Curating the Self (a/r/tographer)

Day 1 Being with a/r/tography

For a week over Easter in March, 2016 I curated my first solo show in Blackheath at Virgin Walls, a small gallery near my family mountains home. This show was held to create a space for reflection. Reflection on self, research, family and story telling. I came to a number of realisations, one of them was that I have to trust my voice as a researcher. I am an auto-ethnographer, I tell stories and I collect them. Now I have to write about them.

Blackheath in the New South Wales, Blue Moutains holds a special place in my heart. It is a town that I have found myself return since childhood for family, for work, for relaxation and for my research. Blackheath is the top of the Blue Mountains, the highest point on the topographical map and has its own weather pattern. You can drive to towns on either side of Blackheath and encounter very different temperatures and climates. I have come to Blackheath every Easter since I can remember, give or take a few years as an adult. It is a beautiful town that my Great Grandfather lived in with his family and my Grandfather. We still have this home in our family and my parents live here. The gallery where this research is curated is located nearby.

To curate an a/r/tographical self portrait, the space is important. To let people into my lived and living story, the space needed to be a part of the narrative, woven through and in the collection of works. Here in Blackheath, I could feel like I’m in Wonderland.

Just as Alice fell down the rabbit hole, chasing that elusive rabbit — I too have fallen into Wonderland. As an art practitioner, educational researcher and teacher the many lenses that I work through, look through and frame my research and practice are reflected in five specific lenses — the visual arts lens, the curatorial lens, the narrative lens, the digital lens and the theoretical lens. These lenses have shaped both my education and career in the arts and have been the basis for seeing the world and developing a conceptual framework as a result of this research. The lenses that frame this curation of self are reflective of my pedagogical philosophies as an a/r/tographer (Irwin and Springgay, 2008; Springgay, Irwin, Leggo, & Gouzouasis, 2008) and arts based researcher (Leavy, 2009) are presented here as a woven narrative of stories, photographs, responses and metaphors.

Searching and re-searching are a common thread (Flood, 2014) in my artist, researcher and teacher practice. They intertwine and overlap, weaving their way into new dialogues, new conversations with re-search and new ways of seeing the self, my self.

A/r/tography is considered a practice-based form of research because it is based on the inquiry practices of artists, researchers, and educators. This notion is emphasized in the forward slashes separating a, r, and t, for artist, researcher, and teacher. Yet it is more than this as it is also about the arts and graphy coming together. Being engaged in a/r/tography is about being committed to an ongoing inquiry through art-making and writing, not separate or descriptive of one another but rather working together to create new understandings” (Leggo, Sinner, Irwin, Pantaleo, Gouzouasis & Grauer, 2011, p.240).

Capturing the self (a/r/tographer), at Virgin Walls, Blackheath New South Wales March 21–27, 2016

This curated exhibition of self portraits reflect my ongoing research and search through the lens of the PhD, exploring creativity, digital identity, placemaking and artist portfolios. I began this journey many years before my Phd candidature began, as a Fulbright teacher on exchange in Denver, Colorado. I worked alongside two artist teachers, Suzi Melly and Kimberly Colegrove both teacher art makers, who constantly developed their creative practice and themselves as artist teachers. I had left this part of my self behind as I juggled teaching and family life, always feeling a yearning to make and create, but feeling limited by time and space. My experience in Colorado led me to find these selves that I had let go of, and find the researcher and the artist in me again. I went back to study and haven’t left, a decade on.

My work consists of woven and sewn academic papers, maps and collections as an art educator. I collect art guides, art books, articles and critical responses to teach and explore one day with students.

Each of the academic research papers I have woven here are seminal thinkers in my fields of art education, digital (e)portfolios and creativity and a/r/tography, that I create new conversations with. I read, write and then recycle their research through a process of cutting, layering and weaving so that their voices can work together to create new discourse for contemporary art education.

Self Portrait (looking back and forward through a/r/t)

This work explores the creative learning journey I have been on and continue to learn in and from. Many significant people have walked this path with me and before me, so that my journey could be easier. From my hardworking and much loved grandparents here in my box of family photos who I spent a lot of time with growing up and learning from, to my parents who offered me an open and creative childhood of exploration, discovery and art. This installation includes two projectors that show slides of my childhood over woven articles of creativity in education selected from Studies in Art Education, International Journal of Edcuation through Art and the British Educational Research Journal. The books that hold the slide projectors are my collection of Alice in Wonderland books and texts that have been important guides from my literary and research communities who continue to guide and support my knowledge growth.

My exploration of self as artist has been supported by a collaborative community of artists that have shared their practice with me. As an a/r/t -ethnographer my gaze is always looking both forward and backward and I will continue here to reflect on my a/r/tographic explorations each day.

Day 2: Being with a/r/tography

The metaphor of cloud collecting (collecting the uncollectible in artist portfolios)

As an artist/research/teacher much of my work is self exploration, or as Carl Leggo (2008) refers ‘researching our lives’. My work is based upon making art as a researcher-teacher, researching as an artist-teacher and teaching as an artist -researcher. Discovering and searching the self to identify what is that I know about art education, creativity and portfolios is then drawn back into my writing and curriculum development.

Cloud collector

When you stop and look, really stop, and see clouds — the world stops. They are constantly moving, morphing and changing. The light, texture and shape of clouds trigger memories, places and stories. For me, they contain possibilities, triggers for my thoughts, reflections, stories and memories. I try to capture clouds because they are one of the hardest things to collect. This metaphor of cloud collecting is an important aspect of my practice as a artist-researcher. Clouds are ephemeral, mysterious and beautiful. Teaching cloud capturing to early art education students can ask them to stop, look and continue with their exploration of the world through seeing. There comes a time when a student stops looking, stops noticing. Learning to see as an artist is an important part of our teaching in art.

