Utilizing Contemporary Artists in Your Classroom (Ep. 236)

In today’s episode, educator Flavia Zuñiga-West joins Candido to talk about the benefits of showing contemporary art and working with contemporary artists in your classroom. Listen as they discuss the ideas of windows, mirrors, and sliding doors, talk about ways to make art history accessible, and list some of their favorite artists to share with their students.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Candido: In grade school, I was never truly taught art history. I struggled in college through those courses, maintaining a C average. I didn’t know the information and I didn’t understand the methods needed to study. However, I’m not sure learning about Old Masters and the typical art history would’ve appealed to me anyways. What I would’ve found useful was an introduction to contemporary artists, living and working artists that I could identify with and that would make a career in the arts seem truly possible.

Flavia Zuñiga-West, educator and founder of Adding Voices does a tremendous job of doing this in her classroom. I asked her to join me in a discussion to better explain the importance of using contemporary artists in the classroom and methods to incorporate them in our lessons. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Candido Crespo.

I have a ton of friends online that I have over time had the opportunity to meet and my guest today is one of those people. Flavia, I know a lot about you, but perhaps you’ll be new to the audience. Can you tell us your role in education and who is it that you serve?

Flavia: Yeah. Hi, it’s good to see you friend and to hang out. My name is Flavia Zuñiga-West. I’m an art educator in Los Angeles and I’m the founder of a community and conference called Adding Voices. Adding voices is a conference that creates workshops that are intentionally committed to equity, social justice and inclusion, really focusing on teaching, learning and building a community for art educators who are black brown and part of the global majority. When I’m not doing that, I work full time. I teach seventh to ninth grade at my old school, my Alma mater in Los Angeles.

I work at an independent school where I was a student on scholarship and I teach a foundations in visual arts class, so a little bit of everything, sculpture, painting, photography, a little bit of video art and things like that so a smorgasbord. And then, I teach two electives that are painting electives, because that’s, I guess I’d say my background. Yeah, I teach those and before that I used to teach elementary school.

Candido: Yeah. Okay, good. I was going to ask you what did you teach before. But I also have another question now. I think something that’s important is for you to expand on what an independent school is.

Flavia: An independent school is often deemed something similar to a private school. I don’t know, how would I frame that? It’s a school where folks pay money to go. There is a tuition. Often it has a ridiculous amount of resources. They are historically schools that have been for the most privileged individuals. Many of them though, at least in Los Angeles that I can speak of but I think nationally at this point, have really strong scholarship programs and financial aid programs. That means that students of color and students of just different socioeconomic backgrounds can come and be at those schools and be educated.

That was my experience at my school. There’s a robust scholarship program where you’re getting everything that you need in a sense that includes like if you want to go on study abroad trips and things like that that happen. I guess that’s what an independent school is.

Candido: Yeah. Great. All right. Good. For me it was something I came to know only through my wife and a friend of mine who eventually started teaching in one in New York as well. All right.

Today we’re going to be talking about contemporary artists, but I know for me, I think what’s special is that art teachers can very much be the contemporary artists in the classroom that we are discussing, right? You could essentially pull up your own work and be like, “This is what we’re discussing today.” Flavia, you as a contemporary artist, I’d love to know what is it that you create.

Flavia: That’s funny. I think we don’t talk about that enough. I think at times that we are ourselves makers and creators. It’s a wonderful relationship I think we get to have with our students. That’s important. Let’s see. I create paintings and I also create fiber art. They investigate my identity, so it investigates being, I don’t know, Afro-Latina. I’m very interested in blackness and immigration and where those things connect.

Right now, I’m using digital collage and fabric to discuss intersectionality and hybridity and I’m really curious about that in domestic spaces. I feel like that’s where I first really became aware of those connections and differences in my own family growing up and exploring that work in undergrad and now especially being a parent. A lot of that’s at the kitchen or the dinner table, it’s like seeing the fusion either in the food or even literally in the conversations that are happening between, does that make sense to my family? Because I have an interracial family.

My work deals with family history and oral history, and that looks like digital collages and found art, so like found photographs that got turned into digital collage and then those get printed on napkins and plates and bowls and tablecloths with text. I guess it is installation art in the end, that’s what it’s been planned to be.

