Lauren Alexander lives outside Kansas City in Kansas. She teaches art to elementary students in public school and at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Her studio is located inside her home where she lives with her husband, daughter, and two dogs. She does not enjoy talking about herself in third person. She blogs at www.eatpaintlauren.com.
When the National Art Educators Association announced that its 2012 conference would be in New York City I mentally made my plan to go. New York City is a favorite of mine; so much art and food it defines my concept of over-indulgence. And what weary 3rd-year art teacher doesn’t deserve a little excess of the things one loves the most?
Not to mention a national convergence of professional teachers and artists giving presentations (and vendors giving free swag) would boost my art teaching tool kit. It was a no-brainer. I was going. I just had to figure out how to afford it. Teachers have a steady reliable income but it doesn’t cover the expense of a hotel in the city even with the conference discount.
Because teaching is a sister and brotherhood of people struggling to do a difficult and sometimes impossible job, it was my pleasure to know a fellow teacher’s sister was willing to offer her room in a Manhattan apartment just a block from a subway drop. I was on my way.
In New York City I first came up from the train station and wandered in several wrong directions until I landed at the Hilton where the teachers were convening. So many art teachers in one place! You should have seen the amount of fashionable neck scarves and Dick Blick yellow tote bags. The conference was friendly and generous about accommodating what I heard were 7000 participants. It was a little over-stimulating for me. So I left and had lunch.
My strategy was simple. I signed up for classes in the evening and during the day I wanted to visit museums. Being a conference attendee as well as an employee to a museum in my hometown gets me through lines and free of admission to many museums. In between I walked to as many bakeries and coffee shops as necessary. I found this often necessary as you can’t walk a block without smelling something warm and delicious.
Some of the memorable exhibits I saw included a Cindy Sherman show at MoMa where I saw things I can’t un-see. Her work is supposed to be uncomfortable, I think. I enjoyed the Stein Collection at the Met because I had been teaching several lessons about Picasso and Matisse and it was great to see their early work. The Museo del Barrio was exhibiting (among other beautiful things) a room covered in white handkerchiefs drawn with ink pens by prisoners in Texas. The drawings spanned years and years of personal symbolic work; one of the coolest things I have ever seen. In contrast to Sherman’s self portraits was a black and white photography exhibit from “radical photographers” at the Jewish Museum. The images were meant to document people’s lives from the Depression to the Cold War. Though it’s not quite the same, I felt an intensified connection to these images in part because I document my own life through a series of camera phone pictures.
Lastly, I went to my favorite museum in the city, the American Folk Art Museum. One of Bill Traylor’s drawings from his “Series of Exciting Events” portfolio (a collection of drawings by a former slave/farmer) particularly stood out to me as an example of art making as a natural and personal response to one’s experiences.
Back at the conference I enjoyed my hands-on workshops; Sumi-E Japanese painting where I made my bamboo brush glide on “tippy toe” across rice paper. A class called Clay Solutions was more of a Glaze Solutions class where we paint-by-number-style made an owl on a tile. I have yet to fire my owl and see the wonder of the glazes we were sampling. Lastly, a class showed how you can use posters of art prints to do a mono-print technique with autistic and special needs students. I kicked myself for not buying $2.00 calendars at the Met earlier in the day.
I wish I could have done more within the conference but the experiences I had walking through the city were enriching and worth the trip for me. There’s energy in New York City that’s intoxicating and makes me feel like the world is not such a bad place. Everyone was kind and willing to share personal space on the subway. It’s not normal for me to wedge my body between strangers but “when in Rome…”
I think the most valuable tool I am taking back to work with me is the understanding that my job is to show students that art-making is a way to deal with experiences. I should not get too hung up on explaining color theory, perspective techniques, or how to manipulate tools to create a perfect circle. Good to know, but art is not about that for me. Art is about making things; making a complicated and confusing life better.