Jenn Easterling is back on the show today! She’s been in the classroom for 11 years teaching grades K-12 and has taught drawing, painting, and a little art history in her studio. Jenn joins me to talk about how learning and teaching art powers personal connection
We also talk about some of the lessons offered at Art Class Curator as well as the fun, impactful insights and conversations those lessons sparked in our students and ourselves personally.
7:01 – Jenn’s emotional perspective on teaching Art Class Curator lessons
10:23 – How teaching works of art fuels your personal connection
15:20 – Why using the same art work lessons for multiple grade levels still works
20:52 – How looking at artwork impacts students’ art creation in the classroom
24:52 – A lesson that bridged the gap between the art and the personal for Jenn’s students
34:58 – Why you don’t need to worry about bringing any works of art to your students
38:34 – What you’re not doing when you’re looking at and talking about a piece of art
40:22 – How students often have way more interesting interpretations of art than the official story
44:13 – Examples of fun lessons for Jenn’s students that also encouraged art connections across campus
49:19 – Ways that teaching art can instigate outside-the-box thinking
- Get Your Free Lesson Sample
- Join the SPARK waitlist
- Episode 65: “Rebellious Silence: Shirin Neshat’s Cultural Gift Captured in Her Visual Art”
- “Interpreting the Power of the Kongo Nkisi N’Kondi”
- Episode 58: “Looking at Art as a Spiritual Practice”
- “Warning: You’re about to fall in love with this Delacroix painting”
- “Art Spotlight: Closed by Witchcraft by Luis Felipe Noé”
- What You See Might Not Be Real by Chen Wenling
- Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: 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 of 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.
Hi everybody, it’s Cindy Ingram from Art Class Curator. Today in our episode, we have another interview with Jenn Easterling who works at Art Class Curator with me. She is brilliant. We have a lot of great stories of art connection moments with our students. We talk about the types of lessons that we offer at Art Class Curator and what an impact they have on us personally as teachers, as well as our students, and the fun that we have, the insight that we have. We have a lot of fun stories to share about moments we’ve had in our classroom.
Before we get started, I want to let you know that every single lesson or artwork that we talk about in today’s episode is actually available in our Curated Connections Library. All of these are in the membership. We have what we newly call SPARK Works, which we formerly called Artwork of the Week. These lessons have the artwork, a powerpoint, discussion questions, engaging activities, projects that connect to the artwork, artist bios, all sorts of stuff about the artwork, any worksheets that you need to present these lessons to your classroom. If you like any of these lessons that we talk about and you want to give them to your students, we do have all of the resources available to you in the membership at artclasscurator.com/join. It’s closed currently, we will be opening again in August and you can get on the waitlist now if you’re not already on it.
These lessons are so fun and so exciting. These stories here today really speak to what this brings to you as the teacher and your own personal job satisfaction, your own personal connection to art, your own personal connection to your students. They also bring so much to your students to the fun, the engagement, the energy, the connection, the learning about art, the learning about themselves. All of that is infused in these lessons. I hope you see that when you hear our interview today. Without further ado, we will jump right into the interview with Jenn Easterling.
I am so excited to welcome Jennifer Easterling back to the podcast. Welcome back, Jenn.
Jennifer Easterling: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
Cindy Ingram: Jenn has been on the podcast two or three times at this point. She is the education manager. We keep changing it. We’d like to say your title differently every time. She creates the lesson plan, the curriculum for our membership, The Curated Connections Library, as well as our curriculum, the Perspectives Curriculum that we’re selling in partnership with Nasco. But before she was working with the Art Class Curator, she was actually a member and just one of our community members. Jenn, can you tell us about you, your experience teaching, and how you ended up at Art Class Curator?
Jennifer Easterling: Yeah, definitely. My name is Jennifer Easterling. I have been in the classroom for 11 years. I taught K all the way through 12 through that experience but spent most of my years teaching high school, in the last few years, teaching high school and middle school. I’ve covered the gamut. My studio experience is teaching all kinds of drawing, painting, and a little bit of everything within the classroom, then mixing in art history. At first, I hadn’t heard about Art Class Curator but I moved over to a small private school that had me teaching 7th through 12th all day, every day. I kept thinking, “What am I going to do with all these kids and just the wide range of ages, experiences, and skill levels.”
That sent me to the internet, just searching for different things because I had taught middle school but not a lot. I’d done it some, so I’m just trying to figure out what I was going to do. I’d actually bought some other curriculum and thought, “Okay, this will work.” Then I came across Cindy’s website with Art Class Curator and I started going through, and I was like, “Oh, this is so much better. I like this so much more.” I really liked what I was seeing, the content, and the way it was built to connect with students. I ended up returning the other curriculum, then becoming a member, at that time, which was at Art Class Curator. I took that into my classroom and I was able to do some of the lessons with all of the kids, all 7th through 12th grade.
