Imagining Building & Creating: From a Director’s Perspective to a Collector’s Home

Omar Thompson. "We were never boys," 2005. Mixed: photo, cotton, wood.  Courtesy Jerry Thomas. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Omar Thompson. “We were never boys,” 2005. Mixed: photo, cotton, wood. Courtesy Jerry Thomas. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

In a whirlwind of a week I taught 60+ middle school students about how to look at and find personal meaning in cultural and contemporary artwork such as Rashid Johnson and Sanford Biggers, attended a lecture by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and spent time touring a local art collector‘s home.

Rashid Johnson. "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," 2008. Courtesy the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Rashid Johnson. “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” 2008. Courtesy the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Art to STEAM Workshop at the High Museum of Art. Summer 2013. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Art to STEAM Workshop at the High Museum of Art. Summer 2013. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

This reminded me of Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts when I was a high school junior. At the culminating event I displayed my African-inspired terra cotta bas relief. My artwork caught the attention of local artists Shahid and Judyie Al-Bilali. Shahid worked as an artist, carpenter and set designer. Judyie was a performer and playwright. She also taught drama at GSA that summer. The Al-Bilalis started a local collective called the Homecoming Festival and sometimes hired me to visit local artists’ studios, write about their work, and contribute my personal writing to their publication. I spent some of my after school hours in their home having discussions, listening to music, and digging through their collection of literature. I was also invited to participate in Judyie’s plays. Being so young and having this opportunity laid a foundation for what was to come. Today, I am an arts writer and my Ph.D. research is a continuation of what I learned in high school.

A wall of African textiles in Jerry Thomas's collection. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

A wall of African textiles in Jerry Thomas’s collection. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

A student uses the Virtual Bead Loom, a culturally situated design tool (CSDT). Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

A student uses the Virtual Bead Loom, a culturally situated design tool (CSDT). Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

I attended the weekly discussion of the Smoke School of Art (SSA), an Atlanta based nonprofit think tank that discusses and addresses contemporary philosophy and issues in modern art & culture. Many of these artists attended the Thelma Golden lecture, Rashid Johnson’s exhibition, Message to Our Folks, and even the Sanford Biggers lecture at Emory that I covered for Art21. Sanford Biggers: Contemporary Mandala and the Hip-Hop Ethos began a two-year conversation with Sanford and representatives from different fields and institutions, from ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian, Art as a Way of Knowing at the Exploratorium, Art of Science Learning, and Historic Westside Cultural Arts Council. I attended symposia at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts, and Design (SEAD).

Carol LaFayette talks about SEAD at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater on May 16, 2913. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

Carol LaFayette talks about SEAD at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater on May 16, 2913. Photo by Nettrice Gaskins.

My aim is to seek potential collaborators, or contributors to investigate how cultural arts and technology can lead to an increase in representation in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) fields among ethnic groups who as studies show are increasingly disengaged. Another goal I have is to test a model for culturally situated, arts-based learning and practice that can be used in a variety of settings such as schools and community-based art/media centers.

A research model for advancing CSABL by Nettrice Gaskins.

My scalable research model for advancing CSABL by Nettrice Gaskins.

Imagine a dynamic infrastructure (network, platform) to support this or similar work, with professional artists and their communities to academia, K-12 education, nonprofits and cultural institutions. The notion that art is a luxury and innovation is for a privileged few is status quo (in some circles) but it’s not the truth. There are many examples of creative communities of practice engaged in the action of innovating, as well as historical institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem advocating for artists and their work. This knowledge can no longer exist solely in silos. As traditional structures fall apart there is an opportunity to build bridges and support creative and innovative work.

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