Stephen Alcorn’s dedication to drawing has been a recurring story on The Daily Heller. Through his work on “Reflections on the Revelatory and Unifying Power of Interactive Portraiture in the Classroom” he discusses his unique program at Virginia Commonwealth University where each of his students are subject to his gaze and rendering.
Stephen Alcorn on The Face
Since I was invited to teach in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University I have made it my practice to create portrait studies of a great number of the dedicated and talented students alongside whom I have had the good fortune to work and to learn.
The inspiration for this ongoing series of portraits was occasioned by the introduction to the VCU/SOTA curriculum, in the Spring of 2011, a course revolving around the art of portraiture. Titled The Face, this upper-level drawing-intensive course requires students to draw and maintain their sketchbook on a daily basis—a process in which I, too, participate. My participation in this daily exercise presents the Professor not as a “font of all knowledge” but as a facilitator and participant in the humble activity of learning. Thus, the teacher remains a student. The result of this pedagogical strategy is twofold. Firstly, students come to respect a Professor who adheres to daily standards of behavior fundamental to their field. Secondly, the Professor comes to have a great deal more respect for the challenges students face as they complete these rigorous assignments. I further extend this collaborative process by inviting my students to sit opposite one another, and with each successive session, to rotate the overall seating arrangement of the class. This daily rotation ensures that each participant leave the class with a large-format sketchbook containing portrait studies of each student. This provides the participants with a richly illuminated journal chronicling the edifying social interaction in which they have engaged. It also leaves my students and me with a tangible memento by which to remember those who participated in the course.
This aspect of my work is especially dear to me because it is an outgrowth of my efforts to create and maintain an environment that is conducive to the fostering and nurturing of diversity: a safe learning environment where all students feel free and are encouraged to share their own perspectives and worldviews with others. The sharing of personal history and stories emphasizes the importance of fostering an appreciation for diversity within the context of experiential learning. As students share personal life stories they conceptualize other perspectives in the form of visual images of “the face.” Students both draw and are drawn.The resulting dialogue/interaction is reflected in the learning outcomes related to cultural diversity. This social interaction has proven to be a unifying force, and indeed the driving engine of the studio courses I teach.
This ever-expanding series of portraits stems from my belief that through our shared humanity, no matter how we may self-identify, we can learn to transcend the limits of socially constructed realties and see our reflection in others. As such it is emblematic of my underlying teaching philosophy. The work I encourage my students to conceive is by design heterogeneous. By fostering a syncretic culture, I have found that a classroom can become a virtual crossroads of the rich and varied civilizations from which we all descend. I hope that the absence of segregation in their work reflects the very cultural diversity they thrive upon, and which I seek to celebrate at Virginia Commonwealth University and beyond.
This experiential learning is a testament to the unifying power of drawing to invite and foster revelatory conversations while engaging in the challenging mind-hand coordination upon which meaningful drawing ultimately depends. The process of observing, assessing, gauging and transcribing the myriad optical and formal elements that inform a convincing likeness requires considerable patience and diligence. Because to draw is to think, the act of drawing is in essence a probing exercise in reflection and contemplation. This altered state—one in which the mind is focused while thinking in a stream of consciousness. Thinking aloud not only about the technical challenges, but also about the aesthetic and spiritual nature of the subjects themselves fosters engagement in the complementary process of drawing while being drawn. This confluence of analytical and intuitive mental faculties in the drawing process spawns a meaningful dialogue between the subject, the artist and the 2-dimensional surface receiving the marks. Through this nuanced, highly interactive practice, the participants come to belong to a community of scholars from which they will emerge with a greater awareness of their unique individuality, and the equally rich and varied cultural ties that bind our collective humanity.