In the wake of the pandemic last year, I hosted a conference, Call to Art, that brought together educators from across the world. It was an amazing experience where I used real-world examples of myself to discuss what we learn from looking at art, how we can become emotionally connected to particular pieces of art, and why you should show more works of art to your students. It was all about discovering and rediscovering the emotional power of art, and I want to share that presentation with you in today’s show.
3:50 – How I developed my deep connection to art
10:36 – Why I switched from art history to art education
14:02 – A question to think about as you listen to the rest of the episode
16:02 – What you get out of art when you really slow down and look at it
20:36 – Embracing uncertainty and answers within through artwork
23:47 – The surprising amount of emotional fluency of the average person
29:37 – An exercise to discover your emotional connections with art
36:25 – Examples of my powerful, personal connections with art
49:06 – Four areas where you can prime your students to have their own emotional art connections
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. Welcome back to the podcast. Today, for you, I have a session that I recorded for Call to Art. Call to Art was our conference that we created in the wake of the pandemic. We did Call To Art 1 in March 2020. We did Call to Art 2 in November of 2020. It was an amazing experience, bringing together a lot of educators from across the country. I think between the two of them, we had over 80 or 90 presenters. Tons of amazing presentations. The presentation that I am going to be sharing with you today on the podcast is called Rediscovering the Emotional Power of Art. In the video, I actually do show some artwork. You’ll hear me talk about the artwork. Maybe I’ll mention something on the screen. You’re able to get the content without the images. But if you would like to access this recording, as well as the other 90 plus presenters, you can still purchase the recordings for Call to Art. If you head over to artclasscurator.com/cta, you can still get access to those amazing, amazing sessions. Check that out. Without further ado, here is my presentation from the Call to Art 2 called Rediscovering the Emotional Power of Art.
Hello everybody, this is Cindy Ingram from Art Class Curator. As you probably know, I am obsessed with creating connections between works of art with people. Between your students and art, you and the art, between you and your students, and the art. All of that is so incredibly important to me. That is why I created Art Class Curator so that we could expand those connections across the world. Today, what I want to do is tell you a little bit about why you should show more works of art here to your students and also some of the connections that can happen, what we learned from looking at art, and how we learn from looking at art. I’m going to do that through some real world examples, of myself as an example. Hopefully, you can see the importance of showing art to your students. Then we are also going to cover some ways to increase these personal connections with works of art in our classroom. I’m excited to share that with you.
The title of my presentation is Rediscovering the Emotional Power of Art. I think that we can get lost, when we’re teaching, to focus on the making. The teaching of the elements and principles, the teaching of the skills, the teaching of the techniques, all of that is super important. All of those things we have to do. But there is a deeper emotional power to art. There is a personal connection, especially with looking at works of art. There are things that we can learn about ourselves, about other people through looking at and experiencing art that is so wonderfully amazing.
I have always felt a deep connection to art. I loved art class. I wanted to be a Disney animator. When I grew up, I was obsessed with Disney movies, especially The Lion King, which I’ll talk a little bit more about later. But it wasn’t until I was in junior high school where I actually saw art for the first time, like real art. I only have a memory of one artist that I learned about in art class and that was Matisse. We actually did the same project twice because I had the same art teacher in middle school and high school. She got a new job at the high school and did the exact same lesson plan. Anyway, I did the same project twice, learning about Matisse. But that was really the only artist that I had been really introduced to.
In high school, we had a teacher who took students to Europe every summer. It was a month long. You got college credit for it. He was really into art history. We visited all the museums. We learned about them before we went. We did all sorts of things. Then when I got to Europe that summer, I saw art for the first time. I was completely blown away because it really was at that time that I realized it wasn’t art that I wanted to make. It was art that I wanted to experience. It was those feelings of connecting with something that someone else made, that’s where my heart was. It wasn’t in the creation of the art. When I was there, I got to see these museums, I would see the tour guides, security guards were there and I was just like, “They get to be here every day. Their job is to stand by that art or their job is to teach about that art to the kids that come here.” I was so amazed by that. I got home. The same teacher who teaches the Europe trip did a humanities class for seniors that was an AP or history class and that’s where I really learned about all the art. I was just totally enamored with art history at that moment.
When I went to college, I got my degree in art history, then I started with the goal of working in art museums. That’s what I want to do. I wanted to be a museum educator because I always knew I was good at teaching and I found this love of art, so I thought this would be a perfect combination. I have this slide of all of my art history degree memes because art history majors know that you guys, we’re the laughingstock of the internet. Everyone’s like, “Oh, your history degree is worthless. You’re a barista.” All of that stuff. I got my history degree, started working in museums, then I was in the process of applying to get my PhD in art history because that’s what you do next. You get the degree in art history, you get the PhD. I was skipping my masters somehow. I think I was applying to programs where you could just get your masters and PhD at the same time.
