Artists Observe 2.0

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Here we are at the start of the ’18-’19 school year, the beginning of our 5th year using the Teaching for Artistic Behaviors pedagogy coupled with full choice for Kindergarten- 8th grade artists, and the last year in our trusty art room. That is right, we are getting a new art space next year as Trinity Episcopal School plans to open the new Fine Arts Complex (what I have named it….) in a brand-new building. The new building will be on the land adjacent to the main school building and the many windows in our current art room give us the best view of the construction.

The first day the “diggers” arrived, the Kindergarten artists were in the studio. These little peanuts are just learning about art at Trinity but let’s face it, Kindergarteners are naturals when it comes to Artistic Behaviors. The behavior of observation is HUGE for them and that first day of construction could not have been more interesting for them to witness . The conversations, cheers and questions around what was happening were beyond measure. There were a few drawings inspired by the observation but for many, it was just a fascinating process to watch. Some may say that we should have closed the blinds and pushed them to create work that was tangible but we did not close the blinds. Rather we gave these young artists time and space to simply observe what was happening.

Then everything kinda coalesced when the 3rd graders came to art later that day. These students have been learning Artistic Behaviors for 4 years now and their process is inspiring to watch. They took “Artists Observe” to new levels. The pictured artists is working from direct observation, siting at the window sill and drawing the machinery as it was working. This artist is using his observation to choose colors, create lines and capture movement. This artist was not instructed by the teacher to draw the machine nor were they told what materials to use. This artist created authentic work by practicing the habit of observation.

This artist is observing a peer build a telescope. As she watched, she asked questions and gave suggestions. Finally, she decided that she wanted to build a telescope as well but started by asking her peer if it was OK. Artists inspire artists!

This middle school artist creates from observing their Koinonia time (our version of MS advisory). He observed a friend with snacks, a friend (sadly) without snacks, a dog that wants the snacks, a basketball and hoop, a box of donuts and a water bottle that is being flipped. This piece couldn’t happen if this artist had not been a keen observer of a moment in time.

Each of the above captured examples of “Artists Observe” happened because the artists were given two essential things that every artist needs: Time and Space. Each artist at Trinity is gifted time to observe and space to create. In between that time and space, the students employ other habits like persistence and engagement, development of craft, envisioning, stretching and exploring, and expressing themselves. These artists are entrenched in what it means to be an artist on a daily basis and we could not be more inspired by them if we tried.

Go out and observe your world,

Jen and Mary Ann

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Child and Adult Aesthetic: Two different sides to the same coin!

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When you google the word “aesthetic” this definition pops up:

  • (adj.) concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty
  • (N.) a set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artistic or artistic movement.

We all know that children see the world differently than their adult counterparts.  Kids can find beauty in a mud puddle that ripples with each new drop of rain where adults find the puddle annoying and dirty.  Adults can spend hours sitting in front of Monet’s Water Lilies, soaking in the varying impression of light on each drop of water while the child rolls on the floor asking, “wwwhhhhhyyyyyyy are we STILL looking at the same painting?”  Both adult and child appreciate beauty but their idea of beauty varies BIG TIME!

When asked the question, “Use one word to describe art, not art class but rather “hang on the wall” art”, the answers where as varied as the age of the people who responded.  Adults use heavy words like “transcendence”, “vital”, “evocative” and “under-appreciated” while students used words like, “special”, “neat”, “complicated” and “pretty”.  Many words crossed both age spans like, “beautiful”, “voice” and “creativity”.  Here is the rub, although the same words are used to describe art the thought behind the word is very different.  Children lack the ability to separate themselves from the process of making art while adults struggle to appreciate the process and focus on the end product.

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Adults find comfort in order and neatness, comfort in a well balanced composition that reflects knowledge of line, shape, form, space, value, color and texture.  Adults want work to speak to their soul, move them to activism and inspire them in a thought-provoking manner.  The photos above show work that was created by 1st grade artists, matted and hung by adults and shown at the annual art show for the consumption of the adults in the students lives. Simply put, they are beautiful works of art that display a nice understanding of the elements of art while touching on art history (the collage pieces are inspired by Matisse and the sunflowers are an homage to Van Gogh).  From the adult point of view, these pieces are incredibly successful and “prove” that the students are learning what is needed to be an artists.

