Piles of art in a classroomAs WT deepens the work of ensuring an inclusive and equitable community for everyone—weaving its own brilliant tapestry with diverse identities, perspectives, and stories—one need look no further than its Visual Arts curriculum to witness the school’s commitment to this work.

“You don’t exist if you’re not represented … I felt a need to claim my own social existence by making the representation happen.”—Njideka Akunyili Crosby

“I believe that it’s really important for our department to take a look at the artists and artwork that we are showing our students,” says Kate Gugliotta, Lower School Visual Arts Teacher and newly-appointed Visual Arts Department Chair. “That means showing artists from diverse cultures, abilities, and from the LGBTQ+ community. I want students to see an artist and say, ‘Wow, that person is just like me’ or ‘I can become an artist, too.’”

As Department Chair, this is Gugliotta’s vision for students across divisions as she collaborates with colleagues Michele Farrell, Stephanie Flati, Carl Jones, and Mary Martin ’88 to reimagine the curriculum with an expanded focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). The foundation begins in Kindergarten, where children learn about artists like Yayoi Kusama who, at 91, still makes art daily, and Amy Sherald, who painted First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery.

“Students are excited to see a video clip of Kusama in her studio,” notes Gugliotta. “And it’s incredible to see how empowering it is for them to create their own large-scale self-portraits inspired by Sherald’s painting. Throughout these units, children are learning empathy, respect, and how to advocate for themselves and their peers.”

The Manipulated Self-Portrait Project is an identity exercise that challenges students to look beyond what others see on the surface. The methodical cuts and re-arrangement of shapes tell a story that interprets how identity relates to our environment. This year, many students attributed the rearrangements as distortions and fragmented forms reflective of their feelings about COVID-19 adjustments, while others wrote about piecing their lives together, and unsettling feelings.

Key to this work is a safe, inclusive space where students can explore and express themselves. Stephanie Flati’s classroom is one such place. There, her dual roles as Middle School Visual Arts Teacher and DEI Liaison intersect, extending the impact of both.

“Through my work in DEI, I have been exposed to many resources and experiences that have helped me incorporate new and unfamiliar artists, methodologies, and ideas into my curriculum. I try to craft lessons that encourage students to express themselves and start a dialogue about who they are.

“The art classroom, even virtually, is a space where many students feel free to be themselves without judgment,” Flati continues. “It’s encouraged to show the wild and weird parts of who you are via the artwork you create—and when you share it, you are in an extremely vulnerable space. Experiencing artwork that someone else created allows us into a part of their lived experience in a way that isn’t possible through any other discipline.”

“You can’t sit around and wait for somebody to say who you are. You need to write it and paint it and do it.”
—Faith Ringgold

Besides helping students examine the intricate, intimate terrain of their identities, art is a natural vehicle for exploring other complex topics, says Mary Martin ’88, Upper School Visual Arts Teacher and Affinity Programming Liaison. Social justice issues are a particular passion, and Martin implements City as Our Campus resources to support this devotion “in the broadest way, to bring in people who are doing work that’s different than what students are accustomed to or familiar with.”

Student works with fiber arts

The grade 5 fiber arts curriculum explores how artists throughout the world have expressed themselves and their cultures through sewing, and how textiles contribute to our collective history through design, storytelling, and process. In addition to creating their own soft sculptures, students reflected on the stories and work of textile artists such as Yinka Shonibare who explores cultural identity, colonialism, and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalization; Louise Bourgeois whose powerful themes of home, family, sexuality, and mortality drive her work; and the women quilters from Gee’s Bend who have created one of the most important African American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art within the United States.

Martin also draws inspiration from the wider world. Last summer, she devoted considerable time developing new curricular ideas through conversations with other professionals in the field, including artist, activist, and educator Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario, Executive Director of ARTE (Art and Resistance Through Education).

Marissa was captivated by one of our projects, The Gift,” says Martin. This project is an opportunity for students to create art and use it as a means to connect with people – beyond creating something aesthetically pleasing that goes on a wall. This year’s Gift will focus on human rights, and will unfold in collaboration with Gutierrez-Vicario. “Students will research human rights, whether housing, religious freedom, or otherwise, and then create something inspired by that and gift it to five people who are somehow connected to that concept.

“There is a desire to teach students so they’re equipped to master certain technical skills,” says Martin, who began teaching at WT 17 years ago. “But there’s a whole other layer I’m exploring as well. The goal with every class is having some concept or idea that relates to the larger picture of the world.”

“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.”
—Georgia O’Keeffe

Earlier this year, Gugliotta attended a seminar featuring art educator Flavia S. Zuniga-West, who imparted strategies for decolonizing visual arts curricula.

“To me, decolonizing means re-thinking the historical canon of art history. In many museums, over 90 percent of artworks are by white males, many of whom are dead. What type of message does this send to our students when we narrate art history in this way?

“Zuniga-West showed our group how to weave multiple voices into a conversation around art history. For example, she showed us how one might juxtapose the paintings Napoleon Crossing the Alps, completed in 1805 by Jacque-Louis David, with Kehinde Wiley’s 2005 interpretation, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, to examine the tradition of portraiture and all that it implies about power and privilege. For younger students we might talk about clothing and pose and positions of power. For older students, these artworks might lead into discussions of race, power, and social justice.”

“Art is a wound turned into light.”
—Georges Braque

Art can illuminate, instruct, and inspire. It can break hearts and bind them. Its power is infinite. But in WT’s evolving art curriculum, art’s most potent contribution may well be its power to foster connection.

“Regardless of our backgrounds, art serves as the common thread that unites us all through personal experience and inspiration,” notes Gugliotta. “We hear each other’s stories and become advocates for each other.”