One-to-Ten: A Visual Arts Strategy for Collaboration

To really see, you need to allow yourself to be seen.

-Lida Winfield, dancer and educator

One of the greatest gifts that teaching artists can give each other is to share our favorite exercises that consistently bring us rewarding results. I have had the pleasure to learn from teaching artists in many different contexts, and I love to collect, adapt, and share some of the old faithful teaching strategies across the different worlds I traverse. And, I always credit the sources to honor the artists that have created this work.

A recent strategy that totally captured my imagination was a collaborative exercise I learned from Lida Winfield, an amazing dancer and educator. I met Lida when we were co-presenters at the Habla Teacher Institute in Merida, Mexico last summer. She taught us a lesson that she herself had adapted from dancer/choreographer, Liz Lerman. (see links below).

Lida led us through a dance exercise, and I will share her process first. I will then describe the way I have translated this lovely and engaging structure to the visual arts.

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One-to-Ten: Movement Collaboration

At the Habla teacher institute, Lida introduced the One-to-Ten exercise as a way to cultivate mindful looking, call and response, and collaboration. She began by asking us all to find a partner. The first step was for a partner to make a physical shape with their body, to hold the pose, and say out loud the word, one. Without speaking, the second partner carefully observed the pose, and made a responsive shape to fit within the negative space around their partner. The second person took a new pose and said, two. The first partner then moved away, looked at their partner’s pose, and made a new pose in response, saying, three. This call-and-response sequence was repeated through four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. The partners then had a chance to talk about the experience of building their movement sequence together.

Lida instructed us to do the first round of One-to-Ten with abstract movements. She said that she believes we make our most natural gestures and movements through abstraction. As a follow-up exercise, (since the Habla Teacher Institute is about literacy and the arts), we were coached to do the One-to-Ten exercise again, this time using a theme from the text we were studying. We then repeated the exercise with our partner with an organizing idea (in this case the theme and word was Mentor) in mind as we built our collaborative shapes. The resulting sequence of movements brought us kinesthetically and emotionally into the text.

Working with Lida was an incredible inspiration; I was curious to see how this sequence would work in the visual arts. When I came back to Chicago, I was invited to present at the Marwen’s Summer Teaching Artist Retreat held at Manna Contemporary in July 2014. The theme of this retreat was Giving Students a Voice. Each of the presenters, Alex Chitty, avery r. young, and I were asked to design a hands-on exercise that spoke to that theme. I was excited to adapt and directly translate Lida’s workshop that was so relevant to this theme for visual artists.


One-to-Ten: Visual Arts Collaboration

At the Marwen TA retreat I shared the ideas and excitement from Lida’s workshop. I then gave the Marwen teaching artists these instructions for the exercise: 

1. Look through the collection of bright colored papers on the floor. Pick up a color paper that you are drawn to. Find a partner whose color complements your own in some way.

2. Sit together and without speaking. One of you will cut a shape with scissors from your own paper. Set it on the ground, and say, one.

3. Your partner will cut a shape in response and fit it within the negative shape, and say, two. You will repeat this process until you have completed the sequence: three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Please do this whole process without talking. Your instructions are to observe and respond to your partner’s shapes.

4. Look at your collaborative work; you can walk around and look the work from your partner’s vantage point as well. Does it look different from that view? Talk with your partner what you enjoyed, what challenged you and what you learned from the experience.


Marwen Teaching Artists’ Responses to the Exercise

A number of teaching artists shared their responses to this exercise after the retreat. They wrote:

This activity deepened my understanding of the value of collaboration. I found the process of working in a pair really fascinating. I had my own ideas about which shapes I wanted to lay down, and in what kind of composition… but then there was this other person throwing off all of my instinctual choices. The collage ended up being better than it would have if I had done it on my own, I think mainly because I was continually being surprised by the way it was turning out. It got me outside of my own status quo, in a way. Even just the first step of finding someone whose color went with mine “in some way” was totally interesting! It would be a great icebreaker.

I think young people would like doing this whole activity, because working in pairs takes some of the pressure off, helps you get to know the other person, and proves that there’s more than one way of doing things/more than one answer to a problem.

Collaboration and communication can happen in variety of ways. Non-verbally as well; the exercise we did can be a starting point for students who have hard time working with others.

I like the silent exchange of actions in the partner activity. I think I will use this method in concept/composition development for a collaborative mural project.

Adaptations and Applications

As the teaching artists suggest, this collaborative exercise could be used in the variety of ways. It could be used as an icebreaker the first day of a course, as a way to facilitate community building in a group, and to facilitate a collaborative design process that structures space for each partner to make a contribution to the whole. This exercise forces us to slow down, to look and respond, and to collaborate in a truly intuitive way.

So, I return to Lida quote on learning to really see. I am thinking of all the ways that One-to-Ten is an invitation to share of ourselves. I am thinking of the ways that I can continue to bring this collaborative structure to my teaching and studio practice. I invite you to do the same. Please see what you can make of this and share back with us.



Additional Resources:

Habla: the Center for Language and Culture,

Lida Winfield,

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange tool box,

Arnold Aprill’s documentation of Habla Institute;

Cynthia Weiss About Cynthia Weiss
Cynthia is the Director of Education at Marwen. She is a public artist, painter, and arts educator and has been a leader in the field of the arts and education for the past 25 years. Cynthia received her MFA in Painting from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a member of the Chicago Public Art Group, where she has directed numerous large-scale public art mosaic projects that invite community participation She has previously been the director of Project AIM, at the Center for Community Arts Partnerships, Columbia College Chicago, and is currently an Adjunct Faculty member in the Education Department at Columbia College Chicago.

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