CoCre8(ing) in Washington Park

By Carrie Rosales, Urban Gateways Measurement & Documentation Manager

This spring, Urban Gateways formed a collective with several Washington Park organizations, teachers, artists, and youth to produce a community based learning initiative rooted in the arts. The collective was named CoCre8. It included Urban Gateways, The Smart Museum, the Washington Park Arts Incubator, and the University of Chicago Arts and Public Life Initiative. The goal was to pilot a program, utilizing the newly built Incubator space as a work center, that would invite youth in neighboring schools to engage in the art making process alongside their school teachers and community artists. We wanted to see what learning looks like when “youth”, “teachers”, and “artists” throw away their labels and become students and teachers to each other. What would happen when the traditional top-down learning hierarchy often seen in a classroom setting is nowhere in sight?

The project got underway in March with collaborative planning meetings that included all adult participants of the project, not just administrators. It was determined early on that the only way to break down the traditional constructs of learning hierarchy would be to approach everything we did with a collaborative spirit. To throw everything in a pot and let leadership roles emerge naturally and decisions be made as a collective. We recognized that this structure might cause anxiety amongst some members of the group, who naturally want to feel like they’re being “led” somewhere when they sign up for a project, that they exist in some kind of pre-determined structure. But we kept on in this manner, knowing that out of this place of tension, of anxiety, would come the kind of collaboration we were seeking. And so it went.

Phase I – Exploration

The first part of the program was held at the Smart Museum on the University of Chicago campus. The entire group, made up of about 6 students, 5 teachers, and 3 teaching artists, was led through the museum to respond to art using questioning methods utilized by docents on gallery tours. The group explored ways to question art, investigate concepts present in the work, and ground them in their own life experiences. After zeroing in on photographs by Alan Cohen, in a series titled “NOW”, the concept of borders emerged.

Phase II – Putting Theory into Practice

From here, the group embarked on several mini-projects circling around the concept of borders. Some of the projects included a walkabout in the neighborhood using Polariod cameras, a poetry writing session, and a drawing activity responding to a vacant lot across the street. These mini-projects were led by various participating artists and familiarized participants with the use of conceptual ideas as a stepping off point into an artistic endeavor.

At the end of this stage, participants broke off into 3 groups that were a good mix of youth, teachers, and artists. The groups each identified a concept, or as we in the arts education world like to call “big idea”, and collaboratively planned and executed the creation of a work of art responding to their big idea. There was no pre-determined artistic medium that the groups were required to work in, so the artist was potentially going to work outside of his discipline; therefore increasing the opportunity for all members of the group to be on equal footing as learners and teachers. They simply let the themes and the materials they might have access to determine what medium they’d work in, and what the project would ultimately end up looking like.

Phase III – Art Making

At the Incubator space, the heavy lifting began…literally and figuratively. One group embarked on a film making project (see below for their film), another tackled a mixed media project in photography and woodworking, and the last group created a free standing sculpture that was mostly made of wood that incorporated plastics, water, and removable drawers. They explored racism, space, self-awareness, and possibility. At any given moment in this final phase, groups could be found conceptualizing, storyboarding, working with power tools, mixing concrete, editing digital photography, measuring, lifting, sweating, and celebrating together. The energy and excitement around the projects was palpable. As a culminating event, parents, children, friends and colleagues of participants came to the Incubator space to celebrate the work that had been created.

Phase IV – Reflecting

One very important aspect of the project was the evaluation. Since this was a pilot program, no one was quite sure what impact it would have and if our visions of impact would materialize or not. So we embarked on an exploratory evaluation, which consisted mostly of rigorous observations and peer interviews at the end of each session.

What we found out was that the collaborative nature of the project had a huge impact on participants and was the core vehicle for change throughout. As the projects weren’t dictated to them and they had to grapple with getting them done as a collective, tension had no path but to give way to consensus. Projects had to get done. As one participant eloquently put it, “In the beginning I was getting really frustrated because we weren’t seeing eye to eye with things, but I learned that when you make collaborations you have to make exceptions. Everyone has to work together”. And what a life lesson it is, thinking of all the relationships that must abide by this principle. By having to depend on one another and take others’ viewpoints into consideration to reach consensus, participants increased their capacity to appreciate and honor what others think. And in this process, they also experienced an increase in confidence in their own ideas and expertise as they witnessed its importance to the whole.

How did this help blur lines between teachers and students? Participants were self-identifying as both by the end of the project. They recognized that they each had something to teach and that they could gather expertise from any member of the group and learn from one another. And going a step beyond their human interactions, participants learned how to better interface with the world. They say they now have a capacity to see deeper into an object, past what it appears to be at face value. To observe, question, and interact with their surroundings in a more conscious way. And isn’t that what we all hope for in our time on this earth?

Below: Check out “The Art of Death,” a CoCre8 group project!

The Art of Death from Erik Peterson on Vimeo.