Why I Love Teaching Art Appreciation to Non-Art Majors

I've been happy lately.
Really happy. Why you might ask?
I recently started teaching again, after a year of trying to find work in the education field in Chicago. My new role involves teaching Art 101, which is a introductory, survey-style type of class; I'm really excited to be teaching in the visual arts again, as it's something I really love. 
Aside from loving my short commute, the fact that I can take public transportation and not have to deal with driving and parking, is that my new university is in downtown Chicago ... I get to say hello to the Art Institute of Chicago bronze lions every morning. Yeah, it's been great.

 But the MAIN thing that's making me happy are, of course, my students. I teach to mainly sophomores, with a sprinkling of freshmen in each of my three classes this past Fall quarter. The university has bachelor’s programs like, Business, Education, Criminal Justice, Health/Human Services and Social/Behavioral Sciences to name a few. Absolutely nothing to do with the Arts, per se. The demographic at this university is mostly comprised of African-American and Hispanic students. These students are a great bunch, but many have faced (and are facing) many personal and social/economic battles. The overwhelming majority of these young people have jobs and in many cases, are the ‘bread-winner’ of their household, if you can believe that. These kids face real-world adversity very early in their lives and one has to give them so much credit for attending school and trying to make positive changes in their lives.

So, it's safe to say that these students are not creative makers ... rather, creative thinkers, yes. Aside from some art classes that a few had taken in high school, most of these students have never had to deal with art directly. On the first day, many asked if they were going to actually draw and make art and I had to inform them that the class was mostly 'art appreciation', to their disappointment. Many of them said that they couldn't draw at all and were looking forward to learning how to draw. Trust me, I was disappointed that wasn't happening either. Although I have to follow a set syllabus, I had some wiggle room to introduce some new things in class; but that was tough because each class was jam-packed with activities.

My university has a special partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago, in that the students could get into the museum for free - all they need to do is show their school ID. It's an amazing resource to have a world-class art museum as part of the curriculum! We have discussed Van Gogh's 'The Bedroom' and then visited the museum and see actual painting ... it really brings visual art education full circle. It's a wonderful teaching tool and it's magical to see a Van Gogh in a textbook and see the actual painting in person on view; they can see the beautiful textural quality of the paint applied by a palette brush.

As we approached the final project, we visited the museum as a group, to find artwork with a social issue message, as that would be something that the students had to focus on for their final. I am aware that many teachers who visit art museums with university-level students, usually set them loose and it's a self-guided trip through the museum. My approach is to guide them as a group through AIC's very expansive space, as I know it can be very overwhelming and daunting for a young person to navigate. I bring my students to specific areas in the museum where they can find content for their personal final projects.

So this particular day for the social issue visit, we entered the museum through the Modern Wing, more specifically, we crossed the 'Sky Bridge' that begins in Millennium Park and spans over Monroe Street and leads right into Terzo Piano, the museum restaurant on the upper level on the North end of the building. The majority of my students marveled, I mean MARVELED that we were on the Sky Bridge ... so many said they saw people on the bridge from the street, but had no idea how they got up there. And they thought it cost money and that it was only for 'museum people'. Nope, free to use for everyone. From that moment, I got the sense that they thought art was for the special few or that they didn't belong ... not even on the Sky Bridge.

 Sky Bridge facing North towards Millennium Park.

Sky Bridge facing North towards Millennium Park.

As we walked through the Modern Art galleries and then to Contemporary collection on level 2, my students were incredibly interested in almost everything ... some things they loved and some things outraged them. Many of them could not understand why Ellsworth Kelly's, Train Landscape (1953) was worthy to be in an art museum. "What's the big deal?! It's just three areas of color, prof! I could do that! This is crazeeeeee!" It wasn't until I explained the artwork to them, that they understood its importance. Beginning with the title, on how the artist saw the French countryside as a blur on a high-speed train ... and he reduce the fields to represent mustard, spinach and lettuce and assigned the three variants of green to each. They all were thunderstruck ... I went on to say how everyone has experienced this optical blurring if you ever rode in a fast car, bus or train. They got it. The related the painting to their personal experiences and now this painting wasn't so bad after all. Many of them went in for a closer look and they were impressed that the artist used oil paint and didn't leave brushstrokes ... seemed so flat and neat.  We kept moving.