Anyway, I was applying for that until I came across the artwork that really moved me for the first time. This was in 2004. All of the MoMa artworks were taken down because the MoMa was doing renovations. They sent all the artwork from MoMa to Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. They had the Starry Night, they had all the Kandinsky’s, and the Dalí’s Persistence of Memory. All of that stuff was just a few hours from me because I was in Dallas. It was New Year’s day, we drove down in the morning, went to the exhibit, drove back at night because we were super broke. Me and my husband, we were super broke. We couldn’t afford a hotel room. We just did it in one day, just to go to this exhibit. When I get there, it’s really exciting. I got to see van Gogh’s, all this stuff, then I go in and I turn the corner, and I remember it so well, like exactly what this gallery looked like. There’s a doorway I turned in and to the right of me, I saw Picasso’s Girl Before A Mirror. It was like a punch in the stomach. All of the wind just left my body. It was just like this big heave. I saw it and it overtook me. It’s not like I had this deep love for this painting. I probably was peripherally aware that it existed but it wasn’t like this one that I was really excited about looking at. I like Picasso. I saw a Picasso exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum a few years before. I liked his work, whatever I knew about it. This was like the star. I was really excited to see it.
I turned the corner, totally got the wind knocked out of me. I went to this painting and I could not leave it. I couldn’t step away from this painting. I cried. I stared. I analyzed every single inch of this painting. I was scared of it but I was just in awe of it. I was feeling all of the feelings that one person could possibly feel. I was just feeling them all. My husband was with me. He went through the entire rest of the exhibit, came back through, and I was still in front of this one painting. I couldn’t leave it. No one else was really looking at it either. They probably were wondering what the heck I was doing. There were a lot of people with the audio guides. Thankfully, this one wasn’t on the audio guide. They weren’t interested in it, how that goes.
When I’m walking through this artwork, when I left on the way home, I wrote a four page essay—I still have it somewhere—about my experience in front of this work of art. Not only did I have a lot of personal connections to it. I’ll talk about those a little bit later but what I ultimately left that experience with was that I realized that art was magic. Looking at art gave me the ability to feel my feelings in a way that I didn’t really understand because I’ve always been a very emotional person but I didn’t have a lot of emotional awareness or fluency to really know. I was always scared of my emotions. Growing up, it’s one of those things where you’re supposed to stuff down your emotions. You’re not supposed to talk about your emotions. Emotions are inconvenient to people. I’ve had a lot of years coming to terms with how to deal with emotions but at the time, I’m feeling everything.
Then I also realized what would happen if I get my PhD in art history, which is what I was applying to do? Would I lose that emotional impact that art had if I would spend a year studying this? Say I chose to write a thesis or dissertation on Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, would it still have the magic? Would it still have an emotional impact? If I knew too much, would I lose that feeling that I get when I look at a work of art? Would I lose that experiential moment of gasp? I left that. I completely scrapped my PhD plans in art history and decided to do art education instead because I want everyone else to have that experience too. I want everyone else to experience that magic that art has. Completely changed course because of this one experience.
I leave. I go about my life. I got my masters in art education rather than art history, then eventually landed in the classroom. Years in museums, started teaching college first, then I started teaching elementary, then I ended up teaching other things. I love talking and I taught online. I did all sorts of other teaching. This is my slide of faces from a photo shoot I did. I think it adequately represents teaching. The amount of emotions you feel in five minutes as a teacher is in all of this. I started to teach. I had this deep love of art. I wanted to give that to my students. I wanted to teach art history in a way that wasn’t boring, that wasn’t a lecture, that wasn’t just memorizing dates. I wanted my students to understand the capacity for greatness and magic, love, and emotional impact that you can feel with a work of Art. How a work of art can completely change the whole course of your life, I wanted my students to feel that.
I would take to the internet, creative ways to teach the renaissance or activities to do in front of a work of art, whatever it was, every time I would Google something, nothing came up. It was just constantly me Googling, nothing to find, creating it myself, me Googling, nothing to find, creating it myself until finally, I realized, “Hey, what I can do is I can create the thing that I want myself. I can make it.” That’s when I started Art Class Curator in 2014. I just started writing blog posts about all the things that I wanted to know about. I knew in my art history education and in all of that, I really was good to Western focus, so I started to research and learn about artworks from around the world, started to put that up on the blog, and started to take all these lessons I developed as a museum educator, as a teacher. I started to put those up on the blog, then I eventually created The Curated Connections Library, where I put all of that stuff in, then the SPARK Hybrid Learning Curriculum, which we created for this lovely pandemic situation that we’re in right now, then also SPARK Art, which is a homeschool course.
I took all of these things that I developed myself to create that emotional power. I put it into the Art Class Curator. That’s a little bit how I began. But what I want you to think about as you’re listening to this is in 20 years, what role do you want art to play in your students’ lives? Think about that question for a minute. Think about what your answer is. Settle in on that. I want you to realize that every single time I’ve asked this question of groups of teachers, and I’ve asked this question of groups of teachers countless times, nobody ever says, “I want them to understand a zigzag line. I want them to understand how to shade a sphere perfectly to make it look like that’s a shadow.” Those are some things that are fun to teach and learn. They’re necessary to some degree, but that’s not the end goal of your art curriculum. The answers I get to this are wide-ranging. You want them to embrace their creativity, you want them to have self-expression, you want them to understand they have an outlet, you want them to understand they’re not alone in the world and that art can be a peace and value in their life. There are so many other things that we want for our students. None of it, anytime I’ve ever asked this, is “I want them to be an artist.” Actually, that’s not even really ever brought up.
