As glorious and celebratory as it is, staging an elementary art show is TOUGH! Several months have passed since the student artists held their annual exhibition of their favorite pieces. The buildup to a show is intense/glorious/crazymaking/terrifying/joyful but that's always the way it feels at the end of the school year. Short artists did an amazing job on their pieces but had their usual wrenching time choosing their favorite. ("But WHY can't I put all of my cars in, Ms. J. They're ALL my best piece!") With little ones, it's frequently a case of Last In First Chosen. They love the most recent addition to their portfolios best because it's their newest work. For most children, the process of doing artwork is much more satisfying than the final project, so the most recent piece is naturally their favorite.
The incredible impact of over 500 pieces of children's art on display is hard to describe. We had some fabulous volunteers who helped put the display together as well as gathering everything at the end of the night, and it was all worth it. Our children walk the four blocks between our school and the City Hall where the exhibit is staged. The sound we heard when the first group - kindergarten and first grades - walked into the large room was a loud, collective "Woooooah!" Mission accomplished.
We learn so much from collections of children's art. Notice how they experiment with color. Watch for partnerships - when children share ideas or techniques with each other. With student-centered art, every piece represents exploration that matters to the artist. I'm in awe of their creativity and will share a selection of artists' statements, as well.
Questions for this year: Size? Venue? Timing? Invite other schools? Include art from other members of the learning community? Outreach and publicity? Chocolate?
For more pictures of our celebration of short people art, visit the Showtime! gallery.
Here is coverage of our art show in our local paper, the Shelton-Mason County Journal.
At Evergreen Elementary we define fabric arts rather loosely. Anything that requires cloth can be found there, as can needles and pins and sharp scissors that won't balk when they cut through fabric. Fabric scraps find their way into the center, but so do bigger rectangles of felt that can be used to craft stuffed critters. Here, there is faux fur that can double as carpets in 3D sculptural rooms or monster hide. Even more scraps live in a large bin beneath the table, full of hundreds of small snippets from generous donors' sewing boxes. Strings? Got 'em. We have a big selection of different weights of yarn, cotton string suitable for beaded necklaces and thicker cotton string that works well for warping looms. We have cones of thread for sewing alongside brighter, shiny embroidery thread. Ribbons are displayed on a length of hanging dowel (thanks, spider plant!) as well as in clear, plastic bins.
A three-drawer cabinet holds beading and button supplies. One can get a scoop of either and string enough together to make a necklace or an augmentation for an ojo de dios. The beading string lives here, as well as the occasional shiny paper or faceted plastic ornament that doesn't seem to fit anywhere else.
The rainbow cabinet holds many essentials for fabric arts as well as other centers. Its drawers are a little tired and slip down when they're pulled out too fast, but we're all well practiced at putting things back together. Fabric arts (arte de fibra) is a good training station for understanding the difference between kid scissors and mom scissors and complexities like the three different weights of glue that are available for artists. In these drawers, too, are stored pre-glued craft sticks for winding ojos de dios. I spend a few minutes during my early morning prep gluing together four or five at a time, since about 20 are required each day that the studios are open.
Wire shelving (after four years, I have three full sets in my room) holds fabric, ribbons, and embroidery hoops. It's important to have anything that is available within sight of artists, since some ideas are born when looking at materials instead of being planned from zero. Wall space is scarce, but we have room for some Velcro-backed examples that can offer ideas. Examples that are stored highest tend to be for taller artists, but there are always exceptions. Cabinets above contain cardboard looms, but craft stick looms are tucked into a labeled drawer in the rainbow cabinet.
A large, flat, plastic tub with a lid that snaps closed houses most of the yarn collection. I used a woodburner to melt holes across the sides and feed the center piece of yarn through it for easy access. I've found that it helps to take the paper off the skein and wrap a tight (it'll loosen as the yarn is used) belt of wide plastic tape to contain the outside leading yarn. Skeins of yarn are designed to feed beautifully from inside, but the outside thread requires more movement than the box allows. In a never ending attempt to get children to pull the yarn out a bit before cutting (so it doesn't fall back inside the box... grrr) I have a cartoon snake at the edge of the counter. She's a little too much like a nagging mother, I fear, since nobody but me hears her voice. Demos always involve a dramatic pull to the edge of the counter before cutting so the yarn can remain tangle free. One other fun innovation was our discovery that odd snippets and leftovers of yarn, when collected, made great stuffing for our stuffed critters and dolls. It's soft, free, and - did I mention... free? It's also a good reminder to keep stitches close enough so colored pieces don't escape from a project.
