When we polled teens last year to find out what new In the Making classes they were most interested in seeing on the schedule this fall, the most interesting suggestion that we received was that of creating a class with no set curriculum, rules, or theme. The teens hoped that this “structureless” class would give them more power regarding their own educational experience, and we responded to their desires by creating our most experimental In the Making offering yet, called A Class With No Name. Led by teaching artists Mark Joshua Epstein and Chris Domenick, the teens have been working together to create their own unique vision in arts education. Mark reflects on their unique journey in his blog post below.
-Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator of Teen and Community Programs
Voting, arguing, discussing, building, casting, melting and voting some more—these are the ways that Class with No Name has spent its time together. At the beginning of this experiment we were strangers and slowly we’ve built up a community—a community that talks things through, a community that tries to discern what’s in everyone’s best interest, and a community that sometimes disagrees. Students are learning that there are adults in the world who will take them seriously, and as one of these adults, I am learning to let go of the reigns.
What does it mean to empower a room full of teenagers to create their own curriculum? What does it mean to actually hand over power, to let students make choices about what they’d like to learn and how they’d like to learn it? What happens when educators are completely transparent about class budget and students hold the purse strings, approving (or not approving) every purchase? What it means is that the teenagers are in charge, and no one knows exactly what will happen as a result.
Class with No Name is something radically new each week. We started our first week by discussing the idea of rules and guidelines. We looked at a number of de Kooning’s black-and-white paintings in the galleries and tried to theorize what system, if any, he might have used to make decisions about color (or lack thereof), composition, and technique. Students followed up by discussing guidelines and systems in their own lives, and we had a great investigation into what rules teenagers think make sense, and what rules they think are not very useful.
During week two students began to think about and propose their own class themes. Students did drawings and writings about things that interest them, and we talked about what makes a great theme for a class and what kinds of themes might be too broad or too narrow to explore. This led us to week three, where we voted on the themes that students had generated—“Sculpture in Different Materials” won out by a large margin and we made a great list of materials we were interested in, and then voted on those! In the middle of that vote, however, we were interrupted by a masked man. Without the students knowing, Class with No Name’s educators had arranged for a rogue intervention. Keith Sklar, another teen educator, arrived in the middle of our vote, clad in a cow’s mask and pushing a cart heaped with foamcore, markers, oil sticks, masking tape, and other materials. Out of Keith’s mouth came the words “Stop talking so much and DO something!!!”…so we did! Students spent the remainder of class getting their hands dirty and thinking through concepts in three dimensions. Out of the mess, structures began to arise, faces began to be painted, and class culminated in an improvised performance featuring one student being raised in a chair high above our heads. Class with No Name had arrived!
Week four featured an exploration into our chosen theme, “Sculpture in Different Materials,” by way of mold-making putty and melted chocolate. Students learned how to temper chocolate and then cast several small objects from around the room in multiples. Suddenly there were chocolate earrings, chocolate paintbrushes, and chocolate coins everywhere. We finished up class by eating the leftover chocolate with some delicious bananas. Using a mold-making and casting process led us back into the galleries for week five, where we explored artists who work in similar ways, namely Eva Hesse. We had a great discussion about the idea of multiples, and why an artist might want to make something over and over. Students posited that perhaps Hesse wanted to challenge the notion of multiples by making each one a bit different, challenging the viewer to pay close attention to each form. While in the galleries we also spent time looking at On Kawara’s works and discussing the idea that an artist might use the notion of communication as their medium of choice. We thought about how this might relate to our own discussions and how perhaps we could hone in on meaning in our own verbiage.
At the end of class we discussed ideas for using some paraffin wax we had purchased for week four, but had not gotten around to casting. Students decided to explore encaustic painting and also return to casting. Thus, week five was spent doing just that. Students learned how to tint paraffin with crayon shavings, casting every empty bottle in sight with beautiful, translucent paraffin wax. We also worked in encaustic, heating up the wax paints and exploring different kinds of marks and textures to see just what encaustic does best.
Class with no Name is systematic while being rambunctious, orderly while managing to be silly—watching and helping these wonderful teenagers explore their own agency, their own needs, and their own interests has been magical and humbling. Who knows where the journey will take us next?
A Class with No Name will be presenting their final projects, along with the other fall classes, at the In the Making Teen Art Show opening party, held on Friday December 16 from 5:30–7:30pm. Located in the Lewis B. Cullman Education Building’s lower mezzanine gallery, the In the Making Teen Art Show will remain on view to the public from December 16 through January 16, 2012.