Relationship Building

Why We Should Include LGBTQ+ Artists in our Classroom (Ep. 121)

We all know it is important to show students a diverse set of populations and points of view. AOEU writer Jordan DeWilde recently penned an article about how we can be an ally to our LGBTQ+ students, and one of his suggestions is to incorporate the work of more LGBTQ+ artists in your curriculum. Today, Nic invites Jordan on the show to discuss his article and ideas, how to handle sensitive topics, and his suggestions for some of his favorite artists to show in his classroom. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Nic: In June of 2019 I went down to Iowa for an AOEU retreat for their employees, and this was a ton of fun because I got to meet a lot of art teachers that I have known, I’ve worked with before, and a ton more of teachers that I knew, but I didn’t know, that social media awkwardness.

One of the very first places that I went to go visit was a place that the team was doing some recording. And sure enough, out walks this man, Jordan DeWilde. And I knew him immediately. Well, like I said, I kind of knew him immediately. I introduced myself and he had that same awkwardness of, yeah, I know who you are, but not in real life. So we had that awkward moment together, which turned into less and less awkward the more we got to talking, and throughout the weekend we were able to just talk about the reel of art education and share with each other some of the things that we admired with the other person’s lesson plans. I think him and I have a lot of similarities with the artists that we’re attracted to and bringing into our classroom.

So, recently Jordan wrote a article that was intriguing to me. He was writing about LGBTQ+ artists and how to bring them into your classroom, and why it’s important. I thought it was something that we could bring Jordan in to kind of talk about on this podcast as well. So without further ado, this is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

Hello, Jordan, I am very excited to have you on today. Thanks for joining us.

Jordan: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be on the Everyday Art Room.

Nic: Yay. Okay, let’s get started with just introduce yourself and talk about your past experiences with art education and where you’re at and even your experience with AOEU because you are working for them as well.

Jordan: Yeah, sure. Well, my name is Jordan DeWilde and I’m currently a high school art teacher in a small town of Oregon, Illinois, which is Northwestern, part of Illinois near the Rockford area. This is my first year teaching high school. For the past seven years, I taught elementary school, predominantly the upper side of elementary, about third through sixth grade in the same district. So now I have some of those former students that were elementary students, now I have them again in high school, which has been really rewarding for me.

Yeah, it’s been really cool to see how they’ve changed and certain ones that you keep in mind of, they were really talented or they were really great to have in class. And to see them still interested in art and choosing it as an elective in high school is pretty awesome. So, that’s what I’m doing at the moment. I’m still teaching in Oregon and my main focus as far as curriculum has been, always on showing artists of different backgrounds.

So I’ve kind of brought that over to the high school level and had to really think about how I wanted to do that as far as, still incorporating a lot of diverse artists, but I’m shifting from showing students artists, and having them do projects inspired by these artists, and really thinking more of, I have these young high school artists that are developing their own voice and style. And so I’m shifting back to almost more skill-based teaching but still throwing in some artists as examples for representation. And I’m sure we’ll get to that a little bit later in our talk. But as for AOEU, I’ve been writing articles for them for the past few months and I’ve filmed a few pro packs on different topics for them. So in the PRO library I have a few professional development videos that teachers can look up and can get some PD hours for.

Nic: Awesome. Yeah, I love the pro packs. I think they’re so fun and you can just jump on and get what you want, get what you need so easily.

Jordan: Yes. And as a new teacher, I have definitely been leaning on those. It’s meaningful, practical PD, which is rare to get as art teachers as a lot of us know.

Nic: Yeah. And like you said, they’re all by topic. So if it’s something you need at the time, you can go check it out and maybe you’re just struggling with classroom management, you can just jump on and get that information.

Okay. So I know, through your articles, and actually I believe you touch on it a little bit in your pro packs as well, but you wrote an article recently, or maybe not so recently, a while ago, talking about why it’s important to include LGBTQ artists in your lesson plans. And that’s what really sparked this conversation because it is something that is in the forefront of my mind. I want to know how to do it authentically, how to do it appropriately. And you had some really good tips on that. So let’s just answer that first question. Why is it important? Why do we want to do that?

Jordan: Okay. Well, I got into this in grad school and I actually started a master’s thesis on this topic and ended up choosing a different topic later on. But the same reasons that we want to incorporate multiculturalism in the art room, I feel like art teachers now have a pretty strong understanding of why that’s important and representation of diverse populations is important. Positive representations of minorities in the classroom when much of academia and much of the traditional canon of artists have been white European men. It’s important to shake that up and to offer some diverse examples. And usually we think of that based on race and ethnicity. But more and more I think teachers are thinking of including gender as another area to emphasize and making sure you have plenty of women artists as well as the men out there.

