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Michelle Grabner is curator, critic, professor, and artist who works in multiple mediums, but much of her work centers around pattern and color. Her assignment asks you to recall an activity you may have done in kindergarten and explore it’s potential as a design project. Here are your instructions:

1. Gather a sheet of paper to make cuts into
2. Gather other sheets of colored paper to cut into strips
3. Weave the strips into the base paper
4. Document your work and/pr your process. Upload using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (Your work might be in a future episode)

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(PBS digital studios intro)

Sarah: Today we're outside the Indianapolis Museum of Art where we're gonna be meeting up with Michelle Grabner. She's based in Milwaukee and Chicago but she currently has a show up here at the museum that features a wide range of her work, including paintings, works on paper, video, and sculpture. Along with her studio practice, Michelle is also an art critic, a professor, and a curator who's run exhibition spaces including The Suburban in Oak Park, Illinois, as well as The Poor Farm in Central Wisconsin.

It becomes quickly evident when looking at Michelle's work that she's preoccupied with pattern. Be it those she finds and uses as source material for her paintings and prints or the one she devises herself through the paper weaving she's made for the past 20 years. The space of the home and domestic life is a focus of Michele's work, not only evident in her abstract paintings that reproduce the patterns of gingham, cotton blankets, and paper towels, but also through the labor intensive, repetitive processes required to create them. She creates a kind of abstraction that is firmly rooted in the materials and actions of our daily life, but that also transcends them.

Michelle: Hi. I'm Michelle Grabner, and this is your Art Assignment.

I'm drawn to all patterns, and a lot of it has to do with repetition and order. All right? So you have information that's ordered, sometimes in a very simplistic way, and sometimes in a more complicated, baroque way. So you think of William Morris' wallpapers, gorgeous, baroque, and complex, or a simple weave, like a gingham weave, a check pattern. It's all ordered. It's all information that takes a kind of order.

And when one thinks about contemporary life and how information moves through our lives on a regular basis, that order is becoming more and more important. We have to do it. We have to order the information in our lives. So to see that represented in their visual world is very compelling. It's always been very compelling to me.

As an early artist in an emerging studio, I would say, thinking about pattern, thinking about indexing, my son came home from kindergarten at that time presenting me with a little project he did in school. It was a blue and red paper weaving. And I think the exercise was based on fine motor activity, how to use a scissors, how to slip paper in and out. It was crude. It was basic. Maybe there were four slits within the paper itself. And then they started to think about that as a way of making pattern, the simplicity of weaving being played out in paper.

So your assignment is to make a paper weaving. So you'll want to have on hand some paper. One paper, one sheet, that you will then make cuts into, even cuts, in this case. And then you'll also want some paper which can be colored. That you'll want to make strips. And those strips can be various, but I'm going to give you examples in which the strips and the cuts in the paper are the same. And then what you're going to do is simply weave those strips into that paper, into that base paper. What I'm calling the warp.

And it's really quite that simple, and you'll have a lot of options in terms of building pattern. I would probably encourage multiple colors, and then you can see, again, what the array of the patterns will-- what are available to you in terms of different kinds of patterns.

Sarah: John, I thought you'd really like this one, because it's an obsessive, repetitive action.

John: Yeah, I do enjoy my obsessive, repetitive actions. I like signing my name over and over again. I like print making in very repetitive ways. So I'm very excited about this. I'm also a huge fan of Michelle Grabner's work, so I think it's really cool that she gave us an art assignment. And this one is awesome. I'm psyched to do it. And I can do it.

Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHS] It's deceivingly simple.

John: Right.

Sarah: I mean, yes, even a kindergartner could do it, but I think there's a lot of hidden resonance here. And you can think a lot about pattern and color. When I'm looking at these and thinking about this assignment, I think about Josef Albers' color studies.

John:Yeah, but it's not just color studies. I mean, these weavings also make me think about physical objects in the world. They're abstractions that lead me to thinking about representational things.

Sarah: Yeah, and I also think we should go back and think about the foundations of early childhood education and why Friedrich Fröebel who founded kindergarten, came up with this exercise in the first place.

In 1814, Friedrich Fröebel began working at a mineralogical museum in Berlin, organizing and classifying its collection. He was fascinated by the various shapes of crystals and became convinced that investigating the natural laws that cause their growth was the key to unlocking the mysteries of a higher power. Fröebel was guided by this belief when he founded a school for young children in Blankenburg, Germany in 1837. He called it kindergarten and formulated a system of activities that would teach kids to recognize and appreciate natural harmony.

He designed a set of 20 tools referred to as "gifts" to help with the process, including building blocks, colored paper, mosaic tiles, and gridded tables. The 14th gift was paper weaving, and it was a version of this activity that Michelle's son would encounter many years later, and that she would take up as well.

By weaving together strips of paper, kindergartners explore color, pattern, counting, and simple math, and come to know forms that can be found out in the world. We're asking you to do the same, to tap into the seemingly inexhaustible potential of this activity and discover how abstract forms can point to countless processes and structures in the world around us.

Michelle: Just as we were saying that this is a Fröebel exercise that happens in kindergarten, it's also a two-dimensional design activity that happens when one enters into an art program as a freshman, in these foundations. And I always like to flip it. I think these are exercises that we're privileged to do, and we should continue to do them. If not, maybe, taught as in our senior year, as opposed to our freshman year.

So we're going to make a paper weaving. So what you're going to want to do is get yourself a sheet of paper, a straight edge, and an X-Acto knife, and you're going to want to cut these slats in a paper. So these are 1 inch slats. I'm leaving an edge all the way around. And then you're going to want to mark it, of course, with a pencil, so you're even with your cuts. Then you want to flip it over.

You actually want to work on the side that you have your graphite notations on. You also want to have your strips. And again, I'm working with 1 inch strips today. They can be various sizes. That's not a problem. What I'm going to be developing is a pattern that will be a negative when I flip it over. So very simply, start thinking about the pattern. Start thinking about that math, in terms of over and under and how many.

So I'm going to go under three, over one, under three, over one. And then you're going to have-- again, depending on numbers-- in this case, I only want under two at the very end, because I ran out of cuts. And then you want to tightly pull the paper in, making sure it stays flat and doesn't buckle. And in this case, I'm going to go through a spectrum of warm colors, red to yellow.

And then you want to not use the same number pattern, but a different number pattern. So I'm going to, in this case, over two, under three. And then I line all the strips up on one side, just so it's easy. I only have to cut one side when I'm finished. And then you're going to want to slip the next band down, so it's pushed right up against the previous strip.

To linger in systems of order, repetition, is hugely important. To think about ordering information, to think about patterns, when they break, when they pull, when there is this funny tension between what is being indexed and the geometry or the support. To be able to see that. That's important.

But there's also the condition of boredom, which is really important for me. Not in necessarily a place of meditation or a place of just pure discomfort, but I think within that space and time, one gets to play with time, think about those qualities, think about values. I've been referring to it as a state of boredom, which is a human condition, and I think we all need to embrace that.

OK. So once you've finished weaving the field of slats, you're going to want to finish it off. So I've been using-- you can use this acid-free tape. You're going to want to flip it. And trim any extras. OK.

And then you're going to want to tape this end down as well. And then flip it over and see what the result is. So you can see here, I've actually given you two patterns, right? So you see this column, here. So if you divide it vertically, instead of being continuously even throughout the field, you have a pattern on-- in this case, with the left side or the right side. And then you have another pattern going on here. And then you can also see the pattern developed by the color.

No, I'll continue making these weavings until they put me in a grave. I have been thinking, though, about weaving with other materials.