One Afternoon at art matters
One Afternoon at Art Matters Studio
As usual, it is a little girl- the youngest of two sisters- who arrives first at my back door. Soon her older sister follows. Both of them have been attending Art Matters for nearly four years. When the girls arrive for a weekly art class, their mother and little brother come in also. The little guy needs a cracker and sometimes needs to use the bathroom as well, but the art teacher likes to think that the family comes inside just to visit her a bit. The little brother was an infant when they first began to come to the art studio and now he comes in and says “Cracker” in a deep voice that makes everyone laugh.
The art teacher is very fond of all of them. I am that lucky art teacher. I guess that happens as one becomes older, I think to myself… I love the young students, but it is often easy to love their mothers too. My own daughters are grown and my oldest is also a mother now. I have always been fond of children and now it seems I have a fondness for young women, like my daughters, as well. It is particularly heart warming when they are good mothers, who obviously have their hands full, as this young mother does. She maintains a good sense of humor and is so good with the three of them- quite a balancing act. I think she enjoys the fact that I enjoy seeing her children. She often shares with me little anecdotes about them and their accomplishments too. This makes me feel very happy.
“I brought eggs for you”, I tell the older sibling. “I blew the guts out of them, but one broke, so I only have one.”
“Good.” she replies. “I said I wanted three eggs and now I will have three.”
“I want to show you something.” I say to the younger sister. “I’ve been thinking about your project and look what I found about your country, Peru.” I show a website I have found that is entitled, Folk Art of Peru. “Look”, I say, “in one part of Peru they are known for making retablos. I have taught about this at Art Matters many times. Students have made retablos in my summer art camps in the past. Look at these pictures. Retablos are like display boxes and traditionally they are found in churches. Sometimes they have little doors that open and they may display a small statue of a saint inside or a religious scene. But they are not always religious. Today folks sometimes make retables that display things about their homeland and their culture. Look at this one that has a little market scene with fruit baskets. Here is one with little people made of clay and they look like they are holding clay pots they have made. This one I think you will like. It is full of little animal masks. I know you like animals! You could find out about the animals of Peru and make as many of them as you want out of clay.”
“I don’t have a box like that”, she replies.
“We make boxes at Art Matters out of pieces of wood all the time,” I tell her. “I will help you make a box or I will find a wooden box for you and you can paint it with beautiful bright colors like they do in Peru. But you can begin making the animals out of clay today.”
“OK!” she says. She seems happy about this and so am I. She did not seem happy or enthusiastic about the Peruvian art project she had begun earlier. Even though it was her idea, it became tedious and it wasn’t very fun. I could tell she was not interested in finishing it. She verified my assumptions and began to tell me that she did not like what she had been dong. She began to talk about animals- cats and dogs-which are some of her favorite things to talk about and to put into her art work. She mentions her grandmother in a story about a cat and I listen patiently remembering that over the years, she has often told me about her grandmother.
The girls become busy with their respective projects as I help them locate and get out materials that they need. Soon two more sisters arrive, who have also been attending Art Matters for almost four years. I show the youngest of these siblings her silk hoop that she painted with fabric dyes the last time she attended art class. It’s hanging in the window.
“It makes a good sun catcher,” I tell her. “It’s going to look great in the SKYPAC exhibit. There are some little chunks of salt still stuck to it though, if you want to try to brush those off.”
I take it down from its hanger in the window and the young student examines her silk hoop now that it has dried. The salt helped to make a design in the fabric dye and she seems pleased with the way it has turned out. Both of these sisters had made clay creations during their previous art lesson and now they both want gold paint for them. I give them choices: Gold watercolor or gold acrylic. The older of the sisters tries the gold liquid watercolor, but it is not adhering well.
“Gold acrylic then,” I say, and find it on the shelf. “You can just wipe off that watercolor and try again.”
She does and now four young girls are busy working at the same table. I ask about two other sisters who usually attend, but have not shown up today. (Yes, this is the sister hour at Art Matters, when three pairs of sisters attend at the same time.) There is some speculation that the missing girls may have had a soccer game, but we dismiss that, as it is raining outside. We don’t really know why the third pair of sisters did not attend today. I miss them. One of them had just constructed her own canvas and I was looking forward to seeing what she was going to do with it.
