The Encounters Project: Art in the City

During the spring of 2014, five undergraduate teaching mentors from the University of Pittsburgh implemented a program called The Encounters Project: Art in the City at a Pittsburgh Public Schools District high school. The project aimed to enfranchise a group of high school students from the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy through the study of public art.  As observers and agents in their community, the high school students were able to create and display original works of art at an exhibition in the University Art Gallery, and articulate their voices in our shared public space. This project was created through a partnership between the History of Art and Architecture Department and the Pittsburgh Assistance Center for Educators and Students (PACES), and was made possible through the generosity of the University Honors College’s Service Learning Course Development Grant Program. The Encounters program brought together different communities, providing a unique and cooperative experiential learning opportunity for high school students, undergraduates, and university faculty.  The project was supervised by Prof. Gretchen Bender of the HAA department, and Emily Lilly, President of the Board of PACES.

Encounters

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    Talking about "The Other": Resources for the CMNH

    This past spring, I had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Erin Peters and the Department of Education at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). My job was to provide an outline for a potential curriculum to be used for docent training at the CMNH in talking about cultures which are considered “the other" particularly with Alcoa Hall, but also in general. The term “the other” or alterity in this context refers to cultures which vary greatly from western culture and as such are not well known among the average person in the United States and often the average person has grave misconceptions of these cultures. These facts make it difficult to discuss these cultures in a museum setting.

     

    In an attempt to tackle this task, I started by talking to professors in several departments at the University of Pittsburgh including anthropology, history of art and architecture, and religious studies to get their opinion on the subject as well as the current state of the cultural halls at the CMNH. I was also able to set up meetings with the director of the Department of Education at CMNH as well as the people in charge of training docents to get their opinions on the subject. I was even able to view the training videos that they use for training the docents at CMNH in the cultural halls.

     

    By combining the opinions of academics and museum professionals, I was able to get a good idea of where to start my own research. From there, I did a lot of research ranging from specific case studies of mostly representations of Native American groups in museums through to anthropological and historical theory. This took up the bulk of my internship by simply reading through the material and creating short summaries of each paper/book.

     

    At the end of my internship I created a short outline with all of the ‘big ideas’ of all of the readings for the CMNH as well as a set of summaries for the resources that I gathered. These will be presented to the Department of Education at the CMNH to help guide them as they are changing their docent curriculum.

     

    Overall, this internship was very research oriented and hands-off. I found that it helped me to better work independently and find better sources for research projects in museum studies research. In the future, I hope to use these skills to further my own research.

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    The Project Mission and Participants

    The mission of the Encounters Project is multifaceted and involves three different groups of participants that each benefited in unique ways. The three different groups of participants involved with the program were the supporting organizations, the undergraduate teaching mentors, and the high school students. Each of these groups worked together to create an enriching educational experience, fostering an open exchange of knowledge for all involved.

    The supporting organizations were the History of Art and Architecture Department (HAA) at the University of Pittsburgh, specifically the Why does the History of Art and Architecture Matter initiative (WHAAM), and The Pittsburgh Assistance Center for Educators and Students (PACES). Gretchen Bender and Emily Lilly, President of PACES, collaborated as the project developers. Funding was provided by the University Honors College, through their Service Learning Course Development Grant Program. The HAA Department adopted this project as an opportunity to extend their academic discipline to the community that exists beyond the university, providing a new type of teaching experience for undergraduate HAA majors who are interested in education. PACES, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the learning environments and experiences of Pittsburgh students, is focused on their mission is to, “enrich students, support teachers, and foster community”, and this project was carefully created and implemented to accomplish all of these. PACES is constantly looking for ways to help communities reconnect and build meaningful relationships with their schools, and this is one program where the university can develop this relationship to encourage Pittsburgh students to strive for post secondary education. 

    The five undergraduate teaching mentors worked directly with Gretchen Bender and Emily Lilly throughout each step of the project. For them, the project was a unique learning opportunity because they gained valuable teaching experience and developed professional skills in a dynamic environment. While their role was first and foremost to teach, their broader role as mentors created a powerful capstone experience. The WHAAM aspect of the course asked teaching mentors to think critically about why they had chosen to study art history and how they can use their undergraduate course work in contexts outside of the university. 

