Visual Literacy:  Reflections from a New Art Teacher
Is it through the formal halls of academia or from a practicing artistic tradition extending almost the entire length of one’s life?  Perhaps it is both.  At any rate, the need for conceptual understanding and experience cannot be underestimated for their ability to assist in one’s artistic and pedagogical practice.
My background is fine-art photography, which I have had the pleasure of teaching at the post-secondary level.  Over the last several years thanks to the portable knowledge available in all sorts of electronic devices these days, I have begun to develop a stronger appreciation for art in general.  This new discovery of art has lead both to a greater understanding of the subject and to its language, i.e., the language of art.  However, it has also indirectly lead to some frustration as I realise that I have been missing a whole aspect of art that I now feel is important to being a fine-art photographer.
I have come to believe that just focusing upon photography has left me ignorant about several artistic aspects that help me understand things such as colour scheme and composition.  Yes, you can learn such things from photo books, but a deeper appreciation and understanding for where certain techniques come from helps establish an artistic foundation that becomes an intuitive background knowledge for moving forward as an experienced artist and better able to translate one’s visual literacy in ways that truly express one’s practice and reach out to others.  As Thomas Spoerner (1981) aptly wrote, “… visual literacy encompasses more than vision alone:  it incorporates all the senses into a total perception.”
As an art teacher I have come to appreciate the importance of a good foundation upon which to anchor artistic practise.  Some artists may prefer a laissez-faire type approach, but I am speaking of formal education that must follow the British Columbia curriculum learning outcomes.  I acknowledge this this is an acute topic between freedom for the artistic expression and limited artistic freedom dictated by a school curriculum.  But in the case of children in a formal educational setting, I believe structure and formality as well as summative assessments have a certain merit and I will leave it at that.
Spoerner (1981) suggests that the first step to designing a curriculum is to define visual perception skills that could be investigated photographically and that foster skills such as:  perception, object, shape, space, movement, colour, time, events, representation, people and illusions.  These are the same skills one could introduce when teaching the Elements and Principles of Design in a visual arts class.  There is a clear cross over amongst the various art disciplines – not a new discovery, but a valuable observation for those of us new to this aspect of teaching.  Following is a direct example of my current teaching experience and how visual literacy not only helps me construct my pedagogical practice, but also helps students construct concrete examples we explore through our class.
Teaching high school art at a private school offering the British Columbia curriculum in China is a real honour and I am very grateful for this opportunity.  In the remainder of this article I would like to share an experience I found particularly surprising and immensely grateful to be a part of as an art teacher.
This last semester (Sept – Dec 2013), I was teaching Studio Arts to grades 11 & 12 students where we were working with 3D art projects.  Thus, I designed two different projects for students to choose from, each with its own rubric.  On the one hand they could form small groups to design and build a small settlement.  The other option was to design an extra-large chess set playable on a large portion of the first floor of the building.  The result was three groups working on village scenes and one large group of students tackling the chess set.  Each group needed to pick a theme and consider all the details and logistics, perspective, scale, form and shape, which were just some of the things they would have to consider for each project.  Along with the rubric, the students were given a detailed assignment sheet to guide them in their purpose.
But as the projects got underway, I was completely and pleasantly flabbergasted!  I had envisioned medieval villages so akin to the popular video games young people play online.  Instead students produced a snowy village with Despicable Me characters, a modern city scene, and a philosophical blending of the beautiful from the ugly as mentioned in their artist statement.  This last one, blended found and re-purposed things such as busted up chunks of concrete a pulled apart microwave oven, and computer parts.  Students had taken the basic idea of the assignment and translated it into something unique to their background experiences and understandings of visual literacy.
The chess set group chose a video game theme and had a big task to construct all the pieces.  At times this group appeared to be working like a factory assembly line – it was very satisfying to see students so engaged in their tasks.
One of the challenges I found for these grand projects was allowing enough time to satisfactory complete them.  But just as most were wrapping up, a new multi-purpose art gallery was opening on campus and my students were invited to showcase their work for the opening.  I feel this situation is very apropos as it provides the student artists with a conclusion to their work that is indicative of most artistic practices, i.e., display for others to enjoy.  Art is something to be seen, questioned, pondered, and talked about.  By just creating art, receiving a grade does not complete the artistic process, at least from my perspective.  Viewing art also validates what the students do and shows them that the study and practice of art – their art, is valued and has a purpose.  If some of the students go on to study art in post-secondary institutions, they will have had the full experience of being an artist from conception – planning – doing and sharing.  For other students, it will hopefully encourage them to respect and support the arts in the future and enhance their abilities to creatively deal with future challenges.

Spoerner, T. M. (1981).  Look, snap, see:  Visual literacy through the camera,
          Art Education, 34(3), 36-38.


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