It was so much fun to watch the differentiation between all of them. It was the same basic lesson but then we just changed it according to the age level. The way that the students were talking about each thing that we looked at and the way new things were brought out with every class, it was so much fun to watch. I just remember having so much energy after the lesson saying, “Wow, that was cool.” Watching the power of just introducing them to something new, then letting them go and run with it, the conversations that we had around the works of art, and the power of what they were seeing, and experience, then taking that back into their own artworks as they then created projects to go with what we saw, or somehow inspired by whatever, it was really fun. I really loved it.
After doing that, I’ve been helping Cindy out for a little while here. It started off as a summer job, just helping reformat some things. From there, it took off to more and more. Now, I am working with Cindy full time, writing lessons and working on those powerful connections that you can take into your classroom.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, I love it. If you guys want to learn a little bit more about Jennifer and her teaching, you can also hear our art conversation about Shirin Neshat’s Rebellious Silence. That episode is Episode 65. It was just recently on June 14th. I have some follow-up questions based on what you just said, there were so many good little nuggets that you mentioned in your intro there. One of them is you were talking about how you felt after teaching these lessons that you got off of Art Class Curator and these art connection lessons that we have in our membership. Can you talk more about what it feels like to teach one of these lessons?
Jennifer Easterling: Yes, definitely. It’s really hard to put into words but it’s one of excitement, energy, and joy. I feel more connected with my students because I get to see a little bit more into them and their personalities, their lives. There are days that you walk away from teaching, either at the end of a lesson or the end of the day, and you are so drained, just because you’re either having to deal with discipline issues or management or things aren’t working. I remember having those days, I’m so tired mentally, physically, emotionally. But the days that we would have conversations around art, it was such a different feeling by the end of the class and the end of the day. It was completely opposite of that drained feeling. I’d be happy, and excited, and walk away like, “Wow, that was awesome. Okay, let’s do this again and be ready for the next class.” I couldn’t wait to go tell somebody about this awesome conversation that we had in the classroom.
There’s still this day, even though some of them were two years ago that I had a conversation, or more, three or four, there are still little things that students would say that stuck with me. Anytime I remember, those feelings come flooding back like, “Wow, wow, that was amazing.” I can’t believe that came out in the classroom. It’s something that you just have to experience. Like I said, it’s hard to put into words.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, it’s the same for me, it’s so drastically different than that drained feeling that you get after a really tough teaching day. You’re still tired. You still had a full day. You still had to talk, process, and deal with personalities all day but there is this overwhelming feeling that you’re in the right place, you’re doing something meaningful and impactful, not only for your students but for you personally in your satisfaction and your own personal connection to the art teaching to your students. You just feel so full.
Jennifer Easterling: Yes. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m where I’m supposed to be. Everything feels right and you feel connected to your classroom, you feel connected to your kids, to your job, to your practice. That sense of satisfaction like, “Ah, okay, this is it.”
Cindy Ingram: Yes. It’s just so powerful. I really love it too because you mentioned something about how, even years later, you still remember things that students said about particular works of art. To me, personally, my own personal connection to art is something I hold very, very dear. I’m sure you all know that based on listening and reading our emails, and stuff, but the whole reason I’m doing this is because I have a really strong personal connection to works of art. I know what it gives me and I want everyone else to experience that too. I want our students to experience that. But teaching works of art to students fuels my own connection to the art too. I see it through different eyes, I experience it through different lenses, and it just adds more layers of joy, interest, intrigue, and insight into these works of art that I love so much. That’s another thing that it brings.
Jennifer Easterling: It’s also fun when you see it on a screen or in a book, on the computer, on your phone, then you talk about it in class, “Oh, this is so cool,” then to go see that same work of art in person, it totally changes your perception and your perspective of it. You’re like, “Oh, that’s the work of art we’ve been talking about.” It just totally changes it. It’s amazing. It’s fun to take kids to go see those works of art after you’ve talked about them in class. Again, it’s hard to put into words but it’s so fun to watch and experience.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It’s like seeing an old friend. You’ve seen it so many times, talked about it so many times, then you just are in a museum, especially when you’re not expecting it. I love when you’re not expecting it and you just heard that, you’re like, “Oh, it’s that art work.” The kids have the exact same reaction. I took some kids to the Dallas Museum of Art my last year teaching. We had done that year an art around the world type of thing. Every unit, we studied art from different cultures and we also did a weekly Artwork of the Week lesson. A lot of the artworks I choose are ones that are local to me, mainly because I know those artwork so well but also, just because I know my students might get a chance to see them.
We had studied the Nkisi N’Kondi Power Figure from the Kongo people in Western Central Africa. We had finished our tour, so we were just exploring the museum and they have one there. They saw it and you could see they just were so excited, they wanted their picture taken next to it, they were looking at it from all different angles, and they knew about it but then just getting to see it in person, it’s just so fun to see that happen. I think we worry that our kids are not going to make these connections to these works of art but they do, they’re excited about it, and they love it. It’s just so thrilling.
