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?
Some projects fly together with a small amount of enthusiasm, a little bit of energy, and a good idea or two. The average Art Night is a little more complex, as it turns out. We've been talking about scheduling one for a couple of years, but with one thing and another, it's never quite come together. This was the year. My predecessor had organized one with the help of the PTSO but it'd been a while and nobody had strong memories of the kinds of activities that were offered. A colleague shared a flyer from an art night at her daughter's school in Olympia sometime last spring. That flyer spoke to painting activities that parents and children could enjoy together but there weren't many details. Hmmm.
In October, I collaborated with my library buddy across the wall and talked about the advantages of having both events share an evening. She had a book fair scheduled for the first complete week in December and needed an evening event to finish off her event in style. I used a variation of the "put it on the calendar and the muses will show up" (they always have, after all) method of event planning and loudly plunked it on the school calendar. Evening events are a big deal and our nice little gym is used by lots of community groups for sports events. The sweet schedule maven at the high school moved heaven and earth (and basketball teams) and cleared the night for me. I had a great time designing a flyer, getting it translated so our whole community could read it, and happily sent them home with kids. With the wrong date. All 540 of them. YIKES! We rescued some of the flyers, reprinted some with the new, correct date and made our apologies to the teams who then needed to be unbumped from their bumped spots. Everyone was still smiling so I continued with the planning.
I've heard of some December art nights that were primarily craft nights intended to be fun "make and takes" for small ornaments, but that's not really my style. While crafts are certainly fun, they aren't open-ended enough and don't allow for artistic expression like our studios do. I'd thought for quite a while about what kinds of activities the eight year old me would enjoy on such an evening. Then the 103 year old me who is responsible for resources whittled away at the list and chose things that could depend on either inexpensive supplies or the lovely collection of recyclables that flows through our studios. The final step was for the 56 year old art specialist me to come up with the final selection, design displays and instructions to fit a wide variety of age, ability, and interest. My eyes circled the studios in my classroom and chose an activity or two from all the media-specific centers that are part of our stable except for 3D construction and clay. Both required too much time, thought, and peaceful drying time to be appropriate for this first Art Night.
With final "casting" done, I made lists of each proposed activity that included display ideas, supplies (both those that were on hand and those that needed to be purchased, begged, borrowed, or stolen) and a quick sketch of what the setup might look like. For example, for the ojos de dios (gods' eyes in English) I had all the yarn I needed, a reminder to hot glue 50 or 60 "frames" from craft stick stores in the classroom, and a note to site the rainbow cabinet close to the table. The rainbow cabinet is a storage cabinet with brightly colored drawers that stores lots of classroom staples in drawers with picture labels (rulers, kid scissors, "big" scissors, ojo frames, square frames, etc.) When I sketched out the table banner I realized that I could only go so far with written instructions so I made a note to invite the artist to "Find an Evergreen artist for a lesson." My students start learning how to weave the colorful ojos at the beginning of second grade so I knew there would be lots of willing (and proud) helpers to assist parents.
When I pictured the gym in my mind - with ten or twelve tables against the walls so that I could hang my banners - I realized that the use of space felt impersonal and clunky. As I gave it more thought (while simultaneously gathering supplies over the period of a couple of weeks) I came up with the idea of situating the tables in a big circle. If I used that kind of arrangement I could help to direct/manage/play activities and I'd save myself essential steps. I drew out a schematic of my plan on a sheet of paper and consulted with our head custodian. Sue agreed that it could be done and politely skipped mentioning how strange a big circle of art in the center of a rectangular gym looked. She also committed her night crew to helping us set up. (Thanks, Sue!)
I had a vague idea that there would be at least 50 people of various ages attending because of a cutaway slip I'd added to the publicity flyer. I also had a few volunteers from the parent community and a few staff members that offered their help. In addition, I gave the fourth and fifth grade students who attend my Thursday morning (we're talking 7:00 AM!) Art Club a chance to help, too. Our enthusiastic crew loaded and re-loaded the utility cart with the supplies I'd set out for travel. We made numerous (!) trips the length of the school between the art room and the gym (as far apart as is possible, of course) and flew around our circled tables, placing the essentials and making final adjustments. Brightly colored construction paper was cut for the paper mola table, more paper set out for the Danish woven hearts, paper plates, feathers, pipe cleaners, scissors and glue set up for masks, and paper bags and colored paper scraps put out for puppets. Crayons were peeled for the warming trays and set against the wall where the outlets were. A long line of newspapers was set down along another wall to offer a place for giant tempera posters and prints to dry. Parent helpers carried the big loom down so it could hold a place of honor in the center of our wagons circle, and lots of felt was cut and displayed with heavy string and big-holed needles for the L.F.T.s.
After a tornado of activity we looked around and discovered that our start time had come and gone and each table had artists happily exploring new things. I was so entertained visiting different tables and watching what our talented community was doing I almost forgot to take pictures but managed to capture some of the fun. Until the batteries quit. In both cameras. No matter. We laughed and put a giant pile of batteries on the "to do" list for next year. (Speaking of a "to do" list, I would greatly appreciate input from those of you who attended. Do you have suggestions for improvement? Is there something you want to insure that we do again? Did you get help from an Evergreen student who deserves a thank you note?)