If they become an artist, that is awesome. That’s so cool. It can be like an artist, that’s their profession or it could be they make art on the side. We want that to be a part of their lives. But really in the end, art as a connection, art as a refuge, art as an expression, art as a piece of your life that has value, that is something we want all of our students to have as they live their lives. We know that art makes better people. We know that art will create more joyful people, more connected people, more empathetic people. That’s what we’re looking for in the art in our art education. As you’re creating lessons and as you’re thinking about this, really think like, “Is this going to reach the end goal?” We want to create memorable connective experiences. I could go on a rant but ultimately, what I realized in that moment with Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror is that art is magic. That art has the ability to transcend and pierce into the soul of a person.
When we look at a work of art made by someone else, there is a lot that we’re learning. It’s more than just making something. It is understanding life and the human spirit. It is feeling emotions, expressing emotions, understanding emotions that other people have, then it is connecting to the past. It is connecting to other cultures. It is learning to look closely to be more aware, to be more observant. It’s helping our students solve problems and think critically. It’s helping them know themselves better. Because every time I look at a work of art and I have a powerful experience with it, there’s something about me that I learn. I think the ultimate goal of being a person is to grow into who you are, be who you are, and find yourself through your life. That’s what we’re all striving for. Art gives us a place to do that, to understand that. Art gives us focus, awareness, observation. I think so many of us are used to flashes and images. We quickly look and we move away. But when we slow down and we look at art, and we learn from art, it allows us to really focus our observation skills.
Think about our world that we live in now, Instagram, TikTok, all the things that’s like constant images going through our lives, non-stop all day long. Slowing down and looking at art, our students learn how to really understand how images are manipulating them. Understanding how images are used to accomplish a goal. This is something we really can teach our students to be aware of. Art also gives us higher level thinking skills. It allows us to have conversations about hard topics that we aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking about just outright. But using art as a tool to have those hard conversations makes it a little bit easier for us to embrace that as teachers and as people in general.
For example, on this slide here, we have Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes and also, Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. I asked my students, “Which one was done by a man? Which one was done by a woman and why?” Then we have this discussion, then we end up having a vote. It’s usually always 50/50, 50% are right, 50% are wrong. They can have a discussion about gender bias. Why is a man more likely to depict a woman as more dainty, whereas, a woman is showing a woman more strong? What are all of these things that we’re thinking of and we’re making assumptions? All of this is happening and scrolling around in our head. We’re not not really aware of it. Having this conversation allows us to really think through that and process that in more powerful ways.
Looking at art creates empathy and helps you see through the lens of another person. You can’t really fully see the perspective of another person. Your lens, like what Brené Brown says, is your perspective. Your lenses are plastered onto your face. There’s no way you can take yours off and put somebody else’s on. But art allows us to glimpse into the life of another person and see how they’re living, see how they’re feeling, see how they process the world, what they’re thinking. Art says what can’t be said. You feel that when you’re looking at it. When we look at art, we’re learning empathy, connection, and respect. When you see artwork done by someone else across the world, you’re feeling their feelings, seeing how they feel, and you see ultimately, they’re just people like you are. That I think is really powerful for our students. Some of them live in such bubbles. They don’t leave their houses, where they’re at in their communities, to see that there are people outside that are just like them, living lives just like them, feeling feelings just like them.
Another thing that’s really powerful about work of art is embracing uncertainty. If you think about right now, in art history, we always have the answer to every question. I can just take this phone and I can get the answer to anything except for right now, I’m living in uncertainty because I’m in the middle of recording this during the presidential election. The votes have been cast but they haven’t been counted. There’s uncertainty there. But the same thing is no one can stand living in this uncertainty right now. But looking at a work of art and interpreting it, we have our own answer. When we look at artwork, our interpretation of that artwork is just as valid as whatever the artist said or the art historian or the person at the museum or the label, the art teacher, the other student who’s also looking at it. Everybody’s interpretation is just as valid and just as right because once the artwork leaves the artist’s hands, it becomes their own. We can’t just Google it because the answer is inside of us.
I think in so many situations in life, the answer is inside of us. It’s always inside of us. There isn’t an answer that we just go to. I think people right now, I say it all the time on Facebook where someone’s like, “Oh, I can’t decide what to do. What do I do?” They’ll post it on Facebook and they’ll get all the answers. They just need someone to give them the answer. I think by experiencing works of art, we can help our students understand that they’ve got the answers inside them. They don’t need to go looking for them.
Also, in this slide is curiosity and wonder. When we look at things that are interesting, new, and different, it just creates a sense of curiosity for the world and what else it has to offer us. Then my favorite one is understanding self. When you look at an artwork, like I already said, you learn bits of yourself that you didn’t know. It helps you reflect on your life in different ways. Let me show you some examples of that here in a little bit. All of this to say that students learn so much from looking at art. But right now, more than ever, because I’m filming this during the pandemic, we really need to support our students and their social emotional skills, social emotional learning, that understanding emotion, understanding what emotion is, articulating what emotions you’re feeling, being able to recognize it, all of that are such important skills in our life. When we connect with works of art, we can start to do that. We can start to name feelings. We can look at something that someone is experiencing in a work of art. We can start putting names to those feelings. We can say, “Well, when was the time when you felt that way?” Make that connection to the artwork yourself.