    The eight high school students who completed the project were from the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy in Oakland (SciTech). The project was offered to students as an elective activity and enrollment was voluntary. The students spent time studying public art from their local environment and beyond, and then they were asked to create their own works that articulated a meaning or message that was important to them. Instead of studying monuments for the sake of memorizing facts, artist names, and dates, they were asked to reflect on the class material to identify how art communicates a statement, and the technical ways this narrative is conveyed. These students were able to create an original work, inspired by public art that they could take pride in and showcase to a broader audience at the University Art Gallery.

    Ultimately this project allowed the HAA Department to explore how the study of public art can empower and inspire students – of various ages – in their academic and personal lives. The question became why does the history of art and architecture matter to these students? What did they gain from these lessons? And how do their final works display not only their voice, but also the issues raised during the class? This program was designed to target all of these overlapping questions simultaneously, while furthering the mission of using the university to positively impact the community through education.

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Three Phases

    The Encounters Project unfolded in three phases over the course of one semester. The first, involved us, the undergraduates, learning to teach public art lessons to high school students. These lessons were then implemented in the form of site visits and classroom activities to study local and global public works. In the second phase, we shifted from studying to creating, asking each student to create their own original works. The last phase was the exhibition that displayed the works of the high school students, and was curated by the undergraduates. 

     

    Learning to Teach

    Starting in January, we spent a few weeks reading educational theories and practices, and learning about the issues facing the Pittsburgh Public Schools District. This time allowed students to learn how to develop interactive lessons that engaged students and delivered content in a meaningful way. Half of the lessons were site visits to local public works, and the other half were lesson activities that were conducted in the classroom. Each site visit allowed time to interact with the work, but there were also activities in the form of worksheets to encourage students to physically encounter and confront the sites. For the classroom sessions we relied on PowerPoint to bring global monuments into their school environment, but each activity was carefully planned to be very interactive.

     

    Creating Artwork

    At the end of February the program shifted its focus from studying public art to creating individual projects for a final exhibition. Each student was asked to make an original work that communicated a larger statement. We started this process by brainstorming ideas or concepts that were particularly important to each student. They were not required to work from the concepts we had discussed in earlier sessions, but many of the works reflect an influence from at least one of these lessons. Although the focus of the lessons in the first phase of the project was on public art, the students were given the freedom to work with any material and medium that interested them. This resulted in 8 unique projects that reflect the diversity of the curriculum and the students who participated in the project.

     

    Final Exhibition

    In this last phase of the project, we planned and installed an exhibition of the high school student’s works. We choose to include photos, worksheets, and lesson connections to give viewers a glimpse of each artist’s process. Working closely with the students during the production phase allowed us to understand the works and the artistic choices that were made. Based on visual analysis we could draw connections between the sites we studied in the beginning of the course to the works that were ultimately produced in the end. 

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Learning to Teach

    The first phase of the project for the undergraduate teaching mentors was to learn how to teach art history lessons. These are the boarder learning objectives of the course, for both the undergraduate teaching mentors and for the SciTech students:

    To examine the art works that surround us every day in public space; to understand better how public art changes and is changed by its surrounding urban context

    To investigate the stories behind these works of public art and evaluate what these narratives can tell us about the values, priorities, challenges, and aspirations of past generations in the city, using the following overarching questions as a guide: Whose voices have been represented and empowered by public art? Whose voices have been ignored or even actively excluded? How have race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on made their way into these representations and stories? How have our history's traumas as well as achievements been acknowledged?

    To analyze why public art often produces social controversy, and what is at stake in those controversies

    To understand what public art can tell us about changing perceptions of the "public sphere". In what ways does the public have a history? Who (and what) has constituted the public for art at various times in the history of the city and the nation? How does art intervene in the public sphere and disturb it or even redefine it?

    Of these learning objectives we focused on examining the public art works that surround the students and the narratives that are found within the works. We gave students brief information about the artist, important dates, and commission history, but the lessons focused on the statements that were communicated and the artistic choices employed. We did not deliver traditional art history content, but instead introduced students to some public art sites and encouraged them to encounter the works.

