Sometimes art is an individual sport. We spend much time quietly inside our own space, planning and thinking and following our ideas to a solitary conclusion. Other times, the synergy that's generated by working side by side simply carries us away. Meet two talented groups of artists: One, kindergarten collaborators at the drawing center on a recent sunny afternoon. It was one of those days where students practically flew to their studios, ideas screaming to get out of their imaginations and onto paper. I like to have a happy buzz of engaged kid noise going in the classroom, and that day's decibel level was close to perfect. Voices were soft enough that the walls didn't vibrate and loud enough that I could follow conversations if I practiced a little selective hearing. When I looked over at the drawing center, all four heads were excitedly bent over paper and pencils. The thread of the conversation was a little too fast for my translation abilities, but I could see the reason for the thrill. A tiny Spiderman was replicating himself on three separate sheets of paper. By the time I moved closer to see, it was no longer possible to tell the difference between the teacher and the disciples. Wide smiles looked up from nearly identical drawings and the joy in their production was almost palpable. We acquire skills in so many ways. One of the best ways is at the elbow of a friend. Today the Spiderman drawings are identical, but soon they'll begin to show signs of individuality soon. It's also the perfect time for me to share some ways to depict tall buildings, since Spidey is so fond of swinging between them. We'll see if the boys are still in full spider mode when they come back to me in a few days.
Exhibit #2 in the collaboration realm is a little different. The large set of unit blocks gets a fair amount of attention from children who love to create all sorts of buildings. When this crew of four third graders (the maximum for the blocks center, since it has to be rolled on and off the carpet between center choosing and cleanup) began to build, nobody noticed anything out of the ordinary. This class gets along together well, yields few behavior issues, and is usually a pleasure in the art studios. Each child has an idea of what he or she wants to do in art each day and it's their "norm" to get right to work. Even though they're my last group of the day, they bring quiet energy and a steady, focused interest to their work.
As our architects began to build, they quietly planned their structures as they chose blocks. Instead of the large, group-built structure we see often, each member of the team began putting together his or her own part of the "city." As they worked, classmates in other studios started to notice how the builders were creating something a little different. With quiet voices and encouragement to the other three, each of the group helped to distribute specific blocks that were needed around the carpet. Passageways were built to connect four separate structures. Excitement built even further as the students realized that by working as a team they'd used every block on the cart. Surveying their city, pride shone on four faces. "Don't you have any more blocks, Ms. J? We're not really finished yet." I offered them a collection of green foam blocks that I'd cut out of upholstery foam and they happily went back to work. As they completed a city wall that nearly encircled their work, one student noticed wistfully, "But there aren't enough to go all the way around." I asked, "What could be the reason it's unfinished?" and another student said, "That's where the ocean meets the city!" The rest of the class applauded the city and recognized the unabashed glee that was being telegraphed by the team. We spent a moment smiling at each other (and taking more pictures, of course) and then it was time for clean up. True to form, the whole class did a great job at that, too.
Collaboration - one essential element of a comprehensive art program.
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...