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My Philosophy of Art Education

In order to write about My Philosophy of Art Education, it was necessary for me to 
look into my own education in art, starting from an early age and continuing through
my adult life. By recalling, analyzing and reflecting on my art experiences, I have 
gained insight into what I have learned from and lacked in my education in art. By
investigating my various art experiences inside and outside school as they
corresponded to various theories in art and art education, I have discovered
revelations about myself, my relation to others and to the world . Finally, this
recognition has helped me to come up with my own personal philosophy of art

My art experiences in elementary school

As all children do, I am sure that I scribbled, drew and painted; however,
unfortunately, like most adults, I do not possess any of my childhood drawings to
reflect on. The earliest memories of art making that I can recollect is the craft projects
that I did in elementary schools in Germany as well as in Iran. I am sure that we did
drawings and paintings but perhaps they were not as significant as my craft projects
that I remember so clearly. These included the jewelry box that I decorated with
seashells, the stuffed animals that I would decorate my room with later on and the
hand bag with pictures of two walrus glued on it that I would carry around the house
and wear in my imaginary world of play. I remember also that I was taught to knit,
embroider and do needlework. 

The only significant painting experience that I recollect happened at home when 
I was 12 or 13. I think I had a new watercolor set and I wanted to paint not just
anything but something significant, something that would look sophisticated and
adult-like. I copied a typical miniature portrait of a woman surrounded by leaves 
that I had found in an illustrated poetry book. The result was amazing - the luminous
background colors of green, blue and yellow, and the rose color of her dress. I felt a
tremendous joy, especially as my imitation stood up to the original image. I got praised
for my ability to copy. I felt so motivated that I copied the same image two more times;
of course, I did not feel the same thrill.

Looking back at my art experiences in primary school, I can say that the emphasis 
was not so much on self expression as it was on directive work, crafty works. We used
a variety of materials, not for pure experimentation but to imitate and follow
procedures. It was learning by imitating, working and doing so that the result was the
successful acquisition of skills and products. In other words, I was taught from "an
empirical-analytic paradigm (technical knowing) where products, facts, skills and
techniques are emphasized"( Pearse, 1983, p.159). 

This way of learning also corresponds with two orientations in the study of aesthetics
and psychology. They are the mimetic aesthetic and psychological behaviorism. We
read in Efland's article, Conceptions Of Teaching In Art Education, that in the mimetic
aesthetic, art is the imitation of nature; correspondingly, behaviorism postulates that
learning is acquired by imitation. On this subject, Efland (1979) writes:
Children learn to talk by imitating the sound made by others, especially parents. Even
gestures are mimicked, as well as vocal inflections and regional accents….The child
learns to draw by copying pictures made by others. He learns to imitate actions of
actors by watching television and films, and he learns the appropriate conventions of
audience behavior like sitting still and clapping by modeling his behavior after peers,
sibling, and parents (p. 22).
Within this mimetic paradigm, I learned to work with different materials, to develop a
variety of technical skills, to improve on my eye and hand coordination, to draw better
and to create a complete final product. 

Today, there is not as much support for copying as a method of instruction in the
formal teaching of art; however, there are some studies in favor of this method. Roger
(1996), for instance, mentions that postmodernist theory questions the concept of
absolute originality and "it comes as no surprise that copying, a practice forbidden in
Lowenfeldian art education, has been reconsidered by curricular reformers" (p.74).
Copying is not such a bad thing because "unlike adults, children use copying to
facilitate their movement away from memory-based art to visually-based art"
(Smith, 1992, as cited in Clark, 1996). Wilson and Wilson (1977) have conducted a
series of clinical studies with children and adolescents who have shown a marked
propensity to draw and paint and who involve themselves in these activities
independently of schooling. They have found that in most cases these individuals have
taught themselves to draw largely by processes involving copying (as cited 
in clark, 1996).

In my art activities in school, I was exposed very little to the idea of self expression. 
I was not encouraged enough to express my inner world as a valid subject of
exploration in art . The result of this vacuum in my education made me always wait for
an adult, particularly a teacher, to tell me what to do or paint. I was always waiting for
instruction and looking up to an adult model of representation as a valid form 
of expression.

The result of this exclusion would manifest as dependency, lack of a personal voice 
and sometimes feelings of inadequacy because my artistic goals were always set to
reach an adult model of representation. Lowenfeld (1947) suggests that the child who
uses creative activity as an emotional outlet will gain freedom and flexibility, and the
child who has not been able to express freely will feel restricted in his 
personality (p.7). 
I believe that, from an early age, art should be an instrument of self expression
because it has tremendous benefit for the overall growth and mental health 
of the child. 

