Into the Abstract

Guest Article by Joey Krenz 
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities 
When I applied for a Fulbright ETA grant in Malaysia, the last place I expected to be living was up in the mountains.  Fast-forward to January 2017 and I’m living in Ranau, a small town at the base of Mt. Kinabalu on the island of Borneo.  Most mornings consist of having an extra black cup of coffee on our patio while looking at the mountains, while most evenings consist of eating peanut butter with my roommates as we watch episodes of The Office.  After settling into our new home I started several art projects – this is one of the ways that I maintain a sense of productivity on a day-to-day basisHaving been removed from my usual artistic resources, I wound up using house paint and plywood to create large paintings of scenes from around my community. As a result of jump starting my artsy juices at home, I decided to take my passion for art into the classroom.  

At SMK Kundasang I teach 10 classes, one of which really stands out in terms of student participation and engagement; this is 4 Angsana.  Classes at SMK Kundasang aren’t labeled by exam scores anymore but are instead named after flowers, which is way cooler anyways.  Since student attentiveness is outstanding in 4 Angsana I have been able to do many different types of lessons, including several science-oriented lessons (one being genetics!), but my favorite lesson was centered around abstract art.

Need some flower power? SMK Kundasang has you covered 

Being an artist, I love talking to people about what makes something good art.  However, one of the things that bugs me the most is when someone doesn’t make art because they say they are bad at it – I’ve heard this from many students.  Personally, I feel that a large part of art being good is whether or not the artist can talk about their work.  When it comes to abstract art, many people have an under-appreciation for it because it’s non-representational, and thus an intimidating subject to discuss.  While it’s clear that many students in Ranau are musically inclined, an apparent appreciation for the visual arts has yet to be uncovered. In my form 4 class, I’ve seized the opportunity to demonstrate that abstract art can also be good art, especially if you can talk about it in an interesting way. At the beginning of class I showed students a brief slideshow of paintings by Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, and Wassily Kandisnky to demonstrate how intangible things such as emotions, feelings, and memories can be represented in a medium like paint. I then mentioned that these crazy paintings are worth millions of dollars, which blew the students’ minds. The aim of this lesson was to get students to use paint to represent something intangible and then tell the class what their work is about. 

As soon as I let the students loose with the brushes and paint it was clear that many students didn’t know what to do. I realized that abstract painting might be a new concept to many students.  To remedy this mass artist’s-block, I made a quick example for the class using large brush strokes. I explained that I was painting about my feelings of anxiety before coming to Malaysia, but also about how happy I am now that I’m in Ranau with all of these awesome students.  Then the students got it!  After about 20 minutes the whole class was channeling their inner Jackson Pollock.
Representin’ the non-representational with form 4 artists
When it was time for students to present their work, I was so impressed.  Not only did students describe their work in reflective ways but most of the paintings actually looked pretty cool.  A particularly impressive piece was done by one of the more quiet students in class, and consisted of an aggressive red background garnished with green squares that were X’d out by black smears; this painting would make for a sobering detour from the rest of the lesson.  As this student began to speak to the class, she froze on the verge of tears so I had her return to her seat.  The work showed obvious dark themes and although she was unable to verbalize her emotions to the class, the painting itself achieved its goal of communicating where her words failed. 

A week later the same student came up to me with a huge smile on her face and said she hopes that we can do another painting lesson because she enjoyed it so much.  I valued this moment because it showed me that painting made her happy and possibly allowed her to wrangle some of her emotions – but I won’t read too far into it. 
ETA Joey’s entourage is reaching new heights
At the end of the year I plan to have a full-on exhibition presenting students’ work from different lessons throughout the year.  Additionally, each student will write an artist statement to accompany their work.  Given the initial intimidation I saw amongst students with the abstract art lesson, I’m even more excited to showcase some of the awesome work that they went on to produce.  The students at SMK Kundasang definitely have an artsy bent going on and I’m going to have a blast channeling their artistic potential the rest of the year.  

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