Jennifer Easterling: It totally changes in a museum experience or a gallery experience because they’re looking at things through different eyes and through different lenses. I did that very same thing when I was at Kimbell a month or two ago. I saw the Delacroix, Selim and Zuleika. I’d been to the Kimbell several times but I had never really seen it, I don’t know why. I didn’t know it’s small and I turned a corner, and I was like, “Oh, there it is, oh my goodness.” I’m inspecting it up close, then I’m seeing things that I’ve never seen before. I’m taking pictures and the guards kept looking at me like, “What are you doing?” Because it’s a slow day and I was like, “Just don’t mind me. Just let me be in my bubble and enjoy this little painting.” I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s fun for me, so it’s fun for the kids. It’s fun to watch the kids experience that.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. If you’re listening and you don’t know about that painting, we have it on the blog, The Art Class Curator blog. I will link to it in the show notes. It’s a small painting. I think it’s not one that—like Jenn said, she’s been at Kimbell many times, then never really noticed it before—it’s not one that would catch your eye from across the room.
Jennifer Easterling: No.
Cindy Ingram: I worked there right out of college for a year, so I spent a lot of time teaching with it. Also, one of my favorite and probably my first really substantial experiences leading a discussion was in front of that artwork with a group of deaf students. It was in partnership with the deaf school and the community college who were doing interpreter training. The students from the community college were doing the interpreting. But anyway, we looked at that painting and I just remember at the end of it, I was almost in tears with just how excited I felt by that discussion, just to hear the ideas. Everybody was really engaged.
I was so worried about that tour that I wasn’t going to reach them because of the communication barrier. It was just beautiful. That painting, in particular, is just so full and it’s so much to talk about. It always goes well with students. Check that out in the show notes to see more about it.
The second thing that caught my attention when you were talking at the beginning was that you did these same lessons for all of your students. You did them from 7th grade up to 12th grade. We get people asking, “Where are your eighth grade lesson plans?” I’m like, “Well, that’s not really how it works here at Art Class Curator.” Because when you put up a work of art in front of students, it’s the same lesson for a first grader as it would be for a senior in high school. You ask the same types of questions, you do the same type of facilitation. It’s just what they say is going to be different. If you do writing assignments, you’re going to vary that obviously. I feel like sometimes, people don’t believe me when I tell them that but I like to share that.
Jennifer Easterling: That’s part of the nice thing about it is that I wasn’t planning six, seven different lessons throughout the day. It was one, so I could take the one lesson, then let the kids run with it. With the younger grades, I might need to give a little bit more of an explanation about a question, if they didn’t fully understand a question, maybe I needed to change the wording, but I would have my basic questions there to guide me but then the students would take it and run, so they’re facilitating their own conversation.
I’ve even taken the same questions that I asked my high school kids unless my kindergartner—or I guess she’s first grade now—first grade and pre-K kids, I just change up my language a little bit but they still understand it and they’re still talking to me about the same type of thing. That took pressure off of me. In that freed-up time, I wasn’t having to dive in very specifically for lessons for eighth grade or whatever it was. I let the kids run with it and it helped me.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, I did the same thing. Even if the different grades would be doing different projects, every week, it was always on Friday, we did an Artwork of the Week. It wasn’t necessarily related to the project. But it was just an opportunity to explore the world of art. It made lesson planning so easy that day because I knew I was going to do the same thing all day. I knew that at the end of the day, I was going to hear so much insight. It was so funny, you would talk about the same artwork five times in a row in a day.
Jennifer Easterling: Every conversation would be different.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. That’s always surprising.
Jennifer Easterling: It never failed. If one class didn’t bring out something that another class did, they’d be like, “Oh well, this class talked about this, what do you think about that?” It was just another way to push the conversation and that was fun. Sometimes, we’d even revisit, because we always did it on Monday to start off the week, so that took the pressure off my weekend, which was wonderful, being stressed on Sunday night, trying to figure out, “What in the world am I going to teach Monday morning?” I always knew that I was ready to go Monday morning. No big deal. I had it ready to go.
Then we would take that, whatever we talked about and looked at with the artwork, and we would link it back when we went into a project. Like you said, whether it was related to the artwork or not, students could still draw upon what they saw, what they felt, how an artist utilized something, looking at elements and principles of art, whatever it was. Like how do the artists use that in their art? Now, thinking about that, how can you take that and put that back into your artwork in your own way, your own interpretation, just seeing how somebody else was doing it? Then the next week, we look at a different work of art, and if we’re still in the same project, okay, “How did this artist now address this same idea? What can you draw from that and put it back into your own project, strengthening your own interpretation, and your own art in our process.” I really loved that.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Sometimes, online, I’ll hear teachers say, “I don’t show students works of art,” because she doesn’t want them to copy it. I understand where they’re coming from. I can see that. But also, I think it’s flawed in a way because I think that the more that students look at art, every artwork is an example of problem-solving and it’s an example of what that artist did to give the feeling that they give or to send the message that they wanted to give, whatever their purpose was for creating it. We’re seeing how they’re using texture to impact the emotion of the piece or how they’re using balance to do certain things. That’s going to slowly build in the students. They’re going to realize what is possible with media, what’s possible with composition, what’s possible with symbolism. I think it’s so beneficial.
