As adults, we re-evaluate our personal identity continually. Over the years, I’ve understood myself in many different roles—teacher, wife, mother, artist, etc. On a societal level, we identify with groups—ethnic, racial, gender, political, etc. The layering of these characteristics shapes us as people and guides us in our beliefs and opinions. In our polarized society, those beliefs and opinions are paramount. Without them, we become lost and without direction.
Adolescents are just beginning this journey and, at this crucial point in their development, they are told to make informed opinions and choices every day about any number of issues. As they grapple with their own identities, we expect them to understand and accept others. Most students are just coming to terms with who they are and what their place is in society, but we want them to know their purpose and direction in life. We ask of them what many adults still struggle with.
Examine Your Place
Identity is the key. Knowing who you are and where you come from will give you a starting point from which to choose your direction in life. Students at Mount Everett regional School know they live in a small, rural bubble. This project allows them to recognize that bubble and empowers them to see themselves on the other side. This map project was designed so that students can closely examine their place—both literally and figuratively.
Gaining Personal Insight
We begin with a conversation about current events around the world and in our country. The discussion is mostly about global perspective. We acknowledge how our ideas are influenced by where we live and what we are exposed to. Students are not answering questions or solving problems. Instead, they are thinking about their relationship to people, places, and cultures outside of their community.
Maps as Material and Reference
We look at historic cartography, the compass rose as a directional metaphor, and contemporary map artists such as William T. Riley, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Nikki Rosato, and Matthew cusick. Though created for different purposes, map art and map-making share commonalities: identity and direction. Historic mapmakers often used symbolic representation of direction. For example, medieval mappae mundi often depicted Jerusalem in the center of the world, among other religious references.
Contemporary artists make choices about materials that dictate their aesthetic and offer a glimpse into their identities. Their use of maps offers insight into how they see themselves. As we study their artworks, I ask students how the use of maps as materials changes the way they look at the art. By allowing students to first develop their concepts, they can then make decisions about materials that best communicate their message.
I challenge students to create a map of our country or the world, communicating an idea about identity and place. Their “map” is a representation of either a place or themselves. This is a challenge to many students, as they are just beginning to think about their role in society and how art can be used as an interface to share thoughts and ideas.
As students develop their ideas, I encourage them to explore materials. The early days of the project feel a lot like an open house for the art supplies. Students experiment with materials until they find the media and technique that feel most appropriate for the aesthetic they want to create. They organize the visual elements of their idea in a series of students or in their sketchbooks before beginning their pieces.
Naturally, students’ responses are diverse in concept. Creative interpretations include ideas related to personal goals and aspirations, familial relationships, global connections, and historical and contemporary world issues. That which is most important to them is what they usually choose to explore.
As a teacher, I value open-ended project assignments, because students are able to feed off each other. Their perspectives are all completely different, which lessens the competition or intimidation they sometimes feel. Instead, they inspire each other throughout the process.
A lot of self-discovery occurs in the making stage of this project. During critique, students really open up about their process. Often, they’ve explored deep-rooted issues within themselves and that becomes a cathartic experience. The project is about them and their relationships to some aspect or issue of the world. In addition to a discussion about the visual aspects of the work, they share how they want their maps to be perceived, whether it be about themselves, a call for change, the future, the past, or the present. As their relationships evolve over time, being in touch with their identities will surely strengthen them.
Connecting: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
Stephanie Graham is an instructor of fine arts at Mount Everett Regional School in Sheffield, Massachusetts. firstname.lastname@example.org
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