But when I was in grad school and being a gay man myself, I was thinking of, the word inclusion and the word multiculturalism, as a broader term. And how I felt as a gay man and as a kid growing up, I didn’t have any representation, certainly not in school. And so I think some of those same things that I was learning about the reasons why it’s important to have diversity in your classroom and how representation is important, I felt internally as a gay man myself and other people were writing about this also. So there are a few ADA articles early on encouraging teachers to think about this topic.

And so that was something I was doing some research on and doing some writing on. And then when I got into teaching, it was something that was really important for me to include as well. And for those of you who don’t know Oregon, which I’m sure is the majority of the audience, it’s really small and really conservative. And I know a lot of teachers struggle with that. Because I’ve spoken about this at state conference and a lot of teachers have come up to me and said, I want to be an ally to my LGBT students and I want to share LGBTQ artists. But I’m in this really conservative community. I’m worried about my job. I don’t have tenure. All these things. And they’re very important and certainly reasonable questions to have and concerns to have as teachers.

So I guess to answer your question, why it’s important to include them, because you are going to have students in your classroom that identify as LGBTQ+, whether they are currently identifying as from that community or they have a connection in their family or they have a connection to their friend, present or future. They’re going to come across this and I think as teachers we want to best prepare students for the world outside, post secondary. And that’s a part of it. Not just tolerance, but acceptance and understanding and showing positive representation, not stereotypes, not the negative sides of all people. I think we can show students, I always put out the Keith Herring quote that art is for everyone. Art is for everyone and it’s also made by everyone.

Nic: Mmm, beautiful. Yeah, that’s a sweet way to think about it. And it’s accurate. You’re right. You want to represent as much of your population as possible with the lessons that you’re providing. And so that makes sense. So how do you explain to teachers how they can incorporate sexuality or identity into their lessons? What are some ways that you’ve done it and what do you recommend for others?

Jordan: I always start with, you have to know your community. You have to know your school community in a smaller sense, your administration. I think first you have to prove yourself and have a strong rationale so that no one’s going to come at you with, this is your agenda. I think you have to be strong in your convictions and you have to know what your environment is. And you can still be an ally and be supportive whether you’re in the most conservative environment or the most liberal one.

So I always kind of start with… And usually the people who ask me questions are coming from a conservative rural area. And I say just showing students these artists and even if you’re not sharing their identity, but you are showing that work and maybe you are showing video clips of them speaking and them being themselves. I think that’s a starting point. It’s not the most valuable, but it’s something, it’s still providing some representation that maybe they pick up on, maybe… I think that there are things that are universal and so a gay man speaking about maybe just feeling different or feeling discriminated against, there are some themes there that you might not have to say this artist was gay, but you could say this artist always felt different than his peers, or different and had to express that in his artwork.

And that’s something that all of your students can pick up on and can relate to. And maybe that gay student in your classroom picks up on that universal theme and looks up their work later and then makes that connection. So I think there are little seeds that you can play, even in those conservative environments. If you are established in your school, established in your community, you have a supportive administration, you can push the envelope a little bit more, which is what I guess I have done as I’ve been more comfortable in the same district. This is my eighth year there now.

And I try to not make a big deal out of when I do share that the artist is of the LGBTQ community because I want it to be as normal as saying they are from Brooklyn or I just want it to be just another fact about the artist. And so I try to either state it matter of fact like that, or share maybe an artist statement where they have written about it themselves, or a video clip where they are talking about it themselves. Because anytime I don’t have to put words in the artist’s mouth or I don’t have to make an interpretation, and I can give them that primary source perspective, I think is more powerful. So for example, I just did California artist, TJ Santana, he’s Filipino and his website, his artist statement, it’s, I’m an artist, I am gay, I’m Filipino, I don’t know if he says millennial, but he lists all these things that, I am this.

Nic: All the, I am’s.

Jordan: Yeah. Right up front and in an interview, that’s how he introduces himself. So all of that. And so I play that for the kids and I don’t really make a big discussion about it. I don’t really point that out to them. It’s just, this is what he says, this is how he sees himself, this is how he sees himself as an artist, and the things that he is talking about in his work, and all of those things are relevant to the work and how it’s presented and how it can be interpreted. So I think just normalizing it as much as possible and not having a group of lessons that you’re like, “All right, we’re going to do these gay lessons. These are the gays”. And you’re going to ruffle feathers that way because you are putting such a spotlight on it. And it’s almost still othering them a little bit.