I heard a story from, I think this was when I was actually in undergrad, but there was a student that was there—it’s been 20 plus years, so I don’t know now—but apparently, this kid had not studied art history or any works of art and basically did his final project, it was almost a replica of a Jasper Johns’ artwork and everyone’s like, “Oh, you just basically copied Jasper Johns.” He’s like, “Well, I didn’t know who Jasper Johns was.” I’m like, “Well.” I think that’s another thing, learning about art history so that you can create something new too.
Jennifer Easterling: Yeah.
Cindy Ingram: How do you think that looking at art impacted your students’ art-making?
Jennifer Easterling: It just gave them whole new perspectives on what was possible and what different people around the world from different time periods were doing, so really broadening their whole perspective on art and just exposing them to new things. I think that kids will come in with certain mindsets about what art is and what art isn’t. I meet kids and like, “Oh, you’re the art teacher.” I’m like, “Yeah, you should come join us for an art class.” They’re like, “I can’t do art.” It’s like, “That’s not the point. We’re not talking about whether you can or can’t do art,” which is a whole other topic in and of itself but I would say, “No, there’s a lot more to it. We look at it, we talk about it, we experience it, we have fun with it. It’s not just a matter of whether you feel you can draw really well or paint really well. We’re not talking about skills. We’re just talking about that connection.”
Once, we would talk about it and build that connection, then we could go back and we could look at it as examples on how, like I said before, how artists did certain things or how they address certain ideas, then how they could take that, make it their own, and use that to inspire their own pieces. Through that, then their skills would grow. I also had a semi-open classroom. Kids were doing all kinds of things and we would have an idea, and the kids would create their own artwork with their own media according to however they felt within that theme or that idea. So me, showing them all these different artworks, was just more to inspire them in different ways, what was possible.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, I think one of the things that we probably, at Art Class Curator, have not been particularly effective at communicating to our people is that actually, we do have a lot of art making in our membership. I think people see Art Class Curator, like it’s about art history. But we don’t even really say we’re about our history anymore because it’s so much deeper than it’s art making or it’s art history or it’s art appreciation. We call it art connection because it’s finding ways to connect to works of art, then connect to our students, then connect those artworks to the art making process too, that it’s really fluid, it’s really connected, and it’s not really prescriptive.
So how you described the openness of your studio practice in your classroom is really the approach that we take in the membership, we give ideas on how to take this and extend the artwork into a bigger project. But it’s not really like step one, do this step two, do this step three, do this. I always thought since we don’t have that step one, step two, step three, that it’s not good enough but now, I’m realizing, most teachers don’t even teach in a step-one, step-two, step-three process. It’s more that they like to take and use the ideas.
Jennifer Easterling: If you want too, it’s easy enough just to link that in. With your Artwork of the Week, you look at an artwork, then you’ve got an idea to extend it for a project. If you need to do a drawing project in charcoal, here’s your idea. Do your drawing project in charcoal, that’s totally fine. It gives you the freedom to use whatever media and process you need to. It’s just more the idea of how you can incorporate this idea and a project into your classroom that’s linked back to this artwork. But it’s still pretty open, so if you need to take it step-by-step, you fully can. It’s made to fit in your classroom with your kids, whatever skill level they’re at, however your classroom is set up. It’s nice to have that flexibility to fit you as a unique teacher.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, can you give an example of an art project, maybe from the membership or from the curriculum that you think is really successful at bridging the gap between the artwork and the project, or even an example of one you did in your classroom?
Jennifer Easterling: We had a lot of fun. Even during the pandemic, we did several projects that were linked directly back to whatever Artwork of the Week we were looking at. It was really powerful to see what the students were thinking about and making despite all the hardships of not being face to face, being separated, and only being able to see each other via Zoom whenever we could. One of the most powerful projects that I saw across the board was after we looked at Munch’s Separation. You have the man in the front. You can see he’s just in anguish and clutching at his chest. Then there’s a female type figure that’s in the back and you can’t quite tell exactly what’s going on.
Everybody has their own interpretation of what’s happening in this scenario. But we looked at it but you could feel that he was really in anguish and in pain over something, whether it was heartbreak, death, loss, or she broke up with him. We don’t know. There were all kinds of interpretations about the students but we use that to then inspire them to create an artwork about separation and things that they were feeling right then in the middle of the pandemic. School had just been shut down for the rest of the school year, so we knew we weren’t going back but everyone was still really scared about what’s going to happen, what’s this going to look like, how’s this going to play out. Especially that everybody’s locked down in their homes and they’re being separated from their friends, school, and all the fun end of the year activities that we’d always be in.
There were several that really stuck out, but one student, he drew himself in with his eyes closed and he drew a mask on, then he surrounded himself by all these little COVID-19 looking like things all around him. They were encroaching upon him but you could see, those were being used to separate him from everything else. Was it a super masterpiece with lots of shady and all that? Not necessarily, but the imagery was so very powerful. It definitely got this message across, that he was feeling that separation and loss by being surrounded by this virus, the mask, and all that thing.
