Artists’ Struggles: Experiential Learning and College Writing

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A plastic bag of multicolored paper scraps rests on a table next to a sketch book with a small black journal on top. Photo by Susan Bernstein, October 19 2023A plastic bag of multicolored paper scraps rests on a table next to a sketch book with a small black journal on top. Photo by Susan Bernstein, October 19 2023

 

“This light held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal.”

- James Baldwin,  “On the Painter Beauford Delaney” (1965). 

 

Writing Project 2: Application/Multimedia  

In WP 2, you will apply Baldwin’s ideas about art and artists to your own work with creating multimedia. First you will summarize and interpret Baldwin’s ideas to connect “Artist’s Struggle” to two new readings, “On the Painter Beauford Delaney” and “What’s the Reason Why?” Then, you will create a multimedia project and apply Baldwin’s ideas to your own work. The second piece was part of a New York Times symposium featuring best-selling novels of the early 1960s, including Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country.

We will hold one class meeting at the campus art museum for a tour and an art-making workshop. Anything you experience/create at the museum can be part of Writing Project 2.

Paintbrush hovers above paper plate with acrylic pain in rainbow colors. Photo by Susan Bernstein, October 19 2023Paintbrush hovers above paper plate with acrylic pain in rainbow colors. Photo by Susan Bernstein, October 19 2023

 

In the midst of a rainy downcast autumn, I reconsidered how to revise the prompt and supporting activities for Writing Project 2, Application/Multimedia. From the beginning of the course, students had a keen interest in Baldwin’s work, wanting to know more about his life, his activism, and his work as an artist. For Writing Project 1, we considered Baldwin’s beliefs about the purposes of art, especially on how the artist has a responsibility to use their suffering “to help you suffer less.” We also focused on Baldwin’s “imprecise words,” about how art is something that “lives behind the words.” 

For Writing Project 2, we added two new pieces (see the works cited list at the end of this post), “What’s the Reason Why?,” in which Baldwin briefly discusses the influence of jazz on his writing process. In the second piece, Baldwin pays tribute to his lifelong mentor, the painter Beauford Delaney  Through him, Baldwin learns how to see light as a “miracle” and that “great art can only be created out of love.”

Working with a colleague at the on-campus teaching museum, we conceived of an experiential learning field trip during which the students would first tour the current exhibit, Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence, described by the museum as:

[A] new form of bead work, the ndwango (“cloth”), developed by a community of women living and working together in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The plain black fabric that serves as a foundation for this exquisite beadwork is reminiscent of the Xhosa headscarves and skirts that many of them wore growing up. By stretching this textile like a canvas, the artists use colored Czech glass beads to transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form of remarkable visual depth.

After a brief introduction to the exhibit, the students engaged in viewing the artwork on their own, then met again for a group discussion to process their thoughts and interpretations. During the last part of the field trip, students participated in an art-making workshop to experiment with multimedia material in order to connect the exhibit to Baldwin’s writing. 

As a participant observer, I noticed that the main theme of the field trip seemed to be connection. I wrote the following entry in my journal:

If I try to process this field trip at the moment, it’s images of interacting that I hope to remember– students interacting with:

  • Insights from Baldwin’s writing.
  • My colleague’s questions about what they saw and how they interpreted what they saw.
  • The art-making materials: paint, crayons, multicolored paper scraps, glue, and paper.
  • The art of the Ubuhle women, the glistening beads on black fabric, flowers, spirals, suns, trees, and images of home in their own artwork. 

Yet most of all, I remember the students’ interactions with each other, sitting on the floor of the museum writing and thinking, visiting the upstairs gallery, observing the images, asking questions and sharing perceptions. Later, the students sat together making art inspired by the exhibit, talking quietly, laughing softly, working with intention at the long tables placed in the museum lobby.  

I paced the floor, observing the transformation of the lobby space, walking with a few crayons and a sketchbook in hand, thinking of sunbursts, of future possibilities, of present moments, drawing streaks of light and dark colors across the page.

Crayons of many colors in and out of boxes. Photo by Susan Bernstein, October 19 2023Crayons of many colors in and out of boxes. Photo by Susan Bernstein, October 19 2023

 

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “The Artist's Struggle for Integrity.” ​​The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings​, Vintage

International, 2011, pp. 50–64. Ebook pages,63-70. https://bibliotecadaluta.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/james_baldwin_randall_kenan-the_cross_of_redemp...  

Baldwin, James. “On the Painter Beauford Delaney” Collected Essays. Library Of America. (1998). Edited by Toni

Morrison.  pp. 720-721. Ebook pages 728-729. (Collection open source). https://archive.org/details/JamesBaldwinCollectedEssaysLibraryOfAmerica1998/page/n125/mode/2up?view=....

Baldwin, James. “What’s the Reason Why?.” ​​The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings​ , Vintage International,

2011, pp. 48-49.  Ebook page 62. https://bibliotecadaluta.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/james_baldwin_randall_kenan-the_cross_of_redemp... 

 

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About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.