Open Mind – Outsider Art

For those of you coming to the museum this spring we’ve got an interesting exhibit on deck. It’s a photography show, the art of Vivian Maier. I’m not well versed enough in photography to be able to speak to this work in a more meaningful way than Glenbow has already used… here’s what our team has to say about it:

“Vivian Maier’s life has proven to be one of the most enduring and fascinating art world narratives of the last decade. The story of this Chicago-based nanny who pursued photography in her spare time inspired an Oscar-nominated documentary film and several books. Through her furtive pastime, Maier eventually amassed more than 2,000 rolls of film, 3,000 prints and more than 120,000 negatives, which she shared with virtually no one in her lifetime.”

I’ll admit, I’m not particularly interested in the content of this show (she says before it opens, then usually falls in love). BUT… I am absolutely fascinated with the legal and ethical complexities of outsider art - particularly pieces where the maker has died.

For me, Maier’s work implies an important question – what is art?

While she was alive, most of Maier’s photographs were undeveloped. Not much is known about her, but there are a few important details that can help us approach thinking about her work. It seems that she was not well resourced. Shortly before she passed away, she was depending on the help of the now-grown children she once looked after, for financial support. Those who she worked for also suggest that she was an extreme collector, sometimes in possession of stacks and stacks of newspapers (I’m not sure how to take this, doesn’t it make her sound like an archetypical hoarder? Almost too perfectly so). Likewise, her previous employers and their networks give conflicting accounts of her personality – some indicate she was like a “real life Mary Poppins” while others say she was frightening and abusive. The case I’m trying to make here is that she was vulnerable in complex ways, and I wonder if her photographs should be considered “art” or an expression of her struggles. To put it another way, I wonder about her intention.

What does it mean to make art? Is it a universal human expression? Or a western construct with particular modalities and frameworks? Does the maker’s intention matter?

Another person who has been made into an outsider artist posthumously is Henry Darger. His vulnerability was much less opaque, raised in an institution, escaped at sixteen, living on the verge of abject poverty, and attending Catholic mass up to five times daily, Darger clearly lived with hardship. Upon his death, his landlords discovered a volume of work: 15 145 page volumes of a work entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, along with hundreds of illustrations in watercolor collage. They had his entire apartment preserved, and unbeknownst to him, Darger has become one of America’s most important outsider artists.

Darger’s life in particular gives me pause – what right have we to his work? Neither he, not Maier seemed to have intention to share their productivity with the world. Was this because they didn’t have access to art world connections? Because they were too impoverished to spare resources towards promotion? Because they lacked self-confidence that their work would be valued or understood? Or because they weren’t making art, they were in fact making something else. What if that something else was deeply personal? What if they never intended to share it (indeed, they clearly didn’t).

I have debated and discussed the ethical concerns I have with this type of outsider art in a sort of green eggs and ham style for many years now, and not come to many solid conclusions.  Much greater minds than mine have puzzled over the financial questions of this work, which adds still more layers of complexity to consideration. In the case of Meier, possession of the negative isn’t the same as holding copyright, and courts have long discussed who owns the rights to share and sell her work.

One thing I do know: I and many others have gotten a lot of enjoyment from outsider art (perhaps not to the degree that John Maloof, the primary dealer of Maier’s works who purchased them at auction for a pittance, does). Both of them have inspired several films. Darger’s work is set to music by the band Vivian Girls, named for his central protagonists, and can be seen in video games, comic books, literature, and poetry. In the spring, I imagine many Calgarians will benefit from Maier’s work as well, maybe finding beauty, inspiration, or self reflection in the photographs.

As I’m looking, I’ll wonder whether our enjoyment is justification for what I think, is probably, a kind of theft. She didn’t share this with the world, it was taken, without her permission, and shared. But I’ll also wonder whether the dead should have more rights than the living, and whether maybe she would have shared it if she had the chance.

You might be wondering if it’s appropriate of me to be asking these questions, considering my place at the museum. I think asking questions like this about art makes our experiences with it more rich. I think we owe it to our mission as museums to ask important questions, and to engage ourselves fully and complexly while we look. To enjoy, and to ask ourselves about our enjoyment, what allows us to experience it? What privileges, what paradigms, what laws, what actions… So far from dreading the arrival of this new exhibit which stirs complex feelings in me  - I can’t wait till it’s here.

