Make It Work: In the Studio with the Quest to Learn School

Put a group of student artists in a room with five hours to complete three days’ worth of work—and then tell them they have to exhibit their work to the public at MoMA the following day.

Four Quest to Learn students created abstract poem paintings as inspired by Sonia Delaunay-Terk

Four Quest to Learn students created abstract poem paintings as inspired by Sonia Delaunay-Terk

If you were a fly on the wall during the week, you might have heard, “I can’t imagine where that magic dust is going to come from.” It sounds a lot like an episode of Project Runway.

Shanna and Sasha in Dieter Roth

A couple of students looked to Dieter Roth’s Bunny-dropping-bunny for inspiration

That was the general tone of the Quest to Learn school’s “Boss Level” week at MoMA. For the past two spring semesters, students from the school have chosen a weeklong challenge called Boss Level, which is unique from their daily studies. So, this past March, Q2L math teacher Kate Selkirk brought a group of 13-year-olds to MoMA to learn about the varied processes and challenges of making art. At the end of the week, students were challenged to create an interactive exhibition for MoMA’s visitors, based on the theme of Escape.

For four days, we looked at work in MoMA’s collection and had critical discussions about how we should represent our experience of the world. We spent those days looking at and discussing big ideas around modern and contemporary art, and participating in art-making activities to get our creative juices flowing. During this time we investigated the ways in which artists like Dieter Roth used material to activate viewers’ senses, or challenged ideas about how art should be experienced. We considered Vasily Kandinsky’s synthesis of art and music and El Anatsui’s symbolic representations. While looking at these works in MoMA’s galleries, we also discussed Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist Is Present. The students were incredibly interested in the connection between artist and viewer, and they decided to take their own work into the realm of interactivity.

Then came Wednesday, March 20—not the work day, but the “make it work” day.

Michelle Drawing

To learn about Vasily Kandinsky’s work, students made abstract drawings while listening to music

We were in the studio pushing and pulling, kneading and pounding project ideas—it was a difficult but rewarding day for both me and the students. The students were tasked with addressing problems relevant to them, then creating their own solutions. But in a classroom where students take control of their own learning, experiment, and possibly fail, what is the instructor’s role?

I’m currently reading Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, and in it Joseph Albers states his preference for the students’ experience over the instructor’s. As an educator, he says, “You walk in and relate. You have to be in a state of awareness.” By paying attention to each student’s needs individually, he challenges them to be active in their own learning. He had this admonition for the art student: “Stick to your own bones, speak with your own voice, and sit on your own behind.”

This is the kind of environment I strove to create in the “work room.” This kind of teaching and learning is not just about building self-esteem or making something beautiful; it is about making choices in the moment that impact the project, and learning from those choices. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn calls it “making it work.” I call it “critical thinking.”

Students presented their work at MoMA and back at the school. Here, one student shows off his self-portrait project

Students presented their work at MoMA and back at the school. Here, one student shows off his self-portrait project

We challenged the students to create an interactive work of art around the theme of Escape. Each student was given the same challenge, but solved the challenge and created their own work in a unique way.

Some students from Boss Level, like Gama and Taku, had the seed of an idea about escaping from the anxiety of creating a self-portrait, and from the beginning knew how they wanted to execute it. They just had to find the right materials to make it work. Sasha and Angelina started with a simple but abstract idea of “natural vs. artificial,” and realized this could be a complex experience. They searched for a way to represent the complexity and, with a little help, settled on fake flowers versus real.

Each student group put together a creative concept, thought-provoking materials, and their own perspective on the world to create participatory artworks that challenged visitors’ comfort levels and preconceived notions.

Below you can see interviews with each of the artists the moment before their presentations. You can hear the confidence in their voices as they explain their projects. They made it work, and made the work their own…