Ideas are not real estate. In collaboration one can accept the fact that someone else can be so sympathetic and in tune with what you’re doing, that through this they move into depths that might not be obvious if that person had been working alone in a studio with the door shut.
We are influenced by everything and everyone around us, nothing happens in a vacuum. In my creative practice as an artist and work as a curator, I truly embrace those influences and welcome the dialogues that result from them. I have been working collaboratively for almost ten years while maintaining my individual practice as an artist. I first worked with a group of artists during a collaborative practices class while completing my MFA in Intermedia at the University of Maine, which then led me to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD in Intermedial Collaborative Practices with two of my collaborators. We refer to ourselves as the Core 5 Incident. We collaborated on all of the course work, the dissertation, and the creative work that resulted from our research. The constant conversation influenced my individual work, primarily installation, which I see as collaborative in nature, interactive with the audience. I seek out other artists and makers to collaborate with as well, to make work with different perspectives.
As a true introvert, I never believed I would embrace collaboration, but l saw what could be accomplished and actualized when everyone had a voice.
I see curatorial work as a creative collaborative practice as well. As associate curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), I am fortunate to interact directly with artists every day. CMCA was formed as a collective of artists coming together to show their work and in keeping with that, we emphasize the role the artist plays in what we do. There is constant dialogue with the artists in the development of our exhibitions and programming. For me, the exciting part of working on a show is when the artist takes an active role and the work and exhibition evolve out of our conversations. As an example, this is how last fall’s exhibition, Materiality: The Matter of Matter, developed and formed.
Through studio visits and conversations, I saw artists who were exploring their materials in ways that gave them agency, finding a balance between the idea and what it is made of and communicating through the materials themselves. This led to the making of new work for the exhibition, and exploring existing works that related to these ideas. Such discussions are always inspiring and I love doing studio visits because of that. At CMCA, it is fundamental for us to have these ongoing dialogues with artists, whether they are with artists we know or are meeting for the first time, to be able to have these conversations and see what work is being done now.
Another exciting aspect of Materiality were the dialogues that formed between the artists themselves. A number of the artists had not previously met and were able to connect through being a part of the exhibition. These connections are core to what we do at CMCA, engaging and facilitating the dialogue of contemporary artists in Maine.
This fall, the Farnsworth Art Museum will begin its eighth year of the Stories of the Land and Its People program, a yearlong in-depth project-based learning experience that connects art and student curiosity to curricular learning in the classroom.
Since the program’s inception, we have had a variety of partners with whom we are in constant dialogue: funders, teachers, students, teaching artists, administrators, other non-profits, community members, museum staff, docents, and parents/families. As the program continues to grow, I am often asked by other non-profits and teaching artists, many of whom juggle a variety of residencies throughout the year, “How have you been able to build and sustain long-term relationships with public schools?” Funding issues and time constraints are usually cited first as obstacles, but even once those challenges are met, hopeful collaborators struggle to engage and sustain partnerships.
Based on my work and research over the years, I can share the following tips and best practices for creating, sustaining, and growing these relationships.
Tip 1: Listen
As we know, public school educators face many challenges, including time constraints, testing schedules, increased demands and expectations, and low resources. My first tip is to simply listen. One of the best things I did in formulating this program was to interview local educators to learn more about their challenges and aspirations. After speaking to over 100 teachers and administrators, I learned that there was not a lack of well-wishing programs offering to engage schools, rather a lack of understanding for the support teachers needed to implement the learning they wished to do in the classroom. These conversations helped me tailor our program to the specific needs and interests of our partners.
Tip 2: Be an Ambassador
As a museum employee, it is often odd for people to hear that I view myself as an advocate for teachers. As someone who cares deeply about the benefits of arts-integration not only for the betterment of public school education, but also for humanity across the board, I have discovered that educators are my primary audience for growth in this philosophy. If educators feel supported and inspired, then their students will be, and shortly after, I see more engagement with parents and the community. If in the listening phase, a teacher identifies a struggle with school structure, I will speak to the administration to potentially re-structure. Flexibility and accommodations are often made when someone else is the advocate. Or when the museum has strict requirements and policies, I find ways to ease schools into the experience or provide additional support. Let teachers know you are aware of what they are facing and that you will do your best across the board to support and advocate for them.
