Some thoughts on the arts and education…
“Art,” said Robert Henri, “when really understood, is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.”
I used this quote from a speech Henri gave in the 1920s to the Art Students League as the opening for a talk I gave last October to a group of High School Seniors. Henri had continued, “When the artist is alive in any person, what ever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, and shows there are still more pages possible.”
I asked the group of some 70 students, ‘In our high-tech, data hungry, 21st century world, why study the arts? Now, really, why bother with arts education?’ There was silence. Because studying and using the arts helps us to become more independent, creative problem solvers. Of what real good are the tools of math, science, history and language if we can not use them in fresh and creative ways to build the future?
It seems obvious to me that learning about the arts, and learning about any subject through the arts will continue to be the keys which open the doors of tomorrow.
The Yin & Yang of Studio & Classroom
The studio is relaxed and quiet this morning. I have clients coming this afternoon to pick up a piece that I just finished. At 38” x 60” it will take two of us to move the heavy, framed work to their van. Usually my work is handled entirely by my gallery after I deliver it, unframed, from the studio. But this piece was an exception – a commission done and framed for some one I know personally outside the gallery.
Becoming a full time studio artist is something I had thought about and worked toward for more than 10 years. I’ve been full time now in my studio space since February of ’94 and found it lacking in only one thing – social interaction. While I wouldn’t trade it for anything, it’s a solitary endeavor, my rural studio. It’s that fact which makes working as a visiting teaching artist such a wonderful fit. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that my studio is actually located in a classroom on the second floor of a 1929 school building; complete with the slate black boards with the deep oak chalk trays. I guess the connection between studio and classroom was meant to be. For me, the two worlds compliment each other perfectly.
Thoughts on “Relativity”
I was thinking the other day about the relevance of learning about the arts to the way we experience the world. A lot has been written on the subject. Dr. Betty Edwards, in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, makes a clear case for learning to draw through making cognitive shifts for clearer perception of our visual experience. This type of thinking helps free us from rather ingrained responses to new challenges.
On the related natures of art and science she quotes Russian scientist Leonid Ponomarev from In Quest of the Quantum, “It has long been known that science is only one of the methods of studying the world around us. Another – complimentary – method is realized in art….True science is akin to art, in the same way as real art always includes elements of science. They reflect different, complimentary aspects of human experience and give us a complete idea of the world only when taken together.” He uses examples such as the mathematical accuracy required in ballet and the necessity for inspiration found in both poetry and geometry.
I don’t believe we need to make a case for the relevance of the Arts in our educational system….the question to me would be, how could the system exist without them? After all, I’ve asked my students, just what is it we are studying about cultures around the world – past and present? The anthropologist is an art historian. Humanity’s footprints were left by the creators not by the bureaucrats. In looking at history, we are looking at art. To understand a culture we look at what they created. As an artist/educator, I try to highlight the connections between art, history, science, language and all other aspects of life for those who might not see it that way. Life is a big picture.
Recently, I left my rural studio and made the 40 mile drive to attend a Symposium put on by the Rochester Region’s Association of Teaching Artists. I was really pleased to find the event was so well attended – with just about a standing room only crowd in the Arts & Cultural Council’s main meeting room. We had a wonderful 9 person panel assembled of several veteran teaching artists, the heads of our major Arts in Education Organizations, and a 4th grade teacher who has worked closely with artists in her classroom. These individuals gave their time, and shared a wealth of experience and personal observation with the audience. They answered a wide range of questions about the work, skills, and current situation of teaching artists. The field is wide open.
The energy and enthusiasm was palpable in that room. The professionalism and dedication shown by the panel and the responsive interest from the audience of experienced teaching artists and new comers alike was invigorating! Many people (including myself) exchanged cards for possible future projects. It is good to leave the studio occasionally….
“The Papermaking Road Show”
This month finds me with no teaching projects. Commissions are waiting, it’s a studio month. Next month I have 2 workshops, one for adults and one for youth, as well as 3 days with 5th graders in a nearby school district. I need fairly long stretches of uninterrupted time to do my papermaking art work, so this kind of timing works well for me.
What I do as a teaching artist usually involves packing up quite a “road show.” Generally this means starting at least a day or so ahead to pre mix and dye cotton fibers to make easy to use pulp for students who will be creating large scale paper-art projects in the class room. If I’m doing a more introductory workshop, I prepare some, but also let the kids prepare their own paper pulp by recycling colorful scrap papers in the blenders I bring to the class room. Then there are the deckle (forming) boxes, tubs, draining trays, sponges, hand towels, etc. for 10 work stations. As well as the slide projector, and the “show & tell” library of books and materials related to paper making and paper history from around the world. Occasionally, as I lug the last of at least 6 large boxes down the stairs from my studio and cram it in to my car, I wonder is this really worth it?
Then I think of the smiles and little gasps of delighted surprise as the students pull their very first sheets of handmade paper, and I get in the car and start the engine.