I’m a big Brené Brown fan. She has some research that she’s doing. I think there’s going to be a book about it but it hasn’t come out yet. She’s talked about it. This research is ongoing. I can’t wait till that book comes out. I was listening to Dare to Lead, that’s the most recent one I was reading. She said that there was research that they did. That most people can only recognize three emotions, anger, sadness, and joy or happiness. That was the average person’s emotional fluency, those three. But really, to be an emotionally literate person, to really exist in this world effectively, you need to be able to recognize 30 different emotions. This just blows my mind because you have 3 in 30. It makes me really empowered to think of how we can experience these emotions, how we can talk about them with our students.
Ultimately, I don’t know about you but from my personal experience, when I was a child, I was a very high achieving child. I was a straight-A student. I always wanted to do the very best. If I got a 93, I would be very disappointed in myself. Then I told you earlier that I was in a situation where emotions, we don’t talk about them. Those are not things we talk about. We stuffed them in. It took me 10, 15 years out of high school to start to untangle the effect of that, of not recognizing my emotions, stuffing all my emotions down, overachieving where I didn’t need to overachieve, and really come to terms with who I am, how I feel, what I am as per what is my purpose. I would have loved someone to tell me, “You’re feeling embarrassed. You’re feeling overwhelmed.” Teaching me that and to teach me that it’s okay to feel that would have saved me some emotional turmoil over those 15 years.
Anyway, we created, recently, a Feelings Wheel. We found all sorts of versions of this Feelings Wheel. The original one came from Dr. Gloria Willcox. We took the idea and created a new one for use with works of art. You can take this Feelings Wheel, you show it to your students, help them identify emotions and artworks. You can use it to help them identify emotions in themselves. If you want this download, artclasscurator.com/feelings, you’ll find that Feeling Wheel there so that you can download it and use it in your classroom.
Social emotional skills, super, super important right now. I say all of this, what art teaches you, the empathy, the connection, the respect, all of those things, it’s very abstract. I can say that and you go like, “Oh yeah, okay, I get it. Sure.” All those things help but I’m now going to show you some actual examples of things that I learned in front of works of art. A few years ago, I was teaching a lesson on German expressionism. That was the overall topic for the day. In the first activity for the lesson, we were looking at Franz Marc’s The Fate of the Animals. I was leading a discussion about it. We were talking about the typical visual thinking strategies, asking questions, sharing thoughts, talking about the lines and the colors, all those sorts of things. Then one of my students—this was an online teaching, I used to teach online for a period of time—she put in the chat, she said, “What are we learning here? How does this relate to art?” If you’ve just seen me, I was like, “Oh well, this is art. That is a work of art. You were in art class. We were looking at it and we were talking about it. That’s it.”
But ultimately, the students don’t necessarily know this is happening. I started to think about that too, I was like, “Without concrete examples, you too might really not see the power that artwork can have on a person.” I’m going to share with you some of my examples of artworks that have had powerful connections with me personally, then what do we do with that? How do we create the environment in our classrooms to create that experience for our students so that when they’re my age or when they’re 24 or when they’re whatever age they’re at, they’re primed to have these experiences and really you’ve built the groundwork for them to have art be that power in their lives.
Before I tell you some of my stories, I want you to really think about what your art story is. I always ask in the podcast, “What artwork changed your life?” I love the answers to this question because they are so wide-ranging. I’ve been doing a lot of research, doing some interviews of different people, asking them this question, having them share with me a powerful art experience, then I have been taking notes, I have been making some conclusions. I’m doing a lot more on that. This is really early in the process. I can’t wait to share with you. Down the line, there will be some more things that come out relating to that research that I’m doing. But what I want you to do is think about your art story. Think about how it felt in your body when you saw the artwork the first time. What thoughts did you have and what feelings did you have? You had the physical sensations, you had the emotions, you had the thoughts of all of that. All of those things are tied together. Thoughts reflect your feelings. Feelings reflect your thoughts. Your body responds to all of it. That’s all embedded together. Think about what that is, then how did it impact you after it was over? What did you think about it? Then a week later, a year later, five years later, what impact did that art experience have on your life?
I want you to really think about that. If you’re here with me, I’ll have you close your eyes. We would all close our eyes and think about it together. If you want to stop and pause, maybe journal this, maybe you can reach out to me and schedule an interview with me, and tell me about it because I would love to hear about your powerful art experience because that’s my jam. Please do that if you have a story to tell. Think about that art story. I have had many of these art experiences. Honestly, you never know what it’s going to be. I have gone to museums. I’m open to having a really amazing experience today. I don’t know what it’s going to be. You might think, “Oh, I’m really going to see this one work of art, that’s really why I’m here.” Then the one next to it grabs me and knocks me over. You never know what it’s going to be.
