A special magic occurs for me when an art class is happening. It’s a kind of awakening if done right, when I set my unspoken intention delicately to my heart. I let the class be focused on experience, on the process of creating and the joy of watching participants feel the nature of the different media, and of the power of saying “YES.”
I teach Kindergarten in a school district that is a 4-day week. On Fridays we have the opportunity to offer intensive support classes for students that need more time and practice on meeting proficiencies. In addition, there are also specialty classes, and this year I have been fortunate to teach two specialty classes. In the fall I taught a four-Friday fractured fairy tale writing/book making class to 2nd-4th graders and it was AMAZING. That was some unintentional alliteration up there, but hey, it works.
The students loved that class. They wrote the most ridiculous and hilarious re-tellings of Little Red Riding Hood and The Princess and the Pea. At the end they acted them out, and I coached them on acting and presence. The naturals needed little coaching and established themselves as talented actors.
Now I’m teaching a visual art class to 2-6th grade students. It is a beautiful joy and one of the most amazing things I’ve done in a long time. The first day we made clay sculptures. I taught them a project I used to teach every summer. For 10 years I was part of a 3-week Talented and Gifted clay class for elementary students in a program called YETAG for the University of Oregon. We made large pinch pots and turned them on their side and made them into creatures. It’s a great project to start with for young people, because everyone can be successful, and it is a great assessment of the skills and interests that my students have. I showed them the sculpture and paintings of Joan Miró as inspiration and let their fingers and hearts do the rest.
The following week we worked on collage and painting. In addition to them doing individual work, I brought in a huge canvas of my own that I saw as a “failure,” but I explained to them that failures should not be thrown away, and sometimes they just provide the texture for another layer to go on top. I put the canvas on the table along with glue and paint and sharpies and oil pastels and charcoal and they jumped all over it. I just kept noticing and remarking on texture and how kind they were being to themselves about their own work and interests and process. It just felt GOOD. At the end of class I showed them a 5 minute video about Robert Rauchenberg, my favorite artist and personal hero.
I told them that the following week I’d be starting my spring break with a trip to San Francisco to go see a solo exhibit of Rauchenberg’s art.
Some of my students have honestly been bored by the art history connections and tune them out. Some are riveted by them. My art instruction and history lessons really are as minimal as possible, so that our 3 hours together are tipped into doing 95% of the time.
Yesterday we worked on printmaking and adding to the paintings we started last time. At the end of the last class I’d had them make their print “plates,” adding flat and textural objects to a stiff piece of cardboard or matte board.
IT WAS SIMPLY GLORIOUS. We worked so hard, so diligently. It was a magic, every single one of them was in what my heroes Lev Vygotsky and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi called FLOW, a state of learning and concentration that leads to a sense of happiness, engagement and satisfaction.
They were making prints quickly, but they weren’t being thoughtless with materials. They were working at a rapid pace, but nothing was being wasted. They were so careful that only one little drop of paint got on my carpet, and it came up quickly with some cleanser.
I was so happy and so blessed by this experience that I was on a cloud myself, experiencing flow right along with them. Our next class is in two weeks and we’re going to evoke Louise Nevelson sculptures. I’m going to cut up a gajillion pieces of wood and make little wood boxes for them. I may even bring my table saw for us to cut pieces down. We’ll glue them in with glue gun and white glue and after class I’ll spray paint them all a solid color, probably white. I’m so excited to see what they create.
That said, even though we have specific ideas of projects in mind, I never make them think that their art needs to be a certain way. It’s okay however it is. I know that art is more interesting and layered and complex if it is textural, so that’s my standard thing to say. I don’t say, “this is good,” or “that’s not good enough.” If a child asks me what I think, or is excited to show me their work, I notice something really specific about it and say, “wow, look at the texture you created here,” or “you used these three colors together in a way I haven’t seen before,” or “you have really thought about placement of items in this piece, it makes me look at everything, instead of just one thing.”
There is respect always, and attention to what it felt like to make it, not what it feels like to see it finished.
I’m going to give myself some kudos here for having enough training and experience in art to know how to actually teach design and technique without telling them I am. My interactions with them subtly teach them those things without me ever lecturing. That’s a kind of finesse that can’t be taught, it has to be part of our own experience as a learner. What I have learned is that children stop working if they think their has to be a certain way. Their creativity just halts when a space feels that way. Trust me, I have had classes where I wasn’t able to reach all of my students and it didn’t feel this way. I had to learn how to teach this way and to never stop being reflective about my teaching practice.
I send out this blessing of knowing: I have found what has made me my most joyous and happy. That means creating, sharing my talent with others, and being with young people. I love creating an environment where young people can be themselves, and where the setting is accepting, loving and kind. A place where every participant feels seen and belongs.
I send you belonging to yourself first, and then giving your love to others. You are a beautiful precious gem on this earth and we need you here.