March 28, 2011  |  Events & Programs
Educator Journal: What the #%!$@? Abstraction, Emotions, and Art

Teens react to their surroundings after entering Flux Factory for the first time.

In her session of In the Making, teaching artist Kerry Downey has been tackling the difficult world of abstract art and the way in which non-representational art can express emotions. For her first field trip of the season, she took the group on a strange, confusing, and ultimately beautiful journey through the amazing environs of Long Island City’s Flux Factory.—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator, Teen and Community Programs

The Vincent van Gogh model for the brooding artist, however outdated, still haunts us, unconsciously forming our expectations of what it means to be an artist. Using The Starry Night as a jumping-off point, our class has investigated questions of what it means to express through abstraction. We have also confronted the legacy of the Abstract Expressionists, viewed works in the contemporary galleries, and explored a variety of materials and processes through our own art making. Much of our experimentation has worked to establish a relationship between the body and an artwork—how our bodies house feelings, and how feelings can become embodied in an artwork.

From left: teens put on blindfolds before entering the Flux Factory space; teens lead one another into the unknown.

At the midway point in our class, we took the group on a special field trip to Flux Factory, a nonprofit arts collective in Long Island City. There we extended our conversations through a physical, social experiment with artist Douglas Paulson. We wanted to find a more visceral approach to the themes we’d been discussing: the expectation that artists “perform” their own emotions, the delicate manipulation in art of chaos versus control, and the various ways in which we can arrive at abstraction. Here’s what we did:

1. We transported the class to an undisclosed location.

2. We separated them into two groups and blindfolded everybody.

3. We brought the groups, hand-in-hand, into Flux Factory through two separate entrances.

4. We reminded them of the rules of the museum (to create layers of behavioral expectation) and then… abandoned them to experience their surroundings. They could hear the sounds of cameras clicking—our assistant educators Maren and Daniel were with them the whole time, snapping away—while current Flux Factory residents walked around them, occasionally poking and prodding them with household items, speaking in German and Hebrew, offering them candies, and generally adding to the confusion.

5. Doug and I were upstairs making nachos for the class and waiting patiently to see what would happen next.

The “what happens next” portion of the experiment was entirely up to the students. We wanted to see what would happen when their senses were manipulated and they were left to feel disoriented (rather like the way it can feel to stand in front of an unknown artwork at MoMA). How would it feel to be left there, uncertain of what they were supposed to do? What would the group energy be? At which point would someone remove his or her blindfold or peek? And, once this occurred, what would it take for the students to find their own agency and discover the unknown terrain of their own volition?

Teens begin to explore the Flux Factory space; one teen removes her blindfold, and begins taking the others through the Factory.

In this experiment, the students became active participants in the artwork, and the architecture of Flux Factory became the framework. What ended up happening was more interesting and exciting than any of us could have anticipated. One group remained fully blindfolded and created a collective bonding experience, passing a broom around as a talking stick, answering questions like “What’s your biggest fear?” In the other group, one student removed the blindfold and defiantly led her group around the building, stumbling upon the rest of the class, and finally leading everybody to the food upstairs.

From left: one small area within the huge Flux Factory; teens explore more.

After we had spent some time orienting ourselves, figuring out what Flux Factory is, and processing the blindfold experience, Doug led an interactive slideshow on Flux Factory’s projects. Each student had to come up with a caption for a slide on the spot, round-robin style. The slideshow allowed the group to participate in the energy of collaboration and social practice. We were also able to observe how collective living and teamwork can provide necessary emotional and creative support for artists.

From left: teens eating and discussing their experience; viewing Flux Factory artwork and coming up with captions

In class the following week, we linked our experiences at Flux Factory to questions of creative agency in art making. How can we construct boundaries, rules, or systems for expressing our inner emotional worlds? We’re spending the last few weeks honing our personal styles and approaches and completing our final projects. It’s been exciting to witness the class’s level of curiosity, willingness to explore abstract languages, and dedication to thoughtful art making.

Summer 2011 In the Making Applications are available now! Go to our MoMA Teens website for more information. Special thanks to Douglas Paulson and Flux Factory.


Kerry has been been experiencing materials and objects (rocks,sticks, dead animals) found in the neighborhood) from the time she could walk. Her artist-mother and I saw an artist/teacher from the beginning, and we’re pleased that she continues to share her creativity with others.

Great project Kerry .. wish I could have been along.>>>

Kerry, it looks so stimulating and exciting!

I met Kerry Downey in December of last year, and had the pleasure of speaking with her. She is vibrant, funny, smart, and has a keen, perceptive eye for her surroundings. It was a pleasure and honor to have met her – everyone should be lucky enough to have the chance of interacting with her.

My very best to you, Kerry.


Ha! I am crazy about you “bag lady and dumpster diver.! What a blessing to have you for a daughter.
You constantly light up my life with your creativity, humor, fun loving personality and goofy way of being
in this world of adventure and chaos.

These group collaborations look like quite the amazing adventure. I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing anything like this, or even the collaboration I just read titled: “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” They all seem like such great experiences!

I’m so sorry that my daughter, Winnie, missed this Trip! It looks like it was great. Those pesky college tours have been getting in the way of things for us lately!

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