I’m going to share you some personal art experiences that I’ve had. Often, my art experience is not the real interpretation of the artwork. An example here, we have Henry Koerner, My Parents II. I saw this in Minneapolis, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I saw it. It was beautiful. The colors immediately grabbed me, the golden of it. It made me think of my own grandparents. All my grandparents had passed by this point. I saw the two paths, it made me think of Robert Frost’s poem of the two roads that diverged in the yellow wood and I took the one less traveled by. When I was a child, I was obsessed with poetry. I love all things, art, music, dance, theater, all of it but I love that poem. I had that poem memorized. I don’t know why. No one asked me to. I just did it. But I don’t have it memorized anymore. “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” That’s probably all I know from this point. But anyway, I saw that poem in there because that’s a poem for my past. Then when you look at an artwork, depending on where you are in your life, you’re going to experience a different thing, depending on what’s going on in your life. I have an example of that in a minute.
All that said, that was my connection with this artwork. The label had no information. It said Henry Koerner, My Parents II, 1946. That’s all it is. I go home and I like to just share art experiences on the Art Class Curator website and on social media or in email. I remember at the time, I would do Artwork of the Week features and I would just share an artwork, and write about it. I wrote about this one. I looked it up, did some research. I learned the real interpretation, what it’s actually about, then I shared my own interpretation, the feelings I had when I looked at it. Sure enough, people on the internet, they love to do this, someone emailed me back and was just like, “How dare you talk about that other stuff, about this artwork when it really was about this?” What it is about is Henry Koerner lost his parents in the Holocaust. They were separated and they both died in concentration camps. But that whole interpretation, that whole meaning that artist had is not mine. I didn’t have my parents die in the Holocaust. When I saw this painting, I experienced a love for my grandparents. It just connected me with them. It made me think of them. It made me think of that poem. I’m not saying that’s the right interpretation, but that was the one I had and that was the connection I had.
My interpretation is just as right as anybody else’s. Just remember that. You don’t know what the connection’s going to be, you don’t know that’s what you’re going to feel when you see the artwork, you don’t know what’s going to make you feel. It could be just that particular color of gold reminds you of something random that you just weren’t expecting. You have to open yourself up to that and then you have to not be judgmental about that. You can’t judge me for having an interpretation of this painting because that’s what art is, it’s interpretation. That’s what life is, is interpretation. That’s a whole nother thing.
Same thing with van Gogh I have on this slide, a lot of people have a lot of fond emotions towards this painting. They have a lot of connection to it or it’s like the painting they really love, it brings them a lot of joy. But then we know that van Gogh was feeling really anxious when he made it, he was in a mental hospital when he created this. This was his view through the window. We really have to keep that in check that there’s no pretentious right here, there’s no “I know more about art than you because I read about this one, I read the label, I listened to whatever it is about that artwork.” The connection is between me or you, or your student, or whoever’s looking at that artwork and the artwork. That is the relationship so there’s no way that relationship can be wrong. Keep that in mind.
If I say something that you’re like, “Well, that’s not what it’s about,” check yourself because that’s not what art’s about and I think that is so important that we translate that to our students that they realize they have the ability, they have everything they need to experience the art in whatever way they want to experience it. You’re going to help them to develop the tools to look at it more deeply, you’re going to teach them how to look for the line and the color and how that impacts the meaning. You’re going to teach them about symbolism and how to look for symbolism and all that, but ultimately in the end, their experience is their experience no matter what. My experience is my experience no matter what. You can’t change that.
I feel like I’m going on a lot of soapboxes here but here we go, I’m going to share with you just a few of the artworks that have had a really strong emotional connection with me. I say the first powerful art experience was Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror but that’s really the first artwork, like I’m at a museum and there’s painting experience. But really, the first aesthetic experience I had was with The Lion King. I was in eighth grade when Lion King came out and I lived in Amarillo, Texas. At that time, there was a dollar theater right around the corner from my house. I don’t think it’s there anymore, actually I haven’t been back to Amarillo in many years but anyway, I would walk to the dollar theater every weekend, all the time, and we would see whatever was there. But Lion King, I saw 12 times at the theater because I was obsessed with Lion King. I knew all the animators, which characters they did, and all the different Disney Movies, Aladdin, and all the ones that came before Lion King. But every time I saw Lion King, I would cry when the giraffes would bow in the Circle of Life. Every time. It still gets me.
Then I look back and at the time, I thought it was just because I loved animation and I loved Disney. I wanted to be an animator and I wanted to write music too. I was just like, “Oh, I’ll animate and I’ll write the score,” that’s the overachiever I was. But anyway, I would have this emotional reaction every time and I realize that now looking back, I was having an art experience, I was connecting emotionally with what someone else made and then I was seeing that giraffe bow and it was so awkward and wonderful and I just felt so awkward in eighth grade. I was just a mess of a person in middle school and seeing I just felt part of something. I could see that in the art and so I learned that I was part of something when I was watching The Lion King.
Then of course, I already told you about this one and how it changed the trajectory of my career, but this one also had a very strong impact on me personally, because like that giraffe that was awkwardly bowing, I’ve always felt other, like different. Not so much anymore but there was this feeling that I was an outsider and really, that’s another Brené Brown thing is that belonging is a really core thing that humans need to feel to feel safe. I just always felt like I didn’t belong.
