Grandmother Lela, she of blue glass, strawberries and cream (literally - in front of game shows with our feet propped up on the recliner) and lilting laugh, loved amaryllis. I remember the shocking reds of the blossoms and the impressive size of the fast-growing stalks. I let the ancient bulbs she brought with her when we shared housing go long ago, but revisited the wonder of the flowers when the bulbs showed up in hardware stores in the fall. Seven weeks is a long time for a short person (or for me, for that matter!) but I potted a good-sized bulb in a bright ochre pot on top of a filing cabinet and began watering it in early November.
Right on schedule, I had a tall, impressive stalk and two promisingly fat buds when we came back to school in January. Responses from the kids ranged from, "Hey - is that real?" to "My auntie grows those things. It's gonna die and you'll have to throw it away." to "Is it there so we can paint it?" I love it. They immediately see the possibilities. One of the ongoing themes in our studio is answering the question of where do artists get ideas from so I like to provide the bizarre and beautiful as options. We talked about what struck us the most about the blooms as they opened over the space of several days. We measured the height of the stalks and curved leaves with our hands and guessed how big the blossoms would be. Our flower didn't disappoint and neither did any of the students' renderings. Media included watercolor, tempera cakes, melted crayon, colored pencil, crayons and markers. With some classes I sat and sketched my own renderings and painted a little, but I'm careful because I don't want my ideas to overpower their own wonderful concepts.
We had as many different approaches as we had artists "taking on" the amaryllis challenge. I think they're incredible, and some of the smiles suggest that their creators do, too.
Take one moist (this is the Pacific Northwest, after all) spring, add fragile spring bulbs, a generous friend or two, and you have a drive by daffodilling. How does that work, you ask? Simply place a vase with bright flowers in the center of the painting center and turn the kids loose. Sometimes I like to sit with them, scribbling my own ideas onto rough paper and playing with endlessly fascinating layers of transparent color. Sometimes not. If kids are allowed to explore their own ideas of how to bring flowers to life, it's a cleaner, purer process.
This group was fairly quiet during their daffodil encounter. I heard soft voices as they discussed a bit of color and a bit of technique, but voices never rose above comfortable friendship. The different results were interesting. Two artists chose the splashy heaviness of undiluted tempera for their flowers and, as friends often do, shared more than a few strokes in common. The third chose quieter watercolor from the Crayola pans/Prang refilles trays that are available in the center. I heard her thinking aloud about the differences between her painting and those of her friends and she was a little unsure whether she liked the result. My students are wise to my, "Tell me what you think about your piece." kinds of noises, and I sensed a desire from all three for a little more recognition of what they were doing. I'm a stubborn teacherperson, though, and I stuck to my guns (paint pots?) pointing out the specifics I saw: "You chose bright colors and wiggling lines here; I see the curve of the stem of the flower here; You decided to stress the outline with ink; You enlarged the flowers to give your picture strength." In that way I show that what they're doing impacts me but don't lay my values on top of their work before its finished. I also model the way we talk our way through the creative process sometimes.
The period is always too short. Without exception, there are howls of protest when I ring the cleanup bell, but their artwork is just like a snapshot of time. When these kiddos look at their pictures in coming years they'll remember this day, the friends who sat and painted beside them, and a little about the flowers that inspired them.
I'm certain the daffodils approve.
We are such creatures of habit. When children come into Evergreen's art classroom, no matter how they were lined up by their teacher, they inevitably sit in their favorite place on our burgundy (most days – this IS an art room, after all) rug. Chances are good that the same peers who flanked them the last time they were here are in the same places, too. Teachers and other life forms exhibit the same behavior. Next time you're at a meeting, in a class, sitting in the library, or at your favorite restaurant, look around. Yep. Familiarity is important to us.
Repeating behavior isn't simply comfortable for us, but is central to many teaching and learning premises. We value practice and reward repetition with adult bobble-headed nods and praise. It simply works well for all sorts of things: learning to walk, jumping rope, drawing stick figures, forming cursive letters, making tortillas, writing computer code, and knitting. Even a skill like driving a stick shift takes repeated motions that, once familiar, become more or less automatic. Such is our dependence on schema.
In a TAB/Choice classroom, there is plenty of opportunity to explore comfy schemes at great length. I'm reminded of three fourth grade boys who are still enjoying pencil sketches of action figures on thin paper. After adding details that give clues to their powers (it's dangerous for an old person to attempt to interpret anything that's cartoon or video game-based, but I keep foolishly wading in) they cut them out and share/trade/fly them around the room and draw worlds on more white paper for them to inhabit.
I have a confirmed crew of Ojo de dios makers who love playing with color variation and are proud of their ability to teach related skills to other kids in their class. They report construction of biggerbettercooler models at home and tell stories of dragging unsuspecting grandmothers to the store for yarn and craft sticks. I smiled at one brought from home (BFH) creation. A loving dad with tools had used pliers to stabilize some eight or nine inch alder twigs with heavy gauge wire so his third grader could craft her own ojo.
Familiar schemes are often evident in the painting center. Whole generations of children learn that a Proper Painting of a landscape begins with a blue line at the top of the page to represent sky and a green line at the bottom to represent earth. Before exposure to coercion (read: mini lessons on other possibilities) I can predict the squareboxhousewithchimneytwocurtainedwindows and obglitory sun, trapped high in the corner. Symbolism is a great way to practice using art tools, and it's developmentally appropriate to follow predictable stages on the way to other expressions.
So here we are, comfortably sitting in our same places on the rug, and the art teacher suddenly asks, “What's easiest for you in art? What's the most difficult thing you've seen a classmate do in here? Which center is most familiar for you? How about the opposite?” Then, in classic Evil Adult style, I casually tell the assembled short artists that I'm going to exercise my old wrinkly lady prerogative and insist that they “branch out” to Something New.
Sure enough, the fifth grade sketching phenom quietly admitted to me that he didn't remember how to make basic paper weaving work. We reviewed the process and he industriously worked on a simple creation so that he could do a more complex pattern like one of the hanging displays next time he returned to the studio.
After ___ (name a large number) cardboard binocular/camera creations, a third grade pair who loves to work together confessed to other members of the painting center that they didn't know where the large white painting paper was. I wasn't surprised when they asked if they could roll their paintings into spy glasses, but I did encourage them to think of some nifty PAINTED ideas of someone using said spyglasses before they rolled the paper. Sure enough, some outrageously colorful pirates and large sailing ships ensued.
Perhaps it's a good focus for spring. In addition to some necessary spring cleaning (is that pile of cardboard for the construction center multiplying in the night or what???) we'll sweep out a couple of comfortable ways of creating art and latch onto a new technique or two. Let the mini-lessons continue!!!