There is nothing Lisa Whittington loves more than creative expression. A veteran art educator and artist, Whittington enjoys sharing her knowledge as a visual arts teacher at Drew Charter Academy, while creating meaningful art that speaks powerful truth and connects community.
A proud Harlem native, Dr. Whittington began her APS career in 1991, and over the span of 28 years has taught at elementary, middle and high schools across the District. Professionally, her work has been featured in museums across the Southeast, including Atlanta, New Orleans, Charlotte, N.C., and Johnson City, Tenn.
A self-described scholar, muse, filmmaker, storyteller and symbolist, Whittington characterizes her work as “historic, emotional, political, and symbolic and embedded with autobiographical and spiritual references.” Whittington proudly combines her passion for art with the power of art education as she works to educate and inspire the next generation of artists. She considers herself fortunate to pursue both passions.
Learn more about Whittington and her visual art in the question and answer below.
How has your upbringing in Harlem influenced your art?
Harlem was a very vivid and intriguing place to grow up. I spent time observing life from the window, the fire escapes, and the rooftops of the tenements I lived in. Harlem had a vibration and a soul that pushed me to express myself. Harlem felt like Africa and I was a part of it. It made me feel like I was in Africa. I remember in school when the teacher asked me where I was born, I told her I was born in Africa which meant Harlem. I didn’t know any better then but that was my truth. I saw things that I can’t get out of my head, so I document them as art. Harlem taught me to see.
How would you describe your art, and why is your craft important to you?
Some people describe me as a political artist, but I describe my art as docu-art, autobiographical, and expressionism. In my fine art training, I realized that if the German expressionists did not document life under Hitler’s regime, we would not know what life was like. If the Civil Rights photographers did not practice their craft and take chances, nobody would have known the struggle of African Americans for equality. If the artist Jacob Lawrence did not notice and then take the responsibility to document the Great Migration, that period in history would have gone unnoticed and undocumented. I create for expression but also create out of responsibility. Long after I am gone, my art will still be here telling the stories of the times that I lived through and the history of my culture of people. Art is important to me because it makes me a historian.
How are you able to balance your career as a teacher and as an artist?Balance is key. I keep my weekends and my summers reserved for myself so I can be fresh for the classroom. I still take art classes and I also spend time visiting museums. How I see my classroom is also key. Teaching art is just as much a masterpiece as making it, and I love the two both the same. I see the art classroom as an extension of the art studio. I let my students critique my work and involve them in the process. I let them drive ideas and the things we do in class and then I become the facilitator. Art education is an exchange. I let them teach me as much as I teach them. Teachers have also used my art as teaching tools in their classrooms and that too encourages me to keep creating. I created a piece on Emmett Till that hangs in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum as part of their permanent collection. I have students that love to say that they remember when I was creating the work and teachers say they remember when they used it as a teaching tool in their class. That makes us all a part of history.
What is your philosophy as a teacher and an artist, and how does your work impact your students?
As an educator, I believe that creativity, expression and imagination is a powerful tool of the child. Every child will not grow up to be an artist, but every child will need those tools of creativity, expression and imagination to succeed and compete in this society. It is my job to help them to sharpen, value and behold those tools. In today’s society, it is also important to teach students to be visually literate. They see thousands of images every day on the Internet, social media and television, but can they read those images? Art education is supposed to teach visual literacy and help children to see and think critically about what they see and the messages that are visually shouting at them. I also believe as an artist that my images should be profound and tell the truth, from my perspective so years from now, a visually literate person can read my artwork and understand the message I am delivering in my work.
What’s next for you professionally and artistically?
I have several books in the works and am also writing and presenting for art education. I am also getting into film and video since it is so much like painting.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes. I love community and I enjoy connecting community to the projects I am involved with. I believe in sharing success and giving students opportunities that will impact the success of their own future. That’s my job as an art educator.
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