So that's the what. The "how" of our fabric arts center is a little more complex. Like many women who were born in the 50's, I was taught to sew by my mother. While my grandmothers had more formal instruction in sewing, crochet, knitting, and embroidery, much of my familiarity with sewing came as I watched Mom sew dresses (and curtains and table cloths and Halloween costumes) for us. We also did lots of projects in my years of scouting that inform my approach to teaching children to sew. Just like all other facets of art, there's a "scribble stage" for fabric arts. Some children benefit from lacing and wooden bead sets when they're in pre-school and some have enlightened teachers/parents who provide heavy cardboard plates and laces or yarn to sew with. My own school community has large numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, where weaving and sewing skills are highly valued. Many of my students enter school with familiarity with back-strap looms and the processes involved in weaving cotton friendship bracelets.
As I plan for my students' choices in fabric arts, what skills do they need? They need to be able to manipulate sharp scissors safely. Try to cut a length of cord with dull student scissors once and you'll agree. They need to have a sense of how much of the materials they need. (How long do I make a necklace so that it'll fit over my head after it's knotted? That long? Really?) More importantly, they need lots of practice tying knots. Just like the artists in our paint center gather and care for their own paints, water, aprons, paper, and brushes, students in fabric arts are expected to do their own preparation for sewing, weaving, and beading. Their art teacher will not be there at home when they want to sew a seam or attach a button so knotting skills are important. To that end, I do two mini-lessons (YouTube clip) of about five minutes each each year. Using 18" lengths of cotton rope, we learn a couple of basic knots - half hitch, square, granny, and a loop. If a child has always had someone else tie his or her shoes or only worn Velcro-clasp shoes, our lesson might be the first exposure to tying a knot. We have lots of fun with it, but it's immediately apparent who has never tied a younger sibling to a pole. Knots are extremely important, and absolutely required for second grade introduction of ojos de dios and looms. We practice, we laugh, and some of us forget, but it's not a problem. When the knot tying is hard to recall to memory, we put down our string or yarn, get the length of cotton rope, and do a quick refresher.
We use lots of sequencing when we learn new skills. Before doing a six-pointed ojo, for instance, one must master the four pointed model. To do a satin stitch in embroidery, one must have mastered a running stitch, then a stem or chain first. When we do paper weaving, we do straight rows before attempting wavy op-art versions and simple Danish hearts before doing the trickier patterns. It's a matter of practice and within the process of adding new skills, we find a lot of pleasure and self confidence.
Most forms of artistic expression offer one level or another of satisfaction as one works through the creative process. Weaving and sewing, in particular, offer something special. I have students who are self-critical and perfectionistic about their work but thrive when they work on weaving. There is a Zen-like quality in their concentration on pattern and balance as they work with fibers. Part of the peacefulness, I believe, comes from the behavior of fibers. A watercolored line is infinitely variable, subject to the capricious forces of gravity or density of pigment or force of brush. In contrast, yarn behaves itself. It doesn't stretch or wander (though one does need to watch for tangling if too much is cut and not corralled correctly.) Unlike the contrast in a watercolor, likely to bleed and wander, the colors of woven fibers will stay put and remain their original colors.
There's a regular serenity to be found in weaving. Patterns are easily visible, to the point where my kindergartners crow "A B A B!" when I demonstrate how paper weaving works. In hounds-tooth, older students note, "AA BB AA BB" and I can look like a wise teacher when I remind them of the connections between math and art. A colleague on one of my professional Internet lists wrote recently about the benefit of weaving for healing - particularly from brain injuries - and that makes sense to me. Manipulating patterns is satisfying on deep levels, just like tracing a pathway in a labyrinth or singing a childhood lullaby for the hundredth time. There is research that suggests that the work with patterns may help to restore connections within injured brains. I look for activities that encourage children to slow down, concentrate, and enjoy the process of art-making. So much of their world is filled with races, fleeting sound bites, and speed. Weaving is a good tonic.
Children understand how scribble stages work. When we talk about weaving we discuss how "little kids" pull their weaving so tightly that the sides draw towards the center. We brainstorm words to describe the shape of the arch that we use on our big loom - "Rainbow! Bear back! VW Bug!" and notice - as a group - how lovely and loose the sides are when we weave without tension. We react with all appropriate horror when we talk about scissors too close to the warp threads and cement our tradition of "leaving tails" for safety (yes, I did learn this lesson from experience.)
It's also interesting to note who chooses fiber arts and what kind of things they create there. Even the most bouncy child (read: ADHD or assorted syndromes) finds peace in the steady winding of an ojo. They all know that the time commitment on weaving is substantial, so there are fewer loom projects than stuffed critters, but I bend sometimes and allow weaving projects to wander. The only rule is that one needs to avoid driving classroom teachers crazy (translation: no straw weaving during math lessons...) and it's OK to come get more yarn for your whatever, but asking permission is required.
