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Approaches to Concentration: Ideas and Execution

by Jerry Stefl
Retired Teacher
Orland Park, Illinois

The following article was originally published in the AP Studio Art Teacher's Guide.

Focusing on a Body of Work
When I first faced a group of students and tried to explain the ideas behind Concentration, I stopped and pondered: How do I explain the concept of producing a series of sequential visual images -- images growing from images -- to help explore in greater depth a particular visual concern? Additionally, would secondary students understand and be able to sustain an interest in a truly expanded-upon idea?

To begin with, I did not have any examples or slides of students' Concentration work to show. What I did have were assignment sets of past students' work in slide form and some personal work. As I showed each slide, I explained the criteria behind each assignment and how those criteria could be expanded into a body of related work. When the students looked at the slides, they noted the similarities of the concepts evident in the works, the numerous ways the same concepts could be approached, and the various ways identical materials could be explored. This exploration gave us some concrete structures to apply when approaching Concentration ideas.

Since then I have found additional avenues that help clarify the idea of a body of related works, including showing a series of works by an individual artist. The AP student can then be made aware of commonalities in the artwork by identifying the subject matter, working techniques, concepts being explored, multiple approaches to a body of work, and the numerous ways the same material could be expanded upon.

When this process of identifying commonalities or characteristics is completed, the students are encouraged to describe the subject matter, elements, and principles of art being used, and the working techniques. Analyzing the structure(s) of the related pieces and interpreting any concepts being presented is the next step. These analytical processes may be articulated further or replaced by having students explore an individual artist's or a group of artists' work and report back to the class. Another approach to consider is having students find commonalities in their own work or the work of another artist in terms of strengths, areas to be worked on, or subject matter. Groups or pairs of students may also help each other to find these similar attributes in their work.

All of these strategies may be expanded upon or condensed to meet the unique needs of any individual student or school curriculum. There is no single correct approach to explaining the idea of what defines a Concentration.

Developing Student Ideas
Once the concept of a Concentration is presented and understood, the student needs to develop his or her own ideas. This is the moment every visual art student has been waiting for. They continually ask, "When can we do what we want to do?" In nine out of ten cases, however, they have no idea of what to do -- especially in terms of an in-depth exploration of a particular concern in the visual arts. In many instances, developing a visual language that carries through a series of related works is the most problematic aspect of the entire AP portfolio.

To ease into finding ideas for the Concentration, the student first needs to inventory his or her personal likes and dislikes. In the beginning, the responses may be very simple -- single words or sentences listed on a sheet of paper. As the likes and dislikes are explored further, they must be expanded upon. The student needs to explain how other influences are brought into, or become part of, the idea he or she wishes to pursue, and to explain why this idea can serve as the basis of an in-depth exploration. All AP participants need to realize that a Concentration is not just a series of drawings of cats, cars, horses, emotions, and so on, appropriated from magazine images that appeal to them. Nor is the Concentration found one week prior to the submission of a portfolio by searching for commonalities in a group of divergent works. The individual must come to "own" her or his imagery, whether objective or nonobjective, based on personal contact, history, manipulation, observation, research, or a combination of these. By feeling deeply comfortable or involved with a Concentration, the AP student can continue to explore various approaches to the concept being developed.

The entire Concentration needs to grow out of a preplanned set of goals and objectives set by the student and teacher before beginning the series. These goals and objectives then become the basis for the written commentary that will accompany a Concentration slide. These beginning statements may be expanded upon and altered as the series of work is explored. The student must answer the following questions for the Concentration:
  1. Briefly define the nature of your Concentration project.
  2. Briefly describe the development of your Concentration and the sources of your ideas. You may refer to specific slides as examples.
  3. What medium or media did you use?
Just as the teacher sets standards and outcomes for various classroom assignments, the student must do the same for the Concentration. With the three portfolios -- 2-D Design, 3-D Design, and Drawing -- students will be able to pursue Concentration ideas in a multitude of media. By knowing what they are striving for, AP students can only strengthen their work.

Jerry Stefl has been teaching for more than 30 years. He divides his teaching time between Carl Sandburg High School in Oakland Park, Illinois, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Jerry is the past president of the Illinois Art Education Association, Western Region Secondary Chair for the National Art Education Association, and the editor of the AP Vertical Teams® Guide for Fine Arts. He is a Reader and a Table Leader for AP Studio Art.

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