A Regional Artistic Exploration with Youth by Kellen Cooks

A handmade map of an imaginary place

A handmade map of an imaginary place, drawn by Kellen Cooks from October 2020 to July 2021.

By Kellen Cooks

The Cornell Council for the Arts selected Kellen Cooks’ Dreaming-on-Hudson for the 2022 Cornell Biennial: Futurities, Uncertain.

The Dreaming-on-Hudson project aims to develop and test creative approaches to mapmaking alongside Hudson Valley high school students to define the endless ways that they understand the past and present of their communities, and dream about the future of them.

Past-focused activities may involve understanding how major topics in American history curriculum, such as the Revolutionary War, civil rights movements, and Manifest Destiny, have roots and traces in the Hudson Valley. Here, maps can be used to help students understand how their own communities and the region have been shaped by these events in American history that are so often approached from a more distant, nationwide point of view.

Present-focused activities are likely to span the mapping of hubs and hangouts that show places that are valuable in their local communities, to the mapping of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror stories about their communities and their experiences in the Hudson Valley.

Future-focused activities may include mapping how students envision the Hudson Valley in one year, ten, or even in a thousand. I hope to engage students in thinking about how they'd like to see their community and region evolve into the future.

The project will mix these different types of activities together and around so that students see how the past, present, and future interact in their understandings and dreams of the Hudson Valley. I plan to brainstorm with local teachers and researchers in the Just Places Lab about the curriculum for the Dreaming-on-Hudson project, and by the 2022-2023 school year, my plan is to work alongside students and teachers, using digital mapping, along with pen and paper, to carry out these activity ideas in the classroom. 

This project is rooted in the Hudson Valley, for one, because it is where I grew up and graduated from high school (Ossining High School Class of 2019!), but also because it is a region with a deep history of change and dreaming about the environment. Ghost stories and fantasies about the environment from the 1800s grew to define the image of the Hudson Valley far into the future. These past images remain, even as the region has evolved so much over time. The Hudson Valley I've grown up in is uniquely socioeconomically, culturally, and ecologically diverse. As we march deeper into the 21st century marked by a changing economy and a global pandemic, the future is gray and flexible. Children dream, activists organize, planners plan, developers develop, politicians promise, yet everyone is grasping at strings for what comes next.

Dreaming-on-Hudson is especially rooted in the dreams and perspectives of children and young adults as they look into this gray future. It's rooted in my memories of feeling frustrated about how detached social studies felt in some classrooms and how much history I learned from purely living and talking with people in the Hudson Valley. It also stems from how mind-blowing one social studies class I took in high school was in engaging us students with sociology concepts and the realities of growing up in the area. (Thank you, Ms. McRae and Mr. North!) The goal of Dreaming-on-Hudson is to make American social studies hit closer to home for students in the Hudson Valley, to acknowledge the unique view that young people have about their communities, and to empower local high-schoolers to dream about their communities and tell stories about how they identify with their home.

Kellen previously crafted a set of educational activities related to Place and Cuisine for the Building Imaginaries / Just Places project


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