 

“Honoring who we are” is rooted in honesty

I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.

I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.

But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.

Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too.  In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.

If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.

This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.

When you come to the museum, expect honesty, and bring your courage (too). It’ll be beautiful, it’ll be surprising, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it.

 

Summer School Part Two

Well, it’s  October, the snow is already here… and I’m finally getting around to blogging about the summer.  BUT – as a student said to me today “I didn’t get everything in my journal, but that’s okay! I’ll just add more later!!” I’m going to adopt that forgiving and flexible attitude and move on.

So let me share a bit more about my summer… We usually do a lot of intentional learning while we’re not working with students – this year we had two intensive sessions as a team at Glenbow. First we worked with Lana Skauge & Ewa Sniatycka in the museum, to experiment with ways to inject embodied learning into our work, and to accommodate different learning styles. After working with them I’m planning to practice asking students to pair before they share more, to see if it helps the shy ones speak, and I’m going to focus less on asking them to present their work, and more on letting them discuss it together.

We also had an incredible opportunity to work with Blackfoot knowledge keeper Harley Bastien in Castle Wildland Provincial Park. He and a parks staff person led us on a walk, and shared stories about different types of beings in the area, and how they relate to each other. Bastien reminded us that people are part of the landscape, and that our presence in nature is and always has been constant. This gave us all lots to think about.

Marnie and I spent some time with educators passionate about learning though the arts at a gathering of InSEA this summer too. In addition to learning lots of practical ways that arts education can be engaging, we immersed ourselves in some really fun arts projects, which was so rewarding. The art that I made is… well. Not very nice to look at. But making it, in the company of others, was a real highlight of my summer. I think I’ll keep trying to make things (that hopefully look a little nicer) with the techniques I learned, so it was a great reminder that not all projects succeed at first go.

The last part of my summer I spent in Montreal, for a very full week of museum hopping. I was on the look out for a few specific things, especially related to design, so I was able to see a lot of different spaces in a fairly short amount of time. The absolute highlights for me were seeing the Biospehere museum, which gave me so much hope for the climate of the planet and all the cool things folks in different disciplines are doing to respond to it… and the Fondation Phi exhibit about Yoko Ono. Here’s a photo from my summer journal about it.

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Summer School Part One

 

Summer can be a fun time for a museum educator.

Many of our team members go on to interesting projects during the summer months. Some of us use our teaching skills, and go work at places like the Zoo or Spark. Others take up projects in our areas of interest like archeology, anthropology, and local or natural history. Some of us use summer as our time to engage more fully in arts practice, or take classes… one of our educators is working on an MA at Emily Carr in the summers too.

Me? I spent my summer at a small town museum, curating exhibits, writing, text, and exploring the community’s ideas about who they are.

It was an immensely rewarding experience to look at an exhibit in a different way, not as  the deep looking-sketch book holding-class leading-educator. Instead I had to imagine that person, and all the other type of people that could possibly enter that space, and try to create something that would be engaging for them all. A museum is a place for everyone after all.

The most exciting part for me, was getting to know the community. Learning about all the interesting stories, the parts of themselves they hold dear, and the times when their strength of community was tested and needed. It’s these stories that I hope you see when you visit the small town museum too.

But they’re not always obvious. Not all museums in small communities have the opportunity to hire professionals. Many are assembled lovingly by volunteers or local people. These museums often have great stories, but they can be harder to read, because the folks who put them on display know them so well, they forget to give you the details.

So my recommendation? Visit a small town museum near you. Make a day of it. Go get lunch in some small hamlet, explore their sights, and check out their small museum. Bring your sketchbook… take some time to really connect with an artifact or two. Try out a thinking routine, maybe even ask your family to try one along with you too. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret the journey.

 

Going it alone…

We love being part of your year… but we know that it’s not feasible for a class to come over and over. We know there are barriers to coming here both within your school, and built in to our application process (Sorry! We try to give new applicants, and applicants who bring new teachers a chance, just because we’re over subscribed, not because we don’t love you! We do!! We adore teachers who see such value here that they want to come back!!)