I have photographed clouds for a long time. One of my favourite painters, Georgia O’Keefe painted the clouds of New Mexico that I did not truly undertand until I stood in them. Many artists have felt as much passion as I about clouds, from their symbolism, to their ability to make us feel small as humans. Clouds have the power to make us see new things, explore new ideas and think creatively, if only for a moment. This is why I have such an affinity for them as a metaphor for learning and seeing. My own cloud zines and cloud photographs I have exhibited are triggers for teaching, using the cloud as a way to look, notice and pay attention. Clouds do this for me as a researcher, they ask that I centre my thoughts and redirect my thinking from the jumbled mess to a more layered bricolage.

Wunderkammer (cabinet of wonder) Self Portrait a/r/tographer

Teaching metaphors in art education is one way of deconstructing and constructing the self. The metaphor I explore as the artist/researcher/teacher is the wunderkammer. A wunderkammer, also known as a cabinet of curiosity was originally designed around encyclopedic collections of objects. Many of these objects were yet to be categorical named and boundaries not yet defined.

I am a collector, a curator and a placemaker. I take these aspects into my a/r/tographer self and use these traits to consider how we use space to create place as artist teachers. My metaphor for artist portfolios is the wunderkammer, the collection space where you create and curate place. In the digital, an artist portfolio is another world, where there are new possibilities, new audiences and new opportunities for reflection. In the digital portfolio, an artist can curate new exhibitions, it is an exploratory world where you make decisions, plan, reflect and organise your practice. It is a space where both process and product interplay, where they speak with the past and the present and create dialogue across the body of work. It is not often that an artist sees their work all dsiplayed in one space, in one room. A digital portfolio or artist website can open possibilities for seeing the common threads and woven stories.

Woven tablecloth for the Researcher Tea Party (Conversations with the Seminals in Wonderland).

Day 3: Being with a/r/tography

I have been re-searching and re-imagining my thesis over the last few days here in Blackheath. Re-considering my story now that I have curated this space, and further developed my thinking. I have been critically engaged with my fields of inquiry for years, first as a Masters student and now as a PhD Candidate. What I have learnt about critical dialogue and critical thinking is more about myself, as a critical pedagogue. Anniina Suomen Guyas, stated in Being with A/r/tography (2008) that “knowledge is relational, dependent on contexts and philosophy, and can not be separated from an understanding of the self and its multiple embedded identities” (p.25). Here I sit living this inquiry as an artist, researcher and a teacher sharing my stories with visitors and generously, each of my visitors shares a bit of themselves with me.

The Cloud Collector work has prompted some of the most beautiful shared memories of people I have never met before. My fellow cloud collectors are keen to share their stories, my clouds have been triggering emotions in people that I did not expect. I take photographs of clouds to archive, to see the world I inhabit, as a pedagogical exploration, and to record where I am in the world. How amazing it is to collect the uncollectable, to use a material practice such as photography to capture the clouds that fly above my head as they traverse our lands and fold them up into a zine to be captured forever.

Day 4 Being with a/r/tography

Rewriting after visiting my creative self through this curated collection, is a wonderful thing to have happened here in Blackheath. Opening myself and my work, thinking and pedagogical beliefs have led to wondrous conversations with amazing locals and passers by. I know that curating my artist-researcher self would invoke new dialogue. I was not really ready for the narratives it would begin with others. Each time I say hello and define my work for a visitor, it begins a new way each time. It also ends in a new way too. These conversations in the curated space have invited new ways of thinking and exploring a/r/tography for me. I have not defined and narrated my a/r/tographic explorations, I have invited discourse into what it means to be an a/r/tographer. This has also happened online in my exhibition facebook and instagram posts. I have opened the door to the next chapter.

Day 5 Being with a/r/tography

Easter in the Mountains brings cool weather, crystal blue skies, day trippers and my family to Blackheath. This Easter, it invites reflection on my life and work. When I opened the doors on Monday morning I was filled with excitement to see my work that has been folded and captured in my studio and study at home for years. Here in Blackheath, the story was unfolded, laid to bare, open and ready for another chapter to be written. I was possibly not prepared for what it means to be an ‘accidental ethnographer’ (Chritopher Poulos, 2010). Many artists have visited me over the last 5 days, each with their own lenses on. I have sought to intervene, I let visitors walk in, I’d say hi and let them begin to talk with more work. Then I would start a narrative, tell my story.

My father’s family has lived in Blackheath for over 100 years. Five generations have played, laughed, cried and lived in our little Blackheath house that we fondly call the Rabbit’s House. Not each visitor has heard this part of my story. You see, like everyone, I have many. Some I choose to tell, others I keep for myself. This exhibition marks a significant point in my personal journey through a/r/tography as a PhD candidate and (re)searcher after a decade of learning in higher education. I had to come to Blackheath specifically to tell this part of my story. What has happened though, which is beautiful and so generative, is the people who have shared their stories with me.

I met a glass artist on my first day here. We talked about the importance of community, of relationality and of collaboration in art. We discussed his work, his search for a sense of self throughout his practice and our common threads. He came back the following day and shared his life journey with me, we talked more about my pedagogical philosophies of teaching identity formation in secondary art education. As an older artist, he shared with me how important validation was for him as an early art maker and still he was always striving for some kind of verfication that he is‘artist’. He came back today and said thank you. I too, thanked him for the exchange. He was an agent of change for me, I have reflected a lot about what it is that I want to achieve in my PhD. It is this. To tell the stories of artists through a storied curriculum.

Like what you read? Give Dame Kate Coleman a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.