Art Educators and Allyship

by Frances Carson, Art Education

Abstract: Art is a cultural, historical, and expressive gateway for students. It is meant for everyone to participate in, and it provides comfort and community for artists. The research topic, how art teachers exhibit allyship to diverse students, explores the idea of safe spaces in the classroom, my personal experiences from being a student and teacher, and how students are impacted by teachers’ allyship. Much of the research was done through personal teaching experience as well as analyzing various studies done by art educators. These studies gave different perspectives on culturally diverse teaching and emphasized the importance of certain teaching methods. It is vital to incorporate material that is diverse and culturally relevant to students to make them feel included in their curriculum. When teachers empower and embrace marginalized students, who often may not receive the validation that their peers do, their education can become more equitable. Art educators play an important role in students’ lives and education, helping them develop their identities, creativity, and artistic voices. Unlike other school subjects, students in art classes are encouraged to learn new ways to communicate and expand their cultural knowledge through an artistic lens. This implies that art education is necessary to curriculum because of its inclusive nature, it goes beyond conventional learning and communicative methods, and it allows students to self-discover through creative expression.

teaching, identity, diversity, creative expression, marginalized groups, teacher-student relationship

My deep inquiry into contemporary issues in art education will examine how art teachers exhibit allyship to diverse identities regarding race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ students, etc. The topics I want to focus on in this essay include my experience with art educators, why art educators create safe spaces, what I learned while teaching at Double Helix,1 and how students are affected by teachers’ allyship. The following questions guided my thinking as I researched and developed ideas surrounding art education and allyship:

  • How does this generalization of art educators being allies to marginalized communities affect people’s perception of art teachers (and art teachers’ perception of themselves)?
  • What are the best ways to encourage an empathetic classroom environment, and how can educators teach empathy?
  • In what ways are students affected by building thoughtful relationships with other students and their educators?

These questions push deeper into the reasons why art educators are so valuable to students and education systems.

After evaluating many of the contemporary issues in art education, I have learned about my classmates’ experiences and opinions on art education, my teaching philosophy and how it relates to my identity, and how to create lesson plans and teach real students. Throughout my life, the art room has always been the safest place for me, especially in middle and high school. As I entered that colorful and magical classroom, I remember feeling welcome and truly connected to my classmates and teachers. (I cannot remember enough of my elementary school experience to speak about that art teacher, so I will focus on middle school-college art teachers when sharing my insights.) One of the driving factors in choosing this topic for research was my personal experience with art education, as I intend to teach in a manner that includes students of all identities and create a safe space for as many students as I can. In comparison to other academic subjects, art focuses on creativity, identity, and self-exploration—things your average science and history classes do not address. The research topic suggests that the instructors and the type of students drawn to creative spaces are often more embracing of marginalized or othered groups and/or are part of those groups themselves. This idea is not new, as Hetrick (2018) observed that “beginning in the late 1970s attention was drawn to creating art curricula that were sensitive to the various ways people were identified or self-identified” (p. 55). Hetrick’s (2018) research also suggests that to be an artist and art educator is to be more informed about the world and culture around you, allowing for more freedom of expression in the teaching and learning process. Of course, these are generalizations, however, this pedagogy is quite common for teachers of humanities and the arts.

Learning and teaching art is an important gateway to understanding the world around us. The history, symbolism, and representation in art give it incredible depth, perfect for teaching. Since art is open-ended and allows people to communicate and understand the world in various ways, it resonates with people from every background. Anyone who wants to make art finds a community of like-minded people who can inspire, educate, and liberate each other. This leads to the creation of safe spaces for marginalized people, which is evident in the art classroom as well. Therefore, art educators and art classrooms are often utilized by these othered students who seek acceptance for their differences (Hetrick, 2018). There were several improvements to the diversity of art curricula made over time, however, LGBTQ+ topics were excluded from learning material for years. As non-heterosexual relationships became more acceptable in the United States, they gained more representation in the media but there is still little to no education about them. It is incredibly important for students to be able to relate to the art and artists they learn about so that they can understand their own capabilities. Although this has become a recurrent issue in education, now more than ever the LGBTQ+ community and people of color who work in education have been subjected to frequent attacks by school districts and legislation. As it is argued in the book Mad River, Marjorie Rowland, and the Quest for LGBTQ Teachers’ Rights, “Protecting LGBTQ teachers’ rights is essential not only for the well-being of educators; it is also a critical step toward creating and maintaining safe learning environments for LGBTQ students in elementary and secondary schools” (Graves & Nash, 2022, p. 83). Therefore, without diverse curricula, students are robbed of a vital learning experience of being exposed to people who have different lives and identities than themselves. Teachers and students deserve to feel safe in their schools and limiting their education by “protecting them” from discussions of LGBTQ+ identities, race, ethnicity, etc. does immense harm only promoting a singular way of life.