We had such fun. Little people were teaching big people who were teaching middle sized people who were celebrating the joy that creating art always brings us. Some of the extra paint escaped the aprons and rags but it looked like any errant color was being worn as a badge of honor. There is no age limit on how much fun it is to explore color, texture, and creativity. It was important to me that our offerings were true to the concepts of TAB as they relate to inspiring creativity through access to great media. Our thank you list includes:
Dr. Warner, principal, for helping with crowd serenity and cleanup, as well as his steady support for the arts, Jimmy, Daley, Oscar, Angelica, Hilda, and Ashlee, Lupita and her brother, Victor, Art Club members who helped with a million tasks, (especially Ashlee, who was the main instructor at Danish hearts for the whole night and is a fabulous teacher!), Jennifer, who helped with setup and cart pushing, Ms. Robbins, who worked the paper mola table with such flair, Ms. Doyle, who lent support while managing the Evergreen Synchronized Baby Stroller Brigade, Ms. Berg and Ms. Mott, who helped with sewing and problem solving, Harmony's mom, who peeled crayons and got the melted crayon center going, Casi's mom and dad, who helped with loom lugging as well as the print center, Daley's mom and big brother, who helped with clean up, Ms. Salinas, who helped by STRONGLY suggesting that the art teacher eat
some of her supper, Ms. Jackson, PTSO president, who helped to generate the idea, Ms. Peterson, who helps with all sorts of kid projects, Ms. Morgan in the library, who's a great collaborator, Ms. Salzer who came, even after a full afternoon of caroling with her choir, to help with crowd control, Ms. Trejo and her family, who actively participated in creating some fabulous art and then stayed to help clean up, too! Mr. Escobedo and Mr. Wilford helped with room setup and with clean up after we'd all cleaned up, Dr. Warner had washed and rearranged tables, and Ms. Gray and Jennifer cheerfully pushed the brooms. I also appreciate my sweetie, who helps by ferrying supplies back and forth from Olympia and never inserts earplugs when I plan out loud or talk about art for six straight hours. If I forgot you, send me an email or collect your thank you hug when we see each other at school. Same time next year?
There were a lot more photos (HARD to choose!) than would fit in a normal sized blog. Here they are, in a gallery called, Art Night 2009. Enjoy the visit!
Twenty one days and eleven hours, give or take the amount of time it takes to capture this post - and children will once again fill the hallways of Evergreen Elementary School. I can't wait. There are a million things to do to get ready for students, and many are in progress.
A partial "to do" list:
- Set up drawing and collage centers (I'll use those two as demos for reinforcement on classroom standards and cleanup routines.)
- Put together sketchbooks for each child (I ordered plastic binder spines and card stock and have a couple of volunteers chomping at the bit to help.)
- Create this year's revision of my classroom brochure.
- Review and revise my renderings of WA art standards
- Complete the idea binders for each studio. The photos I've selected are tucked away on my desktop in folders labeled for each media, but they need to be collected in printable sheets with appropriate text and assembled in plastic sheet protectors.
- Put together the schedule for the first month of school - it's traditional for our team leader to do this task and it's my turn to lead this year.
- Rescue all the clay creations that were fired at the end of last year and re-label them for this year's class assignments. It's time to glaze and admire!
- Cut out new kid aprons from the heavy-duty plastic I picked up at JoAnn's - maybe I can reinforce the necks with book tape? Bias tape stitched on? Hmmmm...
- Create new class lists for my studio choice charts.
- Stash and organize all the odds and ends collected over the summer from the thrift stores - wooden beads from ancient holiday garlands, two new warming trays for melted crayons, fabric remnants, wooden spools, toys and oddities for the realia collection - how deep are the layers in the trunk of my car?
- Finish cutting out and sewing the tops to match the new teacher skirts.
- Of utmost importance: Sit in the middle of the room and allow for some unencumbered thinking time. In order for the muses to visit, one must clear a space.
What Joyce is *actually* doing:
Making spiffy new aprons! Woo hoo! (OK - you and I both know that there's a lot of planning and prep that happens in the background during sewing and other artistic endeavors, but I really need to get into my classroom and get some of these things done. I can't wait!!!
The aprons I wear serve several purposes. The first set I did a couple of years ago were sewn from a design borrowed from my favorite Cost Plus apron. It's held up for 15 years of "regular" classroom use and is a simple, drop over the head, tie behind the waist model. I found medium weight canvas and decorated one with six or seven dragonflies rendered with fabric markers. The other was a little sillier and featured primary colored acrylic, "splatted" over the entire front of the apron. They have big pockets (of course!) that hold my box cutter, the remote for the classroom stereo, a small bell, and a small handful of "caught you being good" coins and some stickers. Kids love the aprons. We talk about what their favorite insects are, how I chose the colors for the designs, where to find pictures to work from, and how to make colors permanent. I didn't heat set them well enough so it's been a good chance to talk about how teachers learn things, too. With the paint splat apron we talk about humor, pop art, and the times and places where splatting is appropriate (I NEVER share my biggest childhood mess story with them.) We also talk about how my apron is an example of an art teacher's uniform when we talk about the world of work.
The two most recent creations are a different design that I crafted from memories of my daughters' sun dresses. During those years, the "cross over the back and snap below the shoulder" pattern was easy and fun to whip up with denim and bright, kid-friendly prints. The advantage of the design is that the weight of the essential tools I carry in my pockets don't result in RedNeckedArtTeacherSkinBurn like the other model does. Reversible aprons are a smart choice, as messy as our studios get, and reduce the laundry time by half.
By the way - I stopped using sponges with kids two years ago, in favor of a tall stack of cheap (*much* easier to sanitize)washcloths. We use six or eight during a day, I dry them overnight over the dish and paint drainers, and then pop them into a hanging hamper on the front of the stove. (Did I mention I'm spoiled by a cool kitchenette in the corner of the room?) I toss the accumulation into the washer in the custodial room once or twice a week with the other cotton rags that are used for general cleaning. The sweet elves who nest there help by moving the load across into the dryer. Sometimes I beat them to folding the dry rags and sometimes they beat me - it's a good partnership and when I fall behind, there's always chocolate.
Onward and upward!