So I wanted to share what it looked like when one teacher, dismayed that they couldn’t come, decided to “go it alone”

- firstly, they weren’t alone. We’re happy to help support teachers who want to emulate an Open Minds experience without a week at a site. This can look different depending on your needs. Unfortunately we can’t offer financial help, but we’re happy to point you to resources, and walk with you if you come across challenges.

- journals were still a hue part of the year. As if this teacher was planning for a week at a site, they made journaling a huge part of their year. Using the Journey into Journalling resource, they took  time to explore techniques and returned to ones that were successful for their students. They looked closely at objects and art, as jump off points into new units, ideas, and concepts.

- they spent time in new places. They used what was available to them in new ways, field trips became field studies, and any time off school grounds was something to explore with journals, (even trips to the pool! This teacher had students journal before and after the swim… picking up on emotional experiences, concepts of buoyancy, and uses of energy). They also explored places in their school that are less used for study. (How exciting is it for students to go into places they’re not normally allowed… even if it’s just the gym equipment room!)

- the engaged community. This teacher brought in experts that were within their sphere of connection, either physically, or through Skype. Students planned for these visits by examining what they knew about this person or their expertise, and what they wondered, then generated questions.

- finally, they came back! We love seeing teachers re-apply after a few years trying Open Minds concepts on their own, because we know that we’ll learn from you as much as you’ll learn in this place!

Best of luck with your year without us! We’ll miss you, but we can’t wait to hear what happens for you next, so apply again soon!!

Does the fire draw us?

 

In 2012 I attended the Cree8 Success conference in Edmonton; it was a symposium of arts based learning for working with Indigenous communities, and it was a pretty amazing experience.

One of the most memorable presentations was given by the late Richard Wagamese. You might know that name because one of his novels (which was a Canada reads selection in 2013)  was recently adapted into a film.  When we walked into his room, an otherwise normal hotel conference space, we found it transformed by one small object. Normally at a conference, we walk in and sort of act nonchalant while trying to figure out a good spot in the middle ground between engaged but aloof enough not to look like a keener… just me? Maybe. But in this room, there was a small round light with a fan inside, made to look like a fire. The lights were dim, and we all just walked right up to the circle, and leaned in.

It turns out, the gathering power of fire is a topic that Wagamese has explored before. I recently read Dream Wheels, and there were thoughts about fire and the power it has over us in that story as well.

At Museum School we feel that sometimes we get the chance to try things out with teachers; tools, techniques, supplies, styles… things that may be different or new for teachers, that they can take back if they work well, or leave as a memory if they don’t. Sometimes we have teachers say that something we’ve introduced to them won’t work so hot for their current class, but would have been amazing for their class two years ago… sometimes its the other way around. We like to be a place for experimentation – a place to try new ideas, take risks, and explore.

So… here we go on our next experiment. We want to find out how our own little simulated fire might work in our classroom. We’ll be watching to see if students watch it like a real fire. Does it function like a visual fidget device? Or is it a distraction? We’ll let you know what we observe, and we’d love to hear from you after your week too… does the fire draw us?

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Learning Gender

Last year, one of the very thoughtful Museum School parent volunteers let us know that some of our ways of speaking about gender were a bit… *historic* (sorry!) We really took that message to heart, and started exploring some of the ways that we talk about people and the roles we assign them, both today (in our teaching practice) and historically (in our teaching content).

As part of this learning journey we asked for some help – the Calgary Centre for Sexuality offers workshops for professional communities to understand gender and sexuality, and some of the ways that these topics are unknowingly (or knowingly) integrated into our work with story. The whole educator team at Glenbow joined in to learn more, and we also had some of the other Campus Calgary & Open Minds sites and team with us as well.