(While 6 is more students than I usually have during any hour of any day at Art Matters, I have a wonderful volunteer, Cassidy, who usually helps me with all the sisters. She is an artist and student at WKU and she is wonderful with young people. The girls adore her, but she will not be here today, as it is spring break and she has gone home to visit her family in Tennessee.
(I am so fortunate that I have yet another fantastic volunteer named Jeana, but I will write a different blog about her…or she may write it herself.)
Even if all six girls had attended today, it would have been fine. I have known all six girls for years and they are no trouble. They are just very chatty, which is amusing to me. They get great work done in spite of all the conversations that tend to take place.
The rain outside is gentle and has almost stopped. One of the younger girls asks why I have left the doors to the studio open today. I tell her that there are only a few times a year that you can leave the doors open. Today the temperature is perfect and there are no bugs. Some of the girls agree with me- that they like the rain. It does seem to be the kind of rain that makes it feel snug to be inside. Doing art on a rainy day seems perfect somehow. One of the older girls asks if she can take off her shoes and walk out on the back patio. I let her do this. She comes back inside soon and I give her a towel for her feet. She is dressed like a bohemian today. She tells me it was ‘Beach Day” at school. I have noticed that she has begun to incorporate scarves into her outfits, which make her look like the artist that she is. She is very talented and I think about how much fun it has been watching her as she grows up in this art studio.
Eggs are being painted in preparation for Ukranian designs to be applied by one artist, while miniature animal heads are being created by another, (complete with tiny wires that serve as whiskers on some.), The little artist is using my laptop to look at a website about animals of Peru. Another young artist is drawing a flag with something drawn inside, which turns out to be a pie.
“It’s American Pie!” She grins. Then she begins a comic strip with a character that looks remarkably like herself. This is typical for her to do. Today it is raining in her comic strip. Finished with her golden clay piece, that has such a nice shape, one of the artists has taken a book about drawing cats off the shelf and has come to another room to sit at a different table as she begins to draw a cat in a wild and rainy setting. I have given her watercolor paper and the drawing is quite good. I show her where a variety of watercolor sets are in a basket. She chooses some and begins to paint. She spills a little water on her drawing and looks dismayed. I tell her some artists like to get the entire paper wet before they apply watercolor paint. She is surprised. I tell her it all depends on what kind of effect you hope for. With wet paper the colors will run together. You will lose some control and have to depend on happy accidents. If you want more detail, you won’t want to get the paper wet. She opts for dry paper.
The girls are quietly working and I take this moment to remind them that we have talked about Vincent Van Gogh the whole month of March. I indicate some student works hanging on the wall and say, “A lot of students here did do paintings inspired by Van Gogh and it has been my experience that he helps them turn out beautiful paintings.”
“Is he alive?” asks one of the younger girls.
“No. He died young, a long time ago, “ I say.
“Then how can he help them? She asks.
“Well, the students use their artist eyes to look at Van Gogh’s paintings and they see how he put the paint on so thick and how he mixes such beautiful colors and puts texture into his paintings. Then they try doing the same and the paintings turn out great. Plus Vincent was such a spiritual man… maybe I feel his spirit in the room when we talk about him. Would you like to watch a 5 minute video about Vincent? Have you heard of Dr. Who?
I have their attention now. Some of them say they have heard of Dr. Who, but they don’t know a lot about the series.
“Well, this is an episode of Dr. Who and that show involves time travel, you know. In this little piece of that episode Dr. Who has traveled with Vincent through time and brought him to present day Paris. They are about to enter the Musee D’Orsay. Remember Vincent died thinking that no one ever liked his art. Would you like to see this video and find out what happens? “
They would. The laptop is already there and it takes no time to find the website I have bookmarked. It is a very beautiful and emotional little clip with an actor doing a good job of portraying Vincent and learning for the first time how he is regarded today as a most beloved artist.
I ask the girls if they liked it. All four respond very enthusiastically.
Just as we are putting animal heads into our little Sculpey clay oven to bake them, the first students’ daddy arrives to pick up his girls. The older of his girls sets her eggs, which she has been hovering over for weeks like a mother hen, very carefully into their plastic egg container and washes her paint brushes. I am fond of everyone in this family and greet her dad at the front door and he escorts them to his car.
