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ArtBeat: Cultivating creativity; Local professor wants students to see art in different ways

  • "Bricks and Windows," one of John Nordell's reality-based abstractions created by layering in-camera multiple exposures. John Nordell

  • Greenfield photographer and educator John Nordell stands in the modern and contemporary gallery at the D'Amour Art Museum in Springfield, where he regularly brings students in his "Cultivating Creativity" classes. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The work is called “Rebellion.” Its label, on the wall of the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, states that it was created by Indian artist Airyhtak Nartleb in 2015.

Nartleb, born in Mumbai, was “heavily influenced by his interest in the brain’s creative hemispheres,” the label states. There are four switches in the work, three turned downward, in the “off” position, while one appears to be “on.”

This fourth switch, “Represents each individual’s potential to shine,” the label states.

The label — not the work — was created by Kathyria Beltran (take a look at her names backwards) and the light switch — well, it’s one of many in the museum. Beltran produced the label in response to an assignment in Greenfield educator John Nordell’s “Cultivating Creativity” class at American International College in Springfield.

Beltran, a senior, is an English major from Puerto Rico who took the class in the fall of 2015. She smiles as she says of Nordell, “It’s kind of strange the way he had us open our minds a little bit and look at things differently.”

Beltran thinks the point of the assignment is to, “Broaden our scope of what we actually consider art. …It’s helping us unlock certain parts of our minds and look at things in a different way.”

Looking at the light switch in this different way, she saw the individual switches as people, which led her to connect them with the power struggles going on in the world today.

“It’s a strange thing to think of but I really enjoyed it,” Beltran says.

Looking more deeply

Nordell came to teaching after 20 years of working as a professional photographer, primarily a photojournalist whose work appeared in major newspapers and magazines around the world, including The Christian Science Monitor, Time, and Newsweek. He moved to Greenfield in 2006 to teach at Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls.

Inspired by a Hallmark assignment that asks students to use photography to replicate a work from art history, Nordell began to make in-camera multiple exposures that pay homage to German modernist painter Lionel Feininger. These layered images were as exciting to him as the first photos he saw come to life in his darkroom tray years before. He began to post these and other images, and to discuss the creative process on his blog: Create Look Enjoy (www.createlookenjoy.com).

Nordell’s interest in the creative process led him to seek a Master’s degree in art education from Fitchburg State College, which he received in 2012. He then took a position at American International College in Springfield, where he’s developed a Visual and Digital Arts major. Some of the courses he teaches are digital photography, digital storytelling and the “Cultivating Creativity” class.

The creative process is really the subject of all Nordell’s classes, regardless of which specific tools or equipment students are using and what their final output might be. Nordell is adamant about this approach. When he hands out pencils at the beginning of class, he won’t say, ‘Today we’re going to do some drawing.”

He’ll say, “Today we’re going to experiment with these tools.”

“I see the pencil as a tool for looking more deeply or seeing more clearly,” Nordell says.

When he brings students to the museum, as he did one day in April, he gives assignments that ask them to respond to the art they see through writing and sketching. Students also read labels to get a feeling for how art and artists are presented, a first step in the labeling assignment.

Prompts on the assignment sheet ask students to find objects in the museum that wouldn’t normally be considered art and to look at them as if they are. At this early stage, students don’t know that their label may eventually appear in the museum — though this story may end that.  

Sophomore Kwame Jarvis, a communications major from Schenectady, took “Cultivating Creativity” in the spring of 2015. He and Beltran have generously come to the museum with Nordell’s current class to talk with me.

Jarvis takes me to the Contemporary Gallery to see his label for a work entitled, “The Way Out,” a three-dimensional work made of thermoplastic and LED light bulbs. The fictional artist Jarvis invented, Paul Anthony, was inspired by his work in the hotel industry to carve the word “EXIT” into a plastic box.

“He thought that the sign would appeal to those who confused the stairs to the basement with the door to the exit,” Jarvis wrote.

Jarvis says that not that many people know that his label is up in the museum yet.

“I told a few of my friends and they thought it was cool. I thought it was cool, too because now my name’s up in a museum. That’s cool to me.”

Jarvis says that certain aspects of the class, including a doodling practice called “Zentangle,” have stuck with him.

“You can do whatever you want with it,” Jarvis says of Zentangle. “There’s no mistakes. You can go too much over a border and then make it a part of it.”

Most often, Jarvis refers to Nordell with respect as “Professor,” using only the one word, and says that he encourages students not to be afraid to make mistakes and to experiment.

“You have to get really creative. Professor doesn’t want you to just stay in the box. He wants you to do something out of the ordinary. He wants you to expand your mind.”

Sometimes students will complain that an assignment is too vague, Nordell says, such as a Pop Art assignment that asked students to redesign the American Flag. But he intentionally leaves the responsibility for defining it in their court. He wants his students to surprise him — and themselves.

“I try to force students into that space where they have to dig deep and come up with something on their own,” Nordell says.

“People talk all the time about thinking outside the box,” he adds. “We’re going to make the box here.”

Sophomore Malik Andrews, a communications major from Brooklyn, is taking the class now. He’s part of the group that has come to the museum to look at art, sketch and take notes. He says that the assignments in the museum make you appreciate art more.

“You get an understanding of how long it took that person to do it all. How much effort and how much heart he had to put into that piece of art.”

When I suggest that, as a communications major, there may be some element of art involved in his future work, Andrews says quickly, “Well, I think every field of learning deserves a little bit of art because just being around art inspires you to be more creative. And life is about creativity.”

Where to see it

See some of Nordell’s in-camera multiple exposures at The Greenfield Gallery & Fine Art Printing, 31 Main St., Greenfield. Find the gallery on Facebook for hours and other information or contact: TheGreenfieldGallery@gmail.com; 413-772-9334.

You can also see Nordell’s work at: www.createlookenjoy.

Look for the labels created by students in his “Cultivating Creativity” class at The Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, 21 Edwards St., Springfield. For hours and other info, contact: www.springfieldmuseums.org; 413-263-6800.