The curriculum of the 1999 Reality Check group linked teenage students’ interest in developing skills in realistic drawing and painting with studying contemporary discourses that investigate relationships between reality and representation. Student artists also debated whether artists have the responsibility to represent the full complexity of contemporary social reality. This led to conversations about the social role of the artist—does the artist merely represent "reality" or is the artist actively involved in changing aspects of reality?

During the semester, students practiced drawing and painting techniques for creating naturalistic images. The theme of the artists’ role in representing actual reality was first introduced by the choice of still life materials. The students considered the gap between the still life materials picturing food in traditional still life painting—bowels of fruit, silver platters, goblets of wine, etc. and the actual food that Americans eat today. The still life objects drawn by the class included donuts in a box, Chinese takeout containers, and Styrofoam cups with straws.

Among the artworks studied were highly polished drawings by the great African American draftsmen, Charles White and John Biggers. Consideration of these artists’ works, first from a technical point of view and then as depicting the social reality of the African American community, allowed students to consider the individual artist’s role in representing (or as the students said in hip hop jargon--"representin") the culture in which they live.

Students and teachers began the Postmodern Postcards project by looking out the windows of the UIC studio art building at the dramatic view of downtown Chicago. The urban youth then discussed the contrasts between their actual experiences of being in the hustle and bustle of a busy downtown and the pristinely beautiful, quiet scene. The students looked at postcards of Chicago purchased at various tourist-oriented stores. They discussed the sense of Chicago conveyed by the postcards and then talked about ways in which their personal experiences of the city were not represented in these conventional depictions of Chicago.

Students created giant postcards that represented their personal, subjective experiences of Chicago. In one postcard, a Chinese teen artist showed the back of a girl’s head in the foreground, Chinatown architecture in the middle ground, and the Chicago skyline in the background. She explained that though downtown Chicago was nearby, for her it seemed infinitely distant because she was not yet allowed to take the train by herself and freely explore the city. Other students created postcards to represent such things as the "Goth" scene in Chicago, a neighborhood park that was a major destination in childhood, the Bull’s United Center with the surrounding impoverished neighborhood, a now-closed favorite coffeehouse hangout, and a subway map showing the stops of the students’ family and friends.



The 1999 Spiral Workshop Reality Check group was led by Michael Cloud, Laura Gaylord, Todd Hale, and Spiral Workshop Director Olivia Gude.