     

    We had to take into account the difference between secondary and post secondary educations environments and learning techniques. We spent 3 weeks reading about educational theories and successful teaching methods. Some of the materials that we read as we prepared for our time with the students include:

    • Bower, Bert, Lobdell, Jim, Owens, and Sherry, “Theory-Based Active Instruction” and “Visual Discovery” in Bring Learning Alive! The TCI Approach for Middle and High School Social Studies, (Palo Alto, CA: Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, 2005), 10-17 and 28-37.
    • Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay, “The Six Facets of Understanding,” in Understanding by Design. (Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005), 82-104.
    • Frey, Nancy, Fisher, Douglas, Allen, Aida, “Productive Group Work in Middle and High School Classrooms” in Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested edited by S.R. Parris, D. Fisher, and K. Headley (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2009), 70-81.
    • Ormrod, J.E. and McGuire, J.S. “Creating a Community of Learners” and "Taking into Account the Broader Contexts in Which Students Live” in Essentials of Educational Psychology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2009), 90-96.
    • Chappuis, Jan, "Formative Assessment and Assessment for Learning" in Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning. (Pearson, 2010) 1-14
    • Marzano, Robert J., and Marzano, Jana S., “The Key to Classroom Management,” in Educational Psychology in Context: Readings for Future Teachers, ed. Bruce A. Marlow and Alan S. Canestrari (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 23-35.

    We wanted to create the best possible learning environment where the students could feel comfortable exchanging ideas and developing their individual voices. Using these texts we could understand on a theoretical level how to handle certain situations and behavioral issues. Along with the educational texts, we also read articles from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about the problems facing the Pittsburgh Public Schools District both inside and outside of the classroom. These were important for providing a foundation upon which we could build personal relationships with each student. Understanding our students became an important aspect of this program, and these resources helped us establish a productive and fun learning environment from the first session.

     

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Lesson Timeline

    January 23rd  What is "Art"?

    • Students defined “art” and worked collaboratively to rank works based on their definition. 

     

    January 24th What is public art? And what is the Encounters Project?

    •  Students were introduced to public art and learned that this is a large and all encompassing genre. They saw public art sites from communities all over Pittsburgh like sports statues, mosaics, murals, and community projects like Knit the Bridge.

     

    January 30th Berlin war memorials classroom activity

    • Students were introduced to war monuments and discussed the voices that are present in the World War II memorials. Focusing on Berlin, students identified different ways that artists could make the past present. The activity asked each student to mimic a Berlin artist by creating a plaque and placing it within their community.

     

    January 31st Site visit to Carnegie and Tip

    • Students visited Tip and Carnegie and analyzed the two works together using their five senses. They identified similarities and differences between the works and saw how two artists used the same material to make two very different statements.

     

    February 6th Site visit to Stephen Foster Memorial and Library

    • Students studied the Stephen Foster Memorial and visited the library dedicated to his work. The activity for this lesson asked students to make a positive alteration to the statue and discuss how this might affects the statement and reception of the work.

     

    February 7th Humans of New York classroom activity

    • Students looked at the Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection to identify and critically examine artistic choices. Then students were given photographs and stories from the Humans of New York Project and asked to pick their favorite person.

     

    February 13th Site visit to Light Up

    • Students visited Light Up, located on Pitt’s Campus, and discussed how public art fills empty spaces within the urban landscape. In the activity for this lesson, students were required to take on the role of artist, journalist, and community viewer. They created a public work for an empty space in their community and then speculated about the reception of the work.

     

    February 14th Site visit to the Carnegie International

    • Students visited the Carnegie International and were free to examine works that interested them. Here they could see how artists make statements in a gallery space, and the multiplicity of materials and mediums that are used by contemporary artists today. Students were encouraged to write about the works they liked the most and the least during the visit, and cite why they did or did not like something.

     

    February 20th Site visit to the University Art Gallery

    • Students identified some methods of display (like projectors, pedestals, and speakers) typically used in the University Art Gallery. They were introduced to the space where their works would ultimately be displayed, and completed an activity arranging works from the Carnegie International in the University Art Gallery.

     

    February 21st Brainstorming the project’s big idea

    • Students began brainstorming social issues they care about and reflecting on the voices and narratives from the previous lessons. They were also encouraged to think about the materials that they wanted to work with for their final projects.  

