Tuesday, 23 May 2017

En Masse Collaborative Mural Project

We had the opportunity to witness an amazing project last week, and rather than write about it ourselves, we have asked the lead teacher on the project, Jordie Burton to share.  Here is what he had to say:

We laughed about our day over homemade burgers and a potato salad recipe perfected by Oma. We had just finished the second full day in a blitz of a four day project to complete nearly 700 sq ft of mural. I was eating dinner with three “En Masse pour les Masses” artists visiting for the week from Montreal, who happened to be crashing at my house. The halfway point was a perfect evening to have a dinner with the three artists and three of the teachers from our school involved in the Norton Community Park Mural project.  We could debrief the project, plan for the next two days and further develop conversations that we had pulled threads on all day while painting. Our mural project was already successful, as our community was working together.
Brainstorming on the theme of the mural: Community

Here is a little background on this project, which has been grounded in connecting community. In the summer of 2015, I was introduced to the idea of “En Masse” from Katie Green, one of the project's directors. En Masse is a mural collective that focuses on creating a platform for professional artists to work alongside community groups to create unified works of art. We had our sights on a huge blank wall outdoors in the park across the street from our school.  Over the past year and a half we have developed relationships with the City of Burlington, tapped into the Burlington Community Matching Fund, generated student interest, community support from students, teachers and parents, worked cross-curricularly to enable students to participate and create the materials and panels for the project, and just this past week, organized about 80 people to flow through an art room and create an astounding work of art. This journey has been a wonderful learning experience to recognize how wonderful community support can be for a project.

The process was truly collaborative, with students, teachers, and professional artists working alongside each other
This project is about empowering individuals to act as a collective. The finished product will be awesome, but truly, the magic in this was the creation. The students came to life on this project in a refined, mature and inspiring way. On day one, En Masse led a brainstorming session around the concept of community. When it was time to start getting drawings onto the panels the advice from Katie was, “If things aren’t going well on your drawing, just walk away from it. Someone else will see the potential in what you started and take it in a new direction.” We were given permission to fail. The funny thing about this suggestion is that perhaps no one walked away from a painting. Instead, students, teachers and artists spoke with each other, planned collaboratively and sought and gave constant feedback. My class had a chance today to look at the finished painting and critique it. We highlighted some really strong areas, and also noticed some areas that were perhaps underdeveloped. Through conversation the students agreed that the bits they didn’t like really didn’t matter because the project as a whole was so strong. Further, the whole project would only be complete with each of those contributions. This was a light bulb moment. Each and every contribution on the mural lent to the overall success.
Student boldly painting the first few strokes on the wall
The classroom during the 4 days of painting was the greatest creative atmosphere I have ever experienced. Two groups of students were on in-school field trips for two days each. This meant that each group would spend two full consecutive days in the class.

The students had equal ownership of the space. As the group settled in for the day, a much more natural ebb and flow of breaks, bathroom, and really hard work was apparent. Students were given autonomy to control their actions through the day, and most had to be pulled off the wall and told to rest now and again. Very quickly into the project the traditional roles of the classroom faded away. The students, teachers and artists worked beside one another, painting, working images off one another's, discussing the artwork and just having great discussions over the constant soundtrack of the art room. There was no longer a teacher in control of the class. There was a group of people working together to explore ideas, take creative risks and support each other’s process. I was very proud to be a teacher in a room that didn’t need a teacher.
Katie Green and Lee Lai from En Masse collaborating with students on their ideas
I loved working on the project for 2 whole days. And for me, I was in there the whole week really. I loved getting super into a project and being able to really put my head into it. We spend so much time as teachers flipping our brains into something different constantly. Every bell, every question, every class, every meeting - all different. It was rewarding mentally and physically to engage more whole heartedly into a task/class. It was exhausting, but in such a good way.

