Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Art Assignment (Assembly Line!) and Thoughts on Art

Last year, PBS Digital Studios began a weekly video series called The Art Assignment. It features a little bit of art education, work by a specific artist, and an assignment from that artist. Yes, you as the viewer are assigned to do art. I love this concept!

The truth is though, I am not an artist; I am a writer. But okay, I do consider writing an art form. It's a contradiction, perhaps, but there you have it. My art practice is minimal, and my talent is nonexistent. However, I love art! I love viewing it, learning about it, discussing it, and creating it. (I just set my expectations for quality extremely low for any “art” I try to produce! It’s more about the experience.) I think the potential for art to connect us as human beings is immense. It’s kind of how I feel about writing and reading, come to think of it.

My desire to complete an Art Assignment finally came to fruition last week with Bob Snead’s Assembly Line project. Here’s the assignment:

While visiting my sister in southern California, I wrangled her into helping me come up with a project for this assignment and talked my nephews into joining us on the assembly line. We had a few specific considerations when trying to decide what object to create. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money on materials. I wanted to pick something that would be fun for the boys, but not frustrating. We also had a limited amount of time.

These considerations speak to the challenge that I call Fitting Art into Real Life. For those of us who are not artists, we have to remind ourselves that creating our art is still valuable. There are always dishes to be washed, snow to be shoveled, dogs to be walked, or weeds to be pulled. That’s life. And it can be hard to justify setting aside those obligations for something that may seem silly or trivial. But creative exercises are not trivial. Besides, I’d wanted to do The Art Assignment for a year; it was time to make it happen!

We settled on making beads out of paper. It was simple, but produced beautiful results. I found myself wondering about whether this was really considered “art.” We found instructions for the beads on several youtube videos, making it not exactly an original idea. Also, most of these youtubers considered themselves “crafters.” Was our project more of a craft?

After consulting The Oracle with the question “What is the difference between art and craft?” I learned that it is apparently a long standing debate. Ultimately, it sounds like it is up to you as the artist (or artisan) to decide if your work is art or craft. I found this excellent lesson by Laura Morelli, titled “What is the Difference Between Art and Craft?” 

I was struck by some of the things she discussed that Art Assignment curator Sarah Urist Green had talked about in the Assembly Line video. They both started with Leonardo da Vinci as their example, and Morelli’s discussion of the changing definition of art in history sounded a lot like Urist Green’s discussion of master artists working with apprentices to produce their work. It sounded to me like a “craft type” art project was a perfect choice for the assembly line assignment!

These are the steps we came up with:

1. Cut paper strips from old magazines, narrower on one end and wider on the other end.
2. Roll a strip around a bamboo skewer and glue the last bit so the bead stays together.
3. Paint the outside with Modge Podge to make it shiny and durable, and place it on the drying rack to dry. (I made a drying rack by stabbing toothpicks into a pizza box.)

We had four people and only three jobs, so I figured two people could roll the beads since that was the slowest job. Our first challenge came when both boys wanted to paint the Modge Podge on and neither wanted to roll beads. Once I realized how quick it was to cut the paper, I just did that first. Then my sister and I rolled beads while the boys painted.

Our assembly line was not exactly a machine, which made it all the more satisfying that we were able to do this project. One of the boys went back and forth between our project and the kitchen where he was making chocolate chip cookies – very important! My sister had to depart temporarily in order to create and send out birthday invitations for one of the boys – also important. Hey, this is Fitting Art into Real Life, and we rocked it!

Once our beads were done and fully dried, we discovered that we loved them. I especially loved the texture of the shiny Modge Podge after it dried, and the sturdy yet somehow delicate feel it lent them. My sister loved the way the various colors came through and made each bead distinct. 

What I really love about The Art Assignment is how it gets you not only to become an artist yourself, but how it encourages involvement. Even if you don’t create art, there are so many opportunities online to interact around the art. There is online discussion, sharing, inspiration, and learning. My mom worked for 30 years as a docent in a museum, and her talent was getting the kids involved. She knew that learning and remembering happen best when we are doing something – interacting with the art as much as possible. I know this happens in classrooms all the time, but most of us aren’t art students. I love how The Art Assignment has made the world, both online and offline, their classroom and has invited anyone to participate.

These thoughts were on my mind when my sister, my dad, and I went to The Getty Center the following day. Laura and I arrived early and were greeted by Aristide Maillol’s “Air,” a nearly empty plaza, and an invitation to pose for a photo with the statue. Talk about interaction with the art!

I handed my phone off to my sister, and dived in excitedly to pose for a picture. Clearly I should have spent more time examining the art, because my pose is way off. Ah well. Because of this, I can now recall with perfect precision the position of the left hand in “Air.”

Posing with a statue in a museum is the kind of thing I have never done before. It feels so inappropriate. Disrespectful. But somehow, being invited by the museum itself took all that away. I loved imitating the floating lady and posting my photo to twitter. 

My favorite part about the Getty is the architecture and grounds. I recall it vividly from my one previous visit to the Getty – the year it opened in 1997. This time, I spent a lot of the day taking snapshots of the buildings and views. The two exhibits where we spent most of our time were the Josef Koudelka exhibit, “Nationality Doubtful,” and J.M.W. Turner’s “Painting Set Free”. There is something very powerful about viewing a large body of work from a single artist, and both of these exhibits were captivating.

One thing that stood out to me when I looked around a room full of Turner’s paintings was how every single one had a prominent bright spot of light more or less exactly in the middle. This was the sun, or the light coming from a diffused sun. For me, it overshadowed everything else about the works, but I loved it. It left me with a lot of questions.

When I arrived at my dad’s house later that day, I took this photo, which I thought looked very much like a Turner painting:

While I still wonder why Turner saw light the way that he did (The curator theorized it was related to developing cataracts in his later years!), I realize that seeing his work affected the way that I see light now. In the same way that you bring your own life experiences to your interpretation of a piece of art, good art will in turn influence the way that you see the world.

Both our project from The Art Assignment and our trip to the Getty got me to interact with the art. They were fun and thought provoking, and I can’t wait for my next artistic opportunity. What will the Art Assignment give us next?

Bonus pictures from The Getty, because I just can't help myself! 

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