Candido: That’s pretty cool. All right. I’m saying that’s pretty cool as if I don’t know. I know your work is cool. All right. Now I get to ask a question that is apparently a question that deserves about seven episodes, but we’re going to try to cram this thing in to today’s one episode. I’m going to ask, this question’s a very bold question. Why is it important to embed contemporary artists into our curriculum?

Flavia: For so many reasons. I’ll start with, I always tell my students that art is always in communication with them and they’re in communication with artwork. It’s like this living, breathing thing around them. I think that contemporary art speaks to them because it’s relevant to them. It’s someone who’s living and breathing right now that they can connect with. I think that’s exciting. Especially when you think about social media and I teach middle school and high school, so they can go straight to that. And contemporary art’s a vital tool for us to confront and reframe the traditional Western canon in art history.

This canon, which almost all of us as art educators were immersed in. Centers, white, male, European artists. It’s the Eurocentric narrative of art and art making. I think contemporary artists provide this global perspective and I think being in direct conversation with art history for students is alluring and interesting and that’s where you meet them where they’re at.

Candido: This sounds wonderful. If I would’ve had a teacher like you, perhaps my perspective would be different. I wouldn’t have had to, or continue to struggle with how I deliver instruction and the type of information I provide to my students because of so much unlearning that has to happen.

When I think of contemporary artists, I think about the possibility of contact, which is impossible with teaching the Old Masters. I can’t call up Leonardo and be like, “Yo, can you livestream into my classroom when we want to talk about one of your works?” Unlike, you follow this person that you just said, “Hey, this is some dope work. I want to talk about this with my class.” I just did it recently. I saw some pretty cool illustration, the guy is in Ireland and I was like, “Hey man, I love your work.” And he said, “Do you want to build a lesson plan with this?” And I was like, “What? All right. Yeah, let’s do it.” Because it’s that simple to you as contemporary artists in that regard, where they’re present, they’re alive, they’re available and who wouldn’t want their work taught?

Flavia: Yeah. I agree with you. I think it opens this whole level of collaboration a lot of people aren’t aware of. It’s just instant because it’s exciting that. Because for most contemporary artists, not all, they were in an art classroom at some point, so that’s exciting to think about a student learning from you.

We’re lucky at my school that we get that opportunity every year where a contemporary artist from Los Angeles comes. We select that artist. We talk to them. Clearly we have funding for that because we’re an independent school, but I’ve also done it before when I didn’t have funding like that and you get to have someone come on in and talk to kids and inspire them and connect with them. It’s not this person out there in before time or when they’re so long ago, they can’t connect to it. It’s like, hey, this person’s right there. Oh, cool. I can check out their IG Live or I can follow them on Instagram, so it’s more accessible, I think, and equitable for them to access it. I think that’s important.

Candido: I’m going to give away a gem here, which is, I guess something that’s important for those of us who care about this profession, who want to see it constantly progressing and we want to see other art teachers succeed. When I was in the middle school, I was doing an event, we called it Art In Tech Conference, basically. We just converted the cafeteria before lunch into basically, it almost looked like a trade show, kind of. There was just tables set up with people who were in contemporary artists and people who were in modern tech industries. And the students were just able to rotate for that amount of time, everybody’s students were able to come into that space and learn from these professionals.

And us having this conversation now, we as teachers, especially if you’re set in one building and you have a pretty solid lock on what grade levels you teach, you can turn your classroom, if you have the space, into this same setting where you just have a number of artists come in. Be it one, be it five. And you have it so that your students can go around and learn about these artists first person. Granted, pandemic restrictions may change that at the moment, but let’s just think long term that this piece of advice can be put into play, so think about that audience. How can you bring more artists, not only onto your smart board, but into your classroom?

All right. Is there anything else that we need to know about bringing contemporary artists into the classroom before we start giving away some more gems?

Flavia: Yeah. I think that it’s really important when we’re talking about contemporary art to center joy. I think it’s really important to talk about black and brown narratives and an intense intention on joy and not trauma to our students.

Our curriculum has this beautiful opportunity. I think art can save the world, I’ll try and stay focused, but I think it’s this beautiful, beautiful opportunity to be what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop talks about. She talks about this in the land of books, but the same way, that art can be a mirror, a window and a sliding door. That’s what I aim for my curriculum to be.

The idea is the mirror reflects one child beautifully in their life, so for me, I see myself beautifully reflected in the world. And then, at the same time, what the mirror is for me is the window for my classmate to see into my experience or a part of my life and see it as beautiful and welcoming and value it. And in between those two things that creates a sliding door where we can enter each other’s lives and worlds and value them. I think contemporary art can really do that, regardless of what medium you’re interested in covering.

