When Museums & Street Art Tours are the Classroom

in Global Matters
November 1st, 2023

Madrid Students Analyze Classical and Modern Art, Try Stenciling at Street Art Workshop 

Anticipation and excitement filled the air when students of the spring 2023 Madrid Spanish & European Studies program entered the classroom for their course Art and Architecture in Madrid: 1561-Today. Several of the students were completely new to art history and embarked on the course and the program despite the content having little to do with their degree programs. In fact, the temporary departure from STEM courses was one of the draws for Karina Mihura (CAS’24), a biology student with long-term goals to pursue medicine.

Mihura had always wanted to study abroad, and this Madrid program looked particularly interesting to her, even if it’s not directly related to her biology major. Mihura found the program helpful in expanding her thinking and having an open mind learning about issues unrelated to STEM.

“I was really interested in kind of taking a step back from my STEM courses because it was at a difficult time in my college career, and I wanted to take a deep breath before going into my senior year,” Mihura says. “I felt like Madrid and doing something that isn’t what I’ve been studying for the past three years was a good way to do that.”

Another benefit for Mihura was that the Madrid art and architecture course fulfills the Creativity and Innovation Hub requirement, a Hub unit that she had been needing to satisfy. The course also fulfills a Hub unit in Aesthetic Exploration and in Global Citizenship and Intercultural Literacy.

Isabel Carrasco, PhD, who has been teaching this course for about ten years, shows students how approachable and inspiring art can be – even that from hundreds of years ago – and how art, especially street art can connect to different aspects of life and even make a statement in public spaces.

“To be honest, I was scared at the beginning because I didn’t know much about art history and I wasn’t used to writing in that style,” Mihura recalls. “But our instructor gave us such an open mind set about everything, where she taught us how to approach art history as a whole and how to approach it in terms of papers and exams. She was so understanding that not all of us may be experts or not even super into art history but she made it so interesting and easy to approach. That’s something that will always stay with me.”

Part of Carrasco’s approach involves taking students on a city street art walking tour and to museums weekly, including the Prado Museum and Museo Reina Sofia, to introduce students to relevant works of art in Madrid while taking into consideration the historical context in which they were created.

“I enjoy being in front of real things where you can actually see the brushstrokes and the details, instead of explaining in front of a screen,” says Carrasco. “We are in Madrid – we go see the paintings here!”

Sociology major Ariana Tarhanidis (CAS ’24) says visiting museums and analyzing art was something entirely new to her. “Before this course, I’ve never studied technique, but I will say that now when I go to a museum I have a better understanding and can put that into context.”

While in museums, on the city street art walking tour, and in class, students learned about a wide range of art and the evolution of the arts from 1561, when Philip II moved Spain’s capital to Madrid, to the current trends of today, including street art and graffiti. Carrasco does not see herself as a professional artist but she does create art, including calligraphy, watercolors, and some street art.

Her research focuses on “the relationship between images and writing (calligraphy and graffiti) in contemporary art and their interaction with public spaces,” bringing this expertise into the classroom for students. Carrasco’s interests in graffiti and street art paved the way for interested students to attend a street art workshop with her at a collective called El Keller, where students tried their hand at stenciling toward the end of the study abroad program.

“They had to design on stencil, which can look simple, but can be very complicated,” Carrasco explains. “When you start adding layers, you need to think in two dimensions and in terms of positive and negative [space]. I think the best way to understand is by trying it…Some students were feeling vulnerable about the lack of skills and how to face a blank white paper, but I think the students were proud of what they tried, and they surprised themselves.”

Tarhanidis and others appreciated the opportunity to learn from professionals at El Keller and try something new. “I loved how many opportunities Isabel gave us during the course to take advantage of what’s around and to grow as a student,” Tarhanidis says. “I don’t speak Spanish that well, and if I had gone to this workshop without Isabel it would have been very intimidating. Now I am more open to doing things like that because she introduced me to it. And I was able to meet a lot of prominent Spanish street artists whose work I was able to recognize around Madrid.”

Mihura counts the art course and street art workshop among her favorite parts of studying abroad. “It was so interesting to see the stencil art/street art being done,” she says. “It [the workshop] was free and open to everyone and they knew we didn’t necessarily know how to do it, and that was okay. They helped me every step of the way into creating [a stencil], and they had walls everywhere where you could spray paint however you would like.”

Another student who attended the workshop, Sophia Trief (COM ’24), found it interesting to see artists at work in the warehouse studio. She also enjoyed looking for street art around Madrid, having learned about an artist who disguised his name into the world. “I remember walking around and seeing a fence, and if you looked at it a certain way, you would see his ‘E and 1000’, so my friends and I would try to find his art as we explored the city.”

Carrasco also took students around the city during class, exploring street art activism, murals, graffiti tagging, and more. On the street art tour, she points out small, sometimes inconspicuous, things – specific tiles or graffiti tags – and explains their significance.

“Street art is made for the broader public, and it is very much alive in Europe and Spain compared to the United States,” Carrasco explains. “It’s meant to attract the attention of the public to provoke a smile or to even attract the attention of galleries and art collectors.”

Carrasco says street art can take any form – ceramics, paintings, posters, and more – while graffiti art is mostly done with spray paint. “Graffiti is a little bit more invasive and about tagging and saying ‘I was here’,” she says. “It’s more connected to calligraphy and graphic design, and graffiti is a sort of subculture, and graffiti writers don’t feel a part of the art world or the art system. In fact, they write for other graffiti writers. What we see in the street is not for us to understand.”

As students learned firsthand in Madrid this past spring, street art and graffiti are close art relatives, but they are for different audiences, with different purposes.