The Importance of Empty Space

I’m a theatre teacher, and the phrase “empty space” conjures images of Peter Brook’s famous book of the same title. But I’m not going to talk about that today. Rather, I’m going to talk about a metaphor I’ve been using lately to talk about curriculum and how we might think about curating it for our students as we plan lessons, units, courses, and programs.

Compare the two images below:

Oakland Museum of California

Becoming Van Gogh  Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum Oct. 21 2012-Jan 20, 2013

Becoming Van Gogh, Denver Art Museum

Now, I am not a visual artist or a curator, but I venture to say that the second image here engages the viewer in a very different way than the first. The first saturates us, and our eyes — while perhaps stimulated — don’t know where to go and so we cover a lot but we risk gaining very little depth. There is, in my thinking, no space around the images to guide our attention to what’s important, what’s representative. The second, on the other hand, uses the space around the paintings by Van Gogh to great advantage. It directs our attention to a thoughtful arrangement of representative work. It also, I think, leaves us wanting more.

As schools continue to wrestle with what and how to teach, I recommend that we consider the two images above and what this might suggest to us. Is it better to cram as much onto the wall as possible out of fear that we’ll miss something? Or is it better to let the space around carefully curated and representative pieces focus us on what can really move us, really transform us?

Before we react against the nothing that we think is not there, might we pause and consider the nothing that is?


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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2 Responses to The Importance of Empty Space

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Empty Space | The Curiosity Shop — Teaching & Learning in the 21st Century

  2. Ralph Alan Cohen says:

    I love a good visual analogy, and your crowded gallery wall versus the “empty” one is about as vivid a way of considering the two ways of teaching as I can imagine. Teach me in detail about each of the three Van Goghs on the Denver wall – influences, brush stokes, paint composition, geography, biography etc etc – and then I can go prepared to enjoy and appreciate the twenty-six paintings in Oakland. Narrow and deep, not broad and shallow. Although, if you haven’t been to the Barnes, you should go; because that collection is about how Barnes himself filled a wall and had paintings in discussion with one another (and even farm implements). But in a way he WAS using empty space as a setting for that conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

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