Weekly Features


Cowboy culture meets limestone carving: ‘Work Is Art’ course finds beauty in labor

Jan. 20, 2016

Instead of being assigned readings in textbooks and taking notes on standard lectures, students in Jon Kay’s “Work Is Art” class viewed art exhibitions, interviewed folk artists, listened to albums from the Library of Congress and watched documentary films.

Kay is director of Traditional Arts Indiana, a partnership between IU Bloomington and the Indiana Arts Commission housed at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. He created the class and taught it for the first time in fall 2015 as part of this year’s Themester, themed “@Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet.”

“The premise is that each occupation has its own expressive form and its own art,” Kay said.

The class talked about a range of occupations in the United States; rather than looking at these professions from a historical or geographic point of view, though, they looked at them as works of art. Discussions about classic coal mining songs like “Sixteen Tons” led to conversations about how workers express themselves to the outside world and also to themselves as a community. “We talked about cowboy culture -- cowboy songs, saddle and rope makers, the performance work of rodeos and being a good worker,” Kay said.

A variety of guest speakers helped connect students with artisans. In one class session, students met a fourth-generation basket maker who described the meaning and technique of her work while providing a live demonstration. Another class featured medical first responders, who talked about handling the trauma of their work through the occupational stories they share among themselves.

Drawing upon Bloomington’s rich limestone heritage, Kay scheduled an event at which several limestone workers demonstrated their craft -- from carving to lettering to cutting -- and then sat down to discuss their professions with the students.

“We talked about unions and labor, how fathers didn’t want their sons and daughters to grow up and be in this type of work, and how the work had changed over time,” Kay said. “And the work wasn’t just work from an occupational point of view; it becomes about family and community and friends all together.” One of the artists, who’d recently helped build a new limestone structure near the stadium on campus, shared his drafting plans.

Students were also required to find and interview an actual worker outside their peer group. “They had to see them twice, and it had to be someone who is not a student and someone who doesn’t work at the university,” he said. “A lot of good feedback is coming from students having those real-world experiences.”

Kay said an unintended byproduct of designing the course was getting a group of 35 students fairly early in their academic careers to evaluate their own career aspirations.

“What I hope is that they’re thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ and asking ‘Am I going to enjoy this? Am I going to want to do this for a long period of time?’ And for people to actually think about what they want to do, rather than what they want to be.”

The class's work aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success

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