December 23, 2014
Instructor Barbara Chira facilitates engagement across generations
By Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz
A new intergenerational collaboration is giving first-year CIA students a rare opportunity to utilize their developing printmaking skills in a give-and-take process with residents of the nearby Abington Arms senior high rise.
The course, titled Self and Other Voices, is a freshman charette, which involves extensive creative brainstorming sessions aimed at developing visual solutions on a short deadline. The specific project began at the high rise in November, when students met with their Abington partners to learn about a specific object with great meaning to them.
The idea was inspired in part by the summer reading assignment for incoming freshmen: Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, a collection of essays arranged by Sherry Turkle. The book “conveys relationships between broader contextual, practical or philosophical theories and personal objects or experiences,” said Professor Petra Soesemann when announcing the reading selection.
“Since a portion of each student’s tenure at CIA will involve examining how artists inform social change, this collection of essays will, among other things, help provide an early foundation for those conversations,” Soesemann continued.
After students learned about their partners’ significant objects, they created several visual responses in the form of prints, which they shared with the Abington residents during a visit by the seniors to CIA’s printmaking studios.
There, the seniors had the opportunity to collaborate more fully by creating their own visual responses to what their student partners had produced. As the culmination of the project, students created a total of 18 prints, all related to their partner’s meaningful object. They presented framed versions of these prints to their partners at Abington in early December.
Instructor Barbara Chira hopes this “experimental and externally engaged learning process” will deepen “students’ understanding of the course content, and specifically, will enhance their creative problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills.”
Certainly a lot of communication and collaboration were in evidence when the Abington residents came to the Printmaking Department’s new space in the Joseph McCullough Center for the Visual Arts to work on visual responses to their student partners’ initial prints.
Student David Benman worked with Abington resident Rose Jones to create visual responses to her object, a photograph of Jones’s mother and aunt, taken at a birthday party in 1995. Jones’s mother died the following day and her aunt the following year.
They sat across from each other in the classroom, discussing metaphors for families, while Jones worked on a series of different visual ideas.
Her first effort mostly involved letters, although they didn’t have all the necessary letters for the word family. Once her first plate was put through a press to transfer the images to paper, she decided to go more abstract, mixing a wide variety of different colors on the next plate, and playing with texture using a toothbrush and a hair comb.
As he watched the process, Benman slowly assumed the role that Chira had assigned to the students at the start of the class: teacher. Observing for minutes at a time, he occasionally prompted her gently, at one point suggesting she integrate design elements to develop the message of her print, and later praising her for creating “a focal point where things converge.”
Jones said the whole process was eye-opening. “It was different to bring in the abstract,” she said. “When I came over, I thought we were going to use the picture. This was different.”
Jones has Abington’s art therapist Laura Cooperman to thank for helping make the eye-opening art experience possible when Chira proposed it last spring.
For Benman, the process was largely about pushing himself out of his own frame of reference.
“I can get a point across to myself, but it’s important in design for the real world to get it across to someone else,” he said.
Providing real-world experiences is a priority for Chira. She is academic director of CIA’s Cores + Connections initiative, which promotes engagement in field-based experiential learning, professional projects, and social practices in art and design.
Abington resident Dave Kelley was clearly pleased by many of the images student Meghan Sweeney had put together to represent his object, his sister Beverly’s obituary. His visual response to those prints began as he chose some of his favorite images from Sweeney’s prints—among them a letter B for his sister’s first name, and an image of hands cupping a bird to represent her nurturing qualities.
Their continued dialogue resulted in greater development of visual ideas. As he sorted through Sweeney’s prints, Kelley talked more about his sister, relating memories of all kinds, including one that clearly mortified him—his sister’s tendency, when she was angry, to curse at people in Italian.
The revelation prompted Sweeney to look up on her phone the Italian words for brother and sister. Within minutes, fratello and sorella became part of the visual landscape Kelley was creating.
As the afternoon progressed, they worked through challenges together, one of them involving the problem of mirror imagery. Writing words normally on a glass plate results in a print showing the words backwards. This meant they needed to write fratello and sorella backwards on their next plate to get a correct image of the words on the resulting print.
“It’s been fun to play around, experiment, and see what you come up with,” Sweeney said. “It’s really forced me to think about the concepts of loss and acceptance in a really abstract way, trying to figure out how to represent them.”
As for Kelley, he’s pleased to have something that he can put on his wall and see every day. “Now I’ve got something [else] to remember her by,” he said.
Above, Meghan Sweeney and Abington resident Dave Kelley are happy with their print.
Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz is a freelance writer/editor and instructor of journalism and mass communication. She lives on the West Side of Cleveland.
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