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!
Staging an art show is an interesting exercise. It's one part celebration, one part pulling teeth, one part planning, and one part total surprise. As our choice-based studios have matured at Evergreen Elementary School, we've taken on a bit more with our end of the year exhibition. Year one was an art walk. Our current PTSO president, Donna, contacted area businesses and arranged for display space. She has considerable artistic ability in her own right and the displays were well received in coffee shops, cafes, libraries, and utility companies. Artwork was chosen on the basis of variety and pithy artists' statements and Donna did ALL the legwork involved in hanging and retrieving the displays.
Year two (last year) was our first year staging a big show in a public space. Since our gym/cafeteria is used for so many purposes during the day and is also booked for athletic and dance practices in the evening, it wasn't a good idea to display our artwork there. Our hallways have some bulletin display space, but with active, innovative teachers, they're always full of children's writing and poetry, artwork, and science and math project work. Our experience with staging the show at our local Civic Center was a positive one, so we booked the big main room again this year. Only four blocks from our school, the two story "big room" lends itself well to weddings, big meetings, community events, and elementary art shows! The city offices that are there - police, court, and water payment offices result in lots of foot traffic and their facility manager, Mark, has a crew that is adept at setup and take down.
After I looked at the attendance data from last year I realized that having the show in the evening hours, alone, resulted in fairly modest numbers of visitors. We'd also attempted to gain larger crowds by scheduling the show during our annual Dia de los Niños celebration. Instead of bolstering attendance, that split the crowd. A brainstorming session with my specialist team (PE, music, library) started the planning for walking field trips to see the show. Grade levels would make the trek in pairs (K-1, 2-3, 4-5) with lots of adult walkers to help with safety and behavior choices. Our specialist time provides planning time for teachers but after presenting the proposal to the Leadership Team, people were willing to juggle their schedules for the day so that all children and staff could see the show. To help support the goals of my library partner we scheduled a book fair for the evening of the show in the school library.
Perhaps I'll track the amount of time it takes to mount 540 pieces of artwork on black construction paper and convert oral or written artists' statements from each child someday. This year's effort began last June, when the order for 18"x24" black paper went in. The April, 2009 show taught me that gluing enough 12"x18" paper to mount the number of large paintings we had was seriously time consuming so the larger paper size worked great this year. I talked to the students about the show early in September when we decorated our portfolio covers, promising that they'd enjoy the process of choosing a favorite piece when the show came along in the spring. A few children proudly announced, "This one is for the show!" when they finished a particularly satisfying piece of artwork. Others needed to be nudged a bit. Ours is a methodology that focuses more strongly on process than product, so many children prefer to try to "just do one more picture of X" to choosing a piece from further back in the year. After much shuffling of artwork, deep consideration of everything in the portfolios, and only a little bit of BossyArtTeacherStrongArming, works are chosen.
Artists' statements are amazing things. I watch adults and children alike sink into the fascination of listening to the artist's voice in print while their eyes look at the art. Some are tidy lists that highlight process. Others are rambling stories
that beg for more print space. Still others are almost too private - windows into that artist's mind. Younger students dictate their statements and they're dropped straight into a computer template. Older students do their own first draft and submit the statement when the art is submitted for the show. A few find it difficult to talk about their art (hence the earlier reference to pulling teeth) but I politely insist. You won't be there to discuss your work with your viewers. Share just a little about what you were thinking, please. This year's format was two statements: Share something about why you created this piece. Share something about how you made it.
Thank you notes have gone out to the volunteers who gave us their afternoon to help hang the show, to the maintenance men who transported the livestock panels for my display kiosks, and to the facilitator of the room, for being such a pro in how he deals with our wandering art hordes. Data from the surveys I distributed to staff are being collected to help in next year's planning, and the artwork from the 2009-2010 art show is safely posted on refrigerators all over town. Life is good.