Then another girl, she kept coming back, she’s like, “Oh, my drawings were just so horrible.” But with these projects, I really encourage the kids to use something new, “What’s around you that you can use that maybe you haven’t used before?” So she tried just pen and ink. She just had a ballpoint pen and she just drew on paper. It was this self-portrait and it’s all in the black pen. She’s got her hair down over one side of her face in her eye, so you see this eye peeking out. It looks really sad and just hollow but then all around it is all these crazy energetic gesture lines, and they’re really dark around her face. They lighten up toward the edge but you feel this almost darkness encroaching upon her. You feel the separation that darkness can bring upon someone and just that deep feeling that she was having. She just kept going on about, “Oh, it’s just not a good drawing.” I was like, “No, do you understand the power that you are getting across to people through this imagery? It’s a lot more powerful than you realize.” I was able to connect with the students and what they were feeling, and what they were going through at the time. It was amazing to see what they came up with.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, that’s so powerful. I’m remembering another one—I’ll take these pictures that we have of our students’ work and stick them into the show notes, so that you all can check these out—but there was another one. It was like a collage of empty school hallways, empty school playground, and no people in it. What I love about that is that it’s a very choice-based project. You gave them an idea of how you feel and connect to the idea of separation, how are you feeling now and this was right when the pandemic had started. They all did different media, they all took different approaches, then each one is just filled with meaning, power, and energy. It’s so powerful. I think we learned a lot about how to do this in the pandemic because when the pandemic hit, we were like, “Oh, now is the time for art connection. This is the time.” We’re all online, this is the time where we really can push this. I think a lot of teachers infused more art connections for the first time this year out of necessity because it was just a natural way to bridge that remote learning.
Jennifer Easterling: And have a hard conversation around something that is difficult to talk about. It gave that pathway to, “Okay, how do we even start to dive into what is going on right now, all these emotions and feelings that we’re having?” Art became that safe bridge that we could now look at and talk about. I could see kids pouring their hearts and souls into this without saying, “Well, I am feeling XYZ.” It’s just naturally coming out through other things that they’re saying and the art that they were creating. It gave me a lot of insight without specifically looking at you, “Well, how are you today?” Like how can you put that into words.
Cindy Ingram: Let’s talk about our feelings today.
Jennifer Easterling: Exactly. Because that’s never going to go well. But the feelings and the thoughts, all that come out with what they’re seeing in the artwork that day. What they see today may be completely different from what they see tomorrow or next week. That can be such a reflection on who they are as a person and what they’re experiencing, things that you don’t ever see in the classroom, home life or friends. Whatever else might be going on, you really get to see that in a roundabout way if you’re looking for it whenever the kids start talking, writing about, and creating about all these artworks. It’s just a whole different way to connect to your students in ways that if you just came out and said it directly, it would be much more difficult.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I think this is a really important point, that we talk about a lot with art connection. I guess if you go back and listen to the first episode I did to the podcast when I rebooted it back in April, I was looking at art as a spiritual practice. We are teaching our students to use art for their own personal development, their own personal betterment, their own personal place to process life. I’ve seen lots of examples of this, of students seeing and connecting with a work of art, then they clearly are learning something about themselves.
We were doing a project that was originally sparked by the Nkisi N’Kondi Power Figure that I mentioned earlier in the episode. Part of the project was they would put things in the belly of the sculpture, like herbs, medicines, and meaningful things that would activate its power. The sculpture became a really personal thing to them. One of my students was over there in the corner writing and she just had tears streaming down her face. She was putting her full self into it. I have no idea what she wrote. I didn’t require them to show me anything that they wrote. I’m sure some kids wrote some silly things and stuck them in there but there were kids who really took it personal and really used this opportunity as a time to process. I’m not saying that every single lesson has to be these deep serious conversations. That would be really tiresome and burdensome after a while.
Jennifer Easterling: Yeah, for sure.
Cindy Ingram: These are just some of the examples that really stand out. We do a lot of fun interactions with artworks too. Every artwork is going to have a whole different vibe to it, but the kids do find themselves in these artworks. Especially if you choose artworks that have meaningful connections to them, you can see your students are going to connect to this artwork in some meaningful way. That’s really important when you’re choosing artworks to show in your class.
Jennifer Easterling: Some kids may have a really deep connection to this artwork where other ones have more of a fun, silly connection, and it’s okay. It’s not telling that, “Look, we’re looking at this artwork and you have to have a very deep, serious connection to it.” It’s not that way. Everybody’s going to take out something different because when you look at artworks, everyone sees something different in art work. Just like between you and me, we see different things in art work, so it’s the same way with the kids. I think it’s okay to have fun with it too. Stand up and be silly or have a fun, silly activity to go with it but then there are the deeper, more personally connected things. There are just different ways to connect with artwork. There’s not always a right or wrong way to do that.