Tip 3: Listen, again
Inevitably as your program begins to steam along, you will encounter new (and old) challenges. To not spiral too far down the wrong track, it is important to build in points of dialogue and accountability (for all partners). In addition to program evaluations, each year we conduct a focus group with our educators to talk “freely” about what worked and what didn’t. This dialogue provides rich feedback for how best to move forward and grow. It keeps our program relevant in the real-world issues of public school education.
Tip 4: Quality
At the end of the day, everyone wants a quality experience. Our data-driven society expects this accountability in the form of facts and figures. If you lack the data team needed to code student outcomes, I recommend other forms of documentation. A portfolio of student work remains the greatest asset to sharing and promoting student growth in our programs. Our exhibitions document and honor process work alongside final works of art to help demonstrate to the visitor the levels of growth our students have achieved throughout the process. For guidance, I reference the 2009, Harvard’s Project Zero publication The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, a report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. This resource is a helpful tool in guiding a quality arts-learning experience.
Tip 5: Make it visible
Communicate your successes! In addition to making student learning visible through public exhibitions and presentations, it is equally important to honor your partners, funders, and collaborators. It takes a village to guide a rich and in-depth learning experience. Acknowledge everyone (educators, administrators, community partners, staff assistants, etc.) visibly and publicly. For an additional touch, include personalized and private notes of gratitude, as well. Everyone works hard. Acknowledgement goes a long way to sustaining relationships with your team.
My concluding piece of advice is perhaps obvious, but it’s worth stating. Have respect for public school educators and the members of your team.
Each person contributes to the process and provides valuable expertise that will enrich the overall collaboration. Tapping into each other’s skills will enhance student outcomes and it is essential to developing long-term and in-depth partnerships.
Andrea L. Curtis
Andrea L. Curtis is the Education Program Manager and founder of the Arts in Education program at the Farnsworth Art Museum, a program dedicated to in-depth multi-visit learning experiences that connect inquiry-based visual learning to classroom education. Curtis holds graduate degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Arts in Education and the University of Maine in Communication with a focus on visual representation, critique, museum studies, informal learning, and children’s literature. She has lectured and instructed at Bates College and the University of Maine in rhetoric and communication and has received specialty training from Lincoln Center and Project Zero educators and artists. Curtis, a writer and dancer, is also a published reviewer of children’s books and young adult novels.
Two months ago I found myself waking up, in what I thought was a National Geographic magazine spread, at the top of a rainforest mountain in Malawi, Africa. Passion can take you on some funny paths. Ten years ago I could easily have imagined a safari in Africa, but not for the reason that got me there in April 2018 with my teaching colleague, Melissa Barbour, who had invited me to collaborate with her. My reason for embarking was water, the rains of Africa, and the passion to make and empower change.
My day job for the past twenty-five years has been as a crazy high school art teacher. I get a kick out of working with hormonal teenagers getting ready to jump into life. When people find out that I teach at the local high school, they say, “Oh, thank you!” They can’t imagine why I’d be crazy enough to want to spend all day with their kids, but they are grateful.
Teaching also funds my main job – I mean the one in my head and my heart – being a painter; and all the expensive art supplies that go along with it. Once my son was old enough, I finally had the opportunity to work on a MFA. I didn’t do it to become a better teacher, although it did make me that, but to get deeper into my own work. You see, I’d always felt like there was something missing.
One of the hardest and yet simplest things to put together as a research thesis in grad school was what I was passionate about. I knew it was water. But where to go from there? Twelve years ago, there were no front page headlines about climate change, Flint, Michigan, Nestlé Corporation, or drought. Why water? I’d spent years making paintings of its many moods and atmospheres. But the reveries just weren’t enough. What it came down to is that I CARE about water. And when you look at the myriad ways in which it touches our lives and makes our lives possible, I thought, well, EVERYBODY should care about water!!
