The Power of Collaboration in Art

In the art world, collaboration isn’t exactly necessary. However, the landscape of what it means to be an artist in today’s climate doesn’t allow for artists to be hermits.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned quite a bit about the art world and what it means to be an artist although I rarely dabble in the visual arts. Nonetheless, as a writer it applies to me just as much as my partners who depict their imaginations with paint on canvas.

Do we need to collaborate?
When we first started EXPO Collective and I began engaging with artists, I realized that the need for collaboration wasn’t necessarily apparent. Artists don’t need validation to create, nor input from any other source. What they do need is their space, alone time and dedication to their craft.

If you’re not aware, there is an abundance of artists, especially in Chicago, where we’re based. From my observations, plenty of artists had the same goal and leaned on the same strategy to create opportunity for themselves– put together an art exhibition and sell artwork.

The silos were vast and comfortable. The exhibitions were commonplace and many of the same people attended such events. Compared to the musical community, there really wasn’t much difference. The flock seemed to travel together, practically everywhere.

I’m not saying building community doesn’t help– it totally does. But wouldn’t the opportunity to work together make an even bigger impact? Wouldn’t finding ways to intertwine different disciplines make for a deeper, more attractive way of creating art?

I’m also not telling artists to stop working alone. This is where the magic happens. Development of artists happens from learning, taking those learnings back to the studio and making them your own. This is no different from any other field where brainstorming and creativity exist. Actually, all industries should implement this, but I digress.

What I learned is that artists have to develop a confidence and respect for their work. In my honest opinion– different from what artists are normally bred to believe– artists aren’t necessarily in competition with one another. Each artist has their strengths and weaknesses. The best (as in anything) know how to perfect their strengths and look for help in developing those weaknesses. This is where the power of collaboration comes in.

The Crayon Exercise
In a recent workshop that we hosted for The Exchange Program, which we developed in order to help others develop in their artistic field, I devised The Crayon Exercise. It comes in as part of our curriculum in which we discuss and display various results of collaboration– from the Mujeres Mutantes Collective painting a mural collectively on a wall in Little Village to a display of luchadores masks made by 50 different artists to form a sort of collective unity on a wall.

The Crayon Exercise allows for everyone in a group to show their leadership and collaboration skills. During the exercise, I distinctly give each person in the group one crayon. This represents them, the power they hold and their ability to be part of the whole. When explained, the concept seems challenging. You can only control your crayon. No one else is allowed to touch your crayon. You are not allowed to switch, choose or touch another crayon. The ask of the group is then to create a picture that a young person would understand just by looking at it.

This sounds challenging at first, especially because you cannot control the hand you’re dealt. Neither can anyone else in the group. This puts an abundance of limitations on each person. They cannot draw on their own, even if they have a brilliant idea at hand. In order to make a picture, communication and patience is needed. It makes each person consider what they’re crayon can do as well as what it can’t. Trust me, though, I’ve had some creative pictures emerge from this exercise.

Not only did it make the groups work together, it allowed for natural leaders to take a step back and listen– a trait that seems to be disappearing quickly. As young people, being a leader many times means being bossy, or so it’s interpreted. As artists, well, they had to curb their appetite to dismiss everyone else’s input.

It must be noted, as it has been repeatedly, that the younger generations are learning the importance of collaboration. When working with young people interested in art through a non-profit called Enlace in the Little Village community, there was one group who knew exactly what their plan of action was before they started working. They made monsters.

Each person with their crayon took their sheet of paper and drew their own monster, in one color. After that, the students looked at each other’s monsters examining what one feature (eyes, nose, horns, fangs) they liked best from each. Then they passed around one blank sheet of paper as they recreated their chosen feature on their collaborative monster. It was great.

12640238_10105908627215510_7389122566981661043_oAnother group, later on, just started drawing. A young woman from the group explained that one person started drawing something and if another was inspired to add on with their crayon, they did. The team produced three different drawings, all self-explanatory and creative.

Let me also say that the sheets of paper they were working on were white. So, what happens when you get the white crayon? Was it mean for me to do that? I suppose. But I wanted to see how the group would react.

The young lady with the white crayon said that when she realized she couldn’t necessarily add color, she felt that she could add ideas. She became the visionary for the group. One of her partners added that he made sure she was included on all decisions and made her opinion count. Her strength didn’t come in the form of something visible, but instead she learned to take a step back, listen and incorporate everything she was hearing into valuable feedback for the group’s collaborative drawing.

Collaboration improves artists’ growth
Just as in life, there is a balance. As individuals, we have to learn when and how to step aside and listen, when to look for others for help and guidance, and how to take it all into consideration as leaders of our own creativity. Collaboration opens the mind, opens the imagination and allows for us to grow within our craft.

EXPO Collective has taken a giant step in collaboration. Not only did we begin by brainstorming and collaborating among our own unique styles and artistic preferences, but we also used collaboration to build what we’ve been growing for four years now.

We have had the opportunity to collaborate with various partners like Enlace, The American Academy of Art, The Miracle Center, Blue|1647, various community groups, over 80 artists and we’re still going. Collaborating is part of what we do and is part of the makeup of the EXPO Collective fabric. It allows for ideas to grow and become better. It allows for us to show our strengths and expertise when working with others and we enjoy instilling it in our artists and in the students with whom we work.

Interested in collaborating with us? Send an email to and we’ll be sure to get back to you.

Christina E. Rodríguez is co-founder and CEO of EXPO Collective. 

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