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By Russ Cooper
Art is very personal for many teens – especially if their bodies and their world are the canvas. For associate art education professor Lorrie Blair, this changing palette is presenting colourful new ways to teach art.
As part of the Canadian Society for Education in Art’s annual conference Changing Connections, Communities and Contexts, Blair facilitated a workshop on her project, Teenage Cultural Practices: Setting a Research Agenda on Nov 8.
Focusing on popular visual culture, Blair received a SSHRC grant of $25 000 to explore art's changing role in the classroom, particularly in the areas of fashion, the body (modifications such as piercings and tattoos), media, and place (public and private physical space, as well as virtual online arenas). Running through all is a sense of exploring identity – how teens identify themselves with these different expressions, and then how teachers approach the issue in the classroom.
She's noticed many art education students coming from CEGEPs and entering elementary schools as part of their teacher training program have tattoos and piercings. "Many have come from an environment of experimentation and a place where tattoos are more accepted than in the past," says Blair.
The trend got her thinking about the connection to one's expression of identity. It led her to investigate modern-day Irish-Canadians, and the tradition of Celtic tattoos.
"The sense of identity is very important to Irish-Canadians, so the tattoo reinforces that identity," says Blair. "It's meaningful to their sense of family and belonging. My research really just branched from there."
To give participants an idea of art influencing 'place,' Blair invited artist Peter Gibson, aka Roadsworth. Gibson has become well-known for stenciling thought-provoking images on streets around Montreal. While striking to some, his art was considered a nuisance to others.
In 2004, he was arrested on 53 counts of mischief, faced a potential $200 000 in fines and was banned from entering certain Plateau neighbourhoods. His tale has recently been made into a documentary film by Alan Kohl entitled Roadsworth, to be shown at Concordia's Cinema Politica on Nov. 21.
His goal has always been to pose questions of the public, to bring a sense of inquisitive beauty to the often-drab cityscape.
"What I do is sort of transmitting wishes – I wish there was more beauty in the city, I wish we would question our politics a bit more," he says. "There's a message behind my art, but it's not clear. It's a mystery. My justification is that my art is a reflection of the world."
For Blair, there aren't many better examples of inspirational art for teachers. "[Roadsworth's art] demonstrates the type of innovation that we want to bring into the classroom," says Blair.
One key element Blair is quick to qualify is that her research has embraced teens' affinity with art not as an example of their delinquency, but rather as incredible opportunity to use their fascination as a teaching tool.
"We're not looking at teens as if they're problematic. It's appreciating what they do, understanding it, and making it accessible," she says. "There are so many teaching possibilities using their practice. By using their interests, you can learn about art history, colour, design… anything you need to teach."
"I found it interesting that teachers are now taking more risks, they're definitely acknowledging new art forms where they would before be considered delinquent," says Gibson. "It's definitely enlightening to approach kids on their level."
The findings of Blair's workshop will be distilled into a journal bringing theory and practice together for art teachers, entitled the Canadian Art Teacher Journal. Blair hopes the book will be ready for release for the 2009 national art education conference at UBC in Vancouver.