Art is essential but kid art is nothing short of magical. The maintenance fairies came with their favorite (and newly repaired) electric cherrypicker and hung last year's first weaving piece high above the hallway in the sunny atrium. As installations go,(and speaking in an absolutely unbiased, professional tone here) I'm in love. I used the same heavy cotton string we warped the loom with to attach it (loosely, crochet-style) to a medium-sized alder trunk that I harvested from the woods down the hill from my house. There was something about the rough texture and irregular lines of the wood that made it the perfect match to our woven panels. All sorts of fibers make up the five panels. We wove with anything we could get our hands on, including strips of recycled denim, glossy satin ribbons, pieces of calico, fat yarn, skinny yarn, rough brown twine, heavy velvet ribbon (think holiday wreaths) and the occasional feather. At the time, we worried a little about how the youngest artists let long tendrils of surplus yarn dangle as they rushed to add another color to successive rows. I even made an attempt at French braiding the "tails" but the gathered multitudes didn't like that look, either. We let them trail.
As is the way for these kinds of long term projects, inter erst waxed and waned with the children. Weaving offers a couple of things that no other medium does - that Zen-like feeling of putting order to patterns and the feel of the fibers as you work them is important. So, too, is the feeling of community that comes from adding your artistic ideas to something that 500 other artists are working on. Some children became weaving "experts" and concentrated on a panel that they considered their own. Others spent time straightening out perceived imperfections before they wove, or organized several peers to try a certain technique they'd invented. Because of the individual attention, each artist can point out which of the strands he or she is responsible for. I enjoyed conference time when children would bring parents by to weave a strand or two and to point out their favorite contributions. All the weavers could remember exactly who worked beside them when they wove, too. Friends intensify memory.
I mentally adjusted my super teacher pedestal down a few notches, though, when I realized that, instead of remembering the exact location of their stitches, several kids claimed the sunset near the center of the largest of the panels on the right side of the piece. I'd added it one morning to show some fifth grade girls that we could weave ta pastry-style with a pattern in mind rather than limiting ourselves to simple lines. I heard no fewer than three of our younger artists proudly claim the sunset as their own and realized that absolute precision, once again, had been trumped by pride in a group effort.
This year's weaving is well underway but won't be complete by the time our April art show comes. The plan is to take it along with all of our art for display and to offer it as a community activity. I envision lots of cool photographic possibilities when families add a little bit of this or that to the work in progress. I'll be certain to leave lots of colorful yarns, strips of material, and ribbons close to the loom and I think I'll hide the scissors, just to be safe.
If you're one of the lucky souls who can't tell the difference between playing and working, you'll know exactly what this post is talking about. If you're not, stop by for a visit. I'll share some of the short people that make this place such a hoot.
1) Kinderpeople have the coolest hats.It's not just that they're cute and five (or six) and wearing something endearingly kid-like. It's that they are still brave enough to know that a silly hat is a GOOD thing and, if they've made it themselves, a badge of doublecoolness that simply doesn't require any explanation. (Note: if written in "kid" doublecoolness would be replaced by "awesome!!!" Yes. Three exclamation marks ARE required and yes - it's an all- purpose term in serious vogue right now and is to be used for general cool stuff, store-bought school lunches, Spiderman logo anythings, and reviews of any current kid movies.)
2) People notice when you're gone.I am rarely sick, due to the cumulative accumulation of antibodies that living in close proximity to 500 of one's closest friends affords me. This week was a (thankfully) rare exception as I spent last weekend and most of the week home being a poor patient. When I came back, little people and big ones alike made me feel really welcome.
3) My kids know the difference!I had the world's best sub this week - one of those saints of our profession who, by her very presence creates little ripples of beautifully behaved children in her wake. Kids stand a little taller for her, form into gently polite lines, and simply beam in the glow of her steady love. She retired last year and subs for us "just to keep busy." This sweet tornado swept into my room, looked at my plans and chose "Plan B. - in lieu of the nutty intensity of TAB Central, you're welcome to let the students draw a topic of their choice or to use your favorite art lesson." When I heaped praise on their heads (because of the flood of post-it notes she left insisting I do so) they smiled and said, "Yes, we were good, but we're glad you're back. We did coloring sheets yesterday and marched and sang cool songs but today we want to do ART!"
