The Beauty of Collaboration

Jacob Lawrence “Bus”
Image from Artnet, click for source

Sometimes students groan when I announce that we are going to engage in “groupwork”. I don’t blame them.

Many students (including my own – sorry about that) have been subjected to poorly designed groupwork experiences where one poor chump gets stuck doing the bulk of the work and reporting in for the others who bask in their idleness.

That was because the exercise was poorly designed. When collaborative explorations are well-designed, everyone should participate, learn from the exercise and appreciate the collaboration for the value it added to the experience .

On our recent field trip to the  Brooklyn Museum, a group of “Living Laboratory” City Tech professors learned a profound lesson about collaboration when our excellent tour guide asked us to sketch art works collaboratively.

This week, I adapted his exercise to share with my Capstone (Senior Legal Seminar) students.

Caravaggio, “Medusa”

This semester the Capstone students voted to focus their efforts on researching and writing about New York state and city laws concerning discrimination.  Each of them will be preparing a Culmination Project involving research into a tightly focused aspect of discrimination law.  Currently the students are in the challenging process of narrowing their research topic and so we were scheduled to spend some of our class time brainstorming ideas.

Diego Rivera,”The Flower Carrier”
Image from
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To stimulate our discussion, I selected 12 artists who were either in  protected groups under New York law and/or who had painted people in protected classes or activities.  Each student sat down at a work that interested them.  Once everyone was seated, students sketched their piece for 90 seconds.  Then they stood up and moved to another work.  The students repeated the sketching four times (the final round lasting two minutes).

Frida Kahlo “Self-Portrait as a Tehuana”
Image from
Click for source.

Once we  had discussed the various reasons the artists/people in the paintings could have faced discrimination in the U.S.(age, race, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, conviction record, etc.)  we discussed how we felt about the collaboration.

Rembrandt “Self-Portait”
Image from Economic History Blog
Click for source

It seemed we all agreed that the work of the group was better than the work of any individual. Each student contributed their own particular strengths to the effort – some students preferred to begin the sketch, some excelled at adding detail to someone else’s work and other students were best at adding the finishing touches.

Marc Chagall “The Promenade”
Image from
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To me, the exercise was a stunning example of the beauty of collaboration – an end product finer than what might be achieved by any one individual, dependent on the efforts of all.

In addition to the artists noted above, students also sketched a 16th century Islamic angel painting from Turkey, and works by Van Gogh, Vermeer, Marsden Hartley, and Velasquez.
For another example of Art Across the Curriculum click on Painting to Learn to see a video of 2010/2011 Capstone students making art.

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