In the expressive tradition, children can safely experience and get in touch with their
emotions and imagination and access their unconscious thoughts which together 
result in positive developmental growth. When mental health is fostered through the
therapeutic benefits of art, it will contribute to a sense of individual competence
(Siegesmund, 1998, p.200). I can conclude that, in my early years I would have
benefited tremendously if I had been taught from both the mimetic and the expressive
traditions in art (Efland, 1979).

My art education in secondary and high school

In secondary school, I remember we had very limited art activities, only an
extracurricular after-school craft program. The art experiences that we had in school
were integrated with different subjects mainly in the form of poster making. I
remember making posters for different subjects individually and collaboratively . 
I never felt that my poster making was art. To me, they were the "visual aid"
component of an assignment. I had some delight in working with the design aspect of
the works and also learned how to organize words with images as graphic artists
might do. The art in this type of activity was a handyman to other subjects; as a result,
the validity of art as a subject in its own rights was lost. 

This part of my experience in art does correspond with the reconstructivist view of art
as an instrument of integrating or linking disciplines to enhance learning. Within the
reconstructivist stream, art is properly understood as an instrument, not a discipline;
the pedagogic role of art education is to facilitate teaching across different subjects for
the purpose of critical analysis (Siegesmund,1998, p.203). I did learn more efficiently;
however, what was missing in those integrated activities was the essence of art, the
aesthetic experience, the training of the feelings, and self- realization that comes from
the relevancy of the art activity to the learner's life. 

Even though, I do not see the delight nor the authentic experience within the
reconstructivist model of art education, I cannot deny its instrumental values. I believe
that a reconstructivist art program could be enhanced by making it relevant to
students life by affective teaching. According to Efland (1971), when an educational
system place primary value on cognitive learning and disregards affective learning, it
does not lead students toward personal fulfillment or toward social integration
because in this type of education students lack a basic commitment to the values and
beliefs within the culture. They are disturbed by the emptiness of their educational
experience(p.7). An affective education would not rule out cognition, but would enable
the feelingful aspects of educational encounters to be expressed and nurtured. Efland
says that, "what we know and what we will allow ourselves to learn will probably
depend upon our feelings about it" (1971, p.20). 

Another part missing from my secondary education was meaningful contact with the 
art and artifacts of my own culture. This lack cost me the ability to connect deeply with
my culture and resulted in my confused sense of belonging and identity. One of the
reconstructivist objectives is multicultural learning. If multicultural art education
transfers to students the multicultural values of the society in which they are living,
then they are empowered through their differences and learning is internalized
because each individual brings his/her personal values to the art experience.

However, if multicultural art education is irrelevant to the learner's life experience 
and his/her social environment, then the learning will not be internalized because none
of us can fully appreciate life experiences beyond our own. Therefore, I do believe in
the instrumentalist value of art as a vehicle for social and cultural awareness that
helps students to adapt to the cultural and social values ( Eisner, 1984, p.261) as long
as the integrity of art is kept intact and art does not become a commodity for 
social studies.

At the age of 13, I attended a private art class because I wanted to paint and do
"real" art. I remember quite clearly the first day that I walked into that class; upon
entering, I saw a large oil painting. It was picture of a woman in a white dress with
long hair and wings floating in the air (an older student's unfinished work of her
deceased sister). Looking at this painting gave me an inside thrill that rushed through
my whole body. I was so excited to know that eventually I would be able to paint, like
artists, on a canvas with big brushes. 

For four months, I drew with a black pencil on a paper. I observed and drew geometric
forms such as a cube, cylinder, sphere, half a sphere, half a sphere with a toothpick
passing through it, etc. Then I learned how to give accent to the volume of those
shapes by seeing light and shade. I did not find deep personal satisfaction doing all
these drawings and I did not feel the strong aesthetic joy that I had encountered upon
entering the class on the first day; however, I was getting trained to look and draw as
artists do. I stopped attending the art class due to heavy loads of science and
mathematics assignments in high school that seemed to be more important than art. In
my later teen years, I once again picked up my private art classes and for almost two
years I strictly drew, using various materials.

As I reflect on my out-of-school art experiences, I can say that I did learn to work
skillfully with my drawing mediums. I could produce work of high quality and I became
my own critic, making qualitative or aesthetic judgments regarding the ongoing flow of
forms with which I worked. In those art classes, art was neither an instrument of social
adaptation or reconstruction, nor an instrument of psychological development or
emotional release. The art was used to develop the skills necessary to enhance my
understanding of art as a process and help me to become visually literate. It was
learning about art in the objective tradition of art education. 

