Drawing Exhibition: From Local to Global

Author

Jan Arabas

Professor of Art

Middlesex Community College

Citation

Arabas, J. (2016). Drawing exhibition: From local to global. Middlesex Community College.

Description

Students plan and prepare a public juried art exhibition of their drawings of a local historical site.  Their drawings must depict both the contemporary and historical meaning of the site. They also write informational and explanatory text panels to accompany the exhibition. The text must explain what the historical site means to the individual student and what questions the student hopes to raise in the minds of viewers of the exhibit. The exhibit is scheduled in a common space on campus (the college library) for the last several weeks of the semester.

Background and Context

This assignment is designed for Drawing Two students, 18 freshmen and sophomores who have had one semester of drawing instruction before enrolling in the Drawing Two course.  The majority of students who enroll in this course are graphic design or fine art majors who plan to transfer to four-year art and design programs. Some students also take the course as a general education elective.  While students may take this course at any time after a semester of Drawing One, the majority are in the middle of preparing a transfer portfolio. This transfer portfolio is crucial to their career preparation.

This assignment directly introduces and teaches the specialized knowledge that art majors need to prepare public exhibitions.  It introduces the thematic basis used by professional contemporary artists to plan a public exhibition. In this case the theme is a local historical event and site. Individual students learn to create an exhibition- ready artwork that conveys both personal and broader meaning to viewers through the use of realistic and symbolic drawing strategies. Each student actually creates multiple artworks and a jury comprised of peers and teachers from the art and design department makes selections of works that will be included in the exhibition.

Students also identify, categorize, evaluate and cite multiple information resources as they create artworks. More specifically they use the college library and the local historical society to learn about the selected historical site and the events it commemorates. They also study several internationally known, professional artists whose work commemorates historical events. Specifically students examine the ways that these artists encode personal questions and messages about historical events into their artworks. These methods become examples of the disciplinary work professional artists expect of themselves and of their peers.

This leads to the preparation of artist’s statements by each student. The statement must describe, explain and evaluate the sources of his/her own perspective on the historical site and the events that it commemorates. The statement must also pose questions to viewers that are designed to highlight how knowledge from different cultural perspectives might affect interpretations of the art.

During peer editing, students must develop and present cogent, coherent and substantially error-free writing for communication to general and specialized audiences. They must respond to peer suggestions for revisions and make suggestions to their peers as well. Their statements become part of the explanatory text panels that accompany the exhibition.

Finally the entire class collaborates on a main text panel that describes the range of our class members’ civic and cultural backgrounds, including their origins and development, assumptions and predispositions.  The text panel also describes diverse positions, historical and contemporary, on the historical event commemorated by the exhibition.  The text identifies the civic issues encountered and personal insights gained from this experience of creating the exhibition. Lastly, the text connects the exhibit to the larger challenge faced by contemporary artists who seek to address economic, environmental or public health challenges spanning countries, continents or cultures, present evidence for the challenge, and take a position on it.

Alignment and Scaffolding

The preparation of this exhibition occurs throughout the semester. The class receives an overview of the project and its objectives at the first class meeting.  They take an active part in learning the drawing skills, researching the historical site and preparing the exhibit from the first weeks of the course until the exhibition is ready for hanging.

All students who enroll in Drawing Two have had one semester of prior drawing instruction in the techniques of perceptual and imaginative drawing. Students continue to build on these skills by creating a thematic series based on observation of the historical site and their research on the history and interpretation of the site and the events that it commemorates. They are supported in this endeavor by both one-on-one instruction and group critiques.

In addition, students have prepared and submitted a drawing for a juried student show sponsored by the art and design department. This process introduces each student to the requirements for a professional, public art exhibition.

After participating in this Drawing Two exhibition, students are prepared to create a thematically related series of artworks that produces an exhibition-ready drawing. They are able to document the research and thought process that resulted in the artwork. They can relate the artwork to larger disciplinary, cultural, and global concerns that professional artists expect to address.

Reflections

As of the Spring 2016 semester I have worked with three different classes on this assignment. Each class has successfully mounted a group exhibition in the college library that hung for the final two to three weeks of the semester. Individual artist’s statements and group text panels accompanied each exhibition. Public reaction was positive and students have reported using their drawings in their transfer portfolios.

Community college students find it challenging to consider themselves professionals in the art and design field, with professional responsibilities. Devoting sufficient time, resources and commitment to create a professional artwork and exhibition is a challenge that is new to many. They need individual and group support to believe in themselves and to adopt the conscientiousness that career artists are expected to have.

I am especially pleased with the transformation and empowerment that many students have demonstrated during this assignment. It is the first time that some of them have “taken myself seriously, as an artist,” as one student told me.  There are students who are not able to make the leap and it has been difficult for those students who feel that they have let down the class and let down themselves.

Over several semesters the assignment has changed by focusing on different historical sites located on the MCC campus. One site was a ruined chapel from the early twentieth century, a relic from when the campus was a seminary school.

A second site was a pasture preserved from the seventeenth century farm of John Winthrop. A third site was a conservation area that includes wetlands. Because each site has a unique history, each naturally led to a different focus for the exhibition.

Teaching the Drawing Two course this way, with a thematic focus and an exhibition as the main goals has changed my relationships with my students. We have a much more personal, apprentice artist/professional artist relationship. I talk with each student much more about their commitment to their work, their insights, and their discoveries about becoming an artist. Knowing each student as an individual and as a potential professional leads to a more satisfying teaching experience for me. My students mature and demonstrate deeper commitment. The results are very good for all of us.


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