Visual Arts Competencies in Embedding Belonging, Diversity and Identity, Part 1 | Jude Ross | 13 Min Read

January 12, 2023

Traditionally, the visual arts are a bastion of the “old, white guy club”. When looking at the visual arts Canon and the type of art generally taught in schools, we are constantly confronted by artwork that was created by white male artists. So, when embedding belonging, diversity, and identity into the visual arts curriculum, how can we utilize competencies in order to make this a more profound learning process? How does this connect with the 21st-century skills we need to teach students to ensure their future success? How do we broaden our students’ perspectives to help them understand and communicate with people from different backgrounds/ethnicities? Why is this important?

During this first part of a three-part series, I will be tackling how we can embed identity into the Visual Arts curriculum and use competencies in order to broaden the experience for our students. 


Identity has many different definitions, but I personally appreciate the one put forward by Sara Anderson, Karissa Solen, and Paulina Vensor out of the University of Colorado Denver stating,

Your identity is made up of different “ingredients”: race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, education, family structure, hobbies, beliefs, career, experiences, etc.”

Anderson, Sara D., Stolen, Karissa and Venzor, Paulina. (2020). Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion 101. Office of Equity at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

People often have a difficult time when speaking about what identity is. There is this ongoing ideal, one which I feel was often put to the forefront of my own education, that we are “all human beings”. Why can’t we just treat each other all the same? This perspective, however, undermines the significance of our individuality and uniqueness, and can further undermine the experiences of those “marginalized” people of our societies, which, let’s face it, can be unjust and sometimes violent experiences. If we are able to refocus the lens that we look through from one of “we are all the same” to the notion that “we all have our own unique experiences that help define who we are”, we will be more open to relating to others, finding common ground, and learn from their unique experiences in life and insights. 

Recently I have come across the idea in various places of thinking of our overall identities as a bowl of soup. This “soup” is made up of various different ingredients. These are the ingredients that have created who you are as a person, your own unique self. Some of these ingredients might include your race, gender, disability status, geographic location, hobbies, ethnicity, beliefs, sexuality, socioeconomic status, career, etc. It is true that some of these “ingredients” will be shared by other people. I think of obvious examples, like my siblings, who share many of the same ingredients as me. Yet, there will always be differences that will affect the overall outcome of identity. Some ingredients may be completely different, even in the case of someone close to you, like the before-mentioned siblings. No person ever will have the exact same “soup” as another person. Not even twins, as there will always be subtle differences in aspects such as experiences and beliefs that will affect the overall outcome of your identity. 

In addition to these lists of “ingredients”, the interaction between these aspects of your identity and the systems in which we live influences our lived experiences. This is the case whether you are part of the population that these systems might help or support your identity, a part of the population where these systems act as an oppressor to your identity, or (more commonly) somewhere between these two on a continuum. For example, my life, as a white, cisgender male will be different from a black or Asian cisgender male. While some experiences will overlap, like the fact that we are all male and cisgender, my experiences of culture and systems is very different than those of a Black or Asian counterpart, as even the experience of being male is different within these man-made systems that exist in our society. Another example is how many of my female friends will tell me about the ways they need to think about walking to their car or home when it is darker outside, something that as a male I have never thought about. And this is not even getting into the various different experiences that individuals in the LBGTQIAA+ community go through. All of these experiences are valid and true; they are all realities each person lives—the “ingredients” that make us unique people.

Identity is often tackled in classes through traditional projects like the ones seen below:

Students might create an acrostic poem using their name or create a self-portrait that incorporates features of their identity, visually showcasing their different ingredients. In this way, students are communicating the different ingredients that make up their own identities. They are identifying those components that interact together in order to create their own unique experience and identity. 

This idea of communication is an easy way to identify one competency that we may wish to measure when thinking about identity, whether in a Visual Arts curriculum or elsewhere. How we measure that ability to communicate will depend very much on the project and the rubric created for that project.

