As a young art student I too began to notice the absence not only of women but of artists of color from art history books and classes. We studied only two female artists from prehistory through modern times. I was profoundly affected by African art, but though I learned of its influence on such major European artists as Matisse and Picasso as well as its contributions to Cubism and other art movements, we learned of no individual artists of color. The question, “where/who are women artists?” was asked in conjunction with, “where/who are artists of color?”
I began (and continue) to fill in gaps by seeking out classes, readings, lectures, discussions, and exhibitions about women and minority artists. The information was, and continues to be, a revelation. I am still learning much about the economic and social conditions that excluded women and minority artists as well as the differences between the Western/European idea of art, a separate activity done for its own sake (i.e. leisure) as opposed to the non-Western concept of art as an integral part of life involved in ceremony, magic, ritual, and belief (i.e. function).
Overall, education and leisure time, crucial in developing creativity, were limited for women and minorities in the U.S. In addition, for minorities, cultural ties were cut due to slavery, forced relocation, and/or Western cultural hegemony. Even today, women and minority artists are under-represented in museums, galleries, and art history books.
It makes sense to know about both male and female artists of diverse backgrounds working throughout history and today, creating a myriad of painting, sculpture, pottery, photography, mixed media, etc. As I continue to shift my point of view, I have expanded my horizons, and have a more balanced overview. In an attempt to present both Western and non-Western traditions, I have exposed students to the arts of Africa, the Pre-Columbian Americas, and Asia as well as Europe and the U.S.
In learning more about women artists and artists of color, I found many of their stories inspiring, and fell in love with many new works of art. This discovery is a continual process and adds tremendous dimension to my breadth of knowledge. Broadening my spectrum has helped me understand myself, art, and the world in new and deeper ways. As a teacher, I want to do the same for my students. In the classroom and in talking with others, I try to present a broad and balanced point of view, and attempt to fill in gaps by highlighting the achievements of women artists and artists of color. I want my students to see art by and about all kinds of people.
I teach visual arts for grades 5-8 at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet, a public middle school. This unique learning environment draws approximately 600 students from various New Haven neighborhoods and emphasizes the importance of the arts in education. Each student is required to take four core arts classes—dance, music, theater, and visual arts—plus academics. The arts classes are heterogeneous, small in order to facilitate individualized attention, and meet for approximately one hour per week; students also select one art form as their “art emphasis” class which meets for an additional two hours per week. Though the format seems ideal in many ways, we face the same critical urban and adolescent issues as other educators and students: drugs, apathy, violence, crime, economics, miscommunication, budget cuts. The student population at Betsy Ross is diverse: 46% African-American, 16% Hispanic, 33% white, and 5% Asian. Because the classroom, our community, and the world are multi-ethnic, students need a balanced overview of art appreciation that includes diverse artists and role models.
I have found many heroines among U.S. women artists of color, since many overcome a double whammy of being both female and minority in our society. I am interested in those who cross boundaries between “craft” and “fine art” and who mix media, breaking new ground while carrying on traditions. I’m interested also in artists whose art reflects issues of gender, class, race, and heritage. Such artists are inspiring and exciting because they present points of view different from the majority and bridge gaps between traditional women’s art and “crafts,” (e.g. sewing, collage, quilting), and “fine art” or “high art” (e.g. painting and sculpture). In their work, tradition and innovation co-exist.
Because this work has been outside the mainstream art world, I feel such artists are truly in the vanguard. In addition, overcoming burdens and breaking barriers are lessons from which we all can draw inspiration. Today, there are more references than ever available on women artists and artists of color; they are no longer invisible. Still, I find very few materials for young people about contemporary American female artists of color. For all these reasons, the focus of my curriculum unit will be five such visual artists: Amalia Mesa-Bains, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Pablita Velarde.
I point out the ethnicity and gender of these artists not to label them but to help clarify their art. These five artists overcame discrimination and create empowering art based on their lives and experiences as women and minorities. As such, they overcame obstacles many artists never had to face. They look at the world with multiple points of view: as artists, as women, and as persons of color.
