Thursday, July 14, 2016


Since coming to Mongolia and moving back into a secondary art position, I've been constantly stepping up my game as an art teacher.  I've seen teachers do amazing things with elementary art, but (in spite of teaching elementary students for seven years) it is really not my cup of teach.  In the last four years (sometimes it's hard to believe I have been in Mongolia for four years!), not only have I worked harder IN the classroom, I've participated in professional development outside the classroom - actual, art related PD, by the way, not the typical sort of thing I've attended as part of life in a school that never really applies to me - and, as amazing as it is when you know how little effort I put into my general teacher ed courses at university, I LOVED IT.  So when this school year was in its early months, I asked my principal if I could have time off to go to the national art teacher convention sponsored by my professional association each year, this time in Chicago.

This is not my teaching blog (that's been on hiatus even longer than this one was), so I'm not going to tell you about the conference, other than to say, if you're an art teacher reading this, to try and go, if you ever have the chance.  It was awesome.  This IS, on the other hand, my travel blog, and seeing art is one of my raisons de voyage - it's kind of my thing (along with spirituality, culture, and one or two other things that I won't mention lest I scare off any new readers).  So I watched with interest, as people on the facebook Art Teachers group I subscribe to started posting about different works of art you could see during the conference.

Now, there is a LOT of art in Chicago.  One of the best art museums in the world is right there in the loop - the Art Institute.  Less than a block away is the very famous Cloud Gate (so famous that I didn't even realize it was there and go look at it, which is a shame, because my students keep asking about it...oops).  There are potholes filled in with mosaics and tons of other public art and art galleries and basically, a shit ton of art.  In fact, it's way too much to see if you're going to take your art conference seriously and do any shopping at all (which I for SURE was).  So I narrowed it down to 3 - the Art Institute, the Cultural Center, and the City Gallery.  I'm not going to tell you anything about the Art Institute, which I visited Tuesday after I dropped my stuff at the hostel (which was my first legit hostel stay, and if I trusted that they'd all be that great, I'd never stay in anything else).  It is big and amazing - there was a van Gogh exhibition that I got to see while I was at it - and although looking at its collection online is cheating and not the same thing as standing in front of its works of art in person, you can at least get an idea of what it was like without me attempting to wax poetic about it.  But the other two...they had some unique opportunities.

Wednesday after my preconference workshop for secondary teachers on the national standards and AP (which I'll be teaching next year), I moved to the Chinatown Hotel (actual name, which was weird since it smelled like corned beef and cabbage on St. Pat's), then took the L north of the river to the Water Tower.  I'm sure it is a historic piece of architecture, but I didn't read the plaque outside, because it was 6 by then and it closed at 6:30.  The City Gallery, inside, was hosting an exhibition about Cards Against Humanity, and yes, that was the reason it made my list.

Now, I don't know if you love Cards or not.  When I added my own post about this exhibit to the Art Teachers group, the first comment was that we should, "Boycott that racist, sexist game."  It is true that it is NOT politically correct - unless you can argue that by embracing all stereotypes and being prejudiced against every race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc, you are, in fact, supremely egalitarian.  I believe my Dark Lord and Master once made that argument, so that lends it some legitimacy.  That said, if you took it seriously, it could be incredibly offensive.  Fortunately, most people don't take it seriously.  However, it would be equally easy to dismiss an art exhibit about the game, since, if you've ever played it, you know that it has a very basic black-and-white design.  Surprisingly, though, it was a well-curated show - it had a lot of info about the typefaces and graphic design the makers used, and I took lots of photos to show my students the next time I talk to them about text as an element of art.

What really drew me in was the recent stir over their threat to cut up a Picasso print, Tete de Faune.  This year I've been trying to get my students reading more about art topics, and when I came across the story of their Eight Sensible Gifts, I knew this was one we'd read and discuss when we did printmaking.  Basically, for the past couple of years Cards Against Humanity has done a promotion where 150,000 people buy into it and they are given 8 Hanukkah gifts.  This year, one gift was the Picasso, which the participants had to choose to either donate to the Art Institute of Chicago or cut up into 150,000 equal-sized pieces.  After the votes were in, the decision was to donate it, but before that happens they displayed it as part of the show.
The following night was the big NAEA St. Pat's shindig, welcoming all.  I'd signed up for it, but figured I had enough time to hit the Cultural Center first - my last chance to do so without blowing off part of the workshop, and I wasn't going to do that.  But I did want to see Theo Jansen's Strandbeests, which have fascinated me ever since I first came across them scrolling through my facebook feed.
As he puts it, his creations are "new forms of life," the basic material being basic yellow tubes.  Using the power of the wind, they shamble along the beaches of the Netherlands (where I might have tried to find him, if I hadn't been able to see them in Chicago).  You actually can't understand how cool these things are, so I suggest going over to youtube and watching some of the videos.  Otherwise you won't get a proper idea of how plastic tubes and wind can make something that looks so organic (and possibly a little bit creepy, but you know what?  Who cares!)
The actual mechanisms he uses to make the Strandbeests are fairly simple.  Sails, joints, and wind stomachs are basically what it boils down to, and the exhibition was fantastic, with a few different hands-on displays that you could use to get a feel for the structures.  They also had daily demonstrations of actually walking the Strandbeests, but I was too late for that (so sad).  In fact, the simplicity of the structures makes it possible for other engineer/artists to create their own, something that Jansen encourages - he sells books and kits, and the exhibition included mini-beests by others.
This was actually my first time visiting Chicago since I was a kid.  The two times I went with Mrs. Andrew's Bright Ideas class, we visited the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, both of which were absolutely incredible and left a lasting mark on my impressionable young mind.  Academically, I knew that Chicago was like that, but on an order of magnitude that you can't really understand unless you've been there for longer than 24 hours.  Besides the awesome conference and the fantastic art, this trip also showed me that I need to spend more time in Chicago.  At some point.  Probably not in the near future, though.

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