Using artwork as a way of communicating your identity could be looked at as a project where you might deconstruct an artist and how they communicated their identity through their artwork. One could create an art assignment like those presented in the last examples, using an image like the painting below by Frida Kahlo as an example of how artists represent their own identities through their artwork.

Symbolism, used within paintings such as the one above, speaks to the deeper identity of the artist and should not be viewed as a mere self-portrait. The students would need to also use symbolism in order to show how they self-identify, not just create an image of themselves. Frida Kahlo is a well-known artist and definitely part of the art history canon, yet she also offers a different viewpoint: that of a woman, a Latino, and a marginalized individual through physical needs. Opening a conversation around her work not only allows for talk about the competency of communication but brings diversity into the conversation.

Another example of an artist you could use to showcase identity is this self-portrait by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Once more, we have an artist that is included in the art history canon who also displays a diverse background: an Afro-Caribbean, trilingual, black painter.

These past two examples can lead to a teacher asking students to create an image of themselves in a similar style, where every student will try to make their own Frida Kahlo painting or a Jean-Michel Basquiat image. Students use the artist’s style in order to define the different characteristics that make up their own identity.

I would define these projects as a project-based process to learning Visual Arts, in that you are asking students all to do a very similar project with small amounts of choice. This is not project based learning, which is different. All students are doing a similar project; a Frida Kahlo painting. They all need to do a self-portrait that represents their identity in this same style. 

I am a big believer in choice in regard to education, not just within Visual Arts. Students should engage in decision-making, autonomy, and agency. The more choice given to students within the visual arts classroom, the more opportunities they have to live the role of an artist. They are artists. By becoming true artists, more competencies become available to use within projects, to talk about, engage with, and, as a teacher, to measure student work. Competencies like intrinsic learner or critical and creative thinking come to mind.

AOE Choice Spectrum from The Art of Education

I would place the aforementioned projects around the “moderate” to “limited” choice continuum of the above chart, specifically around creative curriculum and project-based learning. If we want to increase student agency via more independent projects, one idea is to keep the theme of identity but not limit students’ forms of self-expression. In other words, as might be more appropriate in a Teaching for Artistic Behavior-type of classroom, give the students full choice of different materials and studios in which to express themselves. This might result in sculptures, drawings, collages, weavings, origami, paintings, or ceramic creations that symbolize how each student artist identifies. Student choice is still limited because you are asking them to create something about their identity, yet you are offering more options as to how they choose to express themselves. This allows for more opportunities to explore measurable competencies such as critical and creative thinking or intrinsic learning.

Continuum of Choice Menus with Four Different Levels by John Spencer

Thoughts on Identity in Art

I would like to add one last thought to the idea of identity in Visual Arts and the competency of communication. I think that most artists imbue their artwork with their own identity. That is what makes Visual Arts so interesting, it gives you that insight into who the artist is.

The Friends House by Makana Ross, 2020

The pictures above help illustrate this point. Although this happens to be my daughter’s artwork, you can see her personality coming out not only in the visuals but through her written artist’s statement as well. These artists’ statements are what can really give us a deeper insight into each student’s personality, and where and who they are at this point in time. ”Me eating my gum while I am walking to my friend’s house,” gives us a window into how important both friendship and candy are to her at this moment in her life. This is communication, not just in visuals but in words as well.

Giving students choices when creating artwork, any artwork, followed by an explanation via an artist statement allows them to truly express their identity and how they view themselves as people. Through Visual Arts and the written explanation of their ideas, they are giving insights into what is important to them as an artist and a person at this point in time. With this full choice, they are truly expressing their identity. It can be a very powerful practice to give students a safe space in which to express themselves and how they envision themselves in any way that they see fit. You are not restricting how they can view themselves, you are giving them free choice to express their inner self and identity in any way possible.