This is what art looks like to the student:

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The materials are varied, the tape is showing and the visible understanding of the elements of art may not be evident to the untrained eye.  But these two pieces (and the hundreds of other student-driven works of art in the art room) live and breath the joy and visual understanding of the artists that created them.  These pieces that many adults would not give a second glance become the “end-all-be-all” of the child artists world at the exact moment they are created.  They represent the child’s ideas around identity, creativity, life and fun.  They are little slices of the student, tacked to the wall as a vulnerable sharing of their artistic soul.  These young artists don’t know that is what they are doing but the adults in their world owe it to them to understand.  These pieces do not appeal to the adult aesthetic, they do not give the feeling of being overwhelmed by the studied beauty of a Ruben’s or the groundbreaking push into cultural identity of a Cindy Sherman photo but to the child, they do just that.  They are a pure representation of the principles underlying and guiding the work of the most important artist in their world, themselves!

When an art program (like the one at Trinity) aims to create artists who create individual and personal works of art, the understanding of the differing aesthetic is so intimately important.  This is difficult for all the stakeholders!  The students are being held to a high standard of envisioning, reflecting, developing craft, expressing, observing and stretching and exploring in a manner that is authentic and meaningful to the artist.  The students are creating to their aesthetic, not the aesthetic of the adults in their world.  It is difficult for the adults to remember the child aesthetic and they want their children to succeed in a manner that reflects adult beauty.  We promise, as Trinity strives to create artists rather than simply make art, the students learn every last thing they need at the exact moment they need it, not the exact moment a pacing guide says they should.  In the mind of the art teachers at Trinity, this is possibly the most logical thing we do on a daily basis (way more logical than trying to create workable system to store 3-D work created by hundreds of young artists!).

So when your adult aesthetic looks at work and sees random “stuff” glued together, ask the artist about the work, read the artist statement or try to guess what it was about the material that pushed the artist to create the work.  We promise, it means WAY more than a few discarded cd’s, dead marker caps and some wire.  Ask questions, seek clarification and resist the temptation to correct or critique the work on it’s “finished product” beauty to fit your adult aesthetic.

Thanks,

Jen and Mary Ann

 

 

Teachers Aren’t Just the Tall People in the Room

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With the exception of several middle schoolers we are taller than our students, but we are not the only teachers in the room. Students teaching each other happens every day in the art room. Here are some examples of conversations between students:

“I can show you how to mix the colors to make Carolina blue.”

“Let me show you how to make a flap so your sculpture is stronger.”

“Go check out Mattie’s paper mache. She will show you how she made it.”

“You should talk to Brandon. He has good ideas.”

In our community of artists we learn from each other. Hands work together. Ideas bounce back and forth. Sculptures hang precariously from shelves. Paintings overload the drying rack. Students argue over favorite materials, hunt for lost marbles and patiently help each other find that “just right” Lego piece. (Hint:marbles are in the couch cushions and that Lego piece is unfortunately hoarded in someone else’s portfolio).

Come visit the art room. A messy and magical place where collaboration is valued over competition and the shortest people are the best teachers.

Thanks,

Mary Ann and Jen

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Teaching FOR Artistic Behaviors= A super fun funeral

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What?!?!  I know, it sounds crazy but in a recent 5th grade class we found that TAB can result in a super fun funeral for……a purple colored pencil!  That is right, the students had a funeral for a colored pencil and it was the best representation of the possibilities our student artists have when we teach for artistic behaviors.  Let’s set the scene….

It was a regular old Tuesday afternoon (as if!) and a 5th grade class arrived for their scheduled art hour after lunch.  Everyone sat down and started their 5 minute observational drawing (a habit that is really starting to take hold!).  The table pedestals contained 4 large building blocks and one little plastic frog.  The blocks were used because this was the day that the Paper/Cardboard Sculpture Studio and the Architecture and Building Studios were opening (in addition to the already opened Drawing, Painting and Mixed-Media Studios).  After the observational drawing time, the students got a quick overview of the new materials in each studio then they were OFF.  At this point of every class, the students choose to go to whichever studio inspires or intrigues them.  On this Tuesday, a few grabbed work in process and continued right where they left off the week before.  Some students decided that they wanted to explore the new Paper Sculpture studio and quickly started to figure out which materials would help them bring their vision to life.  A small group of kids couldn’t wait to get their hands on the new Lego Architecture Studio and a few went to the Building Studio and started exploring with the Keva planks, the Magna-tiles and the large wooden blocks.  Within minutes, everyone was engaged in their own work and the buzz of a busy studio reverberated throughout the room.  Almost all of the conversation was around the art work they were creating.  As we (the teachers) wandered the room and asked question about work we found that something amazing was happening.

