A Blackboard's Reflection
The Making of the Albert Shanker Memorial
On May 17, 2000, AFT dedicated a memorial to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 until his death in 1997.
It was created by his daughter Jennie, a sculptor, and it uses photo-graphic images and artifacts to portray Shanker as a union leader and a teacher. The article that follows is an expansion of the talk Jennie Shanker gave at the dedication. In it, she invites us to follow the process by which the germ of an idea grew, changed, and finally took shape as a memorial that honors Al Shanker's life and leadership with simple eloquence and power.
By Jennie Shanker
Nearly a year after my father died, I got a call from the AFT saying that the union planned to commission a Shanker memorial piece for the national headquarters, and asking me if I'd be willing to accept the commission. Doing a memorial piece is a huge responsibility for any artist; being asked to do one for a parent is in a category of its own, and is very rare.
One of my first reactions to the request was that I had already begun making work about my father. During the years of his illness, and in the year since he'd died, I'd done a number of pieces, modifications of blackboards, in which he was a felt presence. Although this presence would not have been evident to anyone else, having done these "blackboard" pieces gave me some confidence that I could handle AFT's offer.
Nevertheless, a memorial demands certain things of its maker. And this commission was not like any work I had previously done. There were many questions to consider, above and beyond what I as an artist needed and wanted to do: What did the AFT as an organization need this piece to be? What would people who had worked with my father, and who felt a real loss, want to encounter every day? How could I make something that would have meaning for people in the future—people who would never have known him? What was important to remember about him—both personally and professionally? Did I understand him well enough—and as his daughter, could I distance myself enough—to portray him? What kind of memorial would he have liked for himself? There was a lot to think about.
Finding a balance that seemed right took many months. The following is an account of the process of creating the AFT memorial for my father.
The 'Blackboard' Pieces
In 1994, at the beginning of my father's struggle with cancer, I produced a series of pieces that looked, at first glance, like ordinary blackboards. These "black-boards" were actually made by coating mirrors with a slate paint and scratching thin, horizontal lines into the surface once it was dry. Doing this exposed tiny slivers of mirror and created a shadowy reflection of anyone standing in front of it.
I thought of the blackboard as a universal symbol of a place where we all go to learn. Although blackboards are blank, mute surfaces, they can carry a remarkable amount of information. The mirror, I felt, is similar to the blackboard in its ability to carry information. Its surface reflects color, depth, and movement in time. But, although a mirror conveys more physical information, it is limited in its ability to carry meaning. So the two materials—the blackboard and the mirror—complemented each other.
As is true with any artwork, the "blackboard" pieces could be understood in several different ways. As mentioned earlier, I found them to be a kind of stand-in or symbol for my father. At the time, I believe I was in the process of thinking about the effect he had had on me and others.
Indeed, I found his influence (or reflection) in everything. When anyone in my family engaged in a discussion or argument, its structure would be influenced by his type of thorough, logical thinking. Almost everyone whom my father knew well owed a hobby or interest to one of his enthusiasms. I would hear his words (his exact words) coming out of the mouths of strangers on radio talk shows within a week or two of a convention where he had presented new ideas. These people would speak with passionate conviction, as if, for that moment, my father had become a part of their identity. The threat his illness posed made me want, all the more, to understand who he was, and at the same time, it made me nervous about my own identity. Who would I be without him?
Now, someone else might stumble on the blackboard and its effect and think none of this. When forced to explain my reason for using the blackboard, I would talk about how it had to do with seeing through a filter, the filter being the blackboard (the filter, for me, was also my father).
So from the moment I received the call from AFT, I felt that some version of the "blackboard" pieces would be a part of the memorial. At the same time though, it was clear that my father's presence would need to be more explicit in the "blackboards." I decided that the memorial needed a recognizable portrayal of him. It would have both a literal image and a symbolic component.
When we think of a portrayal of a person in a memorial sculpture, the first idea that comes to mind is a life-sized bronze or marble statue. The figure is usually idealized, and an accompanying plaque offers a few lines of text as a tribute. I knew that my father would have absolutely hated being idealized, and a few lines of text would be insufficient to speak of him. I did spend some time considering ways of working in collaboration with a figurative artist but ultimately decided it was the wrong way to go. Instead, I would work from photographs.
I went to the archives of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City, where my father was president from 1964 to 1986, and sorted through hundreds of images. There were photos of my father there that spanned more than 35 years of his life: professional portraits and photographs of him at meetings, speaking, shaking hands, marching, striking, getting out of jail, and working in his office. I selected certain ones from a gut instinct. I felt his presence most strongly in shots that showed him in his element, speaking from a podium or into a microphone at some event. There were also a number of images where he was leading or part of a crowd of marchers or strikers. I made photocopies of the best of these images, then took them back to the studio.
I photocopied each of them multiple times and at different scales, and began "sketching" by cutting them out and juxtaposing them in different ways. After putting together a number of possibilities, I chose two. Both showed him with a crowd. In one, he was in the foreground with strikers carrying signs in the background. In the other, he was part of the group of marchers.