The other two sisters stay another hour, which is their routine. Both are busy painting now in two separate rooms. Soon a young boy arrives and sits down in the front room at the same table as the older sister. He has brought his own Manga books with him, so I can see he has made a plan for today and will not be working on his Dominican Republic naïve wood painting, which I had set out for him. This is fine with me as it is looking great and he has plenty of time to finish it before our Traditional Arts Around the World exhibit, which will take place in June. I invite him to choose the kind of paper he wants and I bring him a package of felt tipped markers in a variety of colors. He comments on how much he likes these markers.
“They have two tips, a thin one on one end and a broad tip on the other side” he says. He gets busy working on his drawing.
Soon another boy just about the same age arrives and takes his place at the same table. He sees his drawing of the Chrysler building that I have setting out for him on a drawing board. He asks where the gold paint is. Everyone seems to be using gold paint today. This young man has already finished his homage to the Lakota people, which he plans to exhibit in June and has since begun this drawing of a skyscraper. A couple of weeks earlier I showed him and some other students a short video about the Chrysler building. The story of this building is very interesting and it’s a very good video that is part of the Picturing America curriculum that was created by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I love Picturing America and I use it a lot. I knew if I showed that clip one of the students would want to draw this beautiful building and he did a good job with it. I showed him that with architecture, it is important to use tools to make straight lines and he has done this. He drew it big, complete with gargoyles and now he is painting it with metallic colors. We saw in the video the inside of the building too, which is very art deco and full of inlaid gold pieces.
Soon my last and my youngest student for the day arrives. I show him a drawing he had made with glue on black paper the previous week. The glue has dried now. He examines it. I give him chalky pastels and I give him a wet paper towel and a dry paper towel and show him how to wipe his fingers because I know these chalky things are going to get all over his hands. They do, but he uses the wet towel and I show him it is also important to use the dry one, so he doesn’t get his art wet. I don’t help him with anything else. He colors his mountains and sky and clouds.
“The bright colors and white clouds on black paper make it look very dramatic, like a volcano,” I tell him.
Everyone is busy. Somehow a discussion about Sponge Bob begins. The older female artist painting a cat says that she believes that Sponge Bob makes people’s brains smaller if they watch it. She turns to me and says there is scientific proof that humans’ brains are getting smaller than they were centuries ago.
The male artist working on his Manga drawing across from her says, “How can you say that! You are not my friend any longer. Sponge Bob is my life!”
Many of us begin to chuckle as he continues with his monologue. “I don’t know what would have become of me if not for Sponge Bob! I would still be obsessed with Thomas the Train Engine and where would that have gotten me?”
After some good hearted bantering back and forth, which ends with the young man getting up to throw himself off a cliff, the other young boy who has been so engrossed in his Chrysler building painting looks up and says, “What? You like Sponge Bob?” This make us all laugh.
The young architect decides, with no words spoken, to take a break from his skyscraper. He asks if he can use the Internet to find something that is a Greek myth. “It is part man and part goat, I think, ” he says.
The young female artist says, “”A satyr? A faun? Which do you want?”
“What is the difference?” he asks.
“The satyr is Greek and the faun is Roman,” she replies.
We all watch the computer screen as he finds what he is looking for on Google images and he begins a new drawing. This leads to a discussion about Percy Jackson and Greek mythology at the table.
The little sister who has just finished an abstract painting in the other room and is allowing it to dry, joins everyone in the bigger room and shows that she has done enough art for one day, as she gets out her own book , makes herself comfortable in a big chair and begins reading.
My youngest little artist has finished his pastel and glue art and on his own, found paper and begun an ancient Egyptian drawing of King Tut’s mask. He asks me for crayons and I comply with his wishes. He has previously completed a King Tut masterpiece- an Ancient Egypt piece for his exhibit in June and he even has created a little effigy pot out of Sculpey clay, which also looks like something right out of King Tut’s tomb. But now he wants to continue the Ancient Egypt theme, because he is five years old and he loves repeating things with which he is becoming familiar. Every few minutes he leaves his little desk I set up just for him, (so that he can draw with his feet touching the floor,) and he brings his drawing over to me and explains each new addition.
“This is King Tut’s mamma. This is King Tut’s leg.” He tells me about a DVD he has seen all about King Tut and Ancient Egypt.