Jen started with  two kids working in the sculpture studio.  They were chatting excitedly while cutting some mat board.  “Tell me about your work.”  The response, “we are building a coffin!”  “Interesting…who died?” This is one of the many moments in our TAB studio that we have to remind ourselves that kids are following their own ideas.  Creating a coffin seems kinda morbid for 5th graders but Jen kept asking questions to figure out what was going on.  Student, “Well, we sit at the same table in the classroom and our colored pencil cup only had one purple pencil.  Sometimes we fight over it because we all love purple but yesterday it broke!  Like broke so bad that we can’t use it.  See!”  Then they produced the nub of purple colored pencil.  Jen realized quickly that they brought the colored pencil to art with the sole purpose of building it a coffin to bury their purple friend!  We can only imagine the stream of consciousness conversation that lead to a funeral when the one purple pencil broke but we need not imagine their passion and excitement to use their studio time to a create work.

At the same moment, Mary Ann was in the Architecture and Building Studio with a group a five or six girls.  They had used the large wooden blocks to build the walls of a structure then used the Magna-Tiles to build Stained Glass windows (the magna-tiles are colorful and transparent).  “Tell me about your work.” asked Mary Ann.  All six girls excitedly started to communicate their process at the exact same time (not an easy thing to understand!).  Finally they shared the they were building a church.  “Cool!  What inspired the church?”  The answer (delivered in a very matter of fact manner…A.K.A DUH!) “Um, for the funeral.”  Remember, Mary Ann and I were on separate sides of the art room as this was happening.  That means Mary Ann did not know about the death of the special purple colored pencil and Jen did not know that a church was being built to hold the funeral service.  We excitedly found one another in the middle of the room and sent each other to the group we had just spoke to.

As each group continued to dive deeper into their process the buzz increased to epic levels.  Even the kids who were painting, drawing or working in the Mixed-Media studio caught the funeral buzz and kept one eye and ear on their own work and the other on the progress of the church and coffin.  Some students moved to the drawing studio to make invitations to the burial while others work on flowers made from pipe cleaners and beads found in the Mixed-Media Studio.  We (the adults) were mesmerized by the groups creative process.  As the time in class started to wind down, the coffin moved to the altar in the church and the students gathered for the “service”.  The pews in the church were filled with “live” colored pencils and the students all had a moment to celebrate the life of their purple friend.  They finished just as our clean-up time began.  All students returned to their studios and cleaned up everything.

As they lined up to head off to recess we noticed that the coffined colored pencil was in one students hand while another was holding a sign for the “5th Grade Pencil Cemetery”.  Some had flowers while all held the written invitation to the burial (one of which was handed to the teacher that came to pick them up).  Then they were gone….off to spend part of their recess time burying the beloved purple colored pencil and we were left to prepare for our next class.

So, what the heck does a purple colored pencil funeral have to do with Teacher for Artistic Behaviors?  Great question!  Let’s start with our Studio Habits:  Stretch and Explore, Express, Develop Craft, Envision, Understand Art Communities, Observe, Engage and Persist and Reflect.  Did this group use all of these Habits?  Yes!  Both the church builders and coffin makers worked in new studios so Stretch and Explore was a given.  The entire process bounced from the students Expressing the importance that one little purple pencil had for them.  They Developed Craft by practicing building and sculpture techniques.  Envision may be the big winner with this work!  Seriously, only a child could envision a funeral for a purple colored pencil then get their peers on board to pull it off!  They employed Observation by pulling images of churches and coffins from their past experiences.  They had to Engage and Persist when certain techniques didn’t work while building the church and when they had to cut the coffin top multiple times because it didn’t fit.  This work opens a natural door to explore Understanding Art Communities and Reflection when the students return to the art studio next week.

As we reflect on this class, we realize that none of it would have happened if we didn’t allow the students choice in subject matter and media.  Maybe, just maybe the kids never would have thought to have a funeral for the purple pencil if they never had the opportunity to make and create using their OWN thinking and ideas in the art room.  When the focus is on student choice and artistic behaviors, the young artists are empowered to explore moments in time that are important to them without fear of being “wrong”.  This is a beautiful thing for sure!  Want to see how visibly beautiful is was? Here you go…

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So now you know how fun a funeral can be and how inventive and joyful young artist are when their ideas are valued, embraced and given space to grow.

