Art Improv: Exploring Yeats Visually

| July 31, 2015

Photographs of student artwork created in response to Yeats’ poem, Cap and Bells, by Mary Hafeli and Eunji Lee, selected and edited by Eunji Lee.

Now that the work of students in Prof. Mary Hafeli and Eunji Lee’s 2014 class Processes and Structures has been featured at the The Hyde Bridge Open at The Yeats Society in Ireland, we thought we’d take another look at how the work was created, and see the work in exhibition.

by Myiesha Gordon

What comes to mind when you think of art education? Do you have flashbacks of using glitter and glue or gobs of finger paint, or perhaps cutting colorful construction paper with rounded plastic scissors? If you’re a student in the Art and Art Education program at Teachers College, you may consider collaborative art expression as the culmination of ideation through multi-sensorial educational experience.

I sat down with Mary Hafeli, Professor of Art and Art Education and Eunji Lee, 2D Fellow and third year doctoral student, to talk about their studio course—Processes and Structures—and what happens when a class assignment turns into something more.

The assignment was to use William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Cap and Bells” as inspiration to create an artwork in which each student would explore how to interpret a poem, using various materials. The goal was to provide an immersive experience for the students—many of whom will become teachers—to help them become familiar with analyzing concepts and expressing ideas through a variety of mediums.

Although Hafeli has used the ‘Yeats poem’ assignment in previous Processes and Structures courses, she recounts that the assignment tends to transform with each new class. For instance, before the course this semester, she had never incorporated a phase in the assignment  where students would create an installation of their drawings. But she recognized an opportunity for the students to further explore how to reinterpret their work into new art forms. “Improvisation is a very critical part of teaching” said Hafeli. “You have to trust your instinct as an educator.”

Hafeli facilitated the evolution of the assignment which turned into a collaborative artistic dialogue. Once the students had used the poem as inspiration to create their individual artworks, they were invited to evaluate and select an artwork of their fellow classmate’s, and to create a responsive drawing of the object. The students had 2.5 hours to create their drawings, which would later become a visual interpretation of the poem. With the many drawings, the students created their own wall installation—combining and rearranging the individual drawings to create a new composition. What they created was a collective piece of art; a visual representation of a literary work.

“You could read the poem visually, stanza by stanza, without the words” said Hafeli. Overall, the assignment was a major success. The only regret was the lack of time. The project could have easily been extended to a one year course, according to the professor.

While the assignment was given by the professor, it was a student in the class who discovered the exhibition opportunity online and shared it with Hafeli, who thought it would be a good experience for the students to pursue. As a result, the students’ collective work will be displayed in an international exhibition. The project was exhibited as part of an art exhibition celebrating Yeats’ 150th birthday for The Hyde Bridge Open at The Yeats Society in Ireland in June.

Great educators make the most of every opportunity to experiment, innovate, and improvise. Equally important, they encourage a sense of agency in their students to allow for experimentation, innovation and improvisation; to stretch what they imagine and what they can create and learn through collaboration.

Maybe it’s the art educator’s way of saying, “Yes, and…”

Myiesha Gordon

Myiesha Gordon was a Staff Writer with the Department of Arts and Humanities