Cindy Ingram: That’s a good point too. I know a lot of teachers are really worried when they bring a work of art to their students. They’re worried about a lot of things, worried that the students are not going to say anything, and they’re worried that they’re not going to know what to say, they’re not going to know enough information about the artwork, they just feel like they’re lacking something.
Jennifer Easterling: That they have to be well versed in everything about the artist, everything about the artwork, and know dates, media insight, and all that stuff. What I’ve learned and what you’ve learned and taught me is that it’s okay if you don’t know. You can tell the kids, “I don’t really know. We can all look it up and research together or we can just leave it in that whole space of wonder of ‘I don’t know,’” and it’s okay to not know. Especially, like you say, in this age where we like to know everything. With a phone or a computer, handy everywhere, we can look anything up at any time but it’s being comfortable with that, “I don’t know.” Let’s just think about it or let’s just ponder or let’s just leave it in this world of the unknown. It’s okay.
Sometimes I have to give myself permission to think, especially as a teacher, that it’s okay that I don’t know everything. It’s okay to be vulnerable in front of my students and let them know that I don’t know everything. But it doesn’t stop the curiosity and the wonder. It helps foster that, which is a good thing. We want to foster that curiosity and that wonder with our students because that’s going to make them better across the board as human beings but also, academically, whatever direction you want, it’s going to push their creative thought.
Cindy Ingram: That reminds me of a quote that I was recently given. It’s by the poet Rilke and he says, “I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I hadn’t read the full quote, I just Googled it. But I think that’s what we’re doing in these art discussions, is we’re living in that state of wonder, like you said, living in the state of uncertainty, of appreciating the question, and appreciating the possible answers but being okay that we don’t have the answer and we may never have the answer. That’s what I love about philosophy in general, it’s like there are no answers and we just get to enjoy the process of trying to answer it ourselves.
Jennifer Easterling: Right. I think it also teaches us to approach things with a sense of wonder and curiosity, that I’m coming to this subject, this artwork, this person, whatever it is, it can go in so many different directions but I’m coming to you with a sense of curiosity and wonder because I want to learn more about this, about you, about what I’m a part of. Instead of knowledge and understanding, I want to know more, so help me. Let’s work together to know more together and learn about each other.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It’s often too, and I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about this way, but when we’re looking at a work of art and talking about it, we’re not doing it for the sake of learning about the artwork. That’s not the content. The content is the exploration process, the content is what you learn about yourself, what you come up with. The content is more than just, “Oh, this artwork was created in 1919. It was done this way. This is what the artist did before. This is what he was influenced by.” That stuff is interesting and cool. There’s a lot of really cool stories out there but there’s so much more in an artwork than just that surface contextual information.
Jennifer Easterling: Oh, I agree and I’m like how many times have I had a conversation in class about an artwork, or I get excited to tell somebody about it and something, all of a sudden, is revealed to me about myself or about the world or something I didn’t know about a person, whatever it is, and I’m like, “Wow, I just had that amazing thought or this amazing revelation.” It had nothing to do with the artwork but somehow, talking about the artwork or looking at it in a different way, opened up this whole new insight to me and I’m like, “Oh, well, that was cool.” I’m like, “Oh, I just had this amazing thought, where did this come from? I’m so proud of myself that I had this amazing thought.” But it’s fun.
I’ll talk to people about artworks and stuff that they don’t have a clue about or they’re not interested in, I’m like, “Oh, but you need to see this, it’s so cool.” Then I’m starting to go into all this philosophy stuff and, “Have you ever thought about…” They’re looking at me like, “Just go with me, just go with it, let me talk, it’s okay.” I’m learning more about myself as a human being, as a person as I grow older. It’s fun.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Another thing too, going back to that idea of not really knowing the answer is oftentimes, whatever the students come up with is better than the real answer.
Jennifer Easterling: It’s so true.
Cindy Ingram: I don’t want to tell you guys the “real” answer or the “real” meaning but I always showed this artwork on the first day of my community college classes that I taught, the artwork is by Luis Felipe Noé and it’s called Closed for Sorcery, the name is in Spanish, so it’s a translation but it was done in 1963. We have a blog about this artwork as well, so I’ll put that in the show notes as well. At the top, it’s really creepy and really shocking. For college class, it was always a really good way to catch them off guard right at the beginning. But there’s this guy at the top with this red crucifix in front of him, there’s these demons behind him, then underneath him, there’s a bunch of a grid and in each of the boxes are these really terrifying faces with really dramatic expressions, lots of different emotions represented. It’s really, really creepy.
It’s very like an abstract expressionist type of style, very gestural paint drips and things. It has a limited color palette too. It’s like blue, red, white, and a little bit of yellow. Really cool painting and it’s huge in person. I saw it at the Blanton in Austin, if you’re ever there, they might have it on view. We would talk about demons, we would talk about how each of the boxes at the bottom were like the different states of internal struggle that you’re going through and how he’s trying to keep those emotions away, all these really powerful meaningful things. Then you read the label and it’s like, “Well, this was at the rise of television.” That was like the talking heads on TV, like TV news. I was like, “Oh, that’s a really boring answer. I don’t like that one. I like what you guys came up with way better.”
