In the Spiral Workshop Thought Patterns group, the students began the semester by studying the use of tessellation and patterning in cultures throughout the world. They learned to identify the underlying mathematical principles of a pattern. Students created a basic design and its mirror image and then experimented with the many patterns that can be created with a single motif.

As the semester progressed, teachers began to direct students toward investigating pattern as a metaphor for established habits of thought that become lenses through which people view and shape the world. In particular, they began to examine the ways in which color and pattern are used as signifiers of masculinity and femininity. In one interesting experiment on gender associations, the teachers placed a number of common (seemingly gender neutral) objects on a table (such things as a houseplant, a fork, a bottle of white out) and asked students to place the objects on either the "male" or "female" table. This activity generated interesting discussions about how maleness and femaleness are construed in our culture.

As a follow up exercise, teachers asked students to list words that they associated with a particular gender. The students’ lists were predictable: "Women: smooth, clean, nurturing, etc. Men: loud, strong, first." The teachers then created worksheets that asked students to think of reasons why the converse would also be true. For example: A WOMAN IS STRONG BECAUSE women can hold in the pain sometimes. A MAN IS NURTURING BECAUSE he will always take care of what is his.

Students created lists of objects associated with each gender. They compared these with images typically found in gender-typed patterns and discussed why some associations are played up and others played down in conventional gender depictions. (For example, women’s patterns may focus on flowers or pretty ladies and not on scrub brushes or bruised women.)

In the final phase of the project, students studied contemporary artworks that use pattern and layering by such artists as Sigmar Polke, Juan Sanchez, and Faith Ringgold. Students gathered collage materials from magazine ads that seemed to be aimed at a particular gender. As a final project students created layered, collaged works that either confirmed or denied conventional gender associations.

Some studies by feminist scholars have suggested that curriculum geared toward teaching students to be less gender stereotyped in their thinking and more just in their social attitudes actually can have the opposite effect on young men in the classroom. The Thought Patterns’ playful and interactive approach to studying the construction of gender identity in popular culture seemed to draw young men and women into the process of re-considering the naturalness or inevitability of stereotypical gender associations without raising resistance by seeming didactic or prescriptive.


The Thought Patterns group was led by Mia Garcia, Carolyn Musial, Walter Ornelas, and Olivia Gude in the 1999 Spiral Workshop.