Honors Studio Art students exhibit creativity and courage with performance art

“Performance art is incredibly daunting, particularly if you’re in high school. There’s a lot of fear involved, and the students face that fear and step past it.” 

Director of Visual Arts Cathy Watkins describes what she and her students were up against when she added performance art to her syllabus for Peddie Honors Studio Art students. But a course she recently took at Rhode Island School of Design made her realize she “wanted to push the kids to take more risks.” Performance art, under whose generous umbrella falls installation-based artwork that’s performed in front of viewers, fit the bill. 

This type of expression requires vulnerability and thus a considerable amount of courage — a tall order for teenagers still coming into their own. Watkins assigns “prompts” (such as Ritual, Memory and Language) to students at the end of the previous term in the hopes that by time they begin to create, they’ll be comfortable enough with her and each other to tackle them — to go “out of their comfort zone,” she said. 

“In all of their work, I’m looking for a thoughtful response to the prompt,” Watkins continued. “I’m also really interested in seeing the piece evolve, to see them meet technical obstacles and get past them, to pivot well if they realized what they’d seen in their head wasn’t working, if they had considered all of the possible choices (outfit, lighting, audio, choreography).” By the time of the art exhibit, they had all met the challenges “and the evening was just the icing on the cake,” said Watkins. 

Unlike displaying a drawing, the students’ work is an interactive dialogue between themselves and viewers — human to human. Performance art encourages those viewers to “be a little more thoughtful about stepping back and thinking, ‘Why is he doing this?’ and ‘Gosh, how brave she is for doing this.’” 

Moreover, their performance art lent “a sense of urgency, a sense of the moment, happening now,” said Watkins. “Like a theater production or a screening of a film.”

Their productions have been well-received — all the more gratifying after the vulnerability students embraced to create them.

“Everyone, afterwards, has felt very proud of themselves,” Watkins said. “There’s an extra sense of achievement. That direct feedback, in the moment, hearing what people are saying, is thrilling.”

Making performance art work — and work well — at a high school is no small feat. Watkins credits its success at Peddie to the safety the school provides and the appetite it instills for adventure. At many other schools, said Watkins, “It wouldn’t fly.

“Those pieces really brought the show alive in a way I’ve never witnessed before, in all the years we’ve done shows.”

View the 2022 Honors Thesis Show