“Timing is Everything”
I do my best to design my workshops to fit within the time constraints of the class schedules. That’s been a very tricky thing for me to learn. Introduce, explain, demonstrate, have the class create, & cleanup all in 35 to 45 minutes. Yes, I long for more time with each class. Often I see 6 or 7 classes in one day on this type of schedule. Last year, at one school, I saw 588 kids in 3 ½ days. How do class room teachers do this on a regular basis? It’s exhausting.
Occasionally, a teacher can manipulate the school’s complex schedule to give each class a little more time with me, but often, this is impossible. There’s really too much material for me to present in such a brief time, so I try to focus on what the class room teacher sees as the most relevant and important aspects of my presentation for her/his classes.
I have found the best thing for my projects is to break my presentations up into 2 visits if funding allows. On one day, possibly in larger groups, I like to introduce all the students to papermaking with an interesting and quirky slide talk with hands on items to explore the 2000 year history of the craft. I try to give them some perspective on the subject as art, as social stimulus, as science. From paper wasps’ nests, to papyrus, to the recycling of cotton rags in the 14th century, to the ‘crime fighting’ watermarks in our newest U.S. currency – I seek to make those brief moments in the glorious, sloppy, sheet forming process more meaningful. The next day, those kids are ready to get their hands wet.
“Just the Right Recipe”
Over the years, I’ve presented papermaking demonstrations and workshops for 1st graders through high school students as well as adults, artists and educators. Each group has had its own unique challenges and helped me look at my material and present it in the most engaging and appropriate way for them.
I spend very little time on slides and historical background with the youngest groups. They like learning how a “nasty stinging bug” (the paper wasp) helped us discover that we can make paper from trees. I print up simple vocabulary sheets of words peculiar to paper making, have the students put their names on these and use them as their “felts” for drying the paper. I concentrate on the sounds, feel, and steps of the process, using the vocabulary words repeatedly to name the tools and actions the children will perform. They “buddy up” and help each other remember what to do next. They are a joy to watch. The classroom teachers I’ve worked with have been invaluable resources for developing effective techniques for differing age groups.
The middle grades are a lot of fun because they often have studied Egypt, recycling, New York State Conservation and Forestry principles, and some simple science and technology. All these subjects can be brought in through various ‘chapters’ in papermaking history and touched on in my introductory slide talk. Language arts are great here, too, as there are words of French, German and Italian origin used in papermaking. I do my best to connect with and expand on the students’ current studies. I try to keep the goals of the N.Y.S. Education standards in mind for each group. Middle school kids love discovering the “high-tech crime-fighting” watermarks in our new US currency and learn that the Chinese invented the technique almost 2,000 years ago. They can experiment more, do better sheet forming, and be involved with large multi-class paper-art projects.
High school age and beyond is fair game for presenting the larger world picture of the impact of the development of paper mills and the printing press on literacy and the balance of social power. A little lesson in chemistry about hydrogen bonding and cellulose fibers helps explain to everyone why we can recycle paper, why wet paper is so weak (the paper bag with the wet bottom problem) and why drying the paper makes it stronger again. Handmade sculptural books are possible at this age, with the theme rooted in the very ingredients the student puts into the handmade papers which will make up the book.
If it’s desired, I also talk about my work as an artist, and what it’s like to be a studio artist today working with galleries and collectors. I talk about art as a career choice, and show slides of me working in my studio with a work in progress.
Learning to create the right ‘mix and recipe’ for each audience has been a great experience for me. I’ve received a lot of help from both my teachers and their students.
Being a teaching artist isn’t always what I expect it to be. A couple of years ago I had a bus load of second graders come to my studio on a field trip to spend a morning learning about papermaking. We met in the studio and did introductions, then each of them received a cookie and a paper cup of juice and we went to the room next door and sat on the floor to see slides and ask questions.
Afterwards, we returned to the studio for a couple of hours and made many colorful sheets of paper with the help of the bus driver, their classroom teacher, and myself. The kids were thoroughly involved with their projects, even to the point of whimpering a little when we had to stop to clean up so they could get back on the bus to return to school.
A few days later, a large brown envelope arrived at my door. It was full of beautifully decorated, handwritten student thank you notes! Well, of course I was thrilled, and with grand notions of my creative and artistic influence on these kids I sat down to read the letters. Almost without fail, the first line in each letter read, “Dear Mrs. Vaughan, thanks for the snack!”
As I reflect on the rather chaotic nature of working with classrooms full of energetic children, or the nerves I get before a public presentation, I occasionally wonder why I ever choose to leave the peaceful confines of my studio. My studio work provides me with most all the income I need, and the business of being a visual artist has plenty of challenges all by itself. So, why do I bother with arts education? Why am I a teaching artist?
Originally, it is because I was asked to be. I was hesitant at first, but people showed me there was a curiosity out there, a desire to know about what I do. When I discovered that the love and enthusiasm I have for my work could be infectious, I was hooked. Every time I see the face of a student, whether child or adult, light up in delight with the simple act of creating something beautiful and tangible – a small sheet of handmade paper – it reminds me of why I became an artist in the first place.
I’d like to close this journal as I opened it, with another quote from “The Art Spirit” –
There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall this vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.
Quotation from “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri, compiled by Margery Ryerson, copyright 1923, J.B. Lippincott Company.