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 Cassie's Amazing Voice....

                                                                                   AKA, The Artist's Way of Thinking...

About 20 years ago, I created a painting on paper entitled, “Cassie’s Amazing Voice”. It was named for Cassiopeia the Ethiopian queen & constellation and Cassandra, the soothsayer of Troy. There was something in the painting that connected both the cyclic illumination of a winter constellation and the dark experience of a Trojan oracle. I still wonder what Cassie’s voice sounded like, and if she could really illuminate the darkness. I’m not a gloomy guy; but I do appreciate contemplating…especially when others are busy. 

Sometimes, as I sit back and watch others do their thing, I ponder how the artist’s take on events and opportunities is so very different from mainstream views…and if the mainstream rarely listens to creative voices because of that difference. I call this the Cassie Effect, recalling both the lyrical morphing of the constellation, and the soothsayer who was granted the gift of foresight, but never believed when she warned others of impending doom. This happens to me frequently in conferences and workshops, where I’m often in the company of folks from the IT and education realms who are not visual artists. 

My latest encounter with the art verses world disconnect occurred in Philadelphia. I had been looking forward to participating in the Digital Education Leadership Conversation for months. I even pre-planned my work schedule to reserve 2 days in late March for the DELC meeting. Although the target audience was K-12, representatives from 2 and 4 year colleges participated as well in discussing how we might gain political and financial backing for education technology. Our conversation covered several subject areas, including professional development for education leaders, imagining new school models and exploring learning environments. One of the most interesting activities was working in breakout groups to discuss what was important in education and then creating school designs which brought those core beliefs to fruition.

Each group was gifted with the presence of a high school student with an interest in technology who attended the conference as part of a class project. We talked about everything a student encounters in school: environment, culture and structure. It was apparent that those words represented vastly different concepts to each of us at the table. But we moved forward together to develop a general statement of mission and purpose for our imaginary school.

During the discussions, the moderator delivered each group a bag of materials, encouraging us to use the materials in our designs. We opened the bag to find construction paper, glue sticks, colored pencils, tape, markers and a bag of colored chenille sticks (pipe cleaners). Immediately, dissention split our once harmonious group into two factions: the organizers and the builders. The organizers were the majority. I was a builder; in fact, I think there may have been just 2 builders out of the 10 who sat around our table. 

Here’s what I noticed. The organizers could plan the school schedule, but couldn’t connect the curricular areas. They could understand the importance of student traffic flow, but not see how the architecture of the building was important in managing it. They grasped the value of layouts which promoted gathering students together, but did not see that designs which facilitated meetings could also enable quick dispersal across the campus, thereby expanding the usable teaching space beyond the classroom walls. The organizers were concrete, two dimensional planners; the builders (were there really only two of us?) were abstract, three dimensional thinkers.

The organizers fretted that there was not enough material to make a school. I said use the table top; it can be more than a base. The other builder began to draw on the table cloth. Immediately, we had a huge whiteboard! The organizers set about creating a classroom but worried that they didn’t have time to make their design detailed enough to show its purpose. I said use color as a key to explain it. The organizers decided we should all work on cutting out shapes to match the design. I wanted to use the water glasses and chenille sticks to create the illusion of boundaries, and realize the design in 3-D. I talked with the other builder about Frank Gehry’s architecture as we watched the organizers cut out paper trapezoids. We contemplated; they stayed busy. I learned the other builder was in sales, and loved restoring old houses.

In the end, six different groups presented their school design ideas. All were laudable, but five of six were essentially the same: verbal outlines. Just one group, our group, used the design materials to make a model! And, I am sure that if I hadn’t impolitely insisted on opening the construction paper while the organizers were talking, we wouldn’t have had a model either. So, what does this tell us? What value does one artist bring to a community of sixty non-artists?

Artists are builders and all good builders are visionaries. We see a dynamic landscape without a static goal or end point. Projects are journeys, not monuments. Fluidity is a constant, and can be viewed as an asset…and that’s OK. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s, the roofs we build may have leaks, but they encapsulate spaces which are more than functional, they are sacred, inspiring and true. We pursue our visions, even if we see them in solitude. However, we are most effective when we have a partnership with someone in the mainstream who accepts the insights we bring. Someone who acknowledges that there are more sheens than flat and more dimensions that two. If we are smart, we welcome their input, so that the world may benefit from ours. After all, it was no fun being Cassandra. 

Artists: ours are amazing voices! Be sure to share yours.

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