4) If there's anything sillier than fifth graders early in the morning, I'd like to know about it.We meet for art club on Thursday mornings at 0'dark-thirty. The number of kids varies between just a few to a table full and they're responsible for getting themselves there on their own. A few have a sweet parent who drops them off on their way to work but several of them walk. They come for the long span of unfettered art time, for the conversation with kids from other classes, and for the giggles. Appropriate giggle topics are legion: silly parent tricks, video games I'm good at, alien clay trophies (think mighty hunter den,) Hannah Montana (soooo last year,) NFL teams that want me, my new fashion statement (catch the tie outside the t-shirt outside the white dress shirt) do you like my (insert description of artwork here)?, NBA teams that want me, my new fashion statement (neat color statement, huh?) head banging puppets (this one bears a classmate's name) my gigglegiggle clay gigglegiggle!
5) The wisdom of the artists in this studio humbles me.Today's best example came in response to my explanation to a first grade class about why subs do other things when the art teacher is absent. I'd just finished the part about the noble art teacher coming in early to get things ready for class every day when a fully indignant (see his arms folded defiantly across his chest?) first grader pipes up, "But Ms. J. We do our OWN set up and clean up. Didn't you tell her?" I love it. He owns the independent artist thing! (And I won't bother him with any drudgy old details about what art teachers do to set the stage for that independence. Shhhhh.)
6) Visitors.We have a university student who's absorbing the art of teaching from the fifth grade team. Eva is energetic, curious, and loves playing with art and kids. She comes by to talk teaching, lichens, nudibranchs (google them - you'll love the images) and school. It's refreshing to see my profession through her eyes and I love the way she interacts with the kids.
To be continued...
So...... what are the underpinnings of this method of teaching art? We call it "Teaching for Artistic Behavior." Identifying just what those behaviors are is an important part of setting up the studios for our work. We spend lots of time, especially when a new studio is set up, talking about what artists do there and how to use, clean, and store the tools that are specific to that media. With nearly 500 students using the studios over the course of our eight day rotation, the logistics of keeping things in order is important shared work.
As important as organization is, though, other artistic traits are just as essential for successful learning. The physical mindfulness is the bedrock upon which we base the rest of our exploration. "Doing" art the way that studio artists do is very physical but includes many cognitive processes, too. What are the behaviors that we cultivate in our art journey? How will we know them when we see them? This post is intended to be the first in a series that will give you a picture of the specific trait that make our studio experience so rich. Knowing the author as well as I do, it's likely that we'll do a little birdwalking along the way, but that's how learning works.
Persistence is important to artists because of the way we learn. Children are instinctive artists and those of us who are fortunate enough to spend our days with them appreciate the attitudes they bring to their art. Following a project through to its natural conclusion might result in a product of some sort - like Jose's giant black whale that's crafted from several scissor-cut pieces of black construction paper.
Persistence also shows up in other kinds of mindful practice that young artists choose. I was a little worried about the kindergärtner who slowly and purposefully filled an entire 11x14 sheet of white paper with black watercolor strokes. When I asked her about her painting she said, "I like the shine before it dries." When I nodded to show I understood, she added, "And I'm practicing my outlines." A volunteer confided that she takes all the black pots out of the watercolor sets in her kindergarten Sunday school class. I pondered doing the same thing for a short time and decided that painters needed to see what a large puddle of black looked like. It's along this pathway that shades of gray are discovered, too, both in the rinse water as it darkens and on paper when the pigment is diluted to just a whisper of color. Many painters spend whole sessions mixing, painting, and re-mixing colors. One question that is guaranteed to *never* receive an adult answer is, "What do I mix to get ____?" (Insert color here.) Even if one of the three primaries is the color in the blank, I always try to ask, "What will you need to find out?" Yes - color wheels are available, as is a gorgeous hard-board copy of Mouse Paint, so there are a few other ways to get the information, but oftentimes the advice from a peer - cross checked with appropriate puddles of paint - is more valuable than the words of an adult.
Persistence shows up in the folder of a child who's in the middle of a grand project of collecting as many magazine photos of baby heads. "I'm going to make a collage, Ms. J. All these babies will be smiling, I think. I don't know why they don't take pictures of babies when they cry, which is most of the time." Good question. Unhappy babies don't sell disposable diapers?
Persistence shows up in the patient practice of a favorite car shape, repeated renditions of faerie queens in long, flowing dresses, and the fifth pony bead bracelet in a series. ("Today is the day for green, Ms. J. It's my mom's favorite color.")