In loving memory of a wonderful purple colored pencil,

Jen and Mary Ann

Artists Observe

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What do artists do?  This drives almost every artistic inquiry and endeavor at Trinity Episcopal School.  As an artist, this is a difficult question to answer sometimes and as art teachers, it is an essential question to explore with students.  When you deal in creativity and art education, it is impossible to come up with one overarching answer to “What do artists do?”  and at Trinity, this is addressed by exploring the Studio (or Artist) Habits of Mind.  Artists Observe, Stretch and Explore, Develop Craft, Envision, Engage and Persist, Express, Reflect and Understand Art Worlds.  All of these habits work their way into every nook and cranny of the art room and curriculum.

This year we have established a new starting procedure for our 2nd-8th grade artists.  When they enter the studio, they are greeted with quiet music, and an array of random objects placed on pedestals at each table, either a piece of paper or their cumulative sketchbook (depending on the grade level) and selected drawing tool.  A timer is set for 5 minutes and they silently draw what they see in front of them.  After 5 minutes, the page is dated and the daily mini-lesson starts.  Each mini-lesson starts with, “If you chose, you are more than welcome to continue your observational drawing when we break for studio time.”  Although this new procedure has resulted in a variety of unexpected outcomes, the primary reason it was established was to teach the students the artistic habit (or behavior) of observation.  As defined for them, Artists Observe means “Learning to attend to visual contexts more closely than ordinary “looking” requires, and thereby to see things that otherwise might not be seen.” or in the wise words of young art students, “Oh, it means to REALLLLLLY look at something.  I mean REALLY look!” or a personal favorite, “I get it, you want us to pay attention to details in stuff!”  Indeed, really looking and paying close attention to objects and environment are crucial habits for artists but observation as a habits goes FAR beyond the art studio and our students are starting to understand its importance on a variety of levels.  But how to you didactically teach a 2nd grader to observe or even more difficult, how do you teach a 7th grader to observe something other than themselves and the social world around them?  In comes the 5 minute observational drawing exercise!

The 5 minute drawing is not a didactic teaching of “Artists Observe” because every artist observes in their own way.  That means there is really no wrong way to observe the object in front of them.  Some students focus on the hard-edge lines created by the contour of the objects while others focus on the shading created by opaque and transparent objects.  Some focus on how the object interacts with its environment while others focus on the smallest textural patterns or designs.  And then there are the artists that use the 5 minute drawing to simply transition from their previous activity (class, recess, lunch, whatever!).  Some students love this time and some do not.  On more than one occasion students have complained about everything from the classical music to the objects on the table but the longer they practice the procedure, the less they complain and, in turn, the more they observe about the object and their drawings.  Time will tell if this particular procedure will make the students better “observers” of world around them but we have our fingers crossed!

Jen and Mary Ann

Travel, TAB Institute, TASK Parties, and Twitter…Oh my!!

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First things first, the TES Art Department has jumped into the land of Twitter!  Give us a “follow” to keep up with the day-to-day activities in the art room.  You can find us @tesarttab1.  Fingers crossed we can update our Twitter feed more frequently than the blog (but again, we promise to be more proactive on the blogging front!).

This summer gave both art teachers at Trinity time to rest, explore, create and learn a great deal.  Ms. O’Sullivan jumped in her little red Jetta and drove across the great USA.  If you get a chance, ask her to show you her map and chat about the amazing things she saw on her travels.

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Ms. Rankey headed to Boston and spent a week at the Teaching for Artistic Behaviors Summer Institute at MassArt.  Sitting in studios with about 40 other art teachers who all believe that the process of teaching art is one that should and can involve the voice of the student was inspiring to say the least.  Add to that presentations from some of the pioneers of Teaching for Artistic Behaviors, the President-Elect of the NAEA, George Szekely and trips to see amazing works of art in my second favorite city on the planet (Charlotte is #1) and you get one happy art teacher!

