Do you think it’s possible to teach creativity to students?
They definitely can learn the technical stuff. There’s no doubt in that. Sometimes it will be difficult to teach the creative part because that’s all experience, like some things you just have to be in that moment of hearing and knowing and doing to be able to even express it in a way that’s not written or verbal. But I guess, yeah. It just depends on how far they want to go. If I wanted to teach my students about injustice, I can force them to paint a picture but not give them brushes, and then let them stay in these restraints. [I could] ask them to produce an artwork that can only be produced a certain way by using brushes, but then take away the brushes from them just to teach them about how things could not be fair and then relate that to something else.
Have you done that?
Sometimes I’ve gotten tears, like, “It’s not fair!” The idea of collages is always to use scissors. “Alright, we’re doing collages, and I want you to be able to show me rectilinear shapes, but no one gets scissors, and this is due in two weeks.” And then I just don’t say anything else, and they’re just like, “Wait a minute, how the hell are we gonna do that? Excuse me, miss!” The very first thing is, “That’s not fair!” “Life isn’t fair, darling. It’s due in two weeks.” I wait until the very end to make them understand that that wasn’t really an art lesson. That was a lesson in injustice. A life lesson, because if you’re here with me, I treat every student that I have as like my daughter. I always leave an empty seat in my class, and they’re like, “Why is that seat always empty?” I’m like, “My daughter is sitting there,” and they’re like, “She’s not here,” and I’m like, “She’s here in my imagination that keeps me clean, that keeps me from cursing you out because I wouldn’t want anyone cursing at my daughter and that keeps me thinking that whatever I provide for my daughter, I will have to give you the same opportunity.” There’s nothing I wouldn’t give any of my students. If I don’t have it, sometimes I got to go to these crazy feats to get it. Sometimes I don’t get it, but at least I know I tried. I make them aware of that.
They had me teaching fashion at a high school that I was working in. I could make a pencil scribble, but that’s the extent of my knowledge of fashion. What did I do? I went in and got Beth. I went and got a friend of mine named Erica. I went and got a photographer named Joseph, and we put on a fashion show in there. I don’t have it, but I will find who has it to get it to you guys because I’m doing the best I can.
I like how you put something earlier, “It depends on how far they want to go.” Is this how you try to help push them as artists?
I want them to be able to think outside the box, and I want them to be able to know that sometimes the very first solution that is in front of your face is not always the best solution because it’s the easiest. You learn more when you go through harder times, like the lack of something gives you that push to figure out how to substitute for it.
You want to give them a chance to struggle?
Yeah, let them sweat. It’s not like you’re doing this to be vindictive or evil or to taunt them, but this is what you’re going to have to do. “I hate to break it to you that you’re not going to be a student forever. You will be a student of life forever, and eventually you’re going to have to move out and assume the responsibility on your own.” There’s not going to be a person there to hold your hand. If you have that, you’re lucky, but most of us don’t so you got to kind of learn to do stuff on your own. There’s no way in the world you can survive without being able to think outside the box, especially in the world that we live in today. Information is out there for anyone to take. What can you do with information now? How can you use it to your advantage? That’s basically my wish for anyone, each and every one of my students first and then everyone else. I want them to use information in a way that’s unique to them and no one else has thought of yet.
Can we go back to something you were talking about earlier, about how art education can make a difference for social change?
Two ways mostly … even if you’re a visual performing artist, of course your art can make an impact by actually getting these messages out to people because sometimes people don’t want to listen to someone doing a long speech about, you know, racial inequality or socio-economic constraints, but they definitely would like to stop and analyze a mural or painting or postcard or poster or see a performance or listen to music–like Tupac.