We’re all going to have to keep working on and thinking about gender until we create safer spaces for all students to learn in (there are just mountains of evidence to suggest that safety is integral to productive learning environments). This will require strategic large scale change, as well as personal choices. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have the power to really do some of the things that are necessary for change, (in our life, in our work, maybe in the world at large…I’ll try to come back to this idea in an upcoming blog post) but there are a few small things that each of us can do… Here’s some ideas for first steps…

  1. The Centre for Sexuality folks suggested that children become aware of gender around ages 3-4. This reminds us that when we’re working with students, they’re already aware of gender and interacting with it as a concept in many ways. We don’t need to be afraid that they’re too young for us to talk about gender, because children are already aware that they are living in a gendered world.
  2. Although we constantly make assumptions all day long (it’s a human survival tool, related to our beliefs and experiences), we can be thoughtful about the times we make assumptions, and the times we take a minute to ask for information instead. Creating a climate where asking is welcomed can begin with you. As an educator, sometimes I only have a minute to get students all the “housekeeping” info they need, but I always make time to introduce myself and tell the students what I want them to call me. It only takes a minute to let students know what pronouns I prefer to be called, and to let them know I’m interested to know their name and pronouns too.
  3. Another housekeeping thing that I always make time for is to share the location of our bathrooms. Our site doesn’t have any gender neutral bathrooms but I can let students know that it’s okay to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in, or the one that matches their identity. This may go over a lot of students’ heads, but for students who are transgendered, it identifies me as an understanding adult, and our space as a safer one.
  4. Creating a safer space is about a lot more than just bathrooms though. We’ve started talking to other folks who work on the floor of our organization about all of us learning to be part of creating a safer space. We’ve also initiated some plans for signs (letting visitors know we’re working to be safer), and some discussions about other things we could do in our respective departments.
  5. When we talk about gender, we often do it kind of… sideways. Like, we’re not sitting down and saying “okay class, now we’re going to talk about gender!” rather, we’re talking about important content, and gender is part of that.  It comes up when I talk about cultural performance in West Africa, when I speak about Warrior history, and when I’m telling stories about our Mavericks. It comes up all the time, but I don’t think of it all the time. So that’s another thing to work on, just being thoughtful about the gendered expectations that exist in our stories and discussions. I believe that awareness will lead to better things.

 

Our facilitator for the workshop asked us how we feel about the word “guys” to refer to groups, and some folks said it was fine, but others felt that it could be interpreted as offensive. As an experiment, I counted the number of times I was referred to a part of a “guys” last week. In one day alone, it was 17 times. That really surprised me…(maybe give it a try yourself and see if it leads to any interesting thoughts or feelings?)

In that vein, one challenge that comes up a lot for us, is how to refer to a group of students without calling them “boys and girls” so here’s a list of ones we came up with:

  • Friends
  • Students
  •  Learners
  • Explorers
  •  Scholars
  • Empathizers
  • Scientists
  • Creative minds
  • Mathematicians
  • Artists
  • Problem Solvers
  • Creative Thinkers

Hopefully this is heading in a more helpful, kind, and considerate direction. Let us know your thoughts.

Places for Understanding Who We Are

In early march, we had a (n actually, not so rare) bit of serendipity at Museum School. As John Ware School was preparing to use the Museum as a place to investigate the connections between citizenship and identity, Glenbow had just opened a contemporary exhibit about artist’s experience of place! The gallery’s pieces, including ‘s Jim Me Yoon’s Regard (which in itself is a reflection of Jim Me Yoon’s moving Group of Sixty Seven), Kimowan Metchewais’ Cold Lake Venus, and Maxwell Bates’ Tourists in Victoria, provided rich opportunities for us to examine national culture, what it means to be Canadian, and how place and identity are related.

If that wasn’t enough, by pure chance, the Glenbow Museum was also selected as a site to host a Citizenship Ceremony on the last day of John Ware student’s visit!

There were a few strokes of luck here, firstly, that everyone at ICC was so very accommodating when we told them we wanted to bring 30 extra people, and their journals, to their ceremony. Secondly, that the students were exactly the special people that they were, because the ceremony was both long and incredibly important; these students fully embraced the need for them to witness, and not detract from the moment for the new Canadians. Thirdly, that their teacher is exactly who she is, because from the moment that we knew we had this amazing opportunity she embraced it, providing scaffolding for the students to understand the ceremony and connecting it to their learning.

Afterwards, the students expressed how surprised they were to see the diversity of the new Canadians, who were of varying ages from very young to senior, and who were from countries across the globe. They also told us how moved they were to watch the expressions of the new Canadians as pride, happiness, and even tears lit across their faces. They were impressed by the seriousness and formality of the event, and noted that when you are living in a culture, it’s hard to identify what makes is unique; but that this was a  Canadian ritual, proof of our distinct culture.