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Once summer came to an end, we started our second year of Teaching for Artistic Behaviors at Trinity.  To say we learned a lot during our first year may be the understatement of the year!  We brought our learning from last year, our summer experiences and a renewed excitement about teaching art and started to set up our studio space.  For those of you that may be unfamiliar to Teaching for Artistic Behaviors (TAB), let this serve as your little primer of how it is done at Trinity.  Each student at the school from Kindergarten through 8th grade has at least one visual art class a week.  These classes are designed to help the students start to establish Artist Habits of Mind.  We use the studio habits established thought the Studio Thinking project at Harvard’s Project Zero as our starting point.  These habits are: Develop Craft, Engage and Persist, Envision, Express, Observe, Reflect, Stretch and Explore, and Understand Art Worlds.  The habits are practiced using a choice-base studio experience.  That means that the art room is broken down into multiple “studios” that contain materials needed to develop the artist habits and the students choose from the open studios where they want to work and what they want to create.  So, at any given moment you can have painters, illustrators, fashion designers, printmakers and sculptors working side by side.  This creates an amazing sense of creative and collaborative energy that is honestly a bit contagious.  But, it is also a bit intimidating for many kids and adults.  Our goal is to support the artists as they lean into the discomfort of idea generation and skill development.

When figuring out how to best approach the year we decided throwing a bunch of TASK parties.  Artist Oliver Herring brought the idea of a TASK party to Art 21 and it has taken off!  A TASK party is simple, complete a task and create a new task.  Seriously, that is it! The rules are few and the fun is BIG!   1.  Draw a task from the task box  2.  Complete the task (Interpret it any way you want)  3.  Write a new task   4.  REPEAT and REPEAT  Example tasks are: Create a mustache and wear it for the rest of the task party or Make yourself into a burrito…  Needless to say, a fair amount of fun was had and some incredibly creative solutions to tasks were created!

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When asked why we started the year with a TASK party the students answered things like, “It was fun and art is fun.” But the longer they reflected on the activity the more they realized that it was pretty intentional on our parts.  One student wrote, “I think we had the task party to get our brains flowing with different ideas for the year. To help us think of new ideas.” Bingo!!  They get it and we are happy art teachers!

So, with a positive and energetic start to the year we are opening studios, exploring ideas and simply making art and artists!  Don’t forget to give us a follow on Twitter and look for our next installment:).

Thanks,

Jen and Mary Ann

A Beautiful Mess

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So the transition to a full choice (TAB) model is still in full swing here in the art studio at Trinity Episcopal School.  Every student spends time is the studio throughout the week.  That means that at any given moment there can be 6-year-olds working alongside 14-year-olds.  Although we see a great deal of beauty in this large age span we also see mess after mess.  Let’s be honest, the creative process is not always orderly and is rarely “clean” so messy simply comes with the territory.  The transition to letting students creatively express themselves has put a spotlight on the messy nature of the creative process.  We have established places and spaces for every little bit of material, we have created procedures and directions and we have given material power to the artists but 6-14 year-olds don’t always do what the adults in their world want, especially when they are consumed by their ideas and the process of “making”.  Sometimes we are left with the aftermath of brilliance.  Like the photographs above….wire sculpture is super fun and wire has become one of our invaluable sculpture materials but sometimes it gets a little out of control!  Or the drawing table that was used for a variety of projects then became a work of art itself.  At the end of a busy day, these are the things that can drive an art teacher (or really anyone) CRAZY.  We mutter things like, “really, did the students not see the mess of wire they left?” or “seriously, I feel like a glorified maid and I refuse to pick up after these artists anymore!”

Then we get lost in cleaning up and mutter things like, “No, they seriously did not see the mess of wire they left.  Their brains are still fusing and it is amazing that they used the wire to create animals with whimsey and detail,” and “Yes, I will continue to pick up after these artists.  I was the one who didn’t watch the clock because I was lost in the creative process with a group of sculptors.  And seriously, it could be worse!”  The mess is the opportunity cost of creating an environment that allows students to dive deep into their own creative process.  It is a cost we are more than will to pay when the result is a student’s complete and utter love and passion for their artwork and process, a passion that we have seen flashes of over the years of our careers but see daily since we have transitioned to Teaching for Artistic Behaviors.

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This is why we do what we do.  This is why we clean paintbrush after paintbrush.  This is why we remind students to put materials in the proper place, to write their name on their work and to lean into the discomfort of an uninspired moment.  To find a student completely lost in the process of creating something that means something to them makes the opportunity cost of a mess or two seem too little to have to pay.  The mess of wire becomes something beautiful, the moment of uninspired doodling becomes a moment a student uses to inspire a younger artist.  There are amazing amounts of beauty in the mess and the artists at Trinity are starting to see that beauty.