     

    February 27th and 28th The project’s big idea

    • Most students handed in a detailed sketch of their project and completed artist interviews to talk about their work. We also ordered materials and prepared to start the production phase of the project.  
    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Defining "Art"

    We started the teaching portion of the class at a very basic level because we were unsure how familiar and confident students were talking about art. We wanted to establish that each person has a slightly different definition of art, and with that there are not right or wrong answers. The first day of class, we had planned an activity that involved students creating a definition of Art, and they were required to rank how different pieces fit that definition from the most applicable to the least. The objects we used for this activity were; Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Victor David Brenner’s Mary Schenley Memorial/ A Song to Nature, Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, a penny, an apple, and an Eiffel Tower keychain. These objects were specifically selected to provoke discussion about what materials and imagery constitutes Art. Students worked in small groups to create a definition that they then shared with the class to form one large definition. As teaching mentors we constantly provided students with the opportunity to work in small groups because group work is particularly effective for encouraging students to “think deeply about what they are learning while they are honing the social skills needed to exchange ideas with others” (Frey, Fisher, Allen 74).

    This was the collaborative definition of art created by our class:

    Art is a way to express emotions and opinions in a variety of ways. It is also highly interpretive and relies upon the level of effort and location.

    Based on the individual and class definitions, we observed that each student had a slightly different way to describe art as an abstract concept, but they came together to form an extensive definition. These students recognized that art can take many different forms, and that it can be interpreted differently based on the viewer. This concept was a major goal with the project’s overarching learning objectives. The syllabus created for the undergraduates explicitly states “students will learn how artists, and they as observers, become actors, agents and makers of place, recognizing the role public space plays in articulating identity and social difference” (HAA 1909 Syllabus).

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Encountering Through Site Visits

    Site visits were an important component of the program because they allow students to confront the monuments and works that they might see everyday. Giving them some background and some time to engage with the works leads them to identify the larger ideas within the work.

     

    The site visit to Light Up is a particularly successful example of a lesson that connects public art to the community where it is displayed. The first part of the lesson encouraged students to walk around the sculpture to find any signage for the work. After it was revealed that there was no signage or plaque, the leading teaching mentor gave the students the history of the work, both verbally and on a printed timeline handout. The Westinghouse Electronic Corporation commissioned Light Up in 1971 for the plaza at Gateway Center. The abstract nature of the sculpture left people confused and unimpressed. In 1985 the work was removed from the original location and placed in storage, until the University of Pittsburgh requested to display it on their main campus in 1989. Knowing these facts about the sculpture, students were asked to create a sculpture for their community to fill a public space in the same way that Light Up fills a space on campus.   

     

    The activity for this lesson instructed students to create an imaginary public work to fill an empty space in their community. They then interviewed other students to discover what others had created, which also prompted them to discuss their own work. Each student was tasked with speculating how their community would react to the work they created. A few students mentioned that their works would be misunderstood or ill received. One student drew a fountain like sculpture, and jokingly said that people would “shoot at” his work. This statement recognizes that public art can be a source of discontent or confusion. Relating this activity back to the larger picture of the Encounters Project, we can see that these students understand that there is a controversial side to public art. The activity encouraged students to occupy different mindsets because they must think beyond their artistic choices to speculate about how others will receive something they have created. Although the activity is imaginative, the students are exploring the role of the artist and thinking about filling empty space with something they have created. 

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    Encountering Through Classroom Activities

    Although physical trips to a local sites were a major component of the class, we included examples of public art from other areas of the world, to acknowledge the similarities in our human and cultural histories. Some of these sites included Holocaust memorials in Berlin, war memorials in Washington DC, and Krystof Wodiczko’s Abraham Lincoln: War Veteran Projection. For these sessions we used images and activities to cultivate dialogue about the function of memorials and the connection they provide between past and present. While there were traditional monuments discussed, many of the works we selected challenged the established notion of memorial.

