As a teaching artist, I focus on the experiential parts of artistic learning, going beyond a basic accumulation of knowledge. In teaching about art, I have the ability to help learners access knowledge that is not just related to art history or cultural history, but also emotional knowledge. Knowledge based on a learner’s experience is validated just as any other kind of knowledge in my lessons and classes. I work to find a balance in which a learner’s personal life becomes intimately intertwined with cultural history through the process of connecting to art. I do this by asking questions that allow learners to ground their observations in their own associations with artistic mediums or imagery. For example, I focused my discussion of Lucy Pettway’s quilt (one of the Gee’s Bend quilts in the exhibition Out of Place: A Feminist Look at the Collection at the Brooklyn Museum) around the question, “What do quilts mean in your life?” prompting learners to recall people in their lives that make quilts, or ways in which they use quilts in their own homes. This allowed learners to feel immediately connected to the quilt on view, despite its decontextualization, and allowed us to find closer connections with the artist and her family.
Through my emphasis on personal and cultural meaning-making, I also attempt to undermine master narratives of culture and engage in institutional critique. I share information about artworks based on what learners find in the artwork, rather than using art historical information as a starting point. This allows learners to feel strength in their own abilities of interpretation, and allows us shift away from interpretations dominated by the institutional voice or the art historical canon. A learner’s personal experience of an artwork becomes the foundation on which we can build knowledge and meaning together. I value both the individual and social experiences of learners in museums, which is why I try to engage learners in group discussion, personal reflection, and collaborative work in every lesson.
I do not shy away from questions that often arise about how objects have made their way to the museum. These questions are asked most often when I’ve taught about ancient Egypt, typically surrounding mummified bodies or the encasings that may have once held mummified bodies. I am transparent with learners about the ways museums acquire objects and the debates surrounding the possession and exhibition of bodies and objects connected to bodies, for I believe it is important that students think critically about museums from a young age.
I engage histories of colonialism in ways that remind us how these forces are ongoing and residual, and I try to privilege the voices of those who have been marginalized in an effort to restore their authority over their own narratives. For example, one of the lessons offered during my time at the Brooklyn Museum was entitled, “Arts of the United States: Westward Expansion.” I believe that lessons surrounding the early histories of the United States must forefront the voices and experiences of Indigenous Peoples. This is one of many reasons that I believe in the value of using supplementary tools and materials in my teaching practice; I engaged learners with quotes from the mid-1800s, one from Bear Tooth, a Crow chief, and another from a senator in the U.S. government. Learners analyzed these quotes and considered what the voices of each individual could illuminate about history and power relations. I have also used at least one contemporary artwork every time I teach this lesson, often as a place to end the lesson, because it is important to acknowledge the ongoing ramifications of westward expansion and colonialism. I’ve used the work of Carol Emarthle-Douglas and Jeffrey Gibson, and read quotes to learners from both of these artists, to recognize the ongoing resistance, resilience, and celebration of Indigenous Peoples.
For me, teaching is about finding ways for art to empower learners, whether that is empowering them to share their thoughts and opinions or empowering marginalized communities from which a learner may come. I try to always teach with care at the center of my lesson, and I try to teach predominantly from the work of artists of color, in particular Black and Indigenous artists.