I also felt that I was trying to control everything in my life and trying to feel put together, trying to be ambitious, trying to show and prove, and all this stuff, but the inside of myself was just this swirling emotional, dramatic thing. I would look at one of the things I thought about. When I looked at this painting, when I looked in the mirror, who I felt like I was on the inside isn’t who I am trying to portray on the outside and that there are two people, there is the facade, there is who I’m portraying myself to be and then there’s who I actually am. I felt when I looked at this, that’s this battle that I was experiencing.
That was in 2004. I went back and got to see this painting again for the second time 10 years later in 2014 and I had a very similar experience. I was very excited to see it again because it was the first time I ever traveled to New York. I was really excited to be there and I saw the painting again and I had more emotions about it. This is actually me tortured to take a picture next to it. I felt like I had to. But I had another similar experience. I had done a lot of self-development. I’d come so far in understanding who I was. I felt more whole inside of myself than I ever had. That year was the year I started Art Class Curator just two months after I started this website, but I’m looking at this painting again and it’s a similar experience of who I am on the inside, it’s not honing in on the outside. I’m going to start crying. Looking in the mirror and seeing something not what you’re expecting to see, not what you feel inside, I felt that way about this artwork again. It’s just that experience of every time you see something, it changes.
That time was a very pivotal moment in my life. You can see I look a little bit different than I did back then, like I said, I started this business, lost a bunch of weight, and I’m slowly getting to the point where who I am on the inside and who I am on the outside, ultimately, it doesn’t matter but I feel more whole I guess, than I ever did. Anyway, that artwork really allowed me to look into who I am, see myself, and learn about myself in different ways.
Then another artwork, this was actually the last artwork, one of the last museum visits I made before the pandemic started and it’s November and I haven’t been in a museum since and this is February, isn’t that devastating? But anyway, this one, I looked at and she was larger than life. I wish I knew the measurements but she was probably a good four feet taller than I am. She’s huge and she’s awesome.She’s such a badass. She’s strong, magical, powerful, and fierce but she’s hunched over and looking down. I’m looking at that, I’m like, “Stand up. Show your power. Show who you are.” Then I was like, “Oh, wait a minute, what is this telling me about me? Am I not showing my power?” I’m looking at this and it helps me see something in me. This was actually at the end of a weekend that I was emotionally vulnerable, I was spending some time with some of my business mastermind group and there was a lot of vulnerability and different things.
I was feeling really raw when I saw this. I could really feel into this experience with this artwork. It taught me a little bit about me. I have a lot of examples. I’m going to click through some of them, like just this last one. I realized this artwork gave me a lot of anxiety. It made me realize that I like things to be orderly and in control. It was really hard for me to look at this. This was when I learned that life can and art can be fun. It doesn’t have to be so serious. You can just go and have a good time. I laughed my head off this entire exhibit, Nina Katchadourian was so funny.
But the last one I’m really going to share with you—I could talk about art experiences all day so that’s why I say email me, tell me about yours because I’d love to talk about art experiences—but one of my great loves is Hamilton. You can see I have a Hamilton Playbill over there signed. I’ve seen Hamilton three times live. Every time I’ve seen it, where I was in my life made me feel differently about Hamilton and I responded to different parts of the story each time I saw it. The first time I saw it, it was at a moment—in 2016, 2017, I don’t remember—it was a moment of my life, I was working full time as a teacher and I was running the website full-time. It was enough work now, the website took full-time work creating the content, the emails, all the things and I was teaching and I was feeling like I had been putting my heart and soul into my website but I wasn’t really seeing any success from it, I’m still working two jobs, I’m still really stressed out and so I really emotionally responded to Aaron Burr’s character. Every time he sang, I would just weep and weep every time he sang. You could see his emotions grow through it and wait for it. All this stuff, he was just patient, waiting and waiting for his time.
I’m looking back, I don’t think I realized at the time, that’s probably what I was responding to because that’s how I was feeling in my life at the time, because I was feeling like when is it going to be my turn? When is this going to work? Because it wasn’t really working just yet. But then, the first time I saw it in Chicago, then I saw it in Houston and it was one within a week of a school shooting that had happened outside of Houston. It was in a small town outside of Galveston, which is right there, where it just happened. I am watching the scene of Hamilton—spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched it, it’s history so hopefully it’s not going to impact you too much, you can pause it if you don’t want to hear this, anyway—it was the time when Hamilton’s son was shot in the duel and there’s this scene and it’s spinning around and Philip is dying on the table, Eliza is over him and they’re crying and they’re singing and I realized at that same time that less than an hour from where I was physically, mothers were crying over their children who had died by gunfire.
This is the second time I’m tearing up in this presentation, but I don’t allow myself to follow the news too carefully, I don’t watch a lot of news or listen to a lot of news. I just read the headlines, I get the basic information that’s going on in the world. I have to emotionally protect myself from that. I hadn’t really allowed myself to really feel the pain of all the school shootings. At that moment, art gave me that vehicle as a way to feel what I was feeling about it. I kept trying full on, until like 30 minutes after it was over, I couldn’t stop, but it gave me that place and it gave me that outlet. It felt safe to feel that. It felt more in control to feel it but I still got to feel it.