Candido: All right. I asked you if you could possibly provide us, including myself and the listeners, artists that we can explore their importance as contemporary artists and possible ways to implement them in the classroom. Let’s start with Carmen Lomas Garza. Tell me about her.

Flavia: Okay. It was so hard to narrow it down too, because I’m just so passionate and I geek out. My background’s in great drawing and painting. Sure. But then my museum studies degree and my love of art, I just geek out on art history all the time. Okay.

Carmen Lomas Garza. She’s a Chicana artist and she works in various mediums. She works in painting, sculpture, she also does book art and these beautiful paper cutouts. She’s just an incredible artist. The reason why I love her is because I really like to focus on thematic building in my curriculum. She has these beautiful themes in her work of familia and ritual and memory and migration. I think all of those are things that our students can enter and are deeply connected to. And you can just pull so many other artists so that students see themselves represented in so many ways, but I think she’s a wonderful entry point.

I think with her work, she provides this opportunity to investigate themes that connect to things within, let’s say, Dia de los Muertos or Hispanic Heritage Month that a lot of teachers are supported to do. I think it’s this way of delving deeper into what we call deep culture, not like the surface level when we talk about culture. It’s not just the things that I can see, taste and touch. It’s the stuff that’s really deeply integrated. The stuff that has deep, what we want to call it? Emotional connection.

She’s the person that we can talk about, let’s say, Dia de los Muertos and the altar and the importance of all those things, but we can even delve deeper to that. That the reason why that altar exists is so we can talk about our family history, oral history, talk about those ahead of us. Those in the past. Our elders. And teach that to our kids.

That’s when you realize doing that time after time, those conversations are so deeply meaningful and impactful, even in my family. I think that’s a way that all kids have some experience similar to that, all people do. Her work’s really amazing.

Candido: Yeah, I wasn’t familiar with her work until you put her on the list. My favorite artist is Norman Rockwell. I think I’ve mentioned that on this podcast before. I guess my next up is going to be Jacob Lawrence. Taking a look at her work after you shared her name with me, I was really excited because I was like, “Oh, she’s doing this from her perspective.” It’s illustration. I love illustration. This is my thing. This is where my heart is. For me, it’s my love. Illustration is my love, so when I got to see from her perspective the cultural, the family representation through that lens, it was truly beautiful.

And for me, I would easily be able to incorporate her into my classroom because of the students that I serve and the population that I serve, so I’m excited to put her into practice. Thank you for sharing her.

Flavia: Yay. You’re welcome. Yeah. She’s a multidisciplinary artist. It starts with illustration, but then she also has sculptures and all these other works, so that’s where I think creativity can play this role in your classroom.

You can talk about oral history, even if that’s starting off with a mind map activity, show the work. Then, what are stories that you’ve been told at home? Write those down. Who are important people that you know of in your family, or who do you wish you knew more about? Because we have to think about the kids who don’t know. And then the same way you can think about photography, is there a photo of an elder or an ancestor? What do you know about them? And using that image somehow in art making. That has so many possibilities. I’m all about personal narratives coming into artwork with my students. I think that has a lot of possibilities.

Candido: I think that word is probably the super bridge into the next artist, when we’re thinking about narrative. This is an artist that you have shared with me in the past, as well as addition it to this part. Narsiso Martinez. Tell us. Tell us.

Flavia: He is such an incredible person. I had the pleasure of getting to know him. He’s a contemporary artist. He lives in Long Beach, California, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and seeing his work up close, which is just stunning, absolutely stunning. When there’s that visceral quality to work and emotional, it really just tugs at you. I don’t know how to describe it beyond that. He works in 2D and 3D and his work is contemporary social realism. It’s about labor and land and produce. And I don’t know, I think about him and the way I tied him in is that it’s like, I’m a drawing and painting teacher, so a still life lesson comes in some way for me to talk about form and to understand just some basic technical qualities inside of a semester class for me, but this let me delve so much deeper than that or my landscape lesson.

