Honor the Process

I’m not an artist myself, but I’ve always been drawn to the colors and textures and weave of fabrics from around the world. I like designs on cloth and clothing design. I used to quilt, and once upon a time, I sewed my own clothes. So, on a recent trip to Philadelphia, when I learned about The Fabric Workshop and Museum, I was eager to visit. What I stumbled upon there was a retrospective exhibition of 40 years of fabric art, all works completed on the premises by visiting artists.  Some of them—like Faith Ringgold and Louise Nevelson—I recognized; the others were new to me. The exhibition—which runs until March 25, 2018, if you happen to live in Philadelphia—is named: Process and Practice: 40 Years of Experimentation.

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The first “piece” I encountered was a box of loosely arranged fabric, raw on the edges; pencil drawings; a map; two kinds of cord; a color wheel made of fabric bits, lengths of watercolor on silk; color swatches drawn as tiny skeins–all of it arranged pleasingly, invitingly, in a glass display case. The assemblage was striking, beautiful all by itself.

I came upon another box, and another, and then some finished pieces on the wall.  

And then I saw that the finished pieces were composed of the items in the box; that is, each box contained the working material of the art on the wall.  

Faith Ringgold: Tar Beach II

A colleague was with me, and together we spent quite a bit of time matching the items in the boxes to the creations on the wall. It was like working through a puzzle or deciphering clues to solve a mystery. We saw, in the notes and drawings and material, each artist’s mind at work—their ingenuity, the choices they made, the juxtapositions that, by chance or design, resulted in the finished piece.

In some cases, photographs and artifacts from the original installation, impossible to recreate, were mounted on the wall above the corresponding box.

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The pieces on the wall–or on the floor, or suspended from the ceiling–were stunning.

But so were the boxes.

And then, because we are teachers, my colleague and I began to imagine what could be done with this concept in the classroom, what kind of curation task we could set our students to.

Clothing design, interior design, art itself—these are obvious. But what about these:

A social studies box: Choose a period in history and assemble or recreate artifacts that helped you understand significant events or persons or issues during that time. Include, perhaps, excerpts from texts you read, photographs, maps, timetables, music, art pieces, the bits from your research that informed your impression of that time period.  The project could culminate in a poster or a Powerpoint.

A literature box: Choose an author and a characteristic work. Include for the box a picture of the author, of course, and the text itself. But also slip in pictures or reproductions or even real objects that inspired the writer. If they’re available—as they sometimes are online—earlier drafts of the story or poem you selected, the writing utensils likely used, the correspondence between the writer and his or her muse or spouse or editor. Into the box with whatever informs your understanding of the author and the text you selected. And then, how about a book (or story or poetry) talk for the class?

A science box: Choose a disease for which a cure needs to be found, or an environmental issue, or a specific engineering problem that needs to be solved. Find or create the elements that inform the search. Include drawings of cells or elements or photographs of physical locations, maybe a picture of the lab where the work is being done.  Add in printouts of data, tables, charts, diagrams, journal articles you consulted, Petri dishes, microscopes or other lab equipment—or photographs of same—relevant to the search and then create a poster or prepare a Ted Talk synthesizing what you learned.

I am not talking about random artifacts collected to symbolize a writer or a time period or a scientific inquiry. I am not talking about the sort of project students are often asked to do because they are hands-on learners–like, say, a diorama. I am not even talking about “finished” boxes in the way that the artist Joseph Cornell created art inside of a box.

I am talking about an assemblage of items that informs a conclusion, a final product, an enduring understanding (to use Grant Wiggins’ term), or a final takeaway.  

I’m talking about, well, a tangible bibliography.  

The box would represent the student’s choices along his journey to understanding:  “Here are the items I consulted when I did my research. I may not have ‘used’ all of them in my presentation, but all of them were a part of my research.” Indeed, it seemed to me, residing in some of the boxes at the Fabric Museum’s gallery were items that the artist did not incorporate into the final piece but that had, at some point and in some way, suggested themselves as possibilities. The artist made a conscious decision not to use that particular item, but the item was as important as a discard as other items were as selections.

What the box did was make thinking visible.

So, we might say to the student, expose your peers to your process as well as your product. Let them see what you investigated and how you learned and how your final product came into being.  

Because, recreating the process of thinking will help them understand how you came to your conclusions.  (In fact, this act of metacognition will help you understand your own thinking!)

Because, recreating the progress of your thought will also help me, the teacher,  understand how you got from here to there.

Because, jumbled and messy and fragmented as it is, the process of learning is as intriguing—and as beautiful—as the final product.

Because, process deserves as much space—and as much attention—as product.

As educators, we need to make sure we honor the process. That’s how our students learn.

Without process, there is no product. Without process, there is no art.

Without the journey, we can’t reach the destination.

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