Then the third time I saw it was a really more happy time in my life and it was really joyful and all the Schuyler sister songs I loved. That was what brought me the most joy was the Lucky to be Alive song, all of those songs. Really, art changes and we change. It is always evolving. You could see something one day, it doesn’t strike you at all. You can see something a week later or a year later, and then it could be completely different for you. That’s what’s so powerful about art.
Now I can go on, I’ve got more, but I’m not going to do it. Oh, but this one, this is another one. I saw it and then at the same time, in Syria, there were a bunch of refugees. There was a bombing in Aleppo. On social media, there were all these videos of people fleeing and people holding their children and crying and wailing and they were covered in ash. That had just been going on in the news and then I saw Guernica, it’s all I could see. I was like, “This is real life. This is the pain of real life in art.” That’s really what Picasso was coming at. He was taking his pain from real life. It’s the only political work of art he ever did. Everything was mothers and children, and Still Life, and stuff like that. Then he creates this as just a way to process and also take a stand politically. But man, this one wrecked me.
Anyway, I’m not going to show you all of the examples but I hope you can see and I hope you’re thinking through hearing these experiences, that it is such a personal thing. What I’m trying to accomplish here is that you think about how you are personally connecting to art, where are you using art, and how are you connecting to art and what are you learning about through art. I want you to really sit and think about that. If you aren’t, think about how you can add that into your life because one, I think everybody needs that and two, if we are not ready to experience art like that for ourselves, how are we going to get our students to do that? I really want you to think, I challenge you to find those connections through art and make it happen for yourself.
All that said is then how do we then take this, how do we prime our students to have these life-giving personal connections to works of art? What do we do to make that happen? Like I said, I am doing a bunch of research on this and I’ve come up with a few different avenues that we can try and that can help or that could potentially lead to this and that is in four different environments: in the student themselves, in the classroom environment, in your pedagogy—how you’re doing your teaching—and in the actual curriculum itself. We’re going to go through each of those really quickly and talk about how we can prime our students to have these powerful personal connections to works of art.
In my research that I’ve been doing, I’ve been reading some articles, interviewing people, still in progress like I said, what the student needs to have—and I got this based on, like I said, the interviews and things I’ve been doing—but the student should have more self-awareness, be able to see themselves and see who they are, how they feel, what they want, really be connected with who they are. I think that is the ultimate goal, like I said, of a person. Self-awareness is huge. Emotional literacy, we already talked about that too, being able to recognize and acknowledge the different feelings that they are experiencing and how to name them, being able to recognize them to other people, how to name them. Visual literacy, being able to look at and name things and observe things. This stuff we can work on in art, we can look at more artwork. The more they look at it, the more they’re going to develop those visual literacy skills.
Curiosity is a really important thing. The more you know, the more you want to know. Being curious about the world will allow you to make those connections. If you see something and you just want to know more, you want to think about it more, that’s a really important skill even, I would say, that the students would need. They need courage. You need to have that bravery to step forward and be like, “Yes, I can talk about these things. I can think about these things. I can allow myself to feel these things.”
That’s in the student. There’s not a whole lot we can do about a lot of the stuff but there are things we can do. Then in the classroom, we need a passionate, enthusiastic, and connected teacher. I’m not telling you to go, pretend to be enthusiastic when you’re not actually. You need to be authentically you. But you can be authentically you and passionate about what you’re teaching, connected to the art, connected to the topic, enthusiastic about what you’re teaching. That will rub off on your students. If you pick a super boring work of art to teach about, they’ll know that you’re not interested, they’ll know that you don’t see this really as valuable, if you’re just doing it because you have to. Find that passion, find that connection to your why, find that connection to your art and why you’re doing this in the first place.
Also in the classroom, we need a safe and connected space. We need students to know that all people are accepted, all ideas are accepted, that we can be wrong, we can take risks, we can make mistakes, all of that stuff. You want to model passion, joy, delight, and curiosity when someone in your classroom says something about an artwork that is interesting. You are amazed by, delighted by, you want to show them that what they have to say is valuable, what they have to say is important and interesting to you. Then we want a classroom where it is okay, I think I already said this one, is embracing uncertainty with the permission to be wrong, that there is, like I said, when interpreting art, no wrong if you feel that. Who’s to say it’s wrong? We can’t do that.
Then in our pedagogy, in the way we teach, we need to do connection and conversation over lecture and information, memorizing dates, boring biographies of artists, where they went to school. Yes, knowledge is good and interesting, but we have to strike that balance of why are we teaching what we’re teaching? Is time better spent connecting and having conversations than just the giving of information? We need our pedagogy to be open-minded, open-ended, and then have engaging connected activities. You’re writing creative writing about artworks. You’re moving your bodies. You’re listening to music and connecting it to art. You’re doing all of the things that are interesting and engaging with an artwork.
Then last in your curriculum. I come to terms with this over the last few years, as a person who sells curriculum to teachers, curriculum isn’t everything. A good lesson plan is not everything, you need to have the other stuff. You need to have the passion, the enthusiasm, the connection, the relationships, the emotional availability, the vulnerability, all of those things. But also you need to have a curriculum that reflects all of that too. There’s a balance.