Because I was talking about people who we need. The work, so visually, to describe Narsiso Martinez’s work is that you are seeing large scale work on found produce boxes. Okay? And on the found produce boxes are depictions of farm workers, of migrant workers working the fields. Okay? They’re colorful because he’s working in charcoal, and the colors of the produce boxes are still vibrant and he uses those to his advantage to call your attention to them. He did this really beautiful installation with strawberry containers and took pictures of the workers and then put them inside of the strawberry boxes.

Candido: Oh. As frames.

Flavia: Yeah. As frames. Yeah. I often ask a lot of questions that fuel research, because I’m a nerd and I love to research and read. Candido is always like, “You trying to get me to read something?” I’m like, “Yes, I am. Read it, read it.”

I started asking myself these questions last year. What if our landscape lessons that technically cover perspective and foreground, middle ground, background could center deeper concepts that our students could marinate on and discuss? Like the Land Back movement, to be in solidarity with our indigenous siblings or with the pandemic and Narsiso’s work, we talked about how essential migrant farm workers were and their labor, and that we needed those people so essentially to just survive.

He works in charcoal and he uses the stickers from the produce inside of his work, so what I did with my kids and he did this mini project with my kids, that I cut up cardboard and I had charcoal and I didn’t have stickers, but what I did is I printed out, does that make sense? The sticker labors of Chiquita and Cutie and all these little images. My kids collaged those first and then on top of that, we did a still life drawing, but we were focusing really on his line work and understanding what it meant to work in charcoal while having this dialogue about our relationship with food and how we don’t think about who picks it, how it gets to the grocery store and that was just personally profound.

I grew so much as an educator in that conversation. I think a lot of the times when, as educators or those of us out there being like, “Oh, you could do it this way.” Folks are like, “No, no, no, no. I got my curriculum.” I want to say that using contemporary artists isn’t meaning you’re throwing everything out. The technical is still present, it’s just the conceptual that’s shifting. It’s not changing everything. It’s just the context and a little bit of facilitating some dialogue to what’s happening now.

Candido: Right. That’s easy for me. In the curriculum that we have in place currently in our district, which I was not asked to be a part of even though I’ve been there for 15 years, it’s basically medium. The people who were responsible for designing left it completely open so that they wouldn’t be pigeonholed, so it’s like teach paint, teach charcoal and it’s just super vague.

Without complaining about that, I can easily make these changes and I can’t be the only district that’s like that. Whereas where I have this curriculum that’s so open, that I can just do what I want. Or if I’m responsible for teaching charcoal and I can teach a lesson like this, I taught charcoal, but I also attempted to raise awareness and really spark a conversation.

All right. We have one more that we can get in here. On this list you have provided me with the name of Chakaia Booker. Tell us about her.

Flavia: Yes. Oh, Chakaia Booker’s so dope. I’ve been dying to do a project on her. I think I can sneak it in this year, if not next year for sure. Chakaia Booker is this incredible sculptor and her work uses found objects, particularly tires. Okay? She’s using tires and, what do I say? She takes them, she weaves them, she twists them and she creates these giant sculptures. You’ve probably seen them. They look frame-like, extremely textured, all black, so she’s a monochromatic maker. I really like showing her in the same context of talking about someone like Louise Nevelson and talking about found work in assemblage. Because one is assemblage and one is sculpture, but it’s two artists talking about something being monochromatic, paying attention to texture.

I’ve talked about her a lot, but we’ve never gotten to a project specifically on her. I love her work because she’s cool. You know how some contemporary artists are a little bit ambiguous about their work? They won’t lock down what it’s about?

Candido: Yeah.

Flavia: They do the, “What do you see?” She does this in this beautiful way where it’s, how I put it? Like when you look at the work and you read it enough of it together, these sculptures. You can see these references to textured hair, to African forms of ritual scarification and then also this object that’s familiar to all of us. Tires are this familiar everyday object that we interact with, and it’s this way that she’s taking something that’s so inside of our vernacular and making it so much more, I don’t know, special and beautiful.

She captivates me, personally. She also makes all of her own outfits, so she has these giant headdresses and she just looks like this dope personality, but she’s very calm when you look at her interviews. But I love her work because it’s intentional in it being all black, her being a black woman creating it.

I’m working on this project right now for littles with somebody I’m collaborating, we’re talking about how that can be about black joy and love of blackness in itself. And to start talking about what things are black and how black is beautiful and how hair is beautiful and to really tie that into texture and that it’s found objects too. Who doesn’t love some recycled artwork and things like that too?