Examples of child to child teaching abound, particularly with innovations in fabric arts. We've had spates of original new patterns in ojo weaving, some intriguing designs in yarn painting, and artists using beads to embellish other types of weaving of late. They're good examples for us. We can improve our offerings in fiber arts (and any other medium, for that matter) by reading, combing the web for new ideas, talking to colleagues, bothering professional weavers, and interviewing the gentle people who work in weaving and fabric stores. We can talk to our grandmothers if they're still around, hit up our local bookstores for suggestions on books (watch out for that felting world - it looks fascinating) and query local craftsmen and women about their favorite techniques. Ask your students if there are any weavers in their families and check to see if there are any artists' collaboratives close to your classroom. Hmmmm. I may even look up that distant cousin in Wyoming that raises Cheviot sheep for their wool. I wonder if she still spins and weaves?
The most creative people on the planet are under five feet tall. Watch a group of children gathered around a sculpture center in an art room. You'll see flying fingers as they try different attachments on their 3D constructions. When one doesn't work, another is tried, and another and another, until things hold together. There are developmental stages in sculpture just like there are in other areas of learning. In a 3D center like the one at Evergreen, the "scribble stage" usually manifests itself as 1) toilet tube binoculars held together with multiple pieces of masking tape, 2) a robot made from a single tube with straws stuck through holes, or 3) a single tube rocket with a triangle shaped piece of cardboard attached, wedge-style. It isn't long, though, until children start trying more complex structures and manipulating more challenging items from the recycle bin.
Our stock of building tools in the 3D center varies, depending on what our learning community donates, but some things simply *have* to be in the kit. Staples include craft sticks, small paper cups, drinking straws, coffee stirring straws, brads, rubber bands, masking tape, and glue. We have four boxes along a counter beneath our menus that hold cardboard tubes, pieces of cardboard, cool stuff (this is where the small boxes and containers, egg cartons, etc., live) and one box of cardboard scraps. When there are limits because of the number of artists who come through our studios each week, they're posted on the box and on the menu. Most of us are really good at determining a reasonable number of items to use in a creation. We're also guided by a polka-dotted (for visibility and to make certain it doesn't get cannibalized) size box. The box measures about 10"x18"x18" and is a handy guide to check to see if something exceeds our size limitations. Part of the learning that takes place when an artist works with sculpture is to work within space guidelines.
In addition to the constant "pantry" of supplies, we have some fabulous extras. In a plastic stack of drawers are plastic test tubes, spools, medicine bottles, lids (I no longer look at a small lid without picturing it as a monster truck wheel, thank you very much,) metal screens, balls of string, and odd shaped things that are donated by friends of our program. We're good at sharing resources, and as we get deeper into the school year, our eyes get better at recognizing things that would make good additions to sculptures.
Choosing an attachment strategy can be tricky. To help, there's a Sticky-o-meter (thanks to Diane and Nan from the TAB teachers' group!) that helps us to decide what will work best for our sculpture. We use a rule of thumb (outrageous pun intended) to measure how much masking tape to use, and artists beyond kindergarten learn to use a drop of white school glue to hold paper/paper connections with a bit of tape to offer stability while things dry. For fabric, there's Tacky Glue that lives on my teacher desk. Looooong experience has taught me to hover a bit when tacky glue is used - it's just too much fun to watch the entire bottle gloop down with gravity's pull. For the toughest attachment challenges there is a hot glue gun. Fourth and fifth grades get a lesson in safety, use leather gloves and serious caution to glue plastic items together. Younger students just ask if they need that level of hold and I glue things together at their direction. I get to hear lots of stories about how Mom and Dad *always* let everyone use glue guns on their own but I'm a stubborn art teacher and prefer smiling, unburned children to the alternative.
After a piece is finished, the artist asks a few questions. Since projects become more complex with age and sophistication, finishing touches might include paint, fancy paper, or texture from another center. Each artists decides when something is complete, but there is an expectation that older students will put more time and thought into sculptures than they did when they were younger.
The final test is the dreaded shake test. OK. It's not really dreaded, but celebrated. The idea is this: If I've created a secure, well attached piece of sculpture, it must be strong enough to survive three trips. The first one is from the art studio to class, the second, the bus or car ride home, and the third, (shudder) first contact with little brother or sister. To that end, the artist shakes the piece as hard as possible to make sure it's REALLY strong. Rarely does the Bossy Art Teacher (BAT) have to step in to demonstrate the dreaded BAT adult shake. Most artists gleefully demonstrate the strength of their pieces and we all laugh when they survive. Or not. (Flying objects are, thankfully, rare...)
We love sculpture!