Exposure to diverse art. We don’t want to just show. It’s funny I put on this slide, there’s a really traditional renaissance painting, that’s funny, I was just putting pictures of people looking at art, diversity of art from across time and across cultures. We need to expose our students to wide-ranging facets of human creation, of what humans are and what they’ve created and who they are. Then above and beyond that, not just showing diverse artwork and artists, but also representing the students that you are teaching. Students need to see themselves in the art. They’re going to be more likely to make a connection to an artwork if they see themselves in it. Imagine that it was Picasso’s Boy Before Mirror, would I have had the same emotional power or connection to it if it was a boy? Because I’m not a boy. Think about that, you need to think about representing the students in your classroom. If you have a classroom that is 95% black students, most of the art you show should be black artists, and should have black people in it. It should be connected to who they are. You do want diversity, you want to show it all, but they need to see themselves in the artwork. That is very important.
One of the interesting things that came out of my interviews that I’ve done is that a lot of people had more strong emotional connections to artworks that they knew about, that they knew about the artist, they knew about the painting, something that they knew about. I didn’t like this, I didn’t want this on here to be completely honest, but it was there, it’s showing up, again this is not super scientific research I’m doing right now, but I think that just like I said with curiosity, the more you know, the more you want to know, that is really the key here. It’s not necessarily giving them knowledge for the sake of having knowledge but that it is exposing them to the wider array of knowledge, of what knowledge is, and how all these histories that then opens you up to be curious to know more and to be more ready to accept that emotional connection to it. That’s in there.
In the curriculum, we want social emotional learning. Like I said, it’s not, “Oh, I have to be a rigor, academic, learning things to put to the test. We can find those social emotional connections. Some districts and states actually have social emotional standards now, which I think is really cool and I’m looking forward to that becoming more widespread. Then visual literacy, which I had on another slide as well. It was there twice, it was on the student one too, but I guess the curriculum should have that and then that’s taught to the student. It’s in both.
I hope it really sinks in that art is power and art is magic. Art is emotion, art is feeling. It’s something somebody made. Someone touched and created it so that someone else could look at it and enjoy it. A lot of art was made purely personal from the artist but even then, once it leaves them, it becomes a piece of this world and a piece of the people who look at it. That connects us with other people and that is so powerful. I want you to think about this, as you’re planning your curriculum, as you’re thinking about what you’re going to do in your classroom, let’s imagine one child, they have three art teachers, elementary, middle, and high, that are dedicated to looking at art, talking about it and showing art to their students. Imagine that every month, as an elementary student, once a month, it’s doable, they look at one artwork per month, kinder through fifth grade. Then that student goes on to middle school, say they only take two semesters of art in middle school, some take less, some take more, but let’s say they do two semesters. They do one hour per week since they’re seeing them every day. It’s doable, one artwork per week. We love artwork of the week over at Art Class Curator, and then they go to high school, do one artwork for one year.
Say they do all of that, one artwork per month, kinder through five, one artwork per week for a year for middle, one artwork for one year for high school. That student has looked at 120 artworks. They have done creative writing around it, they have done movement activities, they have discussions, they’ve had the hard conversations, they’ve done personal reflections, they’ve done all of that with these 120 works of art. Then imagine that student going through their lives having all of that in them. They’re not going to remember every single one of those artworks but they’re going to go into their world, they’re going to be like old friends in their head, and they’re going to see something at a museum that will connect them something they learned and that is going to prime them for a lifetime of connection to art.
Really, I hope that you embrace this mission of showing more art to your students, showing more diverse art to your students, having more connected experiences with works of art where the student is doing the connecting, the thinking, not the teacher doing the telling, what a powerful experience that could be in this world. Because that famous quote from John Butler, “Art changes people, people change the world.” I 100%, wholeheartedly agree with that, that art can make a difference in this world. You as an art teacher know that and we can continue this life-changing mission to expose our students to more works of art so they can have these moments that I’ve articulated here today.
Thank you so much for making it through this presentation and for joining me on this mission. Please, again, reach out to me if you want to share your art story with me because I would absolutely love to hear it. Wonderful. Thank you so much. Have a great day. Bye
All right. That is my episode for you today. Again, that was my presentation for Call to Art 2 which was rediscovering the emotional power of art. If you’re interested in checking out the recordings for Call to Art, again, you can head on over to artclasscurator.com/cta, and that will give you the ability to watch all of those amazing presentations. We have things on making sketchbooks, on diversity, on classroom management, on all sorts of topics. Not just related to distance learning but to the wide array of things that our teachers care about. Again, artclasscreator.com/cta.
What’s keeping you from showing more artwork to your students? Do you get stuck trying to choose a work of art or do you fear your students will ask a question that you don’t know the answer to? Have you tried to start a classroom art discussion but didn’t know what to say or how to get your students talking? Are you worried you’re going to spend a ton of time researching and planning a lesson that none of your students are interested in? That’s why we created Beyond the Surface, a free professional development email series all about how to teach works of art through memorable activities and thoughtful classroom discussions. With Beyond the Surface, you’ll discover how to choose artworks your students will connect with, and learn exactly what to say and do to spark engagement and create a lasting impact. Plus, you’ll get everything you need to curate these powerful learning experiences without spending all of your time planning. Sign up to receive this free professional development email course at artclasscurator.com/surface.
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