By teaching at Double Helix, I found that it is important to investigate what students make, why they create differently from each other, and why they may not exactly follow the lesson plan. Understanding these differences has helped me learn more about the children’s identities and how they perceive themselves. Some of the students also draw/represent themselves in the same style/character every time they make a self-portrait. For example, when we taught the contour line self-portrait lesson, a student drew herself as a pink and orange fox in multiple portraits, showing that she loves the colors and the animal. She relates to this character, and it has become part of her identity. This self-reflection is a fantastic way for students to recognize which traits they identify with the most. During my third Double Helix lesson which was paper weaving, the same student expressed her distress towards the assignment because it brought back upsetting memories from her old school. After this conversation, we told her that she did not have to weave anymore if it made her sad, so she began to draw and search for reference photos online of “crying fox drawing”. She clearly relates to this character she has made, and drawing herself as a fox allows her to perceive herself more accurately and work through her emotions. Authors Clifton and Grushka (2022), two visual arts educators who studied the effects of empathetic teaching approaches, explain: “Visual Arts learning provides authentic contexts for students to explore and reflect on their identity, relationships with others, and place in the world. Such deeply personal interrogations of subject matter and feelings are afforded by student centered curriculum content and pedagogical decisions” (p. 97). The classroom environment is a huge factor in students’ freedom of expression and how comfortable they feel about their own identities. Visual Arts classes give students a new set of tools to communicate their feelings to themselves and others; additionally, art allows students to learn about the world and the diverse people around them. This approach to the arts is crucial because it explains how creating an empathetic learning environment helps students learn and engage in empathy, which supports marginalized students as well.

It is understood that students rely greatly on validation and allyship from their teachers. Students who are marginalized are often not celebrated as much as those who are not, and that source of validation is much more difficult to find. Allys in art education help students from all backgrounds feel included, confident, and capable of achieving in the classroom. This inclusion is shown through creating diverse curriculum, giving all students a voice in the classroom, and learning what engages students. However, many arts programs in U.S. public schools do not receive enough funding to stay afloat, so often the arts are cut out of education completely. Schools, often those with a large black and brown population, that lack access to art education are put at a severe disadvantage, and their education is “incomplete” and inequitable (Jaffe, 2012, p. 143). This stresses the importance of bringing equity in education (especially the arts) to all communities. Art is an important piece of our education, and all students deserve to experience it. Educators must make continuous conscious efforts for the future of art education that not only includes but embraces people who are underprivileged. This pedagogy, known as “training the oppressed” was created to build hope and empower students who do not have equal access to education (Aghasafari, et al. 2022, p. 33; Freire, 2000). By empowering, validating, and educating students in art, they become more aware of how to use the resources available to them and how they can utilize art to connect with their culture. Teachers have started using “cultural frames of reference” which “play to their students’ strengths, providing them the opportunity to utilize these strengths in their education” (Martinez, 2012, p. 13).  For example, in art education, cultural frames of reference can be used to teach students artists who are local/work in their community. Bringing in local artists to speak to students gives them role models for what they could create, and it is extremely accessible. Having these positive cultural frames of reference, students not only become validated by their learning experience, but they also feel heard and appreciated (Gay, 2010). In the future, I expect that this pedagogy will only continue to grow in popularity to accommodate students who have varying identities and backgrounds.

Art education can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but I think that using art to encourage students to create and leading them to self-discovery is extremely important. The role that art educators, especially those in middle and high school, currently fill is vital for helping students develop their identities, creativity, and artistic voices. Additionally, visual art has a special ability to transcend communication barriers, connecting people through culture and identity without language. Ultimately, the allyship of art educators is indispensable and beautiful, and I feel grateful to have been affected by art education in this way through both teaching and learning.


  1. Double Helix is a STEAM school for 4th-8th graders where my Art Education 2110S class taught in groups throughout the semester. ↩︎


Aghasafari, S., Bivins, K., Muhammad, E. A., & Nordgren, B. (2022). Art integration and identity: Empowering bi/multilingual high school learners. Art Education75(5), 32–37.

Clifton, S., & Grushka, K. (2022). Rendering artful and empathic arts-based performance as action. LEARNing Landscapes, 15(1), 89–107.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). Continuum.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Graves, K., & Nash, M. (2022). Mad River, Marjorie Rowland, and the quest for LGBTQ teachers’ rights. Rutgers University Press.

Hetrick, Laura. (2018). Teaching art: (Re)Imagining identity. University of Illinois Press.

Jaffe, N. (2012). We are allies and we have allies. Teaching Artist Journal10(3), 143–144.

Martinez, U. (2012). Cultur(ally) jammed: Culture jams as a form of culturally responsive teaching. Art Education65(5), 12–17.

Citation Style: APA