     

    This memorial session was the first of the content-based lessons in the students’ regular classroom setting. This lesson consisted of a few different examples of Holocaust memorials that transcend the established notion of a war memorials found in our local communities. One of the works we looked at closely was Christian Boltanski’s The Missing House. This work uses the empty space in between two apartment buildings in Berlin, and a series of plaques mounted on the exterior of the buildings. The apartments that once occupied the now vacant space were bombed and destroyed in 1945. In 1990, Boltanski honored the memory of the residents by creating plaques for each person who lived in the building. On these plaques he wrote the names of the residents, the date range that they lived there, and their occupation. Boltanski also researched where the tenants would have lived within the building, and places the plaques in accordance to this location of inhabitance. 

     

    Using this site as a reference, the activity for this lesson asked student to write their name, the date range that they attended SciTech, and their dream occupation. Then students were instructed to think about where they would place their plaque, for example somewhere in the school or at their home. A simple activity like this one allows students to make the same type of artistic choices that Boltanski made, just on a smaller scale. Some students provided detailed descriptions of the location for their plaque. One student responded with “I would put my plaque on the outside of the international space station because I want my dreams and my goals to reach beyond the sky”. Some others wrote about a favorite park or place within their community. In this activity students thought about their academic or professional futures in relation to the places they want their voices to be heard or their presence to be felt. Site specificity is very important in public art, and although we did not use that term with the high school students we wanted them to think about location and why that location was significant to them.

     

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
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    The Final Exhibition

    The Encounters Project exhibition is the culminating point where all of the goals of the program come together to celebrate the final projects of the high school students and our work as the undergraduates. For the high school students, their individual works are displayed with images and activities that uncover their creative process. The work of the undergraduates is also shown in the form of retrospective pieces that reflect on their experience teaching in the program.

     

    We had eight students from the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, who finished art works for the exhibition. After we completed the public art portion of the class, we spent 3 weeks developing each student’s voice to communicate a specific statement through their work of art. It was the generous funding for the project that allowed the students as much freedom as possible when selecting materials and developing idea. This led to the creation of 8 very different projects, which you can see reflected in the graphic above.

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work
  • This is part of Hank's work from the exhibition.

     

    Featured Artists

    Each of the final projects can be connected to an artist, site, or voice that was studied earlier in the Encounters Project. I have selected three examples where there is a connection between the lesson material and the final works that were produced by the students. 

     

    Hank

    Hank was struck by the powerful images and accompanying text of the Humans of New York photography series during the Kristof Wodiczko lesson. The activity for this lesson presented several different photos and stories produced by the Humans of New York Project. Then students were instructed to pick a story or image that was meaningful and identify what about it impacted them. There were a broad range of people and issues represented but two of these stories seemed to be particularly helpful for the development of Hank’s final projects. After Hank read a statement about the high cost of coffee in New York, he began to think about consumerism in other places. He is particularly interested in Japanese consumerism, which explains the large Japanese character meaning “to buy” in the center of his work.

     

    Maurice

    Maurice’s work was inspired by the first site visit to Carnegie and Tip. His work is focused on materiality, rather than subject matter or technique. Maurice created three bowls, using hand building ceramic techniques. He then painted the bowls different colors that represented different emotions. The work is titled Sounds because viewers are invited to allocate rocks to reflect their emotions. This movement of materials within the work creates an audible component that places importance on the interaction between the material and the viewer. Our visit to Carnegie and Tip was meant to show how different materials affect the way a work communicates a message to the viewer. The two works use steel at the primary material, but Tip is much more chaotic, which sharply contrasts the sleek appearance of Carnegie.

     

    Anthony

    Though the inspiration for Anthony’s work did not come from a specific lesson, the concept of expressing personal narratives in a gallery context was seen in works at the Carnegie International. There was a parallel drawn between the Carnegie International and the program’s final exhibition. The International is a much larger platform, for established artists, but these artists are using works to communicate a statement in the same way that the Encounters Project wants to display individual agency. Anthony’s work is a clay mask mounted onto a canvas with a mosaic of black and white designs. His work comments on mental health issues by calling attention to depression in young adults. After experiencing a personal loss, Anthony has been inspired to raise awareness for people who suffer from diseases that are misunderstood or ignored in our society. Anthony also designed the logo for the exhibition. 

    Categories: 
    • Encounters
    • Undergraduate Work

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