The act of making art together for a common goal creates community.
My name is Hope Lord and I am a Visual Arts educator for RSU#38 at Maranacook Community Middle School in Readfield, Maine. I have been teaching art for the past twelve years, but taught in special education for twenty years prior. I am the sole Visual Arts educator for our 300 plus students in grades 6–8. My students only have art instruction every other day for nine weeks and then they rotate to their other Unified Arts classes. In the brief time that I have with each group of students, I try to expose them to a variety of art media, including graphite, pastel, paint, clay, glass, textile, fiber art, and mixed media. Each year the art units will vary depending on the rotation. All of my art classes are multigrade groupings and I rotate the curriculum units in a three-year cycle to provide students a unique art experience each year.
In order to provide my students with varied creative learning experiences, I reach out to my community and throughout Maine for teaching artists to collaborate with and help provide students with authentic opportunities for artistic collaboration. One such experience occurred in 2021 when I applied for a virtual artist-in-residency program from the Maine DOE and the Maine Arts Commission. During the pandemic, teaching artists were not permitted to enter schools. Therefore, a teaching artist residency had to be conducted virtually with the aid of video recordings, Zoom meetings, and Google Classroom visits.
During the spring of 2021, Pamela Moulton, a community engagement artist from Portland, joined my classes via Google Classroom. Pamela brought her vast knowledge of textile art and her playful creativity to my classroom. Pamela created numerous examples of textile art from recycled denim jeans. Denim was a medium that I had never thought of exploring for a possible material for my art classroom. The concept for the collaborative project began as a means for students to express their emotions abstractly in individual denim motifs. However, as students experimented with the denim motifs and Pamela gave students feedback and suggestions, the concept of student-created emojis developed. Students loved the idea of expressing their emotions with the denim pieces. Pamela encouraged them to cut, tear, and rearrange jean zippers, rivets, and seams to create expressive emojis. She also showed the students numerous examples of different methods to create the ombré, abstract, and emoji denim motifs.
Pamela joined us each class via Google Classroom and was simultaneously projected on the video screen and on an iPad. I walked around the classroom carrying the iPad, while students worked on their denim motifs. With the use of the iPad, Pamela was able to see individual student artwork and to converse directly with each student. She prepared instructional videos which provided students a historical background and knowledge of indigo and the process of manufacturing denim jeans. Her videos were both informative and entertaining. “I was proud of my indigo video that traced denim and indigo through music, art, and dance,” reported Pamela.
We began each class by showing one of Pamela’s short videos. In one video Pamela introduced the students to Ian Berry, a British artist who creates photo-realistic artworks by layering multiple pieces of various shades of denim pieces. Students were amazed that gluing pieces of denim in multiple layers could result in a realistic artwork. The students were inspired by Berry’s work, and Pamela and I could directly see the influence of his work as students stacked layers of denim in their own pieces.
Students excitedly worked at their desks, one student dancing while he cut and glued pieces. Pamela inspired and encouraged students to experiment and take risks in their artwork, as she explained how to deconstruct the jeans and utilize the individual components in a unique way. Pamela stated, “I enjoyed connecting with the students when the teacher would walk around the room and share their work. I could comment personally and give them positive feedback and sometimes direction.”
My role as the teacher was that of creative facilitator, ensuring students had the materials, tools, and technology required to interact and collaborate with Pamela and other students. Since this artist-in-residency was virtual, it involved a tremendous amount of pre-planning and collaboration between teacher and artist. Pamela taught me how to sew the foundations for the motifs and how to deconstruct the denim jeans so I could prepare the raw materials for the students. Additionally, Pamela and I created individual art kits that included various denim strips and squares, jean seams, zippers, buttons, and rivets, along with small containers of glue, popsicle sticks, and scissors. Denim kits were also provided to students working remotely from home, so that they could also join us by Google Classroom and work along with the rest of the class.
The goal of the art residency was to give my students the opportunity to engage in a collaborative community art project that provided students the opportunity to express their emotions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and what they experienced as students. The school administration, guidance, teacher, and artist discussed the concept for the collaborative project and decided to call it “SEE Hope,” an acronym for social emotional expression for hope. Pamela and I planned how we would have students arrange their individual denim motifs to spell out “SEE Hope” on a prepared 8-by-12 foot wooden panel covered in velcro loop tiles, so that the velcro-backed denim motifs could attach to the panels.The wooden panels were later installed by the school’s Wellness Center.
A wonderful result of this collaborative project was the overwhelming development of student artistic behaviors, such as experimentation, risk-taking, and artistic collaboration. Students continued to take greater creative risks each class. They proudly shared their artwork with one another and would frequently ask peers how they made particular pieces. Once students completed their individual motifs, they went up to the panels to attach their work. I enjoyed watching the students collaboratively arrange the motifs on the panels and then stand back to admire their collective work.
According to Pamela A. Moulton, “the act of making art together for a common goal creates community.” My students shared the goal of creating art from the recycled denim to create a large installation. They all had the shared experience of learning during a pandemic and could support one another as they expressed their emotions and frustrations. The students’ emojis and denim motifs captured that collective experience and are now installed in our school for all to see.
Image at top: Weave motif.