Interview: Janani Nathan On Acknowledging Pandemic Loss And Anxiety While Teaching Virtually
Janani Nathan is a Chicago-based multimedia artist, CPS art teacher, and tattoo artist. Her art is colorful, organic, and full of vivid dream-scenes and fantastical imagery. Janani’s experiences span a wide swath of the art world, from being a practicing artist, going to art school, becoming a high school art teacher, to providing gorgeous handpoked tattoos!
In this interview, Janani discusses how these identities intersect and inform each other. She speaks to her path as a creative, and how she approaches teaching art to high school students. She also delves into her experiences teaching virtually, struggling to find an authentic way to speak to students in such a harrowing year, and fighting for CPS to protect her and her co-workers.
As a nonprofit serving teachers, students, and public schools, we want to prioritize the voices of folks working in the public school system, and fighting for equity from the inside. IPaintMyMind wants to recognize the sacrifice and obstacles that so many educators faced this past year, and to celebrate their persistence and commitment to robust and equitable education. Over the next year, we plan to publish and feature further conversations with teachers and educators, to give a platform to these unique and critical accounts of teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.
How did you get started as an artist? What was your path like as a young creative person?
When I was younger, I lived with my grandparents in India for 3 months every year. My grandmother spent nearly all her time making – food, paintings, clothing, and scarves. And because I wasn’t in India for long enough to make many friends my age, I would stay home and learn to make art along with her. She was supremely patient with my impatience when we were working through more intricate art making, like embroidery, rangoli, and tanjore painting. Art was the first and most meaningful way I formed a close bond with a family member beyond language, cultural, and generational barriers, and it stuck with me as a vessel for community building.
How did you become an art teacher?
I don’t remember being genuinely good at art, but I do remember meeting the most influential people in my life through art. I applied to study art in college because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in my life and still being at peace with my decisions. I’ve since tried to find ways to express creativity that also guide me to meeting new people through teaching, and recently, also tattooing! I’m very new to both, but four years into teaching in Whitney Young High School, my relationship with teaching and art have evolved so much along with the politics of teaching in Chicago public schools.
What artists or periods of art inspire you? What about unexpected elements of visual culture?
The artists who have most affected my relationship with making art are people who have integrated much of their identity and experience into their work. Anwar Mahdi, who reimagines mythological stories to center himself as Venus and gods and goddesses as brown, queer people defeating those in power. Yvette Mayorga, who crafts sculptures sharing stories of immigrancy, and the joy and fears under anti-immigrant legislation. William Estrada, who wheels printmaking supplies and photo booths to make art in collaboration with neighborhoods that have been underserved by our government to offer them both a creative outlet and a way to connect with their neighbors through art.
I think as a young person, I used to expect artworks’ meaning to come from the finished, framed piece that hangs on a museum wall, but I’ve felt so much more engagement with art that I can listen to and see stories behind – and that doesn’t always rely on the finished product. It lives in William Estrada talking a mother and child through screenprinting a design onto a shirt for the first time and talking about the joys of their home environment.
As an art teacher working in CPS during this tumultuous school year, what has your experience been like?
This year, I naively had such high expectations for public officials to consider the inequitable challenges of access during the pandemic and use it as an opportunity to structurally alter the state of public schools. It really hurts to know that my employers don’t take my job seriously. The fact that the summer before school began in Fall 2020, CPS offered no guidance on how to teach through a screen highlights just a small action that proves their disinterest in providing equitable education this year. Everything I learned about Google Meet and Google Classroom came from fellow teachers trying to understand this new technology, but without them, I may have been a much worse educator for my students.
CPS instead funneled much of their time and resources into planning for reopening, which made it clear that leadership was willing to put teachers’ lives on the line to avoid planning for a strong educational experience this year. CPS also did this knowing many teachers cared enough about their job and their students that they would return.
What do you think gets lost when we look at teachers as heroes?
This idea that teachers must be martyrs for their passion is painful and only results in a weaker education system that is a disservice to hardworking teachers and a disservice to students too. I wish leadership chose to prioritize education and student-centered transformative care within our school systems, but for now I’m trying to focus on at least doing what’s within my power in my classroom rather than feeling hopeless.
What does the day-to-day of teaching virtually look like?
This past year, teaching has been so much less about learning art techniques, and so much more about finding creative outlets for grief, connection, and healing while we’re learning to understand this year. I’ve heard leadership trying to establish a “semblance of normalcy” for students, which I do find important.
However, I think it’s equally important to offer a safe, slow, and intentional way to acknowledge the intensely hard year we’ve had, to allow sorrow for loss, to allow education to take a backseat to understanding the effects of the pandemic. So while we have of course been learning about new techniques, I feel like we’re mostly learning to check in on ourselves and find new coping mechanisms available to us while we’re quarantined. I offer more journaling prompts for brainstorming, more studio time to work, and more emotional check-ins.
We’re back in the school building now, with some students returning in person for hybrid learning! It’s just a few weeks, and I’m so happy to see and make art with students every day again. That very first Monday, I felt more energy and joy than I had felt all year. That being said, I do wish the reopenings offered teachers more control in their safety in the building. Instead, it feels like we were pushed back against our wills despite the unwavering and powerful support of our union (<3), and while my school has the ability to properly distance and clean every day, I know for a fact that not every school is granted the same privilege.
How has the stress of reopening negotiations and searching for a vaccine affected you?
Teaching art through a screen to Google Meets filled with tired, scared, and jaded students is draining, and I’ve found it helpful to share my own negative and positive moments of this year with students too. Similarly to how I approach teaching art, I have tried to show students that as an adult, I don’t have all the answers and I’m not always sure of myself. I’m also having a really tough time understanding my identity and place as an educator during the pandemic. I think this could allow students to find empathy for one another past the distance – that they are not alone in their struggle. Art provides a way to identify those shared struggles and also highlight the ways in which each artists’ lived experience may make their journey different from others’.
Does teaching inspire you as an artist? What’s the best piece of advice you could give a young artist?
I find a lot of joy from making art with young people, but I know it’s difficult for many students to feel the motivation to find joy in creating art every day this year! I know that because it’s so difficult for me too. The art I’ve made this year has entirely been inspired by the projects I assign for students because I haven’t found the motivation to create otherwise.
Talking through ideas with young people always helps me look at my own art through a different lens – one that’s more collaborative, open to change, and focuses on the process rather than the end result. Being an art teacher reminds me to remain playful and less critical with my own art practice, and that’s what I would offer to young artists today. Even if each piece you make isn’t your favorite or doesn’t quite feel like you, that will never discount what you learn from each artwork.
To learn more about the state of art education in CPS schools and what IPMM does to provide resources and materials to art classrooms, check out our Model and our innovative Shared Walls programming for public schools. And, check out many more incredible interviews with artists, business leaders, and educators on our blog.
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