Inquiry and Action: Arzu Mistry’s “Unfolding Practice”June 29, 2016
After a redeye flight, Arzu Mistry and her colleague Todd Elkin went to a coffee shop. There, they began a whirlwind conversation about education in the arts. They were so inspired by their conversation that they began tearing up brown paper bags, jotting down their ideas, and taping together scraps of paper into something that resembled an accordion book.
Arzu is an educator and artist currently working on several projects, including placeArts Youth Collective in Bangalore, India. Here, she supports and facilitates young people’s creativity, but she does not stand in their way by giving them assignments. Their ideas and projects are completely their own.
This approach has fueled Arzu’s teaching practice, and she came to WSW as an Art-in-Education Artist’s Book resident to share it. Arzu has since graduated from making accordion books from old brown paper bags, and has turned the text written by herself and Todd into a fully realized artist’s book, Unfolding Practice: Reflections on Teaching and Learning.
“I spend so much of my time thinking as a teacher, but during my residency I tried to do more thinking as a learner,” says Arzu.
In Unfolding Practice, Arzu explores the form of the accordion book itself as a tool for inquiry and action, with each of the five chapters asking questions to challenge the reader in regards to their own established or emerging artistic practice. The accordion structure is ideal for making internal thought process more visible and promotes fluid thinking: if there isn’t enough space on a page to draw a conclusion, simply let it spill over to the next page, or tape on another flap and allow that idea to continue.
“I’m literally constructing my own thinking,” says Arzu. “The act of gluing and cutting and printing is a way to make my thoughts into a physical object.”
Along one side of Unfolding Practice, silkscreened notes, maps, and diagrams converge into a clustered school of fish and leaking pipes. Pages are hand- and laser-cut, creating a new way of seeing the presented information. The handwritten text gives the illusion of a private journal, with doodles scribbled in margins and words falling off of the page. While the text is elaborate, intricate, and complex, it feels intimate, like a note passed to a friend between classes.
The reverse side reads more like a traditional textbook on education, with digitally printed Helvetica text. These pages include quotes from teaching experts, field reports, and expanded definitions. Keywords and phrases are bolded and circled in highlighter-blue ink. In the open spaces of each page, Arzu’s silkscreened annotations offer answers to some of the book’s questions. It asks, “What does it mean to have a practice? How do I engage with other people in my practice? When I’m stuck in the ebb of it, how do I get back to the flow?” With these questions and Arzu’s personal answers, she guides the reader to form their own answers and to find their own practice.
“In my work and in this book, I’m trying to help people, especially young people, develop a personal artistic practice that actively responds to the world in a creative way,” says Arzu.
Both sides come together and end on an image of folded pages spilling off the edge of the paper. Ending her accordion book with an image of an accordion book, Arzu offers another meta-wink to the content and structure of her project. On the other side of the final page is a call to action, written in a circle of scribbles: Make your own accordion book. Beside this is an illustrated set of instructions, where Arzu writes, “Cut a long strip of paper. Fold in half. Fold each segment in half. Fold each segment in half again. Your book is ready to start seeding with ideas.”
The instructions end by encouraging the reader to not glue down the final page of their accordion book to the cover, so that new pages can be constantly added. Arzu follows her own advice and leaves the final flap of her accordion book open, allowing the reader to add directly to the artist’s book itself.
“I’m inviting the reader to collaborate with me,” Arzu says. “My book is not the end. It can continue to grow.”
Arzu Mistry is an educator and artist currently working in Bangalore, India. She has a Masters in Education from Harvard University and a BFA from California College of the Arts. You can find more of her work at her website arzumistry.com and accordionbookproject.com. Be sure to check out our Flickr to get a behind-the-scenes look at book production.