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Teaching art with themes allows teachers and students to discuss concepts or Big Ideas suggested by an artwork. Artworks can address multiple themes that act as lenses for viewers to interpret the work in different ways.  Viewers of all ages can use themes as a framework to discuss their own opinions and listen to the experiences of others.

Teachers and their students can slither, dance and play with ideas, images and thoughts while they pick and choose from artworks and grow by exploring the many ways that they can apply art to their own lives.

The themes are generative in nature offering opportunities for multiple perspectives, and a freeing acceptance of various practices. They reflect past traditions and address global structures.

Most importantly, utilizing themes suggested by artworks allows a viewer to critically question the world around them and find their own way to have agency within it. 

A Short Guide to Finding Themes


Contemporary art invites us not only to look but to encounter. We form relationships with what we see. Like many relationships in life, our experiences with contemporary art may elicit differing emotions and opinions.  We may immediately like or dislike a new work.  However, taking time to “be with” a work of art can result in connections, associations, and new questions for further inquiry. The information on this website  does not tell you what to think about the art you see.  Instead  the authors hope you learn from contemporary art and guide your students into their own explorations.


1.) Before Teaching About Art, Form Your Own Relationship with It.

Take time to look at the artwork from your own perspective. Allow what you know as an adult and the experiences you have had to guide your encounter. Look at forms, see how the work triggers your memories, form personal opinions, let your mind make connections with other artworks, readings, areas of interest or stories, think of new ideas for your own artmaking. Before you present the work to students, find your own questions just for yourself.


2) Make a Mind Map.

You might want to begin a discussion with students by mind mapping. What parts of the work are interesting or not interesting to them?  Allow students to make free associations with the objects and materials they are encountering. Sharing with a fellow student or with the class may provide more ideas. Sometimes, in place of mind-mapping, allowing students time for free discussion can meet the same purpose. Often a teacher can find value in even the silly comments that come up to guide further inquiries. 


3) Write Questions That May Not Have an Answer.

Ask students to individually or as a group can find questions or pose problems from their own encounters with the artwork. Individually students can evaluate their own questions and eliminate those with Yes or No answers.  Ask students to choose one or two questions they want to know more about. Sometimes questions without answers can be the basis for further study or their personal artmaking


4) Research The Unknown.

This step can be quick searches using small devices (phones or minicomputers) or allow more time for a guided study.  Find information about the context of the work. Does information about the artist’s life answer questions or pose new ones. Does an artist’s biography matter when looking at their work? Does information you find answer your questions or provide new ones? Does the work make you more curious about the world around you? Use information from science, history and other disciplines to inform your study.


5) As a Group, Find Themes.

In our book, Teaching Contemporary Art for Young People (2021) we offer themes as a way to model the practice of working with a thematic curriculum. We came up with those themes by going through steps 1-4 above. You and your students can also discover themes. Here's how. Take some time to look at your students' mind maps and questions.  Curate these by finding patterns and connections and present them back to your students in an age appropriate, visual form for all to see. Lead students in a discussion or activity to come up with an overarching title of these connections. These "titles" become the themes. In other words, don't tell them a theme and then show them art. Show them the art and let the themes emerge through their eyes and minds. Their themes will surprise you and spark their engagement. Themes aren't written in stone by an art expert. Themes are the re-occuring patterns we find between ourselves and the ideas in an artwork.


6) Play with Ideas.

Allow students to "play" with the themes. Have them recall memories, tell stories, voice opinions. Choosing a "theme" doesn't end the thinking. It is just the beginning of the thinking. In the end more generative questions can inspire further looking, and art making.


7) Respond with Artmaking.

Each student's response to these multi-dimensional ideas will be different. Show students examples of how artists choose media and technique to match their ideas. Allow students to think about what media and technique would best suit their idea and start their response.


8) Reflect on Artwork.

Students will inevitably create generative and diverse artworks in response to the thinking and discussion that surrounded the original artwork of study. Allow time for them to share their response with their peers. This sharing is basically an artist statement. Video or audio taping these informal presentations can be used as indicators that your students have met the Visual Art Standards.


In Closing

The key to working with contemporary art in K-12 classrooms is not about being an expert on all things contemporary, but about inviting your students to become experts with you in dialogue, artmaking, and reflection.


Marshall, J., Stewart, C.,Thulson, A. (2021) Teaching contemporary art with young people; Themes in Art for k-12 classrooms. Teachers College Press

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