Meanwhile the other students remain busy with their own projects.
“What kind of music do you like?” I ask them all.
One of the boys says, “What do you mean? Rock or Pop?”
“Yeah, just any music that you like- or a particular artist”, I reply.
“Well,” he says, “I like the music from Lord of the Rings.”
All three of the artists working at the table nod their heads in agreement and so I borrow the laptop that one of them is looking at as he draws and I create a Pandora Station that is Lord of the Rings. Music begins to play and I put it back on the web page my student is looking at and set it down in front of him again.
As I sit down and look at the great kids in the room, and think about the entire afternoon, I decide that this seems like some kind of a utopian universe at this moment and time in this little art studio… And I am some kind of lucky art teacher to be here and to know these great kids and their families. I decide that with spring break starting tomorrow, I will write a blog about this day for the Art Matters website. I hope I can capture how it felt with the rain, how funny the conversations were, how much we learn at Art Matters, how children can be decision makers, make their own plans and do such great work, while they are also having fun. I hope I can write a blog that will help explain to people, when they ask me what I teach- what curriculum that I use at Art Matters -that differentiated learning is taking place. Very gifted children are given the creativity to take them where they want to go. I am mostly listening and guiding them with suggestions and providing the right materials for the job. I do bring in things I think are dynamic in hopes that they will be inspired. It is not hard to individualize as long as the group sizes are small. I learned to perfect this a long time ago when I was very young and taught preschool. It was more difficult to do it in public school with class sizes of 25, but I did my best. I believe in encouraging children to make a plan for themselves and their art works and I gently encourage them to its fruition. I think that process can result in a feeling of personal control and self -satisfaction and esteem for each child.
I was fortunate to have Betty Jones as my professor at Pacific Oaks College, (which is well known in the field of Early Childhood Education.) Elizabeth Jones wrote many books, but one that I love most is called Emergent Curriculum. You may not have heard of it, but there was a question about it on the PRAXIS exam, when I took it, and I was so happy to see it there, as I felt it gave me validation as a teacher for adhering to it like a Bible throughout all my teaching experiences since I was very young. And now that’s been a long time... but in spite of the fact that I might seem more like a grandmother to these children that I grow so fond of, I know that I have always stayed in touch with my own childhood as well. I listen to them and I learn what they like and where their interests lie. And that is always a good place to start if we hope that learning will take place. I watch for teachable moments. I believe the process of learning must be personally meaningful for each child and there is no “one size fits all.” Oh, and the rapport between the teacher and the student. This counts for a lot. I think there has to be some mutual respect and caring for learning to take place.
Sure every day is not perfect, as this one was. When there are that many different projects going on and materials are pulled out, there can be mess. It can look very chaotic. But as long as I keep the group sizes small, it tends to be very good. Sometimes in order to be flexible and say yes to the changing scheduling needs of parents, I may have one or two too many students. In that event, my husband, the “Early Childhood Expert” comes in and is an excellent volunteer. He does not have to be an art expert, as I can go around to each child and talk about little things that might improve craftsmanship, create contrast or a better composition. or suggest some new material, seek out a teachable moment for art education. (I do believe that there is a world to learn about art and that it cannot all happen through self-discovery. But it is a balancing act, so I try my best not to impede creativity.)
I have been an artist all my life, so when I see a kid who does not want to finish something s/he began, while I do encourage completion, (talk about how a work can be saved from the dustbin,) I know we have a right to simply change our minds. I know quite well that there are things I never finish too. I try to balance that with a good work ethic though and while it is the process that is all important, I like to work toward a goal, like a an art exhibit. I think it’s a real-life, good motivator.
I have a passion for art history. It’s what I do for fun. I am a life long learner. I never stop reading about art. So how do I keep coming up with new projects for kids to do? New techniques? New materials? New cultures and countries for us to discover? New artists to talk about? Well, I have not exhausted my supply yet. I seek to get better at teaching art. It’s a broad subject and I have not gotten bored yet.
I doubt anyone is going to read a 14-page blog, but I enjoyed writing it. I may never have time to blog again, but it was spring break and there was a day I wanted to capture. I began writing this in Bowling Green, but finished under a full moon over Tampa. Hope yours is a good break! I hope to see you soon.
Happy Spring! Happy New Beginnings!