My research led me down a road I never thought possible – one that scared the pants off of me – ACTIVISM. “Oh, no, I can’t do that! I don’t know the first thing about it. . . what would I say? What could I possibly do? Does that mean I have to give a performance or something? Wait, no, I can’t do that, I’M AN INTROVERT!”
All I can say, is introvert or extrovert, if you are passionate about something, you find a way to share it with people. The hardest thing I found was to stay positive and not blame or make people feel bad about all the difficult water situations. I found the most meaningful way to bring about a change is to educate people. With knowledge comes the care and the desire to do positive helpful things. Actions start small and grow bigger, bolder, and louder.
First I did my work in true introvert style. I made short videos, using myself as a model, superimposed upon various water situations that need our attention. That way I could perform, but didn’t have to come eye to eye with an audience. But after my short films, I began having to do Question and Answer talks, or tell stories . . . or give a gallery talk about series of paintings I made to raise awareness of water quality, chemical infiltration, and women’s body burdens.
Five years ago, I began incorporating my water awareness work into my classroom teaching. I developed the Gulf of Maine: Endangered Ocean Creatures curriculum, and Gulf of Maine: Dare to Care. Students wholeheartedly engaged. When I was presented with the idea of interdisciplinary teaching in Africa to teachers in a remote area, the first thing I looked up was their connection to water. My first thoughts were the Darfur droughts and water wars between Israel and Palestine. The area where I was to go was water rich in comparison. Malawi, if you don’t know where it is – I didn’t – is just inland from the Eastern shores of Africa, and is home to one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the continent, Lake Malawi. It’s just above Mozambique.
My mission was to incorporate art and the local rainforest ecology in a teachable curriculum for the Ntchisi district teachers, in the hopes that they would implement local ecological stewardship through art and action. When we think of rainforests, we usually think ‘rich in resources,’ which they are. Rainforests currently face major deforestation problems, not only due to removal of rare and beautiful woods, but also through exponentially increasing populations – a global problem. I hired a forest ranger to guide twelve teachers and me through the Ntchisi rainforest. We learned about the water system, in concert with the plants and animals, and how everything is connected through water. Back in a classroom, I drew global water systems on a chalkboard. I talked about how much the ocean covers the planet, and how we need to care for all waters, as they continually circulate from oceans to clouds to mountains to rainforests, etc. There were looks of amazement, and lightbulbs glowing in the minds of these remote educators. I was amazed that this was new knowledge to them, but in a landlocked very remote area, what else should I expect? I was grateful that they were receptive and completely engaged and passionate.
We discussed the water sources that humans use, the mountain rainforest, and how people cutting down trees for cooking fuel would eventually collapse the water system. Malawi is the world’s second poorest country. This mountaintop population of about 40 small villages has no running water and no electricity, no fuel other than wood. When I say poor, I mean to write on a piece of paper, a teacher would first divide it into four quarters before handing it out, if they had any. Children walking with me on the road between the school and the Go! Malawi compound would ask for a sweet. If I didn’t have any, they would ask me for a pencil. They are hungry to learn. Books are a rarity. A current fundraising project begun by an 8th grade student in Maine through the Go! Malawi non-profit will build the first mountain library in the Ntchisi region, hopefully in 2020. (See the link below if you are interested in making a donation.)
I led the teachers to incorporate their drawing (images from our rainforest walks, talks, and microscope viewings) into plans for three large painted murals. Each mural showed the place, the cycles of water, plants, trees, animals, people, fish, phytoplankton and zooplankton. (I brought a digital microscope, which we plugged into a solar inverter at the Go! Malawi compound.) Each told a visual story of how we are all connected through water and how we must care for this place to protect the water. Each mural had the simple words: Water is Life / Madzi ndi Moyo.
At the end of two weeks, my teachers had become new water art activists. They had a plan to circulate the murals amongst several schools, with thought-provoking questions to spark discussions with their students. We have future plans through Go! Malawi to underwrite tree planting workshops, and DIY solar cookers. Until my workshop, many of the teachers had not ever been in the rainforest at the top of the mountain. They thanked me for opening up that part of their world to them, along with the concept and practices of stewardship. I thanked them by asking them to engage their students, and left a suitcase of art supplies for them to make more murals in their classrooms as constant reminders of the importance of water to our lives. Someday I hope to meet up with one of those rainforest village children who has become a water activist.
