Saturday, February 5, 2011

Art and Kids and Courage

It's been many years since I took Art Education in University, but what I learned has stayed with me over the years. It was a fabulous full-year class taught by an exacting teacher. She wanted us to know our stuff, backwards and forwards and inside and out, and she had a reputation as a tough marker. She was also a brilliant artist herself, belonging to the art faculty of a major Canadian University.

But what I remember most from her class was the openness. Yes, she was exacting and tough, with high standards for performance. But she was flexible.

She was exacting in that she wanted us to know, absolutely, how children develop artistic skills. How they move from scribbling to making symbols to representational art to deliberately abstract art to... She wanted us to know our art supplies, to know where to find high quality and non-toxic materials, to know where the potential health hazards lay, to understand techniques so that we gained expertise of our own that we could share with children.

But she was flexible in terms of our own art projects. She ensured we understood our materials, yes. She would demonstrate techniques and suggest quality supplies that were satisfying--in the applying of them as well as how they contributed to the final product. She would tell us what she was looking for in terms of our use of artistic principles. But she never told us what our projects had to be, what we had to produce, what things had to look like.

She fully supported our creativity and our initiative. For example, one of the assignments was the creation of a box sculpture. Instead of a four-sided box, I left off the top and used wire strung back and forth across the top with things dangling down into the box. We had an "exhibition" of our work and another professor came by and I heard him sniff and say, "That is not a box. A box has four sides." My instructor said, "Why not? Why isn't it a box? Can't a box be more or different than what we typically think a box to be? It takes courage to create a box that isn't like anyone else's."

Several years later, I took a year-long class at Emily Carr in Vancouver. The purpose of the class was to dip into several different areas of art in the hope of creating a robust admissions portfolio. By this time, I was well on my way to becoming a confident potter and was toying with the idea of going to Emily Carr for the ceramics program. Again, what struck me about this class was although we were exploring materials and techniques, none of the instructors we had ever suggested what our finished projects should look like. Not one.

This is very different than how art is taught both in school and in most studio classes for children. Having the children all churn out the same picture of Yoda or some other uniform project is easier for the instructor. The same materials and instructions suffice for all the children present. It's simple in terms of both preparation and delivery.

And, to be fair, I can see that this unification of product may give children a sense of proficiency (when they can match the expectations of the instructor) and many children appreciate having a finished product that represents something.

But is it art?

Is it creative?

Is it courageous?

Is it an expression of one's own aesthetics and sensibilities?

Is it a reflection of one's self?

Is it meaningful?

And what's most important here? Product? or Process (including self-expression)?

And who really owns the work?

There are many ways to help a child develop artistic skills without making it a cookie-cutter process. And not all classes are like this. If your child wants to participate in an art class, the best way to find out if you've found a good match is to look at the art and come to your own conclusion. If the children are using all the same colours or the subject matter is similar, then you may want to ask the instructor what the process is from start to finish and see what they say.

And there is nothing wrong with imitation. Often, initiative follows imitation... if imitation is a choice and not imposed.

But kids don't need a class to do art. You are fully capable of supporting your child's artistic development at home, even if you don't feel all that skilled or artistic yourself.

The next few posts will focus on how to support a child's artistic explorations in a way that is open-ended and encourages individual creativity. I'll give some suggestions as to where to find quality materials that you can use at home with your children and reassure you that you don't need to be a fabulous artist yourself to support your child's interest in making marks about their world.

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