There were several special guests who presided over the ceremony, member of parliament for Calgary Center Kent Herr, Chair of the Glenbow Board of Directors Irfhan A. Rawji, respected Blackfoot Elder Clarence Wolfleg, and author and philosopher John Ralston Saul. We noted the different ways each one welcomed the newcomers based on their own culture and identity, with campaign style speeches, warm personal connections, prayer, and advice.

The highlight for me, was when we finished the week with a sharing circle, sitting under the contemplative eyes of Yoon, and her mother in the Regard works. The portraits told us that there were many meanings to the place we were sitting, and reminded us to be thoughtful about be the people we are, and the place we live.

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This post was made for the Campus Calgary Open Minds Blog then re-posed here. Head on over there to check out all the interesting things happening at sites around the city!

Strategies for bringing your ELL student to Museum School

One thing some of you asked for this year, was help supporting your ELL students document their learning, and be successful at Glenbow. We’ve been working with a few concepts for a while, testing some new ones out, and asking our colleagues, and here’s what we’ve learned…

 

Keep us in the loop

If you are working with ELL students, give us a heads up. We can work together to come up with some goals for that student, and some tools we can use throughout the week. We have incredible access to visuals that we can use with a bit of extra planning.

 

Practice thinking routines

Everyone should have a thinking routine or two that they’re comfortable with before they come. You may make some accommodations to the primary ones you use for your ELL students. Having a rubric or visual guide for your thinking routine definitely helps uptake for ELL learners (make your own, or download one).

 

Bring your regular routines here

If you have regular routines around things like starting your day, changing focus, lunch and snacks, or going outside, use them here too. You may not be able to bring all your routines, but if you use a special chime, or chart, or tool – feel free to bring them here.  If you have a particular way of getting students attention, let us know and we’ll use yours. We have ways we do things at Museum School, but we’re always willing to adapt and use ways that best suit your class.

 

Teach Hub” recommends learning to Stop & Think… (the following is from their website)

Teach the “Stop and Think” strategy to help students evaluate their own learning. If you observe a student having difficulty in class, ask them to stop their work and think about the following questions: What am I struggling with? What can I do differently? What questions do I have? Who can help me answer those questions?

I think the crux here is, making an environment in your classroom where students know they can and should ask for help if they’re struggling. This is a tough one for sure (isn’t it “neat” how kids deflect when they’re struggling?), so if anyone has strategies for making this work in their classroom, I’d love to learn more.

 

Do some practice sketching

Have students work with object sketching before you come. Your object doesn’t have to be something exotic (although exotic is easier to find that we think sometimes -  my young folks have asked more than once how those “big CD thingies” work, and I dust off the record player for their amazement). It’s just helpful if everyone knows that when you ask them to sketch, you’re asking them to notice detail, take time, and capture the object.

 

Prepare everyone to use labels

Adding simple labels might also be a good beginning step for ELL learners, and it’s worthwhile for everyone to start something like a “word bank” in your classroom. Before a word goes up on the wall, make sure everyone knows what it means (“rough” is accompanied by feeling several rough objects etc.) If the gap between the ELL student and the other students is really big, have everyone make presentations for each word. Ask them to imagine teaching their word to someone who doesn’t know what it means. This activity can also be a reminder that part of your year long inquiry is “slow learning” – really taking the time to explore ideas and concepts.

 

Do you have some strategies for supporting ELL students that have worked well for you? We’d love to hear about your work in this area too!

Holiday Season

If you’re like me, you get a bit wound up about the “holiday season” and its modern cultural implications. In the museum/heritage field, I think its perhaps more common to obsess over ritual, belief, tradition, and preservation of these things. Our everyday thoughts are concerned with the story and the symbols of our culture. I guess I’m concerned that when we do something ritual (from brushing our teeth, to putting up a holiday tree), I know why, and I can confirm in my heart that I believe in its rightness. When mom is hard at work baking cookies I’m not much help, staring with wonder and excitement into the gingerbread, but still asking “why”?

So, in answer to that very important question – the Tate offers giant slugs. Because meaning is what you make it, and we’ve all got a hand in making the traditions, rituals, and beliefs that we pass on – whatever we want those to be!

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