The Art Diaries

Helen, a high-school student in New South Wales, Australia, spent two years in an art course to produce a single painting. In it, an androgynous figure with its head thrown back and mouth wide open stands in the foreground, emerging in thick layers of black and white paint from the middle of a street lined with couches, desks, and Greco-Roman architecture. To a viewer, the scene could convey feelings of entrapment or frustration or any number of other emotions. Once that viewer has paged through Helen's process diary, however, the artist's intent becomes clearer.

diary entry drawing on life processes
four drawn microchips above writing

The diary, a black hardcover sketchbook, records Helen's ideas, inspirations, and creative process over the two years of the course. It begins with a dictionary definition of the word "autonomy," accompanied by Helen's thoughts on the subject, scrawled in ink. Afterwards appear, among other things, a photograph of a sculpture clipped from a magazine (a figure with head thrown back and mouth wide open); a photograph of a couch that, according to a caption from Helen, "raises uncomfortable memories"; a drawing of her desk and books, symbols (she explains) of her own quest for autonomy; photocopied encyclopedia articles about architecture; and dozens of Helen's reworked versions of her inspirations, precise pencil sketches on one page, bold smears of pastel on the next. She experiments with three-dimensional perspective, and glues in scraps of heavy paper thickly textured with oil paint. The final page holds a photograph of the finished painting, its complex theme now apparent.

That progression, from scattered beginnings to a cohesive ending, is exactly what Helen's teacher hoped to see, says Gina Wenger, a graduate student in art education at Penn State. Helen's process diary showed that she could take inspiration from the world around her and mold it, by experimentation, into a unique work of art; moreover, she did the work independently, with little guidance from her instructor.

In New South Wales, process diaries are a mandated element of art education. Wenger believes the diaries could be a valuable addition to American art classes as well.

Before enrolling at Penn State to pursue her doctorate, Wenger spent ten years as a high-school art instructor in Indiana. She also served as a state assessment trainer, teaching other art educators the Indiana state guidelines for assessing student work. The guidelines frequently changed, she says. And every time they did, she encountered a new school of thought for teaching and assessing art.

"In the past," Wenger says, "people have tried to use techniques similar to those used for science, such as standardized testing. More recently we've recognized that not every student learns in the same way." Successful art education depends on allowing students to experience the artistic process, Wenger believes, from seeking initial inspiration to experimenting with media and materials to developing techniques for bringing a mental picture to life. But this kind of learning is difficult to assess by simply looking at the finished product. Wenger was looking for a better way when Jane Gooding-Brown, a Penn State professor of art education and an Australian by birth, introduced her to process diaries.

The diaries vary in form, from bound books to shoeboxes full of photographs to CD-ROMs of digital art. But "they are more than just collections of practice sketches— They are evolving bodies of work," Wenger says. The final artworks, she notes, cover an even greater span—paper and canvas, metal and clay, abstract and realistic, wearable and hangable, a single object or many. In the Australian system, she says, the students' classroom teachers grade their diaries, while the final pieces are evaluated by a panel of teachers from other schools in the area.

Process diaries are not completely alien to the United States. Wenger has met many teachers who use journals, but often only with honors students, because of the level of independent work required. When she learned that the diaries are used in all art classes in New South Wales, Wenger wondered how well "ordinary" students handle the responsibility. "Can they really keep themselves on task without assignments?"

Last summer she traveled to Sydney to see for herself. After visiting classrooms and talking to students and teachers, Wenger was impressed with the effort students put into their diaries. "Many students utilize their own time as well as school holidays finishing their work in time for assessment," she notes. Their willingness to do so, she believes, stems from an Australian emphasis on independent learning that begins in the earliest years and spans all subjects. "The students I have observed discuss issues with their teachers," Wenger says, "but they are given a relatively loose rein on what they can do."

In fact, some students spend so much time working in their diaries, Wenger found, that the diaries end up being more impressive than the final work. "One teacher known for the quality of her student's diaries told me that the student work this year was nothing special," she says, "but that the diaries themselves were very nice. Especially in the work of girls, the diaries are often very developed and personalized. Sometimes this quality in the diaries is accompanied by excellent artwork, but sometimes it is not."

Not surprisingly, the diaries turn out best when teachers emphasize their value. "When teachers work closely with students on their diaries," Wenger noticed, "the books end up being very developed and multi-dimensional." That level of development, in turn, benefits both the students and the teacher. "The diaries keep the student engaged in the class," Wenger says, "and they offer the teacher a way to better understand what the student has learned and what the student wants to do." This window into their students' thoughts is perhaps what the teachers value most, she says. "When students become very involved in making their diaries, the teacher can connect with those students in a way they otherwise wouldn't be able to."

Having seen how well process diaries work in Australia, Wenger says, she is ready to advocate their widespread use in the United States, even though independent state requirements would make standard implementation a challenge.

A working diary is more useful than a polished portfolio, she points out. "Gathering the best loses the process. These diaries illustrate every step."

Gina L. Wenger is a Ph.D. student in art education in the College of Arts and Architecture, 207 Arts Cottage, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-6570. Her adviser, Patricia Amburgy, Ph.D., is associate professor of art education, 204 Arts Cottage; 863-7309;

Last Updated January 01, 2002