Celebrating Abstraction at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois

By Urban Gateways Teaching Artist James Jankowiak

James Jankowiak recently completed a short six-visit artist residency at the Islamic Community Center of Illinois Elementary School. After seeing eye-catching photos of student art on his Instagram page, we asked if he could tell us more about the concepts and outcomes of this Urban Gateways program. He gave us a quick rundown on how it went:

This was ICCI’s first visual arts program they ever brought into the school, so the staff and students were anxious and excited to get started. Before the residency began, I had the pleasure of meeting with ICCI’s coordinator (and Kindergarten teacher) Mona Askar, where we discussed the basic logistics and the overall expectations of what ICCI hoped a visual arts residency could achieve.

We settled on a few basic guidelines. We agreed that we would use abstract art as our launching pad, and the first day would be dedicated to looking at examples of contemporary abstract art, along with how these artworks relate to Islamic architecture and design, and how math concepts, such as symmetry, materialize in visual form in nature.


4th-6th grade 2
All students, K-6th grade, took a deep dive into abstraction. Photos by James Jankowiak.


All age levels were asked if they could “speak” back to a work of visual art by creating their own “answer” to an artwork they were asked to speak to. We used the minimalist work of the great painter Carmen Herrera, and the students had fun and stayed engaged during this simple exercise.


Carmen Herrera
Left: Artwork by Carmen Herrera. Right: Student response to Carmen Herrera.


K-1st graders utilized their six sessions learning how to fold, to cut and to glue, and most importantly, play. We mixed math vocabulary into our beginning exercises, banking on the idea that the seeds we planted would help them later on in practical applications in math and science classes. This was a constant throughout all grade levels, and we enhanced the mathematical language in an age appropriate manner.

Our 2nd and 3rd graders began working on radial designs that focused on pattern, rhythm, and composition.


Left: K-1st grade tape abstracts. Right: 2nd-3rd grade radial designs.


Our 4-6th graders concentrated on pure abstraction, and working within limitations. Ms. Askar was hoping that our oldest students could work on a collaborative project that would lead to a permanent artwork, and since one of my personal missions has been to get contemporary art into as many schools as possible, I devoted most of my time and energy into making that happen.

We decided to use paper and tape as our media; they are relatively easy to use and they require no prep and very little clean-up – which was important because I only had 6 hours of total time to work with each age group.

In order to create an even-handed collaboration, where every student could feel like a vital part of the artwork, I had to sell the group on a concept to keep it focused and cohesive. I broke it down into a 32 piece grid, using 12” x 12” squares. We had 24 students, and 32 squares to fill, so a handful of them volunteered to create two works. They were limited to using only black and white tape on either gold or silver metallic paper, and red and white sticky dots. They all agreed to make a unique abstract composition, and allowed me to use their artworks to build one single piece.

I mounted the pieces on MDF board in two pieces, diptych style, to allow for the works to either be hung together or in separate parts of the building. When I brought the completed works back to school after a two-week break, the kids were genuinely and pleasantly surprised at what they saw…They were all extremely proud of their collaboration and we spent the final hour reflecting on a job well done.


4th-6th grade final!


We also celebrated with an art free-for-all for the whole day, which was started in earnest by our 1st and 2nd graders earlier that day. They spent their time making their own personal tape artworks to take home, and they all got to contribute to our temporary abstract tape mural on the wall…But the best part was destroying it at the end of class!!



Big thank you to Mona Askar and Ola Ayyad, our K-1st grade teachers, Edina Cubic and Jennifer Greenberg, our 2-3rd grade teachers, and Manal Mullah and Wafa Mohammed, our 4-6th grade teachers, for all of their help and support. Lastly, thank you to Principal Mohammed Elnatour for letting Urban Gateways be a part of ICCI life for a short but productive time.

Check out more photos from this residency on Flickr!



Urban Gateways thanks our generous residency program sponsors, including:


Hearst Foundations