Art History 101 Reflection

What can I say about the way the 2020 school year ended that isn’t already being said by hundreds of other educators. I am not even going to make an attempt to deconstruct all of that.

This past teaching year (2019/2020) I worked on contract at North Island College in the Comox Valley. In the Fall, I facilitated Creative Processes (one of my favourite courses), Modern Art History, and two sections of a first year painting course. The following Winter semester I was contracted to teach a first year Art History survey course and Screen Printing.

I also don’t intend to disseminate everything I think is wrong with the way we educate (see Jesse Stommel’s work for more on that), but I think it is that dissatisfaction with the status quo that drives innovative ideas.

As I looked at the pile of midterm exams for the Fall Modern Art History class (a course for which I had no say in the textbook selection, nor the topics covered, plus just one week to prepare) I felt a little bit of my soul dying. If I dreaded marking these exams, what are my students thinking as they write them. Ugh. What an awful scenario.

I thought about some of the ways we have students engage with ideas and material in Creative Processes and decided to change the midterm exam from a written exam into a physical or material practice exam for the following term’s first year survey class. I don’t claim to be the originator of this idea. I must have read about it somewhere and it’s an idea that I also implemented in another academic class I co-taught for Emily Carr in 2014. It was time to try it again.

Anthropologist Trevor Marchand states in The Future is Handmade (2019), “[we] really must expand our understanding of what knowledge is. Knowledge is not merely book learning, knowledge is being able to perform tasks beautifully with the body. This embodied knowledge needs to be re-evaluated by our society and given the status that it deserves. Making something beautiful is an expression of that knowledge.”

I asked the students to select an art work from the assigned text book and create a material response to the work. They were able to choose whatever form they wanted for the work. I did ask them to meet a minimum size, but other than that the field was open to them. I wanted them to think about what they would respond to in particular. Would it be a response to the content of the work? Or to a formal aspect of the work? Or to the materials used? The exam also had a one page written analysis with guiding questions for them to articulate to me what they were thinking.

I was blown away by what they made. I think I cried.

I had 26 students in this class and on the day of reckoning I asked that anyone who felt comfortable sharing what they made with the class was invited to share. So we spent the first part of the class looking at artworks and talking about what motivated them to choose a particular artwork to respond to and some of what they learned through the process of making.

Every student met my minimum expectation for the project with at least a third of them going far beyond my expectations. I made sure they understood from the outset that, especially since some of them were not art students, that they were not to stress over the execution of the project (although I did expect care) as much as they could articulate the whats and the whys. Most of the artworks were small drawings and paintings, but there were also collages, stitched wall hangings, and 3 dimensional works. One student taught himself to make egg tempera paint and then created a painting with it. Another student painted the crucifixion and tried to make Jesus different than what she sees in European crucifixion artworks: sexy Jesus. I loved that. The students taught themselves how to make sourdough starter (the bread smelled fantastic!), constructed elaborate boxes, made books, used humour, embroidered, and sewed.

Many of the students reported to me that it was the best academic exam they had ever done. Now some might think, “Oh yeah, making art, how easy is that? Of course they liked it.” However, the written portions along with their excited talk about how they worked through the project tells a different story. I would argue that making art is very hard work.

This kind of academic exam is a definite keeper.

I have asked permission from some of the students to post images of what they made and they also had the option of using their name. So what follows is a selection of some of the work that was produced for the midterm exam.

Bran Mackie, various textiles, embroidery and beading, 2020
Responding to Hildegard von Bingen from the lost folio from the Rupertsberg Scivias-Codex.
Kat Cearns, Hildegard von Bingen, gouache and gold-leaf on paper, 2020
Responding to Hildegard von Bingen from the lost folio from the Rupertsberg Scivias-Codex.
Demara Wilding, colour vinyl on tee, 2020
Responding to St. Matthew from the Ebbo Gospels.
Instagram: goodboy_vinyl
Student Work, arán braidithe do rí (which translates to “braided bread for a king” in Munster Gaelic dialect), sourdough bread on decorative platter, 2020
Responding to Sutton Hoo grave goods.
Mibu Matsuda, brooch with watercolour diagram, 2020
Responding to a pair of Merovingian looped fibulae.
Lora Stockand, acrylic on paper, 24x36in, 2020
Responding to Head of St Alexander reliquary.
Instagram: loraliszon_art