Contemporary approach to contemporary art

Nov. 30, 2013 @ 12:28 PM

“Art is something that I’ve always known even before I knew what that meant,” said Chapel Hill High art teacher Jack Watson.

Watson’s love of art has led to a nine-year teaching career and a recent project that got him and a colleague published in the November 2013 edition of the national magazine School Arts.
Watson and Tennessean colleague Dennis Greenwell met through Art21, nonprofit in New York that chronicles contemporary art and artists while using digital media to introduce people to contemporary art., where they were in an educators workshop together discussing how to develop curriculum around contemporary art.
In the article, “Managing the Artroom: State of Collaboration,” Watson and Greenwell discuss art teachers connecting to one another and the use of an online platform and a common big idea to bring the art classes and art teachers together. After realizing shared interests and becoming fast friends, the duo got to work.
“Through phone calls we said that we wanted to get our students to collaborate as well as us,” said Watson. “So the first idea we came up with was beauty. We wanted to get our students to interact so they had to transform something considered unbeautiful into something beautiful.
“This was the first time that I’ve ever had students applaud a project,” he continued. “The thing they responded to was how open-ended it was. I trusted them and allowed them to use their voices.
“I believe that one of the best ways to build trust is by putting some of the authority on them,” Watson added. “The best way to lead people is to empower them.”
After the students made unbeautiful things beautiful, they discussed them online in a chat room and posted images of their work on the photo sharing website Pinterest. Students also picked a buddy from Greenwell’s class to work with.
“[Pinterest] lends itself to it,” Watson explained. “It’s a great way to share it [artwork] and discuss it. The benefit of Pinterest is you can separate the art by themes so students can look at a certain type of art and discuss the images critically or upload their own work and get feedback or suggestions from their peers.”
Watson said that using an online platform has helped his art students in other ways too.
“It gets everybody in a discussion online, everyone has an equal voice and everyone has to participate,” he explained. “Students are aware of each other and their ideas on different things. There’s a sense that everyone’s voice is valued.”
Watson said that he routinely challenges his students to think beyond the obvious and to consider the unpredictable and impossible.
“What I’m interested in are outcomes you can’t predict. When students produce unpredictable answers, that’s generative instead of just reflective,” he said. “I want them to be able to work through a problem in new ways, to find new solutions in new avenues and new answers. Experimentation and collaboration are key to a contemporary art studio.”
Watson’s task project is a test of his belief in risk and experimentation. At the beginning and middle of the school year, Watson has students write a task on a piece of paper then put it in a box. With art supplies and peers on hand, students are to pick a task out of the box and create it.
“It could be as simple as ‘draw a portrait’ or something as esoteric as ‘start a revolution’,” he said.
Working to foster a curiosity that seeks to learn about the world, Watson said that he also works to instill a creative play in his students through their various projects.
Now collaborating with students and teachers in New York and Toronto, Watson said that he and some others are working on “how to create a sustainable system for art,” where students create art to take them on their own personal path not just to satisfy an assignment.
As foreign as it may sound, Watson began teaching art after seeing the joy it brought others and seeing it as a way to share something he loves.
“I became a teacher because it allowed me to be able to work with art all day, talk about it all day and work with others who like it but don’t know where to go with it.”