The community of Bowdoinham recently built a beautiful, small skateboard park dedicated in memory of Matthew Townsend Parker, who died of viral encephalitis and viral meningitis at the age of 15 in 2004. Since Matthew’s death, efforts to build the park finally came to fruition in 2017. The park is on the Cathance River waterfront in the center of town. Bricks inscribed with donor names comprise the walkway leading into the park, which is surrounded by a wooden fence.
The Merrymeeting Art Center (MAC) in Bowdoinham prioritized the participation of students in creating a mural. They obtained funding for a mural on the inside wall of the park via a grant from the Maine Arts Commission. Three artists were chosen for the project: Jane Page-Conway, mixed media artist, Manon Whittlesay, printmaker, and Karen Goetting, art teacher at the Bowdoinham Community School (BCS).
The fence wall is large, rough and obstructed by support structures on its inner side. This complicated the project’s design. The artists decided that the mural would be made by painting skateboard decks (without the wheels) and then placing them on the fence. They had a local wood worker; Paul Baines, cut the skateboard decks from primed wood.
They had many sessions with the students from Kindergarten thru fifth grade during Karen’s art classes, over a period of 4 weeks. Discussions occurred regarding the physicality and energy of a skateboarder and how one might visually portray this with lines, shapes, color and texture on the boards. Students were limited to two primary colors and no use of symbols or words.
Demonstrations were given on how to use thick paste paints to create pattern and texture with sponge brushes and tools to drag through the paints with cut up plastic lids, pencil erasers, combs and fingers. There were several sessions of cutting stamps for printmaking. The stamps were used following the painting sessions.
The boards are spectacular and will be installed on the fence in the springtime. One boy exclaimed “I can’t wait to see all of the cool skateboards on the fence for the public people to see. I will be able to see all of the boards that were made in my class. I think that the skateboarders will really like looking at this art while they are skating.”
The children of BCS are proud of their artwork and are eager to see what the installation will soon look like.
Consider a community in which everyone is proud of their identity and humbled by the vastness of cultural identities. Consider an event that transverses ownership from language to language, cultures, creeds, and personalities; interwoven and respected. The Portland Culture Exchange is a movement building connections across communities in the Greater Portland area. We offer platforms for different groups of Portland residents to create friendships and learn about each other through shared interests. We deeply believe that every individual has something to teach or share, and something to learn. Over the two years that the Portland Culture Exchange (or PCE) has existed, we have hosted events, meetings, and parties, working to build this community and vision of which we dream, and have built deep cross-cultural connections in our city.
These events include:
First Friday Music & Dance Jams.
We Sing for Peace.
We’ve been fortunate to meet the people of AART! and work with them on our beautiful new banner. Thanks, ARRT!
There is room for every [Greater] Portlander to come learn and share, give and take. Coming up, we have more We Sing for Peace events (January 1st), Open Mics (the next one on February 9th), and other exciting events planned. Join us and learn more at: www.facebook.com/portlandculture.
Whenever I give people a tour of Engine, an arts non-profit in Biddeford, I always like to say, “we see Engine as an incubator.” I explain that we aren’t only incubating ideas and products in our makerspace and digital fabrication facility or through our summer and afterschool arts and design programs. What we are creating space for is growth, vision, and experimentation within everything that we do. We support emerging artists by offering affordable studio space and feature early and mid-career artists in our gallery. We welcome in and coach new instructors, interns, and volunteers, and provide real-world experience to young makers through programs taught by working professionals. We were founded on the idea that the arts are important for economic revitalization, and we’re committed to designing, launching, and promoting community-based arts programming with socially responsible practices
The focus on education, both youth and adult, has evolved over the past few years to become more important to the organization. Our programs include summer and afterschool arts and design activities, and the Compass Project, a boatbuilding program for youth. Engine is the only art and design focused organization in Biddeford, and southern Maine, that is focusing on the A/D in S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, arts/design, math) to support youth in developing skills and discovering career paths in the visual arts and applied arts fields, such as illustration, graphic design, animation, programming, 3D design, digital fabrication, woodworking, boatbuilding, and precision machining.
