Spotlight on Research: Jane Hoellman Kahn

Jane Hoellman Kahn is a New York City based artist and educator.  She is the founding art teacher of Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens. In December 2011, she defended her dissertation in Art Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Tell me a bit about your background. What brought you to Teacher’s College?

I felt that I was an artist from fairly early on. I worked in advertising as an art director and I’ve also been an exhibiting artist. I had a child along the way who turned out to be an artist as well. During the time that I left to raise my son, the advertising business had completely changed because of the advent of the computer, and my skills as an art director were woefully out of date. I thought I might like to teach and I knew about Teachers College because my son went to nursery school here at Hollingsworth Preschool, so it sort of felt like coming home a bit too.

You recently defended your dissertation, what is your research about?

My research study is an investigation of artistic identity construction as it relates to a group of six adolescents ages 14-16.  The study assumes that experiences inside and outside of the art classroom are of primary significance to an emerging artistic identity. This is revealed in a unique and interweaving set of characteristics and behavior played out within overall identity development. The title is, The Growing Sense of an Artistic Identity: The Journey of Six High School Arts Students.

How did you come up with your idea?

I’ve always felt, remembering my own past, that something unique happened during my adolescence that really solidified my sense of self as an artist.  I noticed that this also seemed to occur to my son when he went through high school. When I began to teach in the art classroom at a high school level, I recognized the phenomenon again in some of my students. I wanted to observe a two-year period through the artwork that students created in response to task motivations.  I was interested to investigate whether artistic identity during adolescence existed. From the research data, I hoped to isolate particular characteristics that appeared to play a part in comprising artistic identity.

You followed 6 high school students over the course of two years. What was it like working so closely with them?

Working with the students is the best part of teaching and it has always been the case that close relationships are forged. I had a fortunate situation because I was the founding art teacher in a new school. I was able to have many of the same students over several years sequentially, so I could watch their changes over time. I noticed that when they came into the art room as freshman, they brought certain sets of experiences that were unique to each of them.  The students continued to advance their art skills and became more able to articulate the things that they wanted to express. This went on over the time period of the study and a dynamic interactive process emerged. The students communicated feelings, ideas and perceptions that were becoming ever more complex and often conflicting and thus eventually expressed in metaphors.  Their artwork was wonderful and always represented very personal expressions about themselves. The students felt incredible about themselves and what they could express through their art. If they like what they’re doing, that drives them more intensely. Their interest grows and fuels the process and it’s a really exciting thing to watch.

What was challenging for you?

I have a tendency—whether it’s collecting research materials, or having a dinner party—to think, “oh I don’t have enough, I have to have more.” In the end I had collected so much data that I felt overwhelmed; I felt lost in the woods. Even though I sensed artistic identities emerging all around me, I struggled to structure my findings in an accessible way. There was almost nothing in the literature that spoke directly to my dissertation, so I pulled from a range of fields to piece together support for what I was observing.

Were there any surprises?

I was surprised that each participant in my study defined artistic identity differently. That didn’t necessarily mean that they would pursue careers in art, but that they would always identify themselves as artists. For example, a student might become a doctor, but still be an artist. They could pursue many different careers and still consider the artistic side of themselves. I used to think that the kids that identified themselves as artists would go off to art school into either a commercial or fine art field, or maybe even art teaching. That wasn’t necessarily the case, but they still had developed this sense of self as an artist that they could tap back into at any time.

How do you feel now that it’s over?

It feels like I have done something important not only to me but to the field.  At the same time, I am relieved to see it come to fruition.

What is the importance for your field, for art education?

The arts often get short-shrifted in education when funds are tight. I think they are really important because they provide for exploration and expression about self in ways that other forms can’t. Kids who are dealing with issues that they don’t want to put out there quite so obviously can express themselves in symbolic and visual ways. They’re able to explore their emotions even through the way they use materials on paper. That’s really important, not just for kids who may become artists, but for all kids. In doing so it allows them to make sense of themselves. I aim to create lessons that build art skills while focusing on imaginative innovation. Give them space to respond and allow them to take it where they need to; it’s remarkable what they come up with.