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Dispatches from the Teacher Institute

by Stephen Urchick

All photos: Teacher Institute Summer Residence, Aug 5, 2015

Photo: Gillian Fry © MCA Chicago

Two large prep carts—entirely laden with scavenged 2-by-4’s, each sawed length-wise to create six bundles—blocked the doors to the MCA’s first-floor conference room. The 21 CPS teachers participating in a week-long professional development workshop as part of summer Teacher Institute gingerly negotiated the protruding poles to get to their seats.

“They mentioned sticks,” joked one teacher, citing the closing remarks from the previous day. “They did mention sticks.”

Nick Hostert, one of the Institute’s two facilitators, greeted the group for the morning. “See those amazing-looking sticks? Right? Nothing but,” Hostert paused, reaching for the right words, “crazy potential for experimentation.”

Guest artist Faheem Majeed sat next to Hostert. Majeed had come in to guide the teachers through a special sculptural project he’d developed, simply titled Sticks and Tape. Earlier that morning, MCA staff had marked off a large swatch of their first-floor lobby. With minimal direction from Majeed, a bunch of varicolored duct tape, and some teamwork, over the course of the day the teachers would build an enclosed, free-standing structure out of the thin little beams.

Majeed prefaced the activity with a conversation among the teachers. The talk took place in Majeed’s third-floor exhibition at the MCA, an installment of the museum’s locally focused Chicago Works series.

Installation view, BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Faheem Majeed, MCA Chicago, Mar 10–Aug 16, 2015

“The last ten years of my life . . . is kind of represented by all this work,” said Majeed. The teachers, Majeed, and curator Steven Bridges had all gathered in the exhibition’s central wooden shack. Majeed had designed the structure to recall the creaky, intimate feel at the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville. He’d served as the Center’s executive director before leaving to pursue his practice as an artist and sculptor. “These aren’t the walls,” Faheem joked. “They wouldn’t let me have them.”

Majeed related his experiences teaching at Chicago State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to how his shack fit in the MCA’s space. He called attention to the gap between his brown cube and the museum’s white walls.

“The space between the walls is the point,” said Majeed. “It’s not about fitting, but about trying to fit.”

He related his experience teaching art history through a faithful understanding of who he was teaching. Majeed’s mostly adult Chicago State students brought their own, entirely unique set of experiences to the course. He couldn’t virtuously run that late-night classroom like he might for the predominantly white, middle-class, and 20-year-old SAIC students he taught by day.

Facilitator Rachel Harper concurred, commenting on the standardness of Western art education: “It’s just the water we’ve been swimming in. To find new points of entry means to unlearn—there’s so many processes of unlearning. We’re really talking about creating an urban art education practice.”

“If you begin with what is right in front of you—art is not far, far away and for somebody else,” said Majeed. “Begin with a student's art history!”

Discarded lumber was what had been right in front of Majeed. You could find the necessary materials for Sticks and Tape down alleys and in dumpsters. Much of Majeed’s art is made from cheap, disposable construction materials. The sticks for that Wednesday’s iteration of Sticks and Tape had been several structures, already. They first came from a test install he’d done at Mana Contemporary in Pilsen.

Majeed walked out into the center of the marked-off lobby space, gripping one of the longer sticks.

“Okay: No sliding! We don't do this.” Majeed ran his hand roughly along the unsanded edge of the pole. “Why? Splinters!” He then slung the pole over his shoulder. “We don't do this! Why?” He mimed thwacking several bystanders, and the teachers laughed at the self-evident lesson.

“This is duct tape,” demonstrated Majeed, holding up a roll. “It was my favorite toy growing up. The tape isn’t tape, though, think of it as string,” instructing the teachers to knot long, narrow lengths of the tape around vertices made by intersecting sticks.

“Let’s get building,” Majeed shouted.

The teachers each grabbed a pole apiece, and began planning out loud:

“Okay, we have a problem—”

“Bring it up to this point—”

“We could also tape—”

“—so everyone can see it!”

“Raise it up—!”

“Let's take two!”

Faheem walked back into the construction site. “I'mma give you guys a hint, because you don't have a lot of time: You need your corners. This here, teepee-style, is good! Think about your points of entry, guys.”

Within five minutes, the 21 teachers had roughly designed a frame big enough to accommodate them all. Over the next 10 minutes, they built out the structure to take up all the available space marked down for them.

“It’s like a giant erector set,” laughed one of the museum’s engineers, watching as he waited for the nearby elevator.

The teachers began to build in a doorframe, and thatched sections of wood across top beams to create a ceiling. Some teachers spun the colored duct tape around structural members that met at sharp, opposing angles, creating vibrant volumes—three-dimensional geometry.

Majeed had the teachers step back for a moment and draw out “windows” for the new building on sheets of paper. On one side, they sketched the perspective looking in; on the other side, the view looking out.

Once the windows were in place, the teachers shared their impressions.

Some spoke to the act of making, itself: “I was first thinking about how to build walls, but John was like, 'It doesn't matter,' and he was right! And then Faheem said to think about entry points and it all became about making the door.”

Others spoke to the sculpture’s significance: “It came together as a sacred space. It was really about feeling a part of an artist’s work.”

A third teacher built on that idea. “We had this hour to enjoy ourselves, and be curious about knowledge outside of the school.”

Faheem returned to the power of that exterior knowledge before he left for the day: “It sure didn't sound like a big deal—I see 2-by-4's on the drive home! But this is a chance for the shy kid, in the back of the class, to pay attention, and say, 'I'm brilliant with these sticks!'”

Even the sticks themselves turned out to be quietly brilliant. The teachers had begun the day by thinking about points of entry: ways they could start talking about certain artworks, means by which they could better envision their students’ diverse preoccupations and fantasies. They ended their day—lying on their backs—staring upwards at the vaults of a porous chapel, a building with hundreds of potential doorways. You could clamber through the walls, duck under the dedicated archway, fit between buttresses.

Yet, at every point, one false, careless, inconsiderate step could bring the whole thing down. It was a structure that fought back, too, as the teachers attempted to dismantle it. In this respect, Majeed’s activity was more than a learning tool, an elegant way to appeal to a student’s multiple intelligences. Sticks and Tape smartly spoke to the fine fault-lines CPS teachers tread every day, their ongoing task of cultural construction in a challenging city.