Efland ( 1979) points out that in the objective tradition, art is viewed as an
independent entity, apart from its cultural origins (p.28). In this tradition, Arthur 
W.Dow has established a method of teaching based upon sets of universal elements
and principles, such as line, light and dark, color, and principles of design including
opposition, transition, subordination, repetition and symmetry. Dow suggests that
"through the study of the ways and means of combining these principles and elements,
one could become aware of the structural basis for all art" (As cited in Efland, 1979,

In this essentialist view of art, though the system is rationally coherent, it has some
disadvantages, as mentioned by Munro (1930). He points out that, first of all, some
post impressionist art cannot be accommodated in that system, and secondly, the rigid
order of progress in the exercises is not addressed to the interests, needs and
developmental capacities of the learners ( as cited in Efland, 1979, p.30). I can
conclude that my formalist art experiences did not address my interests that needed
to be explored in art.

Art in my adult life

In one and a half years of my architectural studies in Iran, in my studio foundation
courses I was taught from the principles of Bauhaus, especially the plastic studies of
materials involving the exact depiction of materials and their actual use in
constructions. In those studio courses, the student's task was to invent an
aesthetically elegant and structurally simple solution to a problem. Eisner( 1984)
mentions that the aim of such a program was to foster the student's ability to think
inventively by using materials and engaging in tasks that must meet strict criteria, but
which allow a multitude of solutions. In this educational system, "cognitive skills are
developed, imagination is fostered and aesthetic sensibilities develop" (p.262). In
other words, what I learned in this type of experience was creative visual 
problem solving.

In my undergraduate fine art studies at Concordia University in Canada, the emphasis
was on self-expression in art making, formal criticism and art history.
I was also being trained in the objective orientation of aesthetics to create 
paintings or drawings that are good Gestalts. My education in art at university
corresponded to expressive theories which are oriented toward the artist as the
work's creator, and objective theories, where the work of art is regarded as a
self-sufficient autonomous whole, accessible to the viewer directly through perception
(Efland, 1979, p.21, 22). 

Objective theory in aesthetics is influenced by the works of gestalt psychologists, in
particular Schaeffer- Simmerm (1948) and Arnheim (1954). They have stated that
human behavior is more than the sums of its parts. It is holistic with qualities that
cannot be reduced to smaller elements. They have also mentioned that there is a
quest in human perception for good gestalts. Good gestalts in a perception field such
as a painting are achieved when the underlying structural order of all the parts are
working harmoniously towards a complete whole. When a work of art is a good
gestalt, we perceive it as a unified whole in our experience; otherwise, the perception
of relatively bad gestalts will arouse tension (Efland, 1979, p. 22). Learning with an
objective orientation provides perceptual training. Within this orientation, I have
discovered the structure, differentiation and integration of various elements enabling
me to create works that are good gestalts in character.

In my graduate studies in the field of art education, areas that have significantly
influenced my view of art are aesthetic experience and self-realization/ revelation
through personal reflection. Dewey (1958) has viewed aesthetic experience as a
dynamic relationship with events in which we can live fully and wholly for the moment,
forgetful of time and space, as we resonate with the situation. In an aesthetic
experience, what is illuminated is a heightened sense of meaning and the realization of
value that is first emotionally internalized through our senses, and later, realized
intellectually (Dewey, 1958, p.38).

There is a difference between those ordinary moments of life characterized by
'distraction and dispersion' and those moments, however rare, in which " the material
experienced runs its course to fulfillment" (Dewey, 1958, p.35). This latter is an
experience and the aesthetic is the qualitative aspect of an experience that arouses
our emotions when all the functioning parts in a situation are interrelated toward a
complete whole. 

An experience is not necessarily pleasurable or gleeful. It may enter into our lives so 
as to become touchstones of our understanding through which we interpret other
experiences. In his book, Art as Experience, Dewey says: Struggle and conflict may 
be themselves enjoyed, although they are painful, when they are experienced as
means of developing an experience….For 'taking in' in any vital experience is something
more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously
known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful…. (P.41)

An example of my personal contact with such an experience would enhance the subject
more clearly. I have realized physically and intellectually the extreme importance of an
aesthetic experience in art. There are those rare aesthetic experiences that lead to
personal revelation.

An example of such an experience is described as follows:

I am sitting in a classroom. The room is dark and the teacher is showing slides of
abstract expressionist painters. A slide of Hans Hoffman's painting is on the wall and
the teacher is analyzing and explaining the work. He clicks to the next slide, which is 
"woman I" by Wiliem De Kooning. There is a painting of a woman right in my face. My
first reaction is "WOW". My chest moves forward as I breath the air deeply and my
back straightens. I am trying to connect with the painting and digest the information
pouring from the image. I hear the sound of my breathing and sense my eyes moving
quickly to every corner of the painting in order to grasp its powerful presence.