I think that’s also really wonderful that you can use something like… I don’t know, I was playing around, I used cardboard and some felt, and what else did I use? Some foam. You can just cut those things up or you could even use paper and start having this conversation to make something beautiful that’s all black. She provides an opportunity, I think for us to center black joy and I think to talk about hair. I think for many of our students that can be a really deep connector and a piece of love.

Candido: You might have mentioned it, but just to reiterate, you can lean pretty heavy on a found object lesson from her artwork?

Flavia: You can. I think that when you’re talking about found work, which you could do, find things that are black. But I think there’s that level of found work or recycled work that could connect to that.

Candido: Yeah. Okay.

Flavia: Yeah. You do.

Candido: All right. We gave away a bunch of information at this point. Audience is responsible for doing the remainder of the research and finding ways they can incorporate these wonderful artists into their curriculum. If you feel like you can’t, then just expose yourself to these artists because they have some incredible work and you would grow as an individual, as an artist by familiarizing yourself with their work.

Flavia, before I let you go, you mentioned Adding Voices earlier. You said that it was a conference. When is this conference?

Flavia: Okay, Candido, I’m going to geek out now because what’s happened since the first conference, June 4th, 2020 and is just astounding. I can’t believe it. I’m still like, yo, pinch me. Adding Voices is going to happen in person, which is really incredible. The conference was first virtual. I think I released it on Instagram talking about how there was going to be an online conference, like a virtual conference and I did that in April, I want to say, of 2020. I think 20 people signed up and I was like, “That’s cool. It’s 20, it’s your first time doing this thing. It’s okay.” I was very pregnant at the time with my daughter. I don’t know, everybody’s pregnancies are different but I get so inspired and I just do things that scare me intentionally. That’s how I grow as a person.

I was like, “I’m going to do this thing. It’s so scary. Let’s do it.” And I found wonderful people, Dr. Joni Boyd Acuff was the keynote speaker for that and she’s just a powerhouse. She’s so inspirational. She’s an incredible author, an amazing professor. Right before I was like, “Okay, so it’s just going to be 20 people.” George Floyd happened and all of a sudden 400 people signed up and all these art educators were reaching out to me. They’re like, “We got to do something. We got to change it.” And I was just like, “Whoa, this is happening and this is happening.” And the conference happened and it was beautiful. I met so many people that I’m really good friends with now. Moore College of Art & Design offered to host the conference in person.

So it’s happening for real now, and thank you. Right now. Thank you. It’s happening. It’s happening. October 1st and 2nd, 2022 Adding Voices conference will be in Philadelphia, so East Coast come through. It’s going to be about a 300-person conference. I can share a positive for folks out there who like, “I can’t do Philly.” Or, “What if I don’t get a spot?” It looks like we’re going to be able to provide a virtual opportunity too. I’m so excited for that. It opens up more space and it’s accessible.

Candido: Sure. Where are you sharing this information so people can stay up to date with who the keynote might be, who to look forward to as far as presenters go? Where are you sharing this information?

Flavia: Ooh, I’m sharing it two places. You can go to, which is the website and then there’s @addingvoicesconference on Instagram. And then there’s, let’s see, my personal handle where I share a lot too, especially about lessons and I geek out about contemporary art all the time there, which is @flaviazw_hwart you’ll find me, though. Don’t worry. Look for Candido and you’ll find me. Flavia.

Candido: Familia. Gracias.

Flavia: This was wonderful. Thank you.

Candido: Before we leave today, I need to make an announcement. It’s time for me to step away from the Everyday Art Room podcast. I want to take this opportunity to thank The Art of Education University for giving me an opportunity to host Everyday Art Room. It truly was a chance to learn and connect with so many wonderful educators. I also want to thank all of the long standing listeners that trusted me as the new host and tuned in to learn alongside me, and thank you to the new listeners who started listening to Everyday Art Room because they heard a message that resonated with them.

I hope that you continue to use this content as reference materials and messages to reignite this spark that drives us to do better and to be better. Everyday Art Room will be going on hiatus for now as AOEU works on some new exciting content, including two new YouTube series, so be sure to tune in there for tips and tricks.

If you’re looking for more podcasts, we have hundreds of episodes in the archives of just about every topic that you can imagine. You can also check out Art Ed Radio and The Art of SEL miniseries. And I would still love to connect with you. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram and I’ll be back at the Summer NOW conference in July. Until then, thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.