are aesthetically aware, who are self-aware, who are emotionally aware, who are culturally aware, who are in turn going to make the world better.
There’s an artwork that says art makes better people… No, wait, what is the quote? Oh shoot, let me go back and look at it. I had it on something recently. “Art changes people and then people change the world.” To me, when you have personal, powerful connections to art, you’re changing the person at some sort of fundamental level, and that person now has the ability and the empowerment to go forth and change the world. We’re not just teaching the world to appreciate beautiful things. We are teaching the people of the world to take ownership all of it, you know what I mean? After this conversation, it made me think about a lot of things. I have a lot of questions that are unanswered in my head, but that is something I’m going to keep thinking about as I go. And so I’m just going to tell you these questions. I made a list of them.
This conversation raises the following things: We can’t assume that everyone will have a personal connection, so how do we teach them to have it? Can you teach someone to have a personal connection and how? What do we do to make that happen? Also, what are the characteristics of personal connection? How do you quantify that? Can you quantify it and should you even quantify it? What other ways into art that we might be overlooking in terms of personal connection? What environments do we need in order to create more personal connection? What environments in our classroom? How do we strive for personal connection while still doing academic things, teaching them stuff that you’re expected to do as an art teacher and still strive for personal connection? And then, where does emotional literacy fit in? Can students truly have personal connections to art without emotional literacy and without the knowledge of the art as well? We still have some education to do to get them to a personal connection level.
Brené Brown talks about, and I think I talked about it in the Curiosity episode, that humans only have… They did a survey and that most people could only identify three emotions: happy, sad, angry. But to be an emotionally literate person, you need to know 30 emotions. How can you have an emotional, personal connection to art when all you know is happy, sad and angry? And what is our role now as our teachers and educators to provide that for our students, to provide that emotional literacy? Where does that fit in? How do we get our kids to do that?
Those are all the things that are bubbling in my head about this. I’m going to stop saying that I help teachers with art appreciation because it is bigger. I’m going to start calling it art connection. And I hope you think about this too and think about ways to really empower your students to make those personal connections. We’re going to keep talking about it on the podcast. I have at least five more ideas of podcasts episodes based on this one alone. This will not be the last time you hear me talking about this. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
Again, tell me about your own personal connections to art. Send them in. We want to share them on the podcast. We want to really understand what a personal art connection is and that will help us create them in our students. Please send them our way to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. And so much power in hearing other people’s stories and in sharing your own story, so I’m going to start begging at some point. Please send me your art stories because the world needs them. We need to hear them and it’s personal to you, but it’s universal.
I was watching a talk by Shirin Neshat, who is an artist, who is originally from Iran, and we featured one of her works in the membership this month. In the talk I was watching, she shared that one of her goals is to create art that is both personal and political to her particular situation and the situation of women in Iran and her position has an exile from Iran, but also to create works of art that are universal and that are timeless.
And there is that quote by Carl Rogers in the book On Becoming a Person and it is, “What is most personal is most universal.” Share those experiences with us because we want to hear them, because they are also about us as people. And let’s keep talking about it because this is going to change the world, you guys, these conversations are. Thank you so much for listening. Have a wonderful day. See you later.
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.
Today’s art quote is from Georgia O’Keeffe and she says, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” Thanks so much for listening. Have a wonderful week.
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