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Pamela Lawton, Steamroller Prints

Beading class, Nicaragua

Cultivating Community and Transformation Through Creative Collaboration

March 1, 2016

by Pamela Harris Lawton


My interests as an artist, educator, and researcher converge around the concept of community, in particular intergenerational art making and the learning that takes place through informal education structures. Thus I have developed several courses (Art Education and Social Justice, Art and Lifelong Learning, Community Based Teaching and Learning, Studio Based Teaching and Learning) that provide me with an opportunity to introduce college students to the idea of art making with learners across the lifespan in a collaborative, community setting. The learning that takes place in these communal collaborations is often transformational. Transformation can occur on both the personal and communal level.


The theory of transformative learning, as described by Mezirow (1991) is “learning that involves reflectively transforming the beliefs, attitudes, opinions and emotional reactions that constitute our meaning schemes, or transforming our meaning perspectives”. Cranton (1994) adds: “Transformative learning occurs when, through critical self-reflection, an individual revises old or develops new assumptions, beliefs or ways of seeing the world”.  Providing college students with opportunities to connect and collaborate with communities of diverse learners across the lifespan affords them and the communities they engage with opportunities to critically reflect on differing perspectives that can transform individuals and communities in a positive way. Additionally pre/in-service educators can involve their P-12 learners in communal endeavors that teach them the vital role the arts can play in connecting communities, exposing injustices, transforming attitudes, and beautifying communal spaces.


To collaborate is to work together, in partnership — to cooperate as a team towards a group effort or goal. Effective collaboration begins with an idea, need, or concern. Like-minded partners are sought to brainstorm on developing ideas into goals and effective ways to meet those goals, including recruiting participants, developing activities, sharing tasks, and seeking consensus from the group in decision making and moving forward. Each stakeholder within

a collaborative venture should play a role that is meaningful to them and to the outcome of the collaboration. Artistic collaborations provide participants with opportunities to develop leadership skills and increase their interest and appreciation in art as both a pleasurable activity and a means of communicating with others. I consider the resulting art works created in these communal collaborations as works of art whether the participants consider themselves to be trained artists or not.  The products of the creative process are celebrated and exhibited for the community and the artists who created them, providing opportunities for further discussion and possible transformation with the broader community.


Community/public art/social practice art involves interaction among the artist(s) and members of a community — in which the artist(s) creates works that are inspired by/reflect aspects, perspectives, or aesthetics of a community, but the community most often does not have a hands-on role in making the art. In community based art education (CBAE), the community has a hands-on role in making the artwork, and the learning that takes place during the creative process is the ultimate goal. CBAE focuses on learning specific art skills, service learning art projects that unify communities, and art outreach programs designed to empower the disenfranchised. 


Over the past 15 years I have been involved in each of these aspects of CBAE, from working with teens and seniors creating artists books on identity to teaching art skills to abandoned girls in Mexico, creating jewelry out of refuse with families living in trash dumps in Nicaragua, and working with an intergenerational community creating mammoth woodcuts on the concept of freedom. 


As I write this I have just finished teaching a community-based art education course in which the community consisted of college students from different content areas and institutions. I collaborated with my friend and colleague, Margaret Walker, for a second summer, bringing together students from both our institutions to discuss what CBAE is and how the visual arts can be integrated in other content areas: music, special education, art education, and general education.  The class created identity quilts using a variety of techniques: wood block printing, batik, photo transfer, and drawing with sewing.  We invited local quilt artists in to speak with students and demonstrate different techniques.  As a final project students developed written proposals for CBAE projects they would implement with their students in the school community.  This coming fall we plan exhibit the students’ quilts and ours — as artist/educators, we also create our own works alongside the students. 


CBAE allows me to take a holistic approach to my professional life.  What I create as an artist impacts how and what I teach as an art educator, which in turn influences my research agenda. I see all of these aspects of my professional life as co-dependent and inextricably intertwined, which I hope to model for my students that they can model for their P-12 learners demonstrating the vital role the arts play in our lives.





Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide

for educators of adults, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawton, P. H. (2004), ‘Artstories: Exploring intergenerational learning

connections through narrative construction’, in A. LaPorte (ed.), Community

Connections: Intergenerational Links in Art Education, Reston, VA: National

Art Education Association, pp. 29–44.

(2008), Artstories: Narrative Construction in Intergenerational and

Transformative Learning, published doctoral dissertation, Saarbrucken,

Germany: VDM Verlag.

(2010), ‘Hand-in-hand: Building community on common ground’, Art

Education, 63: 6, pp. 6–12.

(2012), ‘Artist/researcher/teacher: A holistic approach to art teacher preparation’,

in S. Simmons and L. Campbell (eds), The Heart of Art Education:

Contemporary Approaches to Holistic Human Development and Integration,

Reston, VA: NAEA, pp. 167–79.

(2014). The role of art education in cultivating community and

leadership through creative collaboration’, Visual Inquiry: Learning & Teaching

Art 3: 3, pp. 421–436,


Mezirow, J. (1990), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, San Francisco:


(1991), Transformative dimensions of adult learning, San Francisco: Jossey-



Pamela Harris Lawton is a practicing artist and educator/researcher holds a BA in Studio Art and Sociology, an MFA in Printmaking, and an EdD in the College Teaching of Art. Her research interests/publications center around community-based service learning and transformative learning through art and intergenerational art education. She was awarded Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the faculty and students at The Corcoran College of Art & Design in 2010; selected for a faculty artist residency in Mexico in 2012 by The Corcoran College of Art & Design; is Past President of the Art and Lifelong Learning affiliate of the NAEA; served on the editorial review board for Art Education Journal; is a member of the Board of Examiners for the Office of the State Superintendant of Education in Washington, D.C.; Executive Board member of Art Education DC—state affiliate for the NAEA; and was a Public Art Commissioner for the City of Charlotte, NC. 


Pamela Harris Lawton EdD, MFA

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