Exploring Oneself through Artmaking

By Ben Hoffman, posted on May 10, 2022

As a high-school art teacher and practicing artist, I explored this question with my students: “How does an authentic studio practice connect us to ourselves, to one another, and to the world around us?” Working alongside my students as artists, we made sense of this question through the process of journaling.

SchoolArts magazine, The Curiosity Issue, Summer 2022, High School art lesson, Exploring Oneself through Artmaking
Abigail I., nature exploration.
SchoolArts magazine, The Curiosity Issue, Summer 2022, High School art lesson, Exploring Oneself through Artmaking
Abigail I., self-portrait journal sketches inspired by a bird study.
SchoolArts magazine, The Curiosity Issue, Summer 2022, High School art lesson, Exploring Oneself through Artmaking
Abigail I., animal triptych.

Journaling affords students an opportunity to create reflections and responses to a collection of ideas that overlap in a single space. I am most interested in the relationships students have with their work and the impact that visual journaling has on their artistic practice. Following our journal work, we explored these relationships by each creating a series of three artworks: an exploration of oneself, an exploration of oneself and another person, and an exploration of oneself and a place.

Oneself and Someone
To start, I asked “How is your art-making fueled by others?” Students investigated how their practice was influenced by and influences others. They researched a diverse group of other artists, learning to transform their experience through artworks. Reflecting on the influences of others invited students to listen closely and observe their daily lives and the intersections with the artists they were drawn to.

Using their journals, students documented their interpretations visually and verbally. I also shared my artistic influences, illustrating my process of ideation and discovery. My own fascination in color stems from Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square. My journal is filled with color swatches as platforms for future paintings.

Oneself and Somewhere
Next, I asked students, “Where in this world are you connected as an artist?” and “What places and spaces inspire your work?” They returned to their journals, searching for understanding within the tangled web of ideas. Informal research played a role. Students gathered resources from observation, returning to places and spaces they most often occupied.

What began as conversations within the communities where students lived and visited soon became the narrative that shaped their ideas of belonging to particular spaces. Every place was ignited by students’ involvement, as they documented the feeling and sense of belonging, whether they were surrounded by friends, family, or nature. They explored where they formed connections to the world around them through reflective writing tasks.

Student Reflection
Student artist Abigail wrote in her journal, “Nature serves as the backdrop for several [of my] pieces as it breaks free from what is human and manmade. Challenged to use our senses, nature evokes mysterious qualities that limit our everyday conversations. There is beauty in simplicity. The sheer force of animals, the textures that surround us, as well as the array of smells. Yet, there exists a complex relationship between things in nature and the bonds we share as humans. Conflict is sometimes unavoidable. From this work, it is my goal to showcase the inherent conflicts in nature, while still purposefully reminding the viewer of the resolve.”

Abigail’s reflective journey explored the notions of self-identity, revealing a process of inquiry through each entry. Abigail time stamped her visual journal, documenting the incremental changes in ideas, perspectives, and world views. This process exposed her truths, documenting the challenges she faced as an artist throughout the process:

“I don’t want people to perceive this as unorganized because so much thought goes into planning the actual composition to make up for the fact that I fear that my ability will not be able to carry across the idea well enough.” Not knowing where an idea may land is unsettling. Working through those fears alongside my students dismantled any fears and resulted in a collection of authentic artworks.

Students were challenged to work through a range of ideas, media, and topics through visual journaling. This process fueled my own creative practice and evolved my own preconceived framework of student success.

Students’ finished works took on a whole new meaning. They became curators of their finished collection. The act of curation is an incredibly powerful skill. Every decision from journaling to the final product reflects students’ perspectives and the range of possibilities fueled by feedback throughout the process. Side by side, we embarked on a journey of discovery through an authentic artistic process.

Ben Hoffman is a visual arts teacher at Kutztown Area High School in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. @KAHSVisualArts

National Standard
Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.

Documenting the Process Rubric
Fusaro, J. “When worlds collide: artists, teachers, and learners as contemporary community.” Art Education, 69(2), 53–60, 2016. DOI: 10.1080/00043125.2016.1141653
Thompson, C. M. “What should I draw today?” sketchbooks in early childhood. Art Education, 48(5), 6, 1995. DOI: 10.2307/3193527

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