Protest Art in Studio Art 3H: The Art of Crafting Your Message

Debra Finger
How can we use the language of art to explore our feelings and beliefs? What do I care about and how can I bring that idea to life? What do I want to communicate?

These are just a few of the questions that Shipley’s Studio Art 3 Honors students grappled with as they completed their protest art assignments. Different from activism, which suggests a solution, protest art is about noticing something that needs attention and then using art to bring it into focus.

By the time they got to this project, the eleventh and twelfth grade artists were ready to think about what they wanted to bring attention to. Through the independent study project, a unit within the Studio II and Studio IIH course, students had practice to prepare them for a project of this scale. A lot of the curriculum leading up to the independent study in Studio Art III, which runs concurrently with the Protest Art project, gives students more freedom of what they want to do, what they want to say, and how they want to say it. Communicating effectively and creatively in a range of forms, with varied audiences, and for various purposes is a goal for our students. This particular long-term assignment is about helping students define something that matters to them and then deciding the best way to say it through art.

For Tania O’Donnell, this was a project that has been waiting for the right group of students: the group who would have lots of opinions and ideas and want to share them in a big way. In this case, in the large windows of the Chris Wagner Arts Center, both outward- and inward-facing.

The idea for the project was born out of the Summer Symposium for teachers (led by Director of Curricular Innovation Wendy Eiteljorg ’86) that Ms. O’Donnell attended here at Shipley a few years ago. While the art curriculum strives to help students develop their voices as artists by their junior and senior years, this was the first time for Ms. O’Donnell and the students to take this particular approach.

As students built their pieces, they explored their own feelings and beliefs and may have come to different understandings from what they originally thought. The process also included asking others to look at their piece to see how their message was coming across, and whether it was drawing attention to their issue in the way they were hoping. The responses helped the artists to clarify their message or the direction for the inside piece. It was a way for the students to have an informal critique from non-art students, “Do they see what I am trying to say, or do only the people who know what I am trying to say see the message?”

The artists have talked about the difference between subject matter and content in Studio Art 2, but they really began to engage with the idea of what they want to say with their art and how they want to communicate it in the fall of this Studio 3 course. By linking ideas across disciplines to address real world problems, students are able to find their own process and discover their voice as an artist to speak about something they care about. “Students are building a language of art with their visual choices in order to have a conversation with the viewer, either through the materials they are using or the imagery they are portraying in their pieces,” explains Ms. O’Donnell. “With art, the work is completed by the viewer.”


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.