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Since the Seattle School District systematically eliminated its
arts specialists at the elementary level over the past eight years,
going into the classroom as an artist provides some of the only
experiences elementary students may have that are more
than "cookie cutter art", or what I call "plop art" experiences. Art
integration in this situation, usually means everyone does teepees as an
example of Native American art or makes spring flowers out of flattened nut
cups and tissue paper.
In the past five years, I have seen a marked decline in the schema of
elementary students and have recently felt dissatisfied with some of the
results of thematic lesssons, especially with assigned subject matter
and approaches (i.e. "Miro lines). Because of their schema are too
limited, I found that activities from works of art can be
actually limit creativity because students have so few experiences where they
can draw what they want.
I recently changed my approach and have focused instead,
on developing drawing skills and engaging students with their own
schema. Instead of one activity as an assignment, I present two, giving
them the option of combining them. I present a variety of drawing and
painting media and demonstrate how they can be used together, giving students
the choice of what they draw with and how.
No matter what level student or adult, I start out by having everyone stand up
with a piece of tagboard and ebony pencil and we "take a walk with a line,"
drawing the way our bodies move. I put on music and we jump, twirl, bend, crawl,
sink, piroutee and lunge our way around the room, making different kinds of
lines to each movement of our body. I give people a chance to take turns
leading then we all look at what we've done, notice the different kinds of marks
and how unique each one of us in even though we just all did the same thing.
I then give people a kneaded eraser and ask them to make a shape. We use
the eraser as a tool, removing marks, and then make the shape into
something with oil pastels. I give them scissors and we cut it out,
showing that each shape we make, creates a shape around it. Younger kids
turn these into stick puppets; older kids and adults can glue both pieces onto
contrasting paper separated in such a way, and we can talk about negative
and positive. The activity can be extended by adding mixed media collage
and/or painting over the shapes or leave it as is.
In this one, 45 minute activity, I cover alot of ground, create motivation and excitement, and extend the repertoire of
lines to use, as I then ask my students, kindergarden and older to use as
many of these kinds of lines now in their work. Older kids, I ask to identify
which lines are the most UNLIKE what they are currently drawing with and
focus on them. Then, each time I return, we can start with drawing
warmups with our "invisible paintbrush or pencil" with music or not to
reinforce the kinds of lines we can draw with.
I am sharing this with you because the recent follow-up work I just did
after this activity with second and third graders doing blow-ups of shoes and
hands on 18 x 24 paper with charcoal pencils and india ink washes, after this
activity, were fantastic. The results were really exciting, and each
completely unique. In just one week of these 45-minute sessions, their work
had markedly transformed. For me, blocks of an hour and a half are ideal, and
45-minutes is just not long enough to really engage with the process,
especially with the idea of layering media on top of each other.
I realize this is getting long but I want to make the point about earlier
discussion on specially abled students, that all art content can be adapted
to the needs of specially abled students, but not necessarily the
lesson. This unit would have been a disaster for wheelchair bound
moderate and severely disabled students, who need experiences just
holding a brush and dancing in their wheelchairs.
Finally, I want to comment on the Christian art issue by asking the
question, where do we stop if we do not show art that is Christian? Does
that mean we eliminate other forms of religious art - Buddhist scrolls,
Islamic calligraphy, Incan temple relief sculptures? And if we extend this
thinking further, do we stop showing artists like Chagall because they are
Jewish and stop showing his pieces with Jewish symbolism in them?
Where does it end?
The frontal attack on culture that these attitudes represent are alarming
and real threats to us, individually and professionally. I, myself, have
had two nudes removed from a show just because they were nudes. I have
been asked to not show them in the classroom, but I will bring in books
with nudes and talk about how the human body is the most challenging
subject to draw because it is made up of complex intersecting concave and
convex forms, then demonstrate it on the board. I ask anyone who may be
offended or embarassed to look at nudes in works of art to choose other
books to look at. If I work with the kids more than once and have an
established rappour, I also add, "Besides, we are all naked under our
clothes, so what's the big deal?"
Finally, in response to some of the comments I have been
receiving about my answer to a student question, I want to state that
regardless of what anyone thinks about what I said or how I said it, I was
stating an opinion. Statements of opinion should not be
debated with the use of namecalling, unsupported assumptions asserted as fact,
or slander, as a form of discourse.
If we are to use the same tactics of rhetoric that our Presidential
candidates convey as our standard, then it will ultimately not matter that
fifth graders don't know what primary colors or that we are being
censored - we will be undermined from within our profession by our own
People, in turn, have the right to express their opinions to me. And
as distasteful as "get a life" and "you have your head screwed on
backwards" are, they are still opinions. But to say, "you must be
emotionally disturbed," is not. I think we need to be clear about the
If my audacity is confused with mental illness, then we only support the kind
of neo-mccarthyism which attacks people personnaly for the beliefs they
hold. As outraged as I have been in response to some of these messages, in
case anyone cares to notice, my call for self-examination, includes myself.
Everywhere I look, people are being attacked in this manner. I hope
that we, as a profession, can transcend these kind of petty attacks on
one another and stand united against the real work ahead of us. I am
writing this to make a final peace with anyone out there who feels the
need to repeat these kind of remarks to me and to urge tolerance of
our differences. The irony is, I think, that if we were all in a room
talking with one another, we probably would really like each other.
I thank you for your tolerance of my lengthy letter.