Some new pilot programs we have in the works include 1) a graphic design club for high school students that will work with a professional mentor to design marketing collateral for local organizations, 2) hosting a social work intern and collaborating with groups like Community Partnerships for Protecting Children (CPPC) to create programing for young folks who may not typically have access to art-based outlets and/or students who need or desire an alternative environment to the traditional classroom, and 3) creating public learning opportunities about how artists and designers can engage with municipalities beyond public art committees.
As an illustrator, designer, and printmaker with a passion for community engaged creative programing, I am constantly trying to expand my own and other people’s visions of what creativity looks like. I think it’s a creative act to decide how you want to move through a day, how you build relationships and the networks you weave, how you organize people and engage them. I believe administrative and cultural organizing work can also be considered an act of creation (even if what you’re creating is the opportunities for other people to create).
This sort of thinking, the expanse of our perception of creativity, is also really important in my other work as the New England Regional Envoy for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. Unlike it’s name may lead you to believe, the USDAC is not a government agency. It’s a people-powered department; a national action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging. Through a combination of local organizing, national actions, and learning and research, we use human connection, policy initiatives, participation, play, and performance to support the creation of arts and culture in the public interest and catalyze the public’s interest in arts and culture. Another way I like to put it is that it’s the performance of a department that should exist, but doesn’t (until now!).
When I host USDAC workshops I always like to post at least one of the questions that were at the center of the department’s formation three and a half years ago: How can we shift art and culture from the margins to the center of civil society, given their true value and support as catalysts for social transformation? What would it look like to perform a people-powered department—as both a playful work of collaborative art and as a serious vehicle for community-building, field-building, and movement-building? How might we invite artists and non-artists alike to step up as cultural organizers, generating momentum and public will for programs and policies that make cultural democracy real?
This people-powered department is just that, people-powered. And when I think about big social and environmental issues and how vast they can feel, I also ask myself, who is skilled at standing at the edge of a big gray unknown and stepping boldly into it? The answer I usually come up with is creative folks. I always like to say that my personal practice as an artist and maker has been useful to me, if for no other reason, so that I can learn the lesson over and over and over again that I don’t have to know how something is going to end in order to begin.
I see my role as Regional Envoy as having two major tracks at the moment. There is the outreach, education, and capacity-building that happens through workshops and gatherings that support local organizing and public engagement. This can happen anywhere in New England, and I’ve already partnered with some groups in Providence and Worcester to put on workshops that share tools for cultural organizing, educate and uplift conversations about cultural equity, and build capacity and public will for programs and policies that support arts and culture as the important parts of society that they are.
Additionally, a huge part of what I’m doing right now is identifying artists, activists, organizations, and public agencies in New England who are committed to cultural equity and arts organizing and to facilitate connections to the USDAC and to each other. The Envoy role is only six months old, so it’s a collaborative process – a creative process – discovering how it can be the most useful and effective in the region.
People can register on our website to be a USDAC Citizen Artist (you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen or an artist) to find out more and be kept in the loop with opportunities to engage with upcoming actions, events, and new policy and organizing toolkits. I am also always available to connect directly with folks who want to learn more, host a workshop, or need technical support for USDAC-aligned projects and campaigns. And, if people need a space to gather, I know a great arts organization in downtown Biddeford that would love to host it.
Devon Kelley-Yurdin is Education and Outreach Coordinator at Engine, 128 Main Street • PO Box 1681 • Biddeford and USDAC New England Regional Envoy.
Insight/Incite for Spring 2017 Journal – Mark teaches English and Creative Writing at Falmouth High School
I feel as if I have always been teaching in dark times, no matter who has been in power in Washington, Moscow, or other capitals of the world. It has always been a few minutes to midnight for as long as I can remember, and I am nearly 65, born in the same year the first hydrogen bomb was detonated.
Arts education is important because it creates safe, inspirational environments where students are motivated to express what they observe, feel, and think. To find one’s voice, to be validated for it, is empowering, no matter one’s political, religious, ethnic, or sexual persuasion. This speaks to the need for an audience, and in schools a diverse audience—classmates and teachers—comes readymade.
