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Students Address Social Issues Through Art as Advocacy Course

This fall, students in Studio Art II: Art as Advocacy visited Chicago’s Weinberg/Newton Gallery, an exhibition space that educates the public about social justice issues, drives change and cultivates a culture of consciousness. Ramblers encountered the gallery’s Bold Disobedience exhibition, a collection of works that grapples with issues such as racial justice, economic equity and LGBTQ rights and calls for civic action.
Jeanne Donegan, the gallery’s interim communications coordinator, led students through a two-hour workshop where she encouraged them to pay close attention to the imagery and medium of each piece to determine how it expresses a message. As part of the workshop, students paired up and had the opportunity to present their own interpretations of various pieces in the collection. Donegan supplemented the students’ interpretations with important background information about each work and artist.

“The gallery was a very cool experience,” reflects Claire Daffada ’19. “Some of the exhibits were like walking into someone else’s head. I learned that a social issue doesn’t have to directly affect you for you to advocate for it.”

Back at Loyola, students used the experience to create expressive response pieces.  

“Students were given the artistic challenge of responding to the work they encountered at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery’s Bold Disobedience exhibition,” explains Fine Arts Department ChairMrs. Colleen Aufderheide.

For her response piece, Catherine Comerford ’18 created an image with three figures. The first was a human tie-dyed with various skin colors, the next was a skeleton, and the final figure was a silhouette of a person with an emphasis on the heart. “The purpose was to simplify the idea of racial equality by showing that we are all the same, literally, on the inside,” she says.

Senior Sarah Pinkerton reimagined the American flag to expand on the idea of inequality within the criminal justice system. Using only the minimalistic materials that incarcerated individuals would have access too—like scraps of cardboard—she placed mugshots of imprisoned African American men in place of the flag’s fifty stars and covered that section with wired fencing to express their diminished freedom and the barriers upon them. On the flag’s stripes, Pinkerton added facts about racial inequality in the criminal justice system to draw attention to statistics that aren’t often addressed. “This project and experience at the gallery helped open my eyes to the racial inequality within our ‘justice’ system,” she explains.  
Donegan returned to Loyola to revisit the conversations she and the students began at the gallery, this time responding to the students’ work.

“Ms. Donegan became the audience in our student gallery,” says Aufderheide. Together, Donegan and the students discussed how media choice and scale affect a viewer's response, how symbolism can be a powerful method of expression and how to incorporate popular culture into works of art to change or amplify its meaning.

The experience helped students deepen their understanding of art and its ability to address social issues and promote change.

“Contemporary art can be difficult for students to comprehend especially when scale, media and technique play an important role in the conceptual message of the work,” Aufderheide explains. “The ability for students to see, hear, smell and touch the actual work at the gallery and in their own studio at Loyola impacted their learning directly and connected with our Jesuit identity. As Jesuit educators, we encourage our students to follow the teachings of St. Ignatius and imagine usings all their senses. For the students to then reflect and create their own work, which was then responded to by Ms. Donegan, brought the experience full circle.”  

“This experience helped raise my awareness on various issues,” Comerford ’18 adds. “It was more powerful to get a visual representation of issues like injustice rather than just hearing facts or statistics.”

Art as Advocacy is the latest addition to Loyola’s Service Learning Program, which incorporates the service experiences that are central to Jesuit education into the life of the classroom. The course challenges student artists to explore new ideas and transform their perceptions through art. Students are empowered to investigate contemporary issues and deepen critical thinking through the artistic process.  

Other Service Learning course offerings include Honors Environmental Science, Spanish Immersion and Justice Seminar among others. To learn more about service learning, click here.

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