“Art and Narrative Explorations” was a collaborative project conducted in 2011 and 2012 between Sue Ellen Henry (an Education professor) and Joe Meiser (a professor of Studio Art). In the Education course, students wrote detailed narratives about their lives in order to examine aspects of their identity, specifically addressing race and social class. These narratives were collected, and identifying information was removed in order to make the papers anonymous. Each of the Education students then had their photograph taken.
In the Drawing course, the students tried to match the author’s anonymous narrative to their photograph. Based on the narrative and photo they selected, each Drawing student then drew a portrait in a selected context to convey the author’s identity.
Finally, the two classes were brought together for a discussion that was facilitated by Carmen Gillespie, a professor from the English Department. Carmen merged the learning goals of the Drawing and Education classes with her own relevant insights from literary studies. As was expected, few of the drawing students accurately matched the narratives to the photos. In fact, some of the students even mistook female authors for male, and vice versa. From this exchange, Drawing students gained familiarity with the politics of representation and an understanding of how art can reflect and actively influence people in the world at large. Due to the way that their narratives and portraits were (mis)represented and the discussion that ensued, the Education students walked away with an stronger understanding of the complexity of identity issues. Overall, this final discussion illuminated the nebulous and ambiguous nature of identity, the pervasive influence of social conditioning, and the unreliability of preconceptions.