I often will preface that and I tell my students that whatever answer that you have, whatever answer you think is right to whatever interpretation you are really excited about, that is just as true as whatever it says on the label or whatever the artist said, the art historian, or the teacher. Because once the artwork leaves the artist’s hands, it becomes the viewers’, it becomes yours, and you can do with it whatever you want to do with it.
Jennifer Easterling: Right. That’s where everybody has different connections with different artworks. It’s cool to see those different perspectives. It’s a good thing because everybody brings a different interpretation.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Even you on a different day, like me today, are going to respond to this artwork differently than me two years ago, things in my life have happened that have added to my vocabulary of emotions, my vocabulary of imagery.
Jennifer Easterling: Yes. I think it was that artwork we were having a conversation about not too long ago and someone was like, “Oh, it’s like our Zoom classroom,” or whatever. I was like, “You’re so true..” You’ve got the person that’s exed out and the person that’s doing this and that. Now that we have a whole different experience with these Zoom classes that we didn’t have before, that’s a whole nother thing.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. This artwork will forever be differently interpreted because of the pandemic. Oh, that’s fascinating. Now, I want to go teach a college class, so I can hear them talk about it. I don’t know that I actually want to do that because that doesn’t pay very well for all the work you have to do but that’s another story.
We’ve talked about all these deep meaningful conversations, emotional turmoil, and all of that. Let’s talk about the fun of these sorts of lessons. Can you think of an example of one activity or lesson you did that was particularly fun?
Jennifer Easterling: Yes. I can think of several actually. One of them was Rodin’s The Thinker. He’s got his chin propped on his arm, squatting down, and thinking. He looks like he’s in deep, deep thought about something. I just left it open to the kids and said, “Well, we’re going to draw or write whatever it is he’s thinking about.” The funny things that came out of all the stuff that they drew or wrote, it really made me laugh and it stuck with me, it was anything from the food that he was thinking about to some future city to long lost loves. It just went in all different directions. It was so fun because I would take the Artwork of the Week, whatever we were looking at, print it off, and I would hang it in the hallway, then I would have them take their activities, tape it up around the artwork, and we just left it in the hallway so anybody can see it. But every time I walked past that, I would start giggling about something that The Thinker was really deep and thought about. That one was really fun.
Cindy Ingram: Before you go into another one, you know what’s good about that too is it was in the hall, so even the students who weren’t in art or even the other teachers, administrators would walk by and see that, and they are also—I think humans are naturally like this—they’re going to come up with what would they think he was thinking about.
Jennifer Easterling: Exactly.
Cindy Ingram: So they’re walking by and they’re having these little mini art connections as they walk through too. Your classroom is impacting the campus as a whole.
Jennifer Easterling: Right. There were times that I would stick up extra worksheets. I would print them on half sheets so I could cut them small, then I could take the extra ones, put them up beside, and invite people who work in class and they could add in their own thing, and just add it to our collection for the week, then it would change out weekly. I just had the kids hang it up, so I’m not having to do anything besides hanging up the initial artwork that week, then I just have the kids go do it. It takes pressure off of me of having to hang all these things or make sure everything’s perfect. I’m like, “You go do it.” They’re curating their own little exhibition there.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. That’s performing so many different functions. The students that are in your class, they get to celebrate their work. They get to be reminded of the artwork and keep it in their thoughts but then you’re impacting the art connections of your campus but you’re also really advocating for you and your program, that your administrators are seeing that you’re doing some really thought-provoking work, you’re doing writing, you’re doing creativity. That’s going to advocate for your program. It’s really easy to do but really powerful.
Jennifer Easterling: Right. It shows more of what’s going on in your classroom and it helps with some of those perceptions that people think we’re only playing with popsicle sticks and glitter all day long. You’re like, “No, there’s a lot more deep thinking and process.” We’re writing, we’re putting all things together, and we’re creating. It gives more value to your classroom and you, as an art educator, when there’s so many misperceptions out there.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, I love it. Okay, what other fun examples do you have?
Jennifer Easterling: Another one was with Sandy Skoglund, her Revenge of the Goldfish. We looked at that one and had a lot of fun conversation. Then as an activity, I had everyone create their own goldfish and we hung them all in the hallway, so we had our own little mini Revenge of the Goldfish. We were located near the preschool classrooms, so the first time that they saw when they walked down, it was so fun to hear them because they were all like, “Oh, wow, look at all that.” It was fun because everybody just created all kinds of different fish.
I would have some that were these beautiful koi fish that had amazing coloration of scales to goofy 3d fish with bulging eyes, then someone had an abstract one with bent and flowy paper. We’d have little ones and big ones. They’re all different colors. They were just hanging from the ceiling, swimming in the hallway. I love that.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It really reminds me of what we talked about in our last episode that we did about Shirin Neshat. We talked about the both…and, that our classrooms can be both really serious, emotional, and deep and they can be silly and fun. You can make goldfish out of paper and hang them on the ceiling. It can be everything and everything in between. It’s all fun, valuable, and so memorable. I know your students are going to remember your class forever.
