What if two artists, each with different strengths and interests, engaged in a “visual conversation” -- no verbal exchanges, each creating pieces to which the other responds? Another artist and I decided to try. Our experiment shows the Studio Habits of Mind in action. [Spoiler alert: We had this conversation in 2007 and found it so generative that the two of us have been collaborating on artist books ever since. We’re now working on our 12th book.] In my visual arts classes, I’ve used variations of the visual conversation. For example, I’ve had a whole class generate pieces from which students develop ideas for their own work.
The Studio Habits of Mind in Action
For our visual conversation, my fellow artist and I only specified the size (6 x 6 inch square). Our first images show how differently each of us approached the task, each drawing on interests in our own work.
My first image reflects my fascination with Joseph Cornell’s poem-like collages (Express, Engage, Understand Art Worlds: Domain) and desire to see what I could create from materials left over from other projects and failed pieces—yarn, wire, an old acrylic drawing, and cutouts from printing mistakes for one of my artist books (Envision, Stretch & Explore). I paid particular attention to ways overlapping layers created a feeling of shallow depth (Observe, Develop Craft: Technique), a bas-relief effect from previous work that I wanted to push further (Stretch & Explore, Develop Craft: Technique).
For her first piece, my collaborator created a surreal landscape. Her composition of cut shapes, fragments of mesh bag, and single piece of watercolor-stained paper continued her interest in paper collage with repurposed materials. (Engage & Persist, Develop Craft: Technique).
Considering how to respond to my collaborator’s 2D piece, I imagined how I might create a piece that appeared to be primarily flat while still incorporating relief elements (Envision, Develop Craft). Could I draw with cut paper instead of pencil or pastel? (Stretch & Explore).
My collaborator too struggled with how to respond before finally settling on a composition of cut paper that incorporated 3D elements similar to the wire and yarn in my piece (Envision, Stretch & Explore, Develop Craft: Technique).
A Creative Tension
For twenty pieces, the structure of our conversation pushed both of us beyond our comfort zone and stimulated new ways of working (Stretch & Explore, Develop Craft: Technique) --a tension between interests and ways of working that continued for the entire visual conversation. But oh how we struggled! Every time I received a piece from my collaborator, I sighed, “Oh no, flat again.” She did the same upon seeing more of my experiments with shallow relief.
Fortunately the conversation structure added elements of play and surprise to our struggles and encouraged us to keep going (Engage & Persist, Stretch & Explore). It also helped us to develop trust in our ability take on new challenges and the confidence that we could work as a team (Understand Art Worlds: Community). In fact, for our most recent book, Madwomen & Angels, we even decided to take on a new challenge: 3D figures. Both of us struggled and not surprisingly, we each came up with a different final solution. After many failed attempts we created seven individual boxes with pockets for small books, and a structure to hold all the individual boxes (Envision, Develop Craft: Technique).
Shirley Veenema brings the perspective of an art teacher (elementary and high school), a researcher at Project Zero from 1987-2007, and a visual artist. Research projects include thinking in the arts, portfolio assessment, technology, and schools using multiple intelligences theory. While an instructor in art at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, (1980–2015), she served Art Department Chair (2006-2012). Her current work as an artist is in media, mixed media drawing, and artist books. Collaborative media work includes five videos for the show Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar at The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and a series of interactive web-based documentaries funded by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. For several years she has followed the work of makers using archives to create work, in particular their use of online digital resources. Her artist book Witches, Magic & Early New England (2016) was produced as part of the Digital Public Library of America Community Representative program to showcase what makers can do with the DPLA online collections. The 5-part book, which tells a story that culminates in the Salem Massachusetts witch trials, has also interested educators looking for alternative ways of assessing student understanding.
How to cite this blog entry (APA 6th edition):
Veenema, S. (2020, Jan 20). A Visual Conversation [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.studiothinking.org/blog/a-visual-conversation