All five artists share similar issues across cultures: all use art as a vehicle to preserve traditions of their culture; confront issues of heritage, race, gender, class; and/or reflect or document issues about their people. Though each received formal art training in the U.S., they all work out of non-Western traditions (African, Latino, American Indian, Asian) and work with cultural traditions in non-traditional ways. Mesa-Bains, Pindell, Ringgold, and Saar combine traditionally female art forms such as sewing, collage, and quilting with painting and objects from various cultures to create assemblages and installations about heritage, family, discrimination, and stereotype. Velarde records traditions of her heritage in a non-traditional way—as a Tewa woman making documentary and mythic paintings. In her day, only Tewa men made paintings.
The work of these five artists addresses many issues relevant to adolescents and art students in multicultural society: looking at cultural heritage, crossing barriers, questioning the world around us, drawing on personal experiences, finding role models, confronting discrimination and stereotype. There are many lessons urban adolescents (and we all) can learn from their lives and struggles, and the meanings and symbols of their imagery can provide much fodder for discussion. Because many students learn best when actively engaged, they will enjoy creating art work inspired by the artists. Looking at the work of the five artists will help expand creativity because it illustrates that art can be made in many ways from a wide range of materials in addition to drawing and painting. And, finally, because in art—a universal language that crosses all barriers—there is no right way, the unit and lessons can provide ways for all students to express themselves and their individuality.
Overall I hope this unit will help widen horizons, illustrate that art can reflect many aspects of people and society, and help students see how they are connected to and fit into the world around them. Specifically, by examining the lives and works of these five artists I aim to help students:
—get in touch with their cultural heritage and deepen self-awareness
—increase awareness of the achievements of women artists of color
—use art as a vehicle for confronting issues of race, gender, stereotype
—experiment with materials in new ways
—find cultural role models
—develop sensitivity to and awareness of cultural differences and similarities
—dispel and de-mystify cultural stereotypes and myths
—identify issues, ideas, customs, beliefs, traditions of various cultures
—transcend barriers between “craft” and “fine art”
—find common bonds in order to form a greater sense of community
In this unit you will find biographies on each artist (which also discuss works of art and include questions), a glossary of terms, a bibliography, a young people’s reading list, and art lessons and activities. The bios highlight backgrounds, circumstances that led/encouraged each to become an artist and create the kind of work she does, obstacles each overcame, and specific works of art each created. These can be used for reference and/or read out loud in the classroom as a way of introducing each artist, and are to be accompanied by reproductions of each artist’s work.
A set of slides or color copies can be made from color reproductions in books or exhibition catalogs (consult the bibliography at the end of this unit for further information); postcards and posters can also be used. Slides may also be available from galleries which represent the artists. For Pindell, Ringgold, and Saar try the Studio Museum in Harlem, NYC or the Schomburg Center for Black Culture at the New York Public Library; for Ringgold try the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Soho, NYC; for Mesa-Bains try the INTAR Latin American Gallery in NYC; for Velarde, try the Museum of the American Indian in NYC or the Wheelwright Museum in Albuquerque, NM.
In the classroom, students can write individual stories or biographies of the artists based on the enclosed bios, give an oral report, or read and write together as a group. Additional suggested group activities include: discussing aspects of each artist’s life including difficulties each overcame in order to become an artist; looking at and discussing examples of each artist’s work; talking about themes and related issues such as racism, sexism, and stereotype; sharing personal experiences and role models; and discussing how to translate themes to our own lives and into art work. The bulk of time is to be spent on individual hands-on art activities—designing and creating 2-D and 3-D art work inspired by or based on the work of each artist.
To facilitate student art work, I feel it will be helpful to make students aware of essential and accessible qualities that exist in each artist’s work. Try and get to the essence of each artist’s work and her point of view. For example:
Amalia Mesa-Bains makes shrines and altars to favorite Chicana heroines as a way of highlighting their achievements.
Howardena Pindell makes paintings and collages that explore racism and her heritage, travels, and personal experiences.
Faith Ringgold makes stuffed, beaded, quilted, painted, and sewn objects and story quilts, using traditional African crafts, that tell stories about family, heritage, and discrimination.
Betye Saar uses objects from various cultures and nature to create assemblages that confront and expose cultural stereotypes and examine the shaping of identity.
Pablita Velarde documents traditions of her Tewa Indian heritage in detailed paintings in order to keep the heritage of her people alive.
This unit is intended to be used as a springboard. I hope that as the result of looking at these artists and their work, you and your students will come up with many additional interpretations, responses, issues, and project ideas.