On Common Ground: Learning Through the Arts

by Thomas R. Whitaker

We celebrate the publication of Number 5 of On Common Ground by featuring on the cover Charles Demuth's poster-portrait I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, a superb instance of collaboration in the arts. This number contains much more evidence that the arts are closely related acts of imagination. Maxine Greene, for example, when commenting on the powers of metaphor, refers to Wallace Stevens' poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar," in which an image derived from Picasso's "The Old Guitarist" becomes a symbol of poetic activity. In Rosa Citlali Zamora's poem "A Reader, a Writer," a writer is "a person who paints" and a reader is one "who sees the colorless picture." As a reader of this number you may easily find or construct yet other examples. When I first saw the Collaborative Quilt of Transformation on which Helen Seigel comments, I was struck by how it translates into visual terms the "transformation" exercises that can help theater groups discover their unity in diversity.

We have taken such collaboration and reciprocity as one of our themes because it leads into another: the learning that may occur through our study and practice of the arts. Some essays here offer justifications for such learning, or ask why the arts are nowadays so often mistakenly considered "frills" when we ought to rank them among the "basics." Other essays speak of the kinds of learning through the arts that university school partnerships have attempted and achieved. And we also present instances of the art by students that has emerged from such partnerships.

A third theme might best be put as questions: If the arts are activities of an imagination that precedes and transcends our "logical" and "factual" discourse, may they not help us to re-imagine what we mean by education? Can they provide us with means or media for a badly needed rethinking of education at every level? If so, can we continue to regard them as separate items in an established curriculum? Shouldn't we place them at the very heart of a newly imagined course of study?

The Essays: Some Connections

The Images: Some Perspectives

The images in this issue remind us that art is a scene of collaboration and learning. The cover and center-fold on which I've already commented, The Figure 5 in Gold and the Collaborative Quilt of Transformation, may suggest the range. Along with the quilt we reproduce on page 17 a detail by Octavio Iniquez of Grade 4 that constitutes one moment in the process of imaginative transformation.

Elsewhere in these pages we juxtapose the work of professional artists with that of students. Maxine Greene's allusion to Stevens' "The Man With the Blue Guitar" might have called for Picasso's rather sombre old guitarist, but we have chosen instead, for pages 4 and 5, two refreshing images of music that may lead us to think about teaching. Mary Cassatt's The Banjo Lesson suggests a desirable intimacy in the teaching relation. (Indeed, a study for that painting is entitled Two Sisters.) Saroeun Sim's untitled work comes from a 3rd grade class at Jackson Elementary School in Santa Ana, California, where Halinka Luangpraseut is Artist-in-the-Schools. This image renders the linking power of music through a guitar that completes the evident circle of friendship and also the formal design. We have continued this theme, shifting both instrument and gender, with William Sidney Mount's The Novice, on page 28, a painting that again understands music to bring teacher and learners into the same charmed group.

Olivia Nam's Sombreros, on page 9, comes from a 5th grade class at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, also in Santa Ana. Its bold design, with a hidden life in the averted figures and a radiant source beyond the mountains, seems to underline Elliott W. Eisner's comments on a marginalized vitality in our schools. Natalie Pedroza's narrative collage, Building a Tree House Where We Can Play, on page 26, comes from a 4th grade class at Harvey Elementary School in Santa Ana, where Helen Seigel is also Artist-in-the-Schools. Its images and its medium harmonize with Colleen Fairbanks' account of collaboration as "a lived story." On page 30 we have included an untitled piece by Huyva Tanikawa from a first grade class at Jackson Elementary School, which offers a delightful tension between the centered and the eccentric. And the back cover features Sergio Romano's Stop! Save the Whales, which comes from a 3rd grade class at Harvey Elementary School. Its title explains the shouting boy and the sea-mammals below, but the total design is a joyous image of youthful quest in the context of both nature and society and an instance of the role that art education can play in that quest.

Other kinds of images also come from learning situations: on page 11, The Orrery, a painting that Jules Prown has used as an example of learning through material objects; on page 12, Moresque one of the patterns that teachers were studying in Kent Bloomer's seminar on architecture; on page 13, a photograph depicting a moment in our New Haven "improv" on Woza Albert!; and on page 19, a photograph of two young dancers from the Saint Joseph Ballet.

Finally, two images in this number, one drawn from European-American modernism and the other from a Native American tradition, point both to adjacent essays and to our larger concerns. Josef Albers' woodcut Encircled, on page 22, is a subtle instance of how lines and spaces can generate linkages, volumes, and dynamic process a metaphor, if we take it so, for the collaborative movement itself. And the symbolic sheld designed by Hyemeyohsts Storm and painted by Karen Harris, on page 6, evokes the understanding of the Plains People (set forth in fascinating detail by Storm's narratives in Seven Arrows) that art is a shared questing and teaching, a way of knowledge that leads us into the great balancing harmony of a universe that includes the entire family of the Earth's creatures.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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