Contemplating Collage

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Later today I’ll meet with my colleagues again to explore the uses of collage–specifically as a heuristic or as a way of doing critical thinking during (as well as through) visual composition–for our upcoming workshop with educators.
I’m still resisting the commonplace: I don’t want this to be simply (yes, yes, I understand it’s never so simple) a metaphorical exercise but instead an activity that draws upon a kind of aesthetic instinct as well as other dimensions of the composing process.
I don’t want to over-talk the exercise and yet somehow I want the participants to experience (within a very short time frame–eek!) a way of exploring ideas that transcends verbal and visual and that culminates in a composition that speaks to them in complex ways over time.
The image above is one of my early experiments. My original plan for the workshop was to have everyone do something very much like this. It’s modeled after Joanne Leonard’s “Hand In” series, which was an exercise in constraints: she challenged herself to complete a series of collages that used a single, simple, repeated image: an outline of one hand in white pencil on black silhouette paper.
I love the basic design: it’s simple but potentially sophisticated (at least, in Leonard’s execution of it!) and for a workshop with mostly novices it seems like a lovely to create something complete and aesthetically pleasing guided by a model in a process that although somewhat imitative yields a work as unique as the hand of the artist outlined on the page as well as her choice of imagery.
But I worried that participants expecting to do collage (a genre associated mostly with masses of images rather than spare ones) might find this approach too limiting, and my colleagues agreed. So today we’ll be exploring with alternative methods, visuals, options. I’m hoping to at least retain the hand symbol as a common constraint.
Beyond all that, though, remains the purpose: how do we communicate that this activity is intended to help us tap into a way of knowing that is aesthetic, cognitive, intellectual, emotional, instinctual?
I’ve been reading more of Maxine Greene’s work on aesthetic education (as part of a course through the Lincoln Center Institute) in which Greene seems also to be struggling to find clear ways to explain, in layman’s terms, what happens when we use art to learn. Her writing style is so fluid and her voice so authoritative that you might not perceive her composition as a “struggle” (and indeed she might not describe herself as “struggling” either) but as her reader, as someone who has thought about this sort of thing for years and is combing through Greene’s writing to find a clearer expression of the academic and rhetorical aims of aesthetic education, I must say that I’m finding lots of lucid explanation that ripples through the subject without yet clarifying it. At least not in the ways I need. She is concerned mainly about art education period: What it means (or really ought to mean), why we should do it, how it works.  My concern is this: how does the process of making and engaging art help us do a better and more interesting job of teaching rhetorical ingenuity: identifying potential sources of insight, locating/mining/interacting with those resources, tapping into one’s own prior knowledge and experience as ways of knowing and not-knowing, determining what kinds of knowing are needed by and for one’s audience/oneself/those beyond who might benefit from your work, plus all that other rhetorical canon stuff (invention, arrangement, style, delivery, memory, taste).
Of course any educated rhetorician can rationalize the use of art to teach composition. What I’m looking for is more information: research data from other disciplines, explanations I haven’t already thought of or read about elsewhere, and also I’m looking for more discussion of the creative process as something novices can authentically do with satisfying outcomes that aren’t purely responses to “real” art done by experts.
But I digress. Sort of. Not really. As I search in Greene for a way to articulate the collage workshop I come across this from her “Notes on Aesthetic Education””

Surely we can learn to articulate more clearly what it is about making
and attending that so often opens up new perspectives, that allows people to
perceive new experiential possibilities, that offers them new symbolic
languages through which to express themselves. Surely, when we are
aesthetically educated, we can break through the either/or [of cognitive vs affective learning]. (19)

So far that’s as close as I’ve come (see what I mean?) to what we’re supposed to be doing with the collage. And perhaps “critical thinking” is too specifically Schonian a term for that process.  I am more comfortable calling it “deliberation.”  I’m hoping that the collage-composition experience will be a deliberative experience in which the participants:

  • Keep their minds open to sources of insight and inspiration from unexpected sorts of artifacts.
  • Approach the collage activity as one of contemplation as well as of creativity.
  • Work with a “believing game” attitude: expecting the process to reveal something to them.
  • Produce something that feels complete and satisfying.
  • Generates an artifact they will want to look at again and again, one that intrigues them and speaks to them in different or nuanced ways over time.

All of that is true of my collage above:
Although my underlying purpose the day I made it was to compose a complex image that in some spoke to myself-concept as a teacher, the images I gathered were chosen rather serendipitously. I ended up cutting the above image from a full-page photograph of a group of masqueraded revellers in Spain from a National Geographic magazine.
I drew my hand-configuration first and selected the image later as one that might lend itself to the composition As I slowly snipped the image and as I shifted it around on the page the activity became a meditation on not only what should go where but why and why not. I made decisions about the positioning of my hand or hands on the page that would ultimately feature the image and whether to keep the reveller’s hand visible; I asked myself about the significance of the masks and about the fact that the mask remaining in my image is really on the top of a reveller’s head rather than on his face. Is that somehow relevant to my self-concept as a teacher? And so on.

