Ensights Magazine

Armon Means virtual reality

Exploring a New Reality

Paul Downey
Photographer Armon Means and High School Students Merge Art and Technology through the Artist in Residence Program
Photographer Armon Means has been exploring the world of virtual reality with our high school students as Artist in Residence. Established through the generosity of an endowed gift, the Artist in Residence program brings experts in various fields to campus for a series of sessions within current art classes.This year, the Artist in Residence program rotated to Photography and Studio Art Teacher J.C. Johnson. Now in her second year at Ensworth, Johnson studied under Means in graduate school at Belmont University. In collaboration with Johnson and her colleagues, Means constructed a unique concept for the residency program; by employing the use of technology, students have not only created but also experienced art in three-dimensions.

Means became acquainted with Ensworth last year as a High School assembly speaker who shared his work documenting African American motorcycle culture. His show, entitled “Black Bikers: The End of Danny Lyons and Cultural Refuge,” was also displayed in the Ingram Arts Center gallery.

Means received his B.F.A. in Photography from The Cleveland Institute of Art, an M.F.A. in Photography from Cranbrook Art Academy, and has studied overseas in France and Hungary. He has been an exhibiting fine art photographer and educator since 2003, teaching at various colleges and universities in the United States. He has also exhibited his work internationally in Thailand, France, and Hungary.

Means took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about art, virtual reality, and teaching at the high school level.

What made you want to get involved in the teaching artist program at Ensworth?

After visiting Ensworth as an exhibiting artist last year, I was really impressed by the students’ ability to engage in conversation about artwork, but more so by their enthusiasm toward art as a tool of communication.

This enthusiasm extended into the larger Ensworth community as so many faculty, staff, and administrators stopped to talk about art and life. It seemed that as a school community, a positive culture of engagement is fostered, and that's an exciting thing to be part of.

Is working in virtual reality something new to you? What made you decide to pursue it?

Virtual reality is a new process for me. I've done some single image exploration, creating stand-alone images for viewing in a virtual reality digital environment, and began working this into classroom material. What I came to find is that students were really looking to find new ways to communicate their message. In an age of 3D printing, digital environments, and access to technology, this virtual reality exploration made perfect sense to integrate into a curriculum.

As photographers, we are always seeking to make images that engage and connect with a viewer, but have traditionally been separated by the physical constraints of the photograph itself, which is printed on paper or behind glass.

How have you seen the students grow by working with you and virtual reality?

The students have definitely begun thinking differently about the art experience. People, in general, understand art as something that exists on a wall and solely in a physical space, often in a very traditional sense. Working with virtual reality has allowed students to see a more playful and interactive method of creation that relates more to the way they engage with many other parts of their contemporary life. The perceived stuffiness or pretentiousness that people often associate with the arts isn't necessarily the case. They have, of course, also come to understand the digital, virtual space as a realm in which art can exist. While it still can be captured and printed out to be hung on a wall, it can also be something that is more digitally transient, opening new possibilities for a viewer. Though I think it's the interactive physical engagement that they seem to like the most.

How have you grown as an artist from teaching the high school students?

One of the ways I've grown is how I connect with a younger generation of the art-interested. While I have taught high school, it was a fine arts magnet program where students were already dialed into their craft or artistic direction. The students I've worked with here, I referred to as "art-interested" because some may end up as either artists, consumers of art, or contributors in other ways. I mention a younger generation because I come from a specific place of traditional fine arts making and training.

These types of digital environments and technology are part of the everyday life of this generation. While some ideas and methods took me some effort to pick up, many of them take to them effortlessly as they already have an inherent sense of this interaction, as it’s so commonplace and intuitive to them. They've taught me little tricks of the trade.

More importantly, they have shown me the new ideas and issues that are important to them. We can connect over these and use art as a way to bridge a gap. All of this has really taught me that with the expanding platforms offered to us today, art-making at the higher level can be for anyone. There has long been a sense of "I can't draw” or “I can't paint" so I alienate myself from art. Working with virtual reality has definitely broadened the definition of artmaking for me.

What do you think about the arts program at Ensworth?

The arts program at Ensworth is incredible. The arts faculty members are all focused on student success. They come together and think about how art functions across media and disciplines. This was clear to me immediately as we had conversations about combining the virtual reality work and technology of fine art with dance and theater, but also through the support of Jim Aveni as an active and vocal chair pushing for the department as a whole.

Being the teaching artist, you feel as if you're part of the art family, and that in itself makes all the difference. The active yearly use of this Artist in Residence program demonstrates the commitment of the art department to think outside the box of their current curriculum offerings. They seem to use this as a way to introduce students to new ideas and processes, but also and maybe more importantly, new ways to think about being creative problem solvers.

On a personal note, one of the great things for me is that I come from a very different background than many of these students. Private school would never have been an option for me growing up, nor would access to some of the facilities and technology around them. This program creates a space for a more broad sense of cultural connection. With consistent exposure to people with new ways of thinking and from different backgrounds, the students are able to learn to broaden their sense of community and cultural understanding, dismantling many of the stereotypes and stigmas that society has fostered. In many ways, these ideas serve the larger goal of art more than any other.
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