COCA Arts Education: "Abstract Perspective"
By: Amanda Karioth Thompson
Linda Johnson has been teaching art for nearly 40 years and in that time, she’s learned a few things about adaptability. When the pandemic forced schools to close, Johnson relied on decades of experience to ease herself and her Deerlake Middle School students into a new distance instruction model. “As the saying goes, we were building the plane while flying it,” quipped Johnson.
Aside from learning a new software platform while simultaneously using it to teach, educators also had to navigate multiple communication channels. In terms of classroom content, Johnson admits it was difficult "to find a balance between projects that had technical and creative value, while at the same time not requiring too much when many households were struggling with digital access, uprooted routines, childcare challenges, and financial unknowns.”
Understanding that students and families would be stressed and may not have access to many art supplies, she planned lessons that were simple and required little in the way of materials.
Johnson wanted to offer a more rigorous project to eighth graders enrolled in her high school credit art class. She decided an abstract photography activity would allow them to tackle a difficult concept in a way that wasn’t too intimidating. All they needed was a digital camera, a light source, a large piece of white fabric or paper draped over a chair, an assortment of household items, and a basic understanding of abstract art.
“Some people may think abstract art is ‘about nothing’. This is not true,” Johnson explained. “Abstract art is about form, shape, color, line, texture, pattern, space, composition, and process, the steps taken and decisions made while creating a work.” These formal qualities are the building blocks for creating art and describing it, and abstract art is an investigation of these qualities.
“Abstract art gives the viewer freedom to explore the artwork and assign their own meaning. This intensely personal process enriches a viewer's experience. It is less about ‘what was the artist trying to say with this artwork?’ and more about ‘what does this artwork make me feel or think when I look at it?’”
Though some students initially struggled to grasp the concept, once they started to create, it became more clear. Some took to the project right away as Lana Antone’s mother Christi Anderson can confirm. Anderson said “I printed the directions, handed them to her, gave her my phone and went to my office to work. When I went into the living room later, she had it set up like a studio. She has now expressed a lot of interest in photography."
Other students gained a new perspective on objects they come into contact with every day.
Destiny Osborne said “this assignment has made me look at a lot of things differently. Now I can see the art behind certain objects that I didn't see before. I realized that I can make art out of anything.”
Hannah Martin agreed and added “I am noticing different shapes and textures in objects everywhere I go.” The assignment called for students to send Johnson four of their strongest photographs but Hannah was so inspired, she turned in nine.
After gathering the materials and setting up a make-shift photo booth, students were asked to think back to what they’d learned about abstraction and apply the elements of art to their compositions. Johnson reminded them to consider simplicity and asked them to eliminate extraneous elements from their images. Students were encouraged to explore interesting vantage points and light sources in an effort to create a harmonious balance and a sense of mystery to activate the viewer’s imagination.
Suhani Sharma found freedom in the process and shared “the best moments were mainly when I was playing with the lighting and direction of the camera. I could see many different views and think of multiple different ways to edit the photo. Using the elements of design, I was able to think of many possibilities in lighting, pattern, and many more.”
Aside from the joy of seeing her students imagine limitless possibilities and integrate a new concept into their own art making and worldview, Johnson is inspired by their resilience and flexibility. Additionally, her years of teaching have shown her that the arts are essential for human expression, especially in turbulent times.
“As we explore our world through visual arts, music, theatre, or dance, we can express thoughts and emotions we don’t have the words for. We can create something new that did not exist before. The arts can be an escape, a voice, a calming immersive task, and they can bring balance to our lives at a time when statistics are casting a shadow over our days.”
As part of COCA’s Creativity Persists collection, this article highlights how area arts educators have used distance learning to teach and inspire during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amanda Karioth Thompson is the Assistant Director for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).