My eyes can not concentrate on one area of the painting, as they move from one line,
brush stroke and shape to the next one, almost like trying to swallow the painting all
at once. My heart beats are getting faster and faster. For a second I look at other
people in the dark. They all look very calm and unaffected by the painting. It seems
that I am alone in this visceral experience and I move uncomfortably in my seat.

My feelings are a mixture of excitement, joy, fear and pain . I have never seen a
woman painted this way before. I feel weak in the presence of this powerful creature.
All of these thoughts are passing through my mind quickly in a fraction of time. Now
that my eyes have touched all parts of the painting, they have stopped wandering and
slowly the whole woman is visible all at once. Now that I have "taken in" the image, I
can breath a little easier.

Here I have described the emotional component of my aesthetic experience. After
feeling came a realization. I realized that I see myself in the image of that woman. This
realization later on led to self- reflection as to how I view myself and why. My self-
reflection was the closure part of my aesthetic experience because it helped me to
grow internally and be a better adjusted person.

My aesthetic experience had all the three components of an experience that Dewey
talks about. They are emotion, closure and structure or form. I have already clarified
the emotional component of an aesthetic experience. Closure refers to the sense of
intrinsic completion, value and meaning that one arrives at through the experience. My
self- realization through intellectual reflection was the closure component of my
aesthetic experience. Dewey mentions that for an experience to occur form must be a
constant gathering together as well as an opening up. This is achieved through the
relational, rhythmic structure of the work that is successfully organized. My aesthetic
experience occurred because there was a successful, organized form (the painting) in
front of me to look at.

The artist materializes his emotions and thoughts through organized forms, called
expression, and the viewer realizes that expression only when the material of the
work is successfully organized by the artist. In other words, "the form, then, is
transitive as well as transformational activity which passes from the interaction of the
creator and his material to the interaction of the work and the audience. The form is no
more in the object than in the mind -It is the organization of response to the
material"(Alexander, 1987, p.235).

In the book, Readings in Art Education by Eisner/Ecker, in regard to the organization 
of the parts within a visual field, it is mentioned that:
The human visual information handling process appears to be the fundamental basis
upon which design is built…. The designer appears to be a mediator between the
perceiver and unorganized visual stimuli. He uses design, the grammar of visual
communication, to organize his material so that it can direct visual attention, arouse
interest and make it more easily assimilated. (p.186)

We can clearly see the link between the Gestalt principles of perceptual organization 
of forms within a work of art and aesthetic experience or response to a work of art.
The latter is very difficult to achieve when the former does not exist because the
human organism needs some form of order to be able to respond.
So far I have reflected on my art experiences since my childhood. I have discovered
that my experiences do correspond to essentialist as well as instrumentalist models
of art education. Instrumentalists believe in education through art and essentialists
believe in education in art. In my view, these two models of art education should not
be looked at as a pair of opposites but rather as interconnected. I recognize the
instrumental value of art in expressionist, reconstructivist, and feminist theories. In 
the expressionist view, art is a vehicle of self-expression, a developmental activity 
that leads an individual to a sense of personal fulfillment and growth.. Therefore, in
this model, the emphasis is on the psychological benefits that an individual gains
through artistic activities. 

In the reconstructivist view, art is properly understood as an instrument for social
change or adaptation. Therefore, in this model art is a vehicle for social and cultural
awareness. In the feminist view, art is a vehicle to reflect the struggle for subjectivity
by people who have been suppressed through racism and sexism, especially as it
relates to the experiences and needs of women (Garber, 1992, p. 211). Within the
feminist pedagogy, the self as it experiences life becomes the subject of investigation
in art. In this view, art is a vehicle that one uses to explore differences in regard to
gender, race, class and culture. In all these three theories, art has not been
considered a discipline with its own body of knowledge worth investigating, but rather,
an instrument of psychological development, emotional release, social adaptation or
reconstruction, critical analysis and reflection.

Essensialists, on the other hand, believe that art has inherent value as a discipline
with its own epistemology or warranted knowledge. The unique role of the visual arts
is that they provide visual aesthetic experiences, which no other discipline can provide.
Through the verbal language and within different fields of study, such as social studies,
liberal studies, geography, history, etc., we can educate the learner about issues that
are important in our postmodernist age; why, then, should art take the role of a
handyman or a tool to facilitate learning in other subjects?

How do we expect to have a concrete ground in the educational system, when we
ourselves deny the subjectivity of art as a body of knowledge and "refuse to recognize
its own content" (Efland, 1971, p.14). Bruner, the Harvard psychologist, in his book
Process of education, has mentioned that "the key educational task is to give students
an understanding of the fundamental structure