Nic: And I don’t mean to laugh, but yeah, that does sound foreign to me because of my own beliefs I suppose. But yes, I agree. It’s just another fact, is what you’re saying. Yep. Along with the artists. Now I’m going to just circle back to something that you said earlier about administration. So is this a conversation that you have had with your administration or did you bring it up or have that conversation ahead of time by any chance?

Jordan: You probably should. And I did not because, I don’t know, I guess I just started introducing them in my small way and just was going to see what happened. And I’ve been lucky to not really have a lot of backlash. I’ve had more backlash with issues with race and religion, more on like cultural things, than I have with this in particular. But I think I’m also out in my district, so my administration knows that I’m gay. Most of the coworkers do as well. So, I think them knowing me and also them knowing the quality of my work and that I am for the kids and I whatever I am teaching is to prepare them for the diverse world that they are living in.

It might be something that is worth having a conversation with administration if you’re going to jump into it and you haven’t before. But I really think just introducing and starting small and introducing artists and mentioning that they’re gay, or having them read that or see that, and not making a big deal out of it. And if there’s a question, or if there’s some sort of backlash, I think just being, well this is-

Nic: So that they’re aware or whatever, yeah.

Jordan: Yeah, and it’s just, you’re not… See, this is the thing that the backlash comes from, is that they associate you talking about someone’s orientation with sex and talking about sex with students obviously is not appropriate.

Nic: Not in all classes, right? There is one that I guess that’s okay.

Jordan: Sure. In an art classroom, maybe not so much.

Nic: Yeah, right. True. True.

Jordan: That’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about someone being gay. Just as if you’re talking about Georgia O’Keeffe, or you’re talking about Jackson Pollock and their relationships with others and whether they’re married or their partner, their spouse, heterosexual or not, it’s just part of their bio as much as a gay person’s would be.

Nic: Yeah. Right. So we did hit on opposition a little bit, but do you have anything to add to what’s the best way to handle opposition?

Jordan: I think coming in with your lesson plan and showing, okay I spent maybe 30 seconds talking about this or maybe five minutes or something but the objectives were, you’re learning about this artist, this artist was of this community and that it reflected their work. But they are universal themes that any student can relate to. And then we are making this artwork and we are focused on line or shape or, the main part of our lesson was never that. And I never said you should all be gay because this artist was, it’s never anything like that. And the orientation of the artist is not the main focus of your lesson. It’s just another fact.

Nic: That’s a beautiful way to look at that too. Just making sure that… Just having your lesson plan as documentation. We are learning lines, we are learning colors. This was our focus. Okay. I like that a lot.

Jordan: And I think transparency is another big thing and that’s another reason why I do so much on social media because I think, as art teachers we’re used to people judging us on that final stage of the lesson. And I think if you are, not saying that you need to put everything you’re teaching on social media, but maybe you are hanging up student reflections on artwork or artists biographies or just some of those learning activities that are along the way. It’s transparency, it’s showing what you’re doing throughout the lesson and you have all that documentation basically. Whether you post it or not, you have that ready and you say, “Okay, yeah, we did mention that he was gay in the introduction to the unit. But that was part of a larger activity and it wasn’t something that we really focused on.”

Nic: Right. We also said he was from Iowa or right?

Jordan: Yeah.

Nic: I mean, all the facts. Right. Ah, okay. Okay. All right. So who are some artists that you would recommend to put on to your playlist in support of this?

Jordan: Okay. I always start with Keith Haring just because I think he is so approachable to any grade level, especially elementary. There’s the line and shape and color and just the variety of work that he created. You could talk about his advocacy for HIV awareness and how that was an issue that effected the gay community at that time. And I hate to focus on that because that is a sad reality of the LGBT community, but it is a reality of that time period. And that is really an important part of his work that I don’t think needs to be glossed over. So that’s one.

Kehinde Wiley is another artist that I share with students and I don’t really feel like he talks about his sexuality much and isn’t necessarily at the forefront of his work. But I would say he’s an example of, you can play his interviews, or just show him, pictures of him, and he is very extravagant and flamboyant and he is just living his best life as himself. And even if you never say to your students that he identifies as a gay man, I think if you had gay students in your classroom watching that, and seeing him so comfortable in himself and the other artists and people he has in his team that are going to be talking, in the different video clips that are out there, I think they’re going to connect with that, without it explicitly being said to them and appreciate that subtle support in seeing a positive representation of themselves in their classroom.