It was clear that I would need to find some way of incorporating text into the piece. There were so many things that he had struggled for and accomplished, it would be impossible for an image to convey them all. The signboards in the photo provided a perfect medium for the text.
At this point, I felt I was close to a decision about the imagery—and I had already decided on the materials—so I began looking for a framework in which to place the images. I came up with a few ideas that had potential and began building models.
The most obvious answer was to contain all the elements within a blackboard. While experimenting with this, I got the idea of making the blackboard into a type of book by folding it in half. I built two different models using variations on this theme. In the better one, the opening page of the book (to the left side of the viewer) contained a photo silkscreen image of the marchers with picket signs. It was printed in relief using the blackboard paint, which made it appear as if it were etched into slate. The back page (to the right side of the viewer) contained a screen-printed relief image of my father. It was also done using blackboard paint printed on a mirror. The background area had lines scratched into it that exposed glimpses of mirror. A piece of glass, set like the inner page of a book, between the front and back covers, reflected the image of the marchers. The book would be situated in such a way that to view the image of my father, you would have to look through the reflected image of the marchers with their signs.
This model seemed, in many ways, like a good solution. But I felt that separating my father from his fellow activists—and the content in the signs they carried—was a problem. The two basic elements belonged together, not on separate pages.
A Composite Reality
I went back to the photocopies that included my father in the marching crowd. There was a great photograph of him, Sandy Feldman, and other UFTers in the frontline of a march over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1975. I decided to take this line of people and put them in front of the image of the striking crowd. To create a new image from the originals, I scanned both into the computer and used a program designed to manipulate photographs to meld them together. Since there were too few people in the frontline of the bridge photo to fit with the striking crowd, I extended the frontline by copying and pasting the original image several times to extend it. This meant that some of the frontliners appeared three or four times, which. looked terrible, so I altered their clothes and replaced their faces with others from miscellaneous photographs.
After the frontline was blended in with the background crowd, I erased the content from the original picket signs and filled them in with selected slogans that came from photos of old strike boards, and the recollections of union members. Each item represented something that had occurred during my father's terms as president of the UFT and AFT. Each, in its own way, represented a chapter in his story.
Many of the signs had to be constructed from scratch, and it was tricky to make them look as though they belonged in the original picture. For example, the slogans had to be in an appropriate typestyle and the perspective adjusted so the words sat properly on signboards that were turned at all kinds of angles. The light and shadow on the signboards had to be convincing, and the signboards had to give the impression of receding in space. At the same time, if the letters became much smaller than they were on the frontrow signs, they would not be readable. Adjusting the text and the image took more than six weeks.
Once the image was believable—and the text was readable—I had to decide about the material on which to print the image. If I used a blackboard, the image would be too dark to see. Remaining with a classroom theme, I began working with slide projection screens. I printed the image on a few yards of silverscreen material and attached it to a retractable window-shade rod. The idea was that the slide projection screen, with the image printed on it, would hang over and in front of the blackboard, replicating a standard classroom arrangement.
I then realized that by turning the blackboard vertically, and putting it into a frame that had some depth, the blackboard became a kind of window, and the slide projection screen became a type of window shade. This framework maintained part of the idea behind the blackboard: A person sees the world (sees out the window) through this filter (education), which also allows a person to see him or herself. The shade is half drawn to show the image, but it is also as if it is being shut over the window, a reference to my father's passing. In addition, there is a hint that, as time goes on, the crowd will continue to move forward, and the shade will continue to be pulled down as the marchers advance.
At this point, I felt that I had represented my father as a union leader. But the piece seemed only to be about him as an activist. It had his intensity, but it made him seem too harsh; it didn't reflect the passionate, pragmatic, and visionary person he was.
I began looking for something more personal and individual, and I started making objects that reminded me of him. I made copies of his eyeglasses in black plexiglass and cast some books and a wine bottle in tinted epoxy resin. I played with placing some of the photocopied images behind the books, which created an interesting, intimate effect. One photo in particular, in which he is looking up and smiling (as if he had just surprised himself by saying something unexpected and particularly telling), evoked him in a way that filled the gap in the piece. The book was set on the "windowsill," (or "chalk tray") along with a piece of chalk, and the piece was complete.
Although no memorial could ever fully capture my father, I hope it shows him in a way that he would have appreciated. It emphasizes his work and accomplishments without separating him from the people who really made it possible for his vision to be fulfilled. The story it tries to tell is not just about an individual, but about a period of time in the history of a great organization. It contains a metaphor that identifies education as the key element in the development of an individual within society. My father’s presence is understated by very real.
A memorial work is a gesture that is made to help people commemorate a person or event. In its greatest form, a memorial is referred to as a monument, a thing of massive and enduring value and significance. I believe that the best memorial to Albert Shanker, and a true monument, is the AFT and the work of its members. My father’s legacy and vision are clearly alive and well within it.
Jennie Shanker is a sculptor and teacher who lives in Philadelphia.