 Ellsworth Kelly, Train Landscape, 1953, oil on canvas, three joined panels.

Ellsworth Kelly, Train Landscape, 1953, oil on canvas, three joined panels.

A funny thing ... a student asked me if the paintings on the wall were the originals. I responded, ‘Yes.” and they were awestruck and continued to be marveled by saying, “Ok, so, this is the ONLY version of this work in the whole wide world, right?” Again, I responded with a “Yes.” And they had a collective, “WOW!” Then, we walked past Picasso’s 1931 portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, The Red Armchair and they had recognized it, because I had used the painting to talk about contour line ... “Hey! There’s that Picasso you used in class!” They all gathered around the painting to take it all in. One of them turned around and said, “That’s Picasso’s signature?!” I had to look again to see that Picasso had signed this painting in the upper right-hand corner and I gave an affirming nod. They marveled again and the consensus was that they didn’t think he’d have such a beautiful signature. ‘Oh, ok?’ was my thought, but it’s interesting to hear what they think. Perhaps they thought Picasso’s signature would also be abstracted? I informed them that the car manufacturer, Citroën, had a model of car named ‘Picasso’ and they were floored once again. "Art and cars?" Yup, you guys have no idea! These kids made me laugh so much ... their enthusiasm and naiveté is so refreshing!

 Pablo PIcasso, The Red Armchair, 1931, oil and Ripolin on panel.

Pablo PIcasso, The Red Armchair, 1931, oil and Ripolin on panel.

 Citroën's Picasso, multi-purpose vehicle, 2013, Paris

Citroën's Picasso, multi-purpose vehicle, 2013, Paris

And this leads me into why am I so enjoying teaching Art to students who do not have an artistic background. The non-Art major student approaches artwork with adorable ingenouness and overall openness to concepts and approaches. The level of expectation and/or personal taste isn’t quite set in stone just yet ... these kids are receptive and more comfortable when navigating through enormous amounts of art. 
The flip-side to this situation is my experience with college-level, undergraduate visual art major students. They can be impossible ... not all, but the majority. What I mean about ‘impossible’ is that there’s a level of skepticism based on superficial knowledge and predisposed taste. Many of the art students that I have taught in my career were incredibly talented ... I had a student who drew Durer’s ‘Praying Hands’ that rivaled the original; I’ll never forget that incredible skill. I think when art students enter college, they are under the impression that the only thing they really need to learn is art history, because so many of these kids have been drawing all of their lives. They reach a certain level of skill, both manually and conceptually and they stop reaching and developing because they are comfortable. I taught a 300-level drawing class once, filled with incredible student-artists and initially they thought that they would get the same, routine drawing assignments, but I threw many curve-balls at them ... I had them using warp grids that completely abstracted their work. And, they loved it. They would, however, return to status-quo techniques, because they could not think around the idea of what art can and could be; or perhaps they were so set in their aesthetic and oeuvre.

So, my non-art majors made me approach art in another way and that meant the world to me; as art is so multi-faceted. I did not expect to enjoy myself as much as I did just by guiding young people through the enormous possibilities of the world of Art. I'm delighted to know that I have empowered them to visit places like The Art Institute of Chicago, and feeling comfortable, knowing how to analyze and approach an artwork, and making them know that they belong there just as much as anyone else. There is no need to feel inferior and I feel that they themselves overcame a barrier that was placed there for them ... perhaps of their own doing. And it's the best feeling when one of my students says how they were watching 'La La Land' on HBO and noticed many scenes illuminated with symbolic colors; how Ryan Gosling was usually lit in warm light and Emma Stone was usually portrayed in blue colors (except the last dance scene when she wears a yellow dress, they said). They remarked how they are noticing more things like that, because of Art 101. THAT is art appreciation. Now they see the world with a new lens and I think my job is done here. My best Fall quarter ever!

 Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land.” Photo Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land.” Photo Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate