Contemporary Art

A Contemporary Creative Process

By Ruth Byrne, posted on Apr 15, 2024

I love heading outside and teaching landscape art en plein air, but last year my landscape plans were given a contemporary twist through the work and artistic process of painter, writer, and teaching artist Dahlia Elsayed. We were fortunate to have Elsayed speak at our 2022 Art Educators of New Jersey Conference, where she explained how she uses stream-of-consciousness writing to uncover her sense of place, much affected by her family’s history of displacement.


Students╩╝ abstract paper shapes are assembled in a temporary collaborative collage.
Students╩╝ abstract paper shapes are assembled in a temporary collaborative collage.
Left: Key landscape words on sticky notes. Right: Austin, Underwater Beach House, grade three.
Left: Key landscape words on sticky notes. Right: Austin, Underwater Beach House, grade three.
A temporary collage based on the words trees, bushes, buildings, and hills. Taras, My City, grade three.
A temporary collage based on the words trees, bushes, buildings, and hills. Taras, My City, grade three.

Her connections to the visual language of maps and her humorous narrative titles combine written and visual expression to get to the heart of being in a particular place at a certain time.

My third-grade students, fresh off a classic oil pastel landscape project, were the perfect audience for this art and the perfect test subjects for a lesson that developed idea-generating skills while encouraging playfulness, thoughtfulness, and expression.

Collaborative Landscape Collages

First, we investigated abstraction in landscapes by making collaborative paper collages. I wrote key landscape words on sticky notes (mountains, buildings, fields, etc.) when we shared observational landscapes from the previous lesson. Each student took one of these sticky notes and a colored paper of their choice.

Students cut a single line across the paper that reminded them of their assigned word, resulting in two shaped pieces of paper. They worked in groups of four to assemble their cut papers to create a landscape. This was a quick, temporary piece of art, but we took the time for a “gallery walk” around the room, allowing the groups to explain how their landscape came together.

Dahlia Elsayed

Next, we took a close look at Elsayed’s artwork. We performed the “I see, I think, I wonder” routine, and students took visual notes. While they were wondering, I prompted them with a few big questions:

  • Elsayed’s work is meant to show the intangible places that only live in the memories of her displaced family. What does it mean to be displaced?
  • What are some reasons a family might need to leave their home?
  • What do you think the land where our school stands used to look like? What do you think it will look like in the future?
  • What causes physical changes to a landscape?

I then asked students if they had ever needed to leave a place and were unable to return. Many students mentioned that they had experienced moving, migrating, or having a relative move. When they shared these stories, the class’s connection to the work deepened.

Brainstorming and Art-Making

Finally, I asked students to try writing in a stream-of-consciousness style, like Elsayed does as part of her process. Before we started, students were explicitly told to write as messy and incorrectly as they needed to, which got them very excited. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine a place that they couldn’t visit right now. It could be from the future, past, or present, imaginary or real. I then asked them to “look” left, right, up, and down while keeping their eyes closed to experience that place through different senses. Students opened their eyes and wrote down whatever words popped into their brains.

This guided brainstorming process primes students to think deeply about a place or a memory. When provided with collage materials such as colored construction paper, hole punches, and scissors, they experimented, revised, and refined their works to match the colors, shapes, and textures evoked in their writing.

Reflections

A great benefit of teaching with contemporary art is the chance to learn about a unique creative process from a living artist. By focusing on generating ideas rather than art-making techniques, we developed skills that would extend to many other artistic undertakings. The generosity of Dahlia Elsayed in sharing her process with us and encouraging students with her kind words when we shared our process back to her was unforgettable for both my students and me.

Ruth Byrne is an art teacher at Mansfield Elementary School in Port Murray, New Jersey. RuthCBryne@Gmail.com

National Standard

Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.

Resource

Dahlia Elsayed

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