Same with like Lisa Congdon, she’s an illustrator that does all this amazing work. And she does do some activism illustrations every once in a while, with quotes or oral work. But she’s just very comfortable in herself and I think she does share about her partner occasionally, but it’s not at the forefront of her work either.

Nic: Right. And that’s where I think that extra research would definitely bring that to the forefront. Because following her Instagram, definitely you see her partner on a regular basis and they’re a lovely couple, so it’s beautiful to see. Her work is so gorgeous. I just love it. But yeah, you definitely see that on her Instagram.

Jordan: Yeah. And Nina Chanel Abney is another one that I don’t think maybe shares it so out there. Maybe on her Instagram, but mostly what she’s sharing is her work. In her work, there are some themes of sexuality I guess, in some of the work, but not all of it. I share a lot of her work with elementary students, so it’s applicable at different age levels and you can take different interpretations of things, but she’s another great artist to show, and an African American lesbian artist. So I think that’s another representation that’s missing in your curriculum.

With TJ Santana, I mentioned him earlier, how he shares up front that, I am a gay artist, I am a Filipino artist, this is who I am, this is the work I’m creating.

Another one that I like and is good for kind of universal themes is a photographer named Rachelle Lee Smith and she did this series of photographs with LGBTQ teens. And so it’s really applicable in the classroom because you’re working with teens or young students. And basically she took these portraits of these kids against stark white backgrounds and then gave them the printed photo and had them, with a Sharpie basically, write or draw about themselves, how they’re feeling. And she was specifically working with LGBTQ+ students. So a lot of their, I guess, alterations to the photo were about their identity and their orientation. But not all of them spelled that out for you. So some of them, and I’m paraphrasing, but, I choose to live outside the box would be something they would say.

And so you can present that to your students and half the class is going to connect to that. They’re going to feel that themselves. And I shared that with elementary students for years at some of the first years of my teaching career because it had that anonymity or it wasn’t so obvious and students were connecting with it and were relating to it not knowing that these kids in the picture were LGBTQ+, were talking about these issues, but they still connected with them, which is the whole point. We all have these things in common whether we feel they’re so different than us or not. There is that universal theme.

Nic: I completely appreciate the names. We’ll make sure that they’re on the notes for this podcast as well. And then just one or two last things here. Can you tell us, if you’re interested in introducing some of these artists, do you know of resources, places to get lesson plans or inspiration? Where do you look? Where do you go?

Jordan: There’s not a website, well there might be a website. But there’s not really a gay hub resource of artists out there. So I just have my eye to social media, eye to contemporary art blogs or museums and I just stumble across them and usually it’s the work that is what interests me. And then when I find out that they are LGBTQ+, I’m like, “Oh that’s awesome. I will make sure to include that so that my students can see a positive representation.” So Instagram is a good place to start.

As far as resources for being an ally to your students. GLSEN, the gay lesbian straight education network is a great tool and they do have lesson plans. They’re not art specific, but they would have good ideas on how to introduce topics, or how to have difficult conversations, or how to work with your administration. So in general education sense, GLSEN would be a great resource. For art-specific and artist-specific. I think just getting on Google typing in things like contemporary art, LGBT or gay artists. You can look that way and you’ll find some, you might have to do some filtering, but I think the contemporary art world is so diverse. I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding LGBTQ artists in contemporary art.

Nic: All right, well and I just want to plug, I know that you have some amazing lessons on your website too, which we will include in this podcast notes, revolving around some of the artists that you mentioned already as well as lots of beautiful lessons beyond that, so we’ll have that link as well.

Jordan: Cool. Awesome. Yeah, that’d be great.

Nic: Well Jordan, thank you so much for speaking with us tonight. I really appreciate your comments and your insights and just taking the time to chat with us.

Jordan: Thank you for having me. It’s been awesome chatting with you.

Nic: I thought this conversation with Jordan was so beneficial. It’s so nice to have an open and honest conversation about LGBTQ+ artists and how to bring that population or those groups of artists into your classroom in a safe and secure way. How to talk about sexuality and identity and what to do with opposition. All of these… This entire conversation was beneficial for all of us. Not only by giving us a bunch of artists to research and bring in to our classroom, but also just expanding our brain. Where do we need to bring in more artists? What population are we not representing? Look at your student body. Who do you need to represent in the artists that you bring into your classroom? As always, thank you for listening and I will talk again with you next week.

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.