Scribble a heavy black line on white drawing paper and fill the sections with bright colors. Open a new coloring book, take a deep breath to savor the scent of the cheap, toothy paper, and sink into mindless StayBetweenTheLining. Fill the margins of the electric bill with the same cartoony doodles that you've used since the fourth grade while negotiating on the phone. These are all the artistic equivalent of mac and cheese, meatloaf, or chicken noodle soup. None of them (or their fellows - don't tell me you don't have a long, secret line of similar activities) require any new creativity. They're more closely akin to the kinds of reflex actions we employ when washing dishes or driving a car than they are to Real Art. Still, there's a place for comfort in our art palette, just as the occasional dip into foodie comfort is also allowed from time to time.
Some days simply warrant a visit to the familiar.
Such an activity, for me, is reverse glass painting. I was exposed to it during my student teaching year when my eldest daughter's fourth grade teacher led her class through the project. Its most recent appearance was birthed from an overabundance of used frames at my favorite thrift store. The selection of frames had broken out of its usual leaning, stacked bins that are connected to old metal shelving. Odd shapes, garish colors, plastic and wood, sturdy and wobbly, filled with discarded (violently, in some cases, by the quality of the artwork) artwork and stock photos, frames wore some of my favorite prices. As I looked for something interesting, I flashed back to a project I'd done years ago with sixth grade students in a little town south of Albuquerque. I'd shepherded a whole double class full of ten and eleven year olds through a massive reverse glass painting project. My teaching partner, ever the sensible one, nearly had me committed. Oils with sixth graders? Where will you store all those pieces of glass while the paint dries? Are you mad? Yes, everywhere, and again, yes.
I no longer do projects that require money from children so I bought up all the <$2 frames that met the criteria: wooden, sturdy, removable "innards" and glass face intact. It only took three trips to the thrift store before I had an adequate selection for my fourth and fifth grade Art Club students. I also asked my local flooring store (Thanks, Tuppers!) for a couple of wallpaper sample books for backgrounds and hunted a few more thrift store shelves for small bottles of acrylic paint to add to my ancient collection. (Note: oils really give a nice effect, but storage during drying is a serious issue and the solvents necessary for brush cleaning are verboten at my level.)
I did a couple of examples to jog my memory on the process and offered the project up as a choice for my early Thursday kiddos. We had a lovely time and the kids were happy with the results.
- Sturdy frame with glass
- Acrylic paints or oils
- Variety of brushes
- Black India Ink (no substitute - trust me.)
- Artwork - animals, flowers, landscapes - even non-objective pieces work well. We used pictures from recycled Smithsonian, Ranger Rick, and National Geographic magazines. I know that examples of children's own work would work just as well and be closer to "real" art, but for this first voyage, we went with photographs.
- An adult should carefully remove the glass from the frame. It should be thoroughly cleaned and have its edges covered with masking tape to prevent cuts.
- Tape chosen artwork to one side of the glass, centering it if it matters.
- Using toothpicks dipped in India Ink, trace all outlines and details from the photo/picture. Consider extending lines if the photograph is too small for the frame (we called this "predicting the edges".)
- Apply paint after the ink has dried, mixing colors to match those in the original photo.
- Allow for thorough drying time.
- Choose wallpaper background and cut to fit the dimensions of the glass. That same trusty adult should carefully remove the masking tape and reassemble the frame.
- Hand finished work to student and catch pride with the digital camera you keep in your apron pocket.
Rinse and repeat.
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!
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.")