Being free from the bell was amazing. The approaching bell is the biggest buzz kill to any good project. In an art room, you can expect that of your 75 minutes, 10 are for setup, 10 are for clean up and it takes about 20 minutes to really get your head into a project. That leaves 30-45 minutes if you are lucky to actually work on a project. The stress relief from not worrying about the bell was truly palpable in the room. It felt like we were doing something wrong, but so, so right. One of the common factors each day of the project was that the last bell of the school day always snuck up on the group with a surprise. Many students chose to ignore that one as well. Many of the students on the project started the day at 8:30 and worked until 4:30.

“I really liked working on the project for two entire days because we were really able to get into the zone. We didn't have to worry about getting to different classes and working in different subject areas. I was solely focused on art for hours at a time and it was great.” ~Student

In the zone! As a teacher, I always strive to have an engaging classroom. I want a class where kids want to be there, want to be working, want to challenge themselves. This mural project engaged the students. Similar to what Jamie Mitchell mentioned about his time with Second City, everyone was too busy, and too “in the zone” to check their phones all day.

It really was a three week project completed in 2 days, which was amazing. One of the greatest parts was the brainstorm - create- feedback - create etc…it allowed a deep exploration of the iterative process. Because we had the space and time, there was an immediacy to the process that really sparked the class to life. Being able to develop ideas and immediately deliver them is really fantastic and only really doable when you have the extended time like this. Further, once an idea was out, there was a freedom and expectation to leave it behind and move onto the next. Allowing the iterative process to happen naturally and more quickly. As the mural developed and space became more precious, the process demanded that each new piece fit with a neighbour’s, respond to an image, be inspired by another action. Many of these things happen in our class through projects already, but being able to FEEL the project this way was a new experience.

Working with outside, professional working artists is hugely inspiring. It was great to see the students respond so well to having other artists do some work but also become peers with them. By getting feedback and having conversations, the students developed relationships alongside these artists that I believe allowed them to see themselves in a different light. The students had wonderful feedback about the experience. Here are some direct quotations from students reflecting on the experience.

“I believe the best part of the process was designing and planning ideas with the collaboration of peers and teachers. This helped many students develop interesting artwork, and 2 full days of fun:)”

“The most fun was the final stage of painting the mural because it was amazing and gratifying to see it all coming together. Seeing all of the hard work that people had put in come together in something that looked professional and all around beautiful was a great experience.”

“Amazing! Loved it and I totally got in the zone and got to know the people working around me more because I got to spend the whole day with them!!”

“I loved painting on the actual large panels... And being able to hear constructive criticism from professional artists:)”

In my own observations I think the students really enjoyed being brought up to the same level as the artists as well. There are many parts of the finished project that you would not be able to differentiate the professional work from the student. Being given the opportunity to rise up to the occasion allowed the students to really rise.

Artist Spirits are high after two days of painting

As an art teacher I loved having the chance to talk shop with contemporary artists. A big part of our teaching practice involves staying current with the art world and this was a wonderful opportunity to connect with that world. It also was a great platform to make art as well. For all the same reasons the students enjoyed working with the artists, I believe the teachers did too. The flip side of this, I am told by the En Masse crew, is that some teachers have not had as a good of a time. They explained that sometimes the classroom teacher has a really hard time letting go of control of the project and students. The guest artist in this case almost becomes a threat. I can relate that sometimes it isn’t easy seeing someone take a different approach in your room, but to me, this project is so successful because it allows the teacher to step back and the students to jump forward.

As for the bigger picture - what would happen if the regular semester looked like this? I would love to find out.
Here are some Ideas I think are worth exploring:
  • Having more flexible class times and student autonomy, as well as more large collaborative projects that demanded students develop skills related to conflict resolution and idea sharing
  • Projects that allowed for on the spot iteration; seeing what works and building onto it.
  • Projects that give you real permission to fail knowing that because of the efforts of others the work can still be successful.
  • More projects that connect the school community to the geographical community and the artistic community.
~Jordie Burton

So Shifters, what do you think? What would you do to explore some of these ideas in your class? What have you found success with already?

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