Creative writing through a MoMA inspired art activity

Here’s my final project from the Museum of Modern Art’s Art & Activity MOOC. Unfortunately, I got a fairly mediocre score for it in the peer assessment with strange remarks such as activities that require imagination should be done only with children and teenagers. But then MOOC peer feedback is oh so competent and credible. In any case, I’m quite happy with this activity. Chitra Ganesh spent a month in a gallery in South Bombay creating an installation that combines Bombay inspired motifs with science fiction – that’s when I first heard of her. She’s quite a remarkable artist. I chose an older work of her’s from a MoMA gallery in New York. 

  • Subject: Creative writing
  • Target grade level range: Adult learners
  • Theme: Narratives in art
  • Artwork selection: 

in18-her-silhouette-returns

6FED-620 35_The_silhouette_returns_detail in18-her-silhouette-returns-detail

  • Artwork title: Her Silhouette Returns
  • Artist: Chitra Ganesh
  • Date: October 1, 2009 – April 5, 2010
  • Materials: Cut paper, colour washes, sequins, glitter and found objects.
  • Activity Description:  What will the students do? What are the goals for the activity and how does the activity connect to the work of art? Students explore feminist iconography in a visual narrative that transgresses conventions in a scaffolded sequence of activities that leads to the creation of a piece of creative writing which is similarly unbounded by norms. Students will be encouraged to analyze and reflect on the artwork through close looking and then imagine and create their own visual narrative by focusing on a less obvious detail/part of the work. Finally, students will transform their visual narrative into writing.  
  • Reflection: What will your students (or participants) create in response to the activity? For example, will they share photographs, drawings, texts, or other documentation? Students will produce a short piece of prose fiction by developing deeper connections with the narratives representing artwork and creating meaning by producing a written narrative.

Briefly describe how your artwork and project theme connects to the overall grade curriculum.  

Art can be a powerful way of overcoming creative blocks in writing, inspiring spontaneity in ideas and originality of expression that transgress conventional styles and themes. Chitra Ganesh’s Her Silhouette Returns is an unconventional, surrealist installation that simultaneously tells multiple stories and stories within stories, and does so in a way that grabs the attention of viewers and engages them in a powerful sensory experience. These are skills that creative writers aspire to in their own work. The artwork is complex and contains a number of pop references (glam rock and kitsch of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and feminist motifs which adult learners will enjoy exploring. Her Silhouette Returns is particularly apt for the context of a creative writing workshop because the artist was originally inspired by literature – The Silhouette in Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ 1980s graphic novel Watchmen. In this work The Silhouette is a superhero who is discriminated against and murdered for coming out as a lesbian. Ganesh herself is interested in “buried narratives which are excluded from the official canon” and the work suggests “links between myth, ritual, and high and low culture as well as connections between countries and continents.” These elements combine to create a rich source of inspiration for creative writers who are learning how to break staid approaches, styles and plots in their writing.

NB: The factual information and quotes in this paragraph are sourced from an Exhibition Press Release by PS1.MoMA; accessed on July 30, 2014.

Describe two activity goals of your assignment and explain how they connect to the work of art.

To analyze less obvious details in the artwork and reflect on how they create narratives within narratives that collectively compose a surreal and complex work.

The artwork contains many strong and startling elements. There is a risk that these will overwhelm students to the detriment of smaller, intriguing details. Since the artist herself is interested in subaltern narratives, the activity’s goal is to encourage close looking at a variety of narratives including those based on smaller, less obvious details in the art work such as the distinctive pattern of eyes or the portal in the wall which reveals what is perhaps an unrelated work on a distant wall.

To imagine the progression of these narratives and create a visual storyboard that can then be transformed into a piece of prose writing.

The artist set out to narrate a number of stories through the artwork with a focus on ‘buried narratives’. The activity aims to help students uncover these buried narratives by visualizing the artist’s process in establishing multiple stories and how they came to be. The process of uncovering buried narratives which is a key element in coming to terms with this artwork, mirrors the process of discovery and development of ideas by writers.

Write clear instructions for how another teacher should lead your activity.

This activity has three phases: 

Phase 1: Close-looking through a memory activity

  • Ask students to look at The Silhouette Returns for 1 minute.
  • Put students in groups of three and ask them to turn around so they have their backs to the artwork.
  • Ask students to share what they remember from the artwork without looking at it.
  • After three minutes, have them look back at the painting and ask the following questions: 
  • – Which elements did everyone in your group remember?
    – Which elements did only one of you remember?
    – Which elements did none of you remember?
    – Why do you think you missed these details?
    – Do you notice more details now? What do you see?

Phase 2: Imagining through a visual narrative

  • Ask students to individually choose a single element or part of the artwork for example, the grass at the bottom, one of the butterflies or the face to the far left. As an optional step, distribute viewfinders if available to enable them to do this.
  • However, the detail they choose should not be something that they remember during the preceding activity. It should be something that they noticed when they looked at the artwork for the second time.
  • Ask students to focus on this one element for 30 seconds.
  • Distribute visual storyboards.

storyboard

  • Ask students to start with the box on the far right. Without looking at the artwork, try to recreate the detail they were looking at.
  • Now have them to look back at the artwork and ask the following questions:
  • – Do you think your drawing is similar to or different than the original?
    – How does that make you feel?
  • Ask students to focus on their drawing and imagine what happened before this.
  • Get each student to fill in the three frames in the storyboard describing what happened before. 
  • When students have completed their storyboard, have them compare it in pairs.
  • Ask the following questions:

– Were there elements in your partner’s work which strongly reflected the themes and styles of the artwork?
– Were there elements that were dissimilar?  Did you find this unexpected or surprising? Why?

Phase 3: Transforming into a written narrative

  • Ask students to consider each of the frames as milestones in a mini-narrative arc: exposition, rising action, climax and resolution.
  • Give students time to write a paragraph on each of the frames in the storyboard narrating the story. Depending on the profile of the students, you may want to stage this activity with prescribed time limits for each frame/paragraph. Let the students know that the word ‘paragraph’ here is not meant to limit creativity but merely provide some guidance and students should interpret it as they see fit in the context of the story they are creating.
  • When students have finished writing, give them a couple of minutes to go over their work.
  • Now ask students to stick their writing on a blank wall in a manner that replicates the position of the detail in The Silhouette Returns which they used as a prompt.
  • Ask students to read at least three of the stories of their peers.
  • Wrap-up by asking the following questions:

– How close were the stories to your original impressions of the artwork and the narratives you thought it represented?
– Was it constricting or liberating to use a detail from the artwork as a writing prompt? Why?
– How has your perception of The Silhouette Returns changed after reading these stories?

Assessment

Facilitators can evaluate student work from this activity in two ways:

  • Ask each student to answer this question – How has the installation piece – The Silhouette Returns – influenced your writing in this story?
  • Collect all stories and provide delayed feedback using creative writing rubrics.
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