We were just listening to him in my class the other day, and there’s a song called “Changes,” and he’s like, “I see no changes. All I see is racist faces,” and that first line delivered me to the fact that half of my students had almost no clue what racism meant prior to their generation. What did racism mean to your parents who were born in the 70s, like me? What does racism mean to my parents who were born in the 40s and 50s? The further back we went in history, the less they could connect to. “Is that seriously what happened? People couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain?” Which in turn, made them more interested. [“Changes”]
They kind of see it when they talk about something like police brutality, but then I’ll have to make that line clear for them, too. That may not be racist because there are some police who are the same color as you and still abuse people that look just like them, so maybe that’s more an abuse of authority or power and not racism. See, they’re not really 100 percent clear on what it is. They live in a totally different … and now, I feel bad because I’m thinking, “Should I even bring up all those instances from previous generations to make them more aware of it, or should I just let them not realize that it still might exist even though it does. I question myself, maybe I shouldn’t have told them all that kind of stuff.
Well, it seems like you try to bring things to the surface so that they can see what they’re facing more clearly, right?
That would be my intention, but sometimes it doesn’t always work like that, and maybe that might be because of the end of racism that I’m on. I’m not sure. I just know that I don’t ever want them to not be aware of things that I’m aware of. I want them to be equipped with as much information as possible, and then in that way, they could decide what they think is right, what they think is wrong. Do they want to learn about it or is this something that makes them uncomfortable? Should I put it aside for later or maybe never touch it again? Like, should I give them a choice? Because it’s different if somebody has a choice than if you hide something from them completely, and they never know. It’s kind of unfair.
And how is this connected to art for you?
Well, usually I use some type of art form to start these kinds of discussions. We don’t make art in every class. Sometimes we listen to music, which is an art form of course. Sometimes we are reading poetry, sometimes we are analyzing a piece of artwork and just talking about what it’s made of, what it makes us think of and why? We do these things because those discussions help me figure out what students know, what they don’t know, what they should have access to knowing, and once they have all of those pieces of information mapped out or organized in a way, then they could use that to make their own artwork.
Do you do this in almost every class?
I try or, if I don’t do it every class, I try to break it up into different days, like today would be a day we’re listening to music about a certain subject, and then the next day we will look at photographs about whatever that subject was, and then the next day we will probably read an excerpt from a newspaper and analyze whose point of view it is. Now that we have all of these opinions, what do you think yours is? Do you agree with this person or not? Why? And now that you have your own opinion established, you make your artwork about that, and it doesn’t always have to be a visual thing. I let them record me a song or make a dance, you know what I mean, because everyone’s not the same type of artist. Like, my husband is a brilliant photographer, but his drawing, oh man, his drawing…
Describe an art project that you’ve enjoyed doing in one of your classes.
I like them all. All right, I liked the neighborhood project from this semester’s sixth grade students because the way they drew their neighborhoods–they had to bring in photographs, some of them were memories, some of it was observational, and some of it was from photographs, or whatever. You could kind of tell the difference between neighborhoods that we live in and the paintings that we see when we go to the Met, those large landscapes. It was comparing and contrasting, and that’s when students try to notice the social or, I should say, economic, inequalities of where people live. What’s the difference in the details? Why do you draw trash falling out of the trash bags and falling onto the concrete while in other people’s paintings you see their streets are completely clean? Maybe those people don’t care about how clean the street is, or maybe they have somebody clean up behind them and that started a whole other discussion. The entire school was from around the same neighborhood. That school was primarily for kids who live in Harlem, so as you’re walking down the hallways, you see like these little snippets of Harlem.
What a great project. Describe an example of your own artwork that you love or feel proud of.
Well, people like to ask me to do portraits of their loved ones, and I never keep any of them, but those are the ones I like the most because I know they go on to live somewhere else, not with me. While the person is with the pictures of their loved one and their memories and their loved one, they remember that I was the person that painted it or drew it for them, so yeah.
Jasmin works as an art teacher for the NYC Department of Education.
Watch her on the Museums Respond to Black Lives Matter panel at the Whitney Museum, November, 16, 2015.
Interview and photos by Chris Parkman: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcription by Chironjit Das
Sponsored by the CCNY Department of Art Education