Jennifer Easterling: Like why not have fun with it?
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. One activity that we have on the website is a drawing description game where you have students sit, where only one of the students can see the artwork, then they have to describe it to their partner, then their partner has to draw it based on their description. I love that because I’ll choose really ridiculous works of art. I picked just totally ridiculous things. I would just basically Google crazy surreal sculpture or something like that, then I would put it up there. All the students who can see it were laughing but then they would have to describe it and the kids drawing don’t know why the other students are laughing but at the same time, they’re having such a fun time. At the same time, they’re working on their communication skills, they’re working on their visual literacy, they’re working on their communication, all of that, at the same time also doing something really fun.
Jennifer Easterling: And laughter is awesome.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, yeah. They always beg to do that again. They just think it’s so much fun. But one of the artworks that I put up for that one time was called What You See Might Not Be Real by Chen Wenling. I don’t have this on the membership because it’s pretty dramatic but it basically is like a bull who’s farting a mushroom cloud and he’s pinning this demon to the wall. I don’t know how to describe it but I made my students do it. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. You can see, you can decide for yourself if that’s appropriate to show your students. My students died. They thought it was so funny. Then all the kids who came later were told about it, so I had to pick something different for the last classes because it spread through the school what artwork they were looking at. I wanted to surprise them. It’s so fun but at the same time, we’re doing all this really powerful learning too.
Jennifer Easterling: Right. They’re learning how to look at something really closely and describe it. You do start hearing those vocabulary, our vocabulary words naturally come out without you having to say, “Well, this is line and this is what it means, this is where we see it.” They’re just naturally being incorporated into their language. It was really powerful for my ELL kids too. They were learning English and it was a different way for them to practice. They’d ask me and they’re like, “What is this?” I’m like, “What do you think it is?” or “Describe it however you can, you don’t have to use this specific language or the specific wording. Describe it however you can describe it. If that means you need to get up and stand like something, go for it.”
I’ve got some fun pictures of kids standing in all kinds of crazy ways as they’re trying to describe whatever it is they’re looking at to somebody else. Get them up moving and thinking about things in different realms instead of only just pure writing or drawing.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It is really good for your ELL students because—I told this story a lot, so I’m sorry if you all have heard this before—but I had two students that were working on this one time, then one of them was not a native speaker of English and the other one was. In the artwork, it was like—I don’t remember the name of the artwork—but they were like tea kettles and the tea kettles for the trees, there were tea kettles with trunks. But the girl who was drawing didn’t know what a tea kettle was. She didn’t know that word. The girl describing couldn’t figure out a way to describe.
She raised her hand and she doesn’t know what a tea kettle is, I don’t know what to do. I was like, “You’ll have to come up with another way to describe it that doesn’t use the word kettle.” They worked it out and figured it out. She ended up just talking about the shapes that way but it was really interesting to see them work through that problem and how to solve it. They looked to me to give them the answer but I was like, “No, you all can figure this answer out for yourself.”
Jennifer Easterling: Yeah. It’s encouraging, that thinking process and thinking about it out of the box or a little bit different realm of what you’re used to.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It makes me just want to leave my home office and go find a classroom right now.
Jennifer Easterling: Yeah.
Cindy Ingram: Can we do this right now?
Jennifer Easterling: Yes.
Cindy Ingram: That’s so fun. I do miss it, that part of it. I don’t miss all of the drama of teaching. I do miss those wonderful days of our connection. I know we have so many other stories that we can tell that are about these powerful art connections that students make. Hopefully, I will get to tell those to you at a later date but we’re getting to the end of our time. If you are interested in this type of learning in your classroom, we do have the membership, The Curated Connections Library. I think almost every single lesson we talked about today is in the membership. I don’t think there was one that wasn’t.
Jennifer Easterling: Yes, they’re all in there.
Cindy Ingram: Okay. Every single lesson that we talked about today is in The Curated Connections Library. You can get the powerpoint with the artworks, the discussion questions, the engaging activities, those kinesthetic activities, the writing activities, the Rodin with the speech bubble, that’s in there. All of these things that we talked about, as well as art project extensions that we talked about. It’s got everything that you need to teach, these sorts of lessons. Just believe us when we say it is so fun and so powerful. Your students will love it and also, will remember it. Also, it will teach them so much about art, about themselves, and everything in between.
If you would like to join the waitlist, you can go to artclasscurator.com/join. There’s an email form right there on the page that you can get onto the waitlist, then we will be opening the doors to the membership on August 5th. Again, go over to artclasscurator.com/join to get more information about that. Thank you so much, Jenn, for joining us today.
Jennifer Easterling: Welcome.
Cindy Ingram: Your expertise and experience here is just so wonderful. Your creativity just shines in all of these lessons.
Jennifer Easterling: It’s so much fun. I absolutely love it.
Cindy Ingram: Thank you so much for listening to The Art Class Curator Podcast. We will see you again next week.
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