What does it mean to be an artist?
I often feel that as an art educator, I spend a significant amount of instructional time supporting students in developing craft; that is, learning and practicing techniques with different kinds of media. Developing craft is certainly an important component of art education. And yet there is so much more to being artist. Expression, creation, exploration, and concept, to name a few.
Sol Lewitt first came to my attention at the National Art Education Association Conference in March 2014. In one of many hour-long sessions over the 3-day conference, I listened to several museum educators share how they’ve introduced the idea of conceptual art to young people.
It turns out that Sol Lewitt was a conceptual artist who believed that “art must begin with an IDEA.” He created a series of 1,200 wall drawings during his career by writing a series of instructions on how to actually draw or paint his IDEA. These instructions were written on an official certificate, signed by Lewitt. Only the possessor of the official certificate owned an original Sol Lewitt artwork. The instructions were then followed by ‘draftsmen’ to put the drawing on a wall. Lewitt generally did not paint his ideas himself.
I could feel myself rejecting this supposed artist almost immediately. An artist who doesn’t create his works with his own hands? This was an important learning moment for myself, both as an artist and an art educator. Though I think of myself as open-minded when it comes to the very definition of art, I realized that I had a fixed-mindset when it came to the role of the artist. This led me to wonder how my own limited thinking impacted the message I communicated to my students.
I decided to confront this issue head-on by posing the question to my students, “What does it mean to be an artist?” The first day of school, my art students worked in small groups to follow a set of very specific instructions (I took one of Lewitt’s wall drawings and simplified the language so all students could access it).
Read the directions CAREFULLY. Then decide each person’s role at the table. When you are ready, you may start.
The first person has a BLACK marker and makes an irregular horizontal line near the top of the paper.
The paper is passed to the person on the right. The second person tries to copy the black line (without touching it) using a RED marker.
The paper is passed to the person on the right. The third person tries to copy the red line (without touching it) using a GREEN marker.
The paper is passed to the person on the right. The fourth person tries to copy the green line (without touching it) using a BLUE marker.
Continue passing the paper in order to the SECOND, THIRD, and FOURTH person, following the pattern above until the bottom of the paper is reached.
Just this process was difficult for many students. They wanted clarification about the directions. Many were worried they were doing it “wrong”. I recognized their discomfort with interpreting the assignment.
The first a-ha moment happened when the group drawings were hung up side-by-side. I invited students to discuss their observations. While the drawings were similar in some ways, they were not exactly the same, despite every group having the same directions. We talked about WHO the artist was in this situation. There were 3 ideas: The person with the black marker, who made the first line that everyone copied; the entire group because everyone contributed to the drawing; and, much to my surprise, several students proposed that I was the artist because I gave them the directions!
We went on to look at more of Sol Lewitt’s work and his theories about artists. Then students worked together to write a set of directions based on one of Lewitt’s wall drawings.
I observed students working together to find the right vocabulary to describe what they were seeing. Some groups were very specific by naming each color used, others were more general. Everyone was eager to see Lewitt’s actual instructions for the piece.
Wall Drawing 684A
Squares bordered and divided horizontally and vertically into four equal squares, each with bands in one of four directions.
Color ink wash
Through this process, students practiced using words to describe art, versus creating it visually. We put into practice an important Studio Habit of Mind, ENVISION, to picture an abstract design in our mind’s eye.
Each student wrote instructions on how to make the design he or she envisioned. Two different students became their ‘draftsmen’ by creating a drawing based on the instructions without being able to ask questions. One drawing was created using traditional media (paper, markers, colored pencils, etc). The other drawing was created using digital media (on the computer).
True to Sol Lewitt’s artistic method, the drawings are presented without credit to the draftsmen. Rather, the conceptual artist who wrote the instructions is the only name attached to these works through their original instructions.
“Trace hand with a colored marker somewhere on the paper. Color the outline of the hand in with the color you used to outline it. Trace around the edges of the hand over and over again with thick lines using multiple colors until you reach the outer edges of the paper/ fill up all of the white space. Do NOT use the color you used to trace the hand originally with as one of these colors.”
“Draw a big square and then draw 20 lines across the square in any direction. Next, color the shapes created by the lines in an assortment of 6 different colors, as well as black and white.”
“Draw a big black diamond in the middle of the paper. Draw two lines with multiple curves on the outside of the diamond. Draw many zig-zag lines on the inside of the diamond. Draw one bold red square anywhere you want and any size on the paper. Use ink to color in all different kinds of circles. Use bright colored pencils to color the picture.”
“Draw a 3 pane triangular window
Draw maroon stripes within each pane
Make each stripe face the center of the triangle
Make the window pane dividers black and thick
Make the maroon stripes have 3 for each pane, touching edges”
“Step 1: Draw a realistic face on a blank piece of paper. Don’t colour it in.
Step 2: Draw a neck and shoulders.
Step 3: Draw straight lines all over the face, neck and shoulders, making shapes.
Step 4: Paint warm colours inside the body( red, yellow, orange ).
Step 5: Draw straight or curved lines in the background and paint it cool colours.”
“Step 1. Create 5 different color lines that are all intersecting in one point.
Step 2. At the edge of each line, split it into 2 lines that are different colors than the original line.
Step 3. Repeat step 2 until satisfied.”
“Draw a triangle with perfectly straight edges (use ruler, yardstick, ext.) in one of the six squares, make other shapes in the other six squares, all shapes must be different than others. The shapes must pop from the background colors. Black borders for the dividers of the squares. ”
“Draw a circle with dotted lines going in all different directions in a circular formation each dot in a different color, (do this in a permanent marker like a sharpie) Next make a different circle with dotted lines going in all different directions like you did in the last one.”
Students have expressed their discomfort with not giving credit to the people who drew or painted their artwork – most feel that being an artist is MORE than just having an idea. It also requires interpretation, effort, creativity and much more. As a wrap up to this unit, student reflections were aggregated to generate a word cloud that represents their response to the original question: “What does it mean to be an artist?”