Ultimately, I completed an image that I could explain in a variety of ways but, to be honest, I am still listening to what it has to say.
Image source: HB Hessler
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Kaleidoscopic Composition

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There are days–most days, actually–when I thank my lucky stars I’m a liberal arts professor. This is how I make my living: thinking and learning and experimenting with ways to help people compose and communicate constructive visions of the world.
If I’ve done my job really well, they compose texts that generate knowledge for themselves and for others. The infrastructure of all this is a process that only partially reveals itself in words–it’s a process of posing questions and exploring possibilities through research and cogitation and putting ideas out in a space or on a page and then translating those ideas into sentences perhaps with images or other media–the intellectual, ethical, and imaginative process itself is a substantial part of what we teach when we teach writing. Students should complete that process with greater insight and more substantial resources and information than they would have achieved without my help. That’s what I mean when I say my job is to help them generate knowledge, not just communicate it. And if they’ve generated knowledge, something meaningful to themselves and others, they’ll be better equipped to compose an artifact that articulates what they’ve learned. At that point it’s my job to be sure they do so with style and precision.
[In teaching as in weaving, at least 50% of the work is preparation, and good or poor preparation reveal themselves in the completed cloth.]
But the raw materials come from finding and mining possibilities. The single question or problem or topic is magnified, narrowed, turned upside down, divided into bits and re-assembled, all to give the researcher-writer-artist an interesting way to approach the project.
This is why I spent yesterday afternoon at a big table with two colleagues, sifting through pictures of yoginis and monarchs and a desert cougar atop a cactus, contemplating collage and metaphor and teaching and writing.
What we’re after is a way to create a short workshop experience that will enable us to share with other teachers the experience of using visual composition to generate insights. This is not a new idea in our field, which is one of our challenges, actually. Our workshop isn’t intended to teach our fellow teachers that using images is a fruitful invention strategy (duh) but instead to foster an experience we can share with the group, who will have assembled at a conference to generate and exchange ideas about teaching and learning.
As we ponder a fresh and relevant approach to this workshop, one of the interesting things we’re working on is the words we use to describe the purpose of the workshop. For example, if we say, “compose a collage that represents you as a teacher” or even “make a visual metaphor that expresses your teaching philosophy” we run the risk of encouraging people to concentrate on the product rather than the process. Each of those instructions sparks an answer, an outcome. A classically structured analogy of [A] in terms of [B].
And that’s not our goal, really. People already know how to do that and do it pretty automatically, which means the generative process is truncated by the wording of the instruction. Granted, even if you have a preliminary idea in mind, the process of visual composition pretty much requires a period of deliberation and reflection (ex: my teaching philosophy is derived from constructivism and emphasizes experimentation and collaboration so I’d want to use images that somehow represent those qualities), the constraints and materials on-hand would lead me to make some decisions and slow down and think in some detail about the various dimensions of my philosophy that might be illuminated by my collage.) But we’re not satisfied with that version of the workshop. We think we can do more.
So what’s more?
For one thing, more = composing an image that moves or that lends itself to a complex or multidimensional interpretation. (Here too a challenge because most smart people can generate multiple interpretations of any image, so what we need to push for is a surprise, I think, an insight or way-of-seeing that comes from the process rather than from pure wit.)
For now, we’ve decided to describe the workshop’s collage *not* as a “metaphor” but as a “complex image” in the hope this will help us all avoid leaping too immediately into a witty [A] as [B] mode (nor a Burkean ironic [A] in terms of [not B] mode 😉
In my own collage experimentation with this project, the image I consider most successful is one I’m still unable to clearly articulate. It’s a tracing of my two hands touching, fingers extended to create a triangle, with a masked character in the center (snipped from a National Geographic story about a masquerade festival in Spain). I like the aesthetics of the collage, and I like the way it resists a simple explanation. I’m not sure whether this is a kind of collage experience others would find meaningful, especially within a short workshop time frame, but I’m still considering what it might suggest or inspire.
Generally speaking, as a learner I’m extremely comfortable with ambiguity. It gives me lots to chew on. Although collage can be a wonderfully rich food for rumination, it’s also such a familiar genre that I think people sometimes overlook its richness or perhaps become overwhelmed by it.
This is one reason I’m very much attracted to the kaleidoscope as a collage vehicle. People are familiar with kaleidoscopes and might take them for granted as toys but if you hand someone a kaleidoscope they’re irresistibly drawn to make multiple images with it. In other words, it’s rare that a person will look through the eyepiece at the image handed to them and then put the scope down. They’re compelled to make their own image–usually again and again.
So let’s think about what’s happening there: the container of “stuff” is the same each time; the image is always different; the person holding the scope is making ephemeral art (I’m carefully avoiding lots of postmodern references and explanations here but go ahead and plug them in if you like) but its components are constantly there for further consideration, albeit from multiple perspectives, generating further ways of seeing; the artwork is inherently collaborative, facilitated by the maker of the scope and the user of it; if you diddle with it long enough (which may only be a few minutes) you’ll encounter some surprises, some combinations or juxtapositions that are beautiful or unexpected.
THAT is what I want my students to experience from research and writing.
THAT is what I want the workshop experience to accomplish.
THAT is my metaphor.
What shall I do about it?
Is the process of composing a collage sufficiently kaleidoscopic?
Image: Hibiscus Kaleidoscope by ifijay