With older students, I can discuss these concepts through a broad and diverse introduction to more modern artists who tackle different forms of identity through their work. Rachel Marks (below) is an example of one of those artists and how she communicates her identity through her artwork.

In her own words, Marks states, “French Identity was spawned from my experience of learning French. Understanding very little of the language, I wrote down words that I heard in my daily life. At night I wrote these words over and over in order to practice and learn them.

Pictured: French Identity by Rachel Marks, 2013 

The new sounds around me, and how to implicate myself inside them, became an obsession. French Identity was a way of documenting my journey of taking on a new identity. The text is from the words I wrote down repetitively in order to integrate myself into the language. This series is a representation of my way of learning French and finding myself within a world of new sounds.”

Once a competency has been chosen that we wish to utilize within our artistic studies, we need to research the definitions, descriptors, and indicators to measure them properly. Below is an example of a definition or descriptor developed at The Alexander Dawson School for communication, plus indicators for different grade levels that might apply to the types of projects previously mentioned. When creating a rubric for students, this indicator language can be used but simplified to help them understand what it is we are measuring when evaluating their ability to communicate ideas about identity.


Definitions, Descriptors, and Indicators

Reads, writes, listens, speaks, and uses multi-modal communication tools effectively in varied contexts. Seeks and evaluates a range of points of view. Provides timely and appropriate feedback, encouragement, and motivation to help peers reflect and grow

1-2nd Grade Indicators5-6th Grade Indicators
Creates artist’s statements that express the ideas and story behind the created artwork.Develops a personal voice within the creation of artwork
Creates works that convey a story, an idea, a feeling, or a personal meaning

A simple and clear indicator that clearly describes what is being measured for younger students, in this case in the first and second grade, is I can create an artist statement that uses two sentences to explain my artwork. Can the students in fact write two sentences for their artist statement? Do these sentences explain their artwork?

We have now embedded the idea of communication into visual arts units about identity. It is true that the unit is about expressing who you are, all those ingredients that make up your own unique personality, but it is also about how you communicate those ingredients to your audience. The focus is not just on your identity but on how you communicate that identity to others in order to help them understand your own unique experiences and background. Of course, one could also create the same definitions, descriptors, and indicators within the same project for other competencies such as critical and creative thinking or intrinsic learning.


DaVinci, Leonardo. Mona Lisa. The Louvre, Paris, France. Retrieved from:

Pollock, Jackson. Convergence. 1952. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Retrieved from:

Picasso, Pablo. Weeping Woman. 1937. Tate Modern, London, England. Retrieved from:

Van Gogh, Vincent. The Starry Night. 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA. Retrieved from:

Monet, Claude. Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies. 1899. The Met, New York, USA. Retrieved from:

Warhol, Andy. Marilyn Moroe. 1967. MoMA New York, USA. Retrieved from:

Anderson, Sara D., Stolen, Karissa, and Venzor, Paulina. (2020). Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion 101. Office of Equity at the University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Retrieved from:

Kahlo, Frida. The Broken Column. 1944. Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico. Retrieved from:

Basquiat, Jean-Michel. Self Portrait as a Heel. 1982. Retrieved from:

Balsley, Jessica. Where Are You on the Choice Spectrum?. 2016. AOE Choice Spectrum from The Art of Education. Retrieved from: /

Spencer, John. 4 Ways to Craft Choice Menus in Distance Learning Classes. Continuum of Choice Menus with Four Different Levels. 2020. Retrieved from:

Marks, Rachel. French Identity. 2013. Retrieved from:

Kruger, Barbara. Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989. Retrieved from:

Kusama, Yayoi. Pumpkin 2010. 2010. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved from:

Sherman, Cindy. Untitled Film Still #14. 1978. Retrieved from:

Jude Ross

Jude Ross teaches at The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain (NV). He has lived on four continents and has been educating students in the U.S. and in international schools for over 17 years. He received two Masters degrees, an MFA in Painting and Drawing, and an MS in Curriculum and Instruction.

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