The day after the election most of my students walked into my classroom upset and fearful. A minority were elated. We dropped whatever lesson plan I had prepared and just talked and tried to put a premium on listening well. We didn’t solve anything, and no minds may have been changed, but everyone had a chance to be heard. This is how we build community and trust.
Schools are one of the few institutions in our country where civil, respectful discussion is considered the norm. And art, at its best, creates new frameworks in which we can make meaning out of what is incomprehensible and/or unbearable.
That day, after our in-class discussion, I suggested everyone write a personal essay about the election results. Students were eager to do so, even though there was no grade attached to this request, because they realized their lives were at stake, and it was incumbent upon them to do something about this.
Here are excerpts from some of their responses.
The election of a new president has always been a big deal for kids; they are interested to find out more and to learn who their parents are voting for. It was safe to let Barack Obama be a role model for our children; both he and his wife appeared continuously on children’s TV shows. As an American who lived under Obama’s presidency, I am proud to call him a great president as well as a great man. Donald Trump may now be called our president, but he will never be given the title of a great, or even a good, man.
Across the country, immigrants, people of all races, members of the LGBT community, and women are fear stricken. During the race for president, Donald Trump spoke of his plans to deport people in order to make our country safer. To assume someone is jeopardizing our country based on their race is one of the most racist things a person can think, and it’s amazing how a racist is now leading the government of such a diverse country.
Deporting people, or even telling people there’s a chance they or their family members could be deported is a terrible thing. Placing that fear in the minds of mothers, fathers, friends, brothers, sisters, and children is an indescribable offense.
The president is someone we’ve taught our kids to trust, but that trust has been broken now that Donald Trump is in the picture.
The election this year was going to end badly, either way. If Clinton had won, there would have been angry people. Trump has won, and there are angry people. There is nothing to do now except wait to see where things go from here. Complaining will not make Trump disappear or change his thoughts. A lot of Trump’s ideas still have to go through the other branches of government, and not all of them will survive. People have to have faith in our Congress and courts and believe they will do the right thing.
Our citizens argue with and rant against each other, yelling out their biased views. I find both sides charged with prejudice. Anyone who joins into the mess is as blind as the rest.
Who wants to try to look at the other side?
This election has been terrible. All the candidates are unfit to be president, in my opinion. No one seems great. No one seems presidential. Both sides are biased, and it annoys and angers me deeply.
How on earth can Donald Trump be our president? Do you really want your children to learn from him? When other countries are SORRY for us because someone is our president, you know it is bad.
Mike Pence wants to send people to conversion therapy. HOW STUPID DO YOU HAVE TO BE TO WANT TO DO THIS? You can’t just get the gay out of someone! Being gay is not a choice!!!!!!!! Pence also wants to send women who got abortions to jail and make abortion illegal. If I am raped and become pregnant, I am going to have an abortion, whether it is legal or not. A man cannot tell me what to do with my body and my baby.
I am embarrassed to live in this country. I am not scared of Trump; I am scared of his supporters. I am afraid that people will get violent and attack people. I know I am a white girl from a middle class family who lives in a very nice town, but that doesn’t stop me from being scared of other people getting hurt. One of my best friends lives in Mexico City, and I feel sick when I think of the things Trump has said about Mexicans.
I feel as if this is a sick joke, or maybe I’m dreaming, or I have died and gone to hell (probably that one). This country is falling apart, but I think we already knew that. We were so close to making history and having the first female president, but I guess America is still sexist. Trump is going to have the power to drop nuclear bombs and that scares me tremendously. He is already making bad relations with other countries, and he is not even the president yet!!!
If the KKK likes you, there is something wrong. I think he will only care about the rich, i.e, basically NONE of the population. He thinks climate change is something the Chinese made up, for god’s sake! Not everything’s about money and economics. Leaders of other countries are going to have no respect for our country or for him. I could definitely keep going, but I will probably have a mental breakdown if I keep thinking about it.
We overlook the perceptive voices of youth at our peril. Very reassuring to me that they are engaged and not afraid to speak out. I hope that being in the journal will further empower them.