Hands Deep in Art

Homeschooling, Teaching Writing  /   /  By Amy Gibbs
Stone Soup Magazine
Sept/Oct 2016

I never want to know ahead of time which kids are “those” kids. When I walk into a classroom, ready to teach a unit on art, I don’t want to know which kid is the one who falls off his chair to entertain his neighbors, which kid is a super-talented artist, or which kid is the mouse. It’s not that I want to walk blindly into a classroom, or that I have some airy-headed view that all kids are artists, and have equal “gifts.”  I just know that it doesn’t matter how “talented” they are, it’s what is in their head and hands when they make art that is important.

After teaching art as an itinerant “Artist in Residence” (which makes it sound like I lived at the school, but in fact simply means I am a working artist and am not required by the State to have teaching credentials) in a K-5 public school for several years, I noticed something interesting. I would walk into a classroom of 30 kids, not knowing them AT ALL . In the process of teaching a project I would see a student focus really hard, and come up with amazing and brilliant ideas, or use color in a way I would never have thought about. Later, the classroom teacher would come to me and say “You know, I really didn’t expect that kind of thing from that child.” And I would think, “I am so glad I didn’t know that before.”

Oh don’t get me wrong, sometimes I walk into a classroom and instantly know which kid just cannot sit in their chair for more than three seconds, or which one is the super-motivated, future class president. And often that bright, motivated kid is very, very successful at working with the medium I am teaching. And sometimes the kid who is falling off the chair every time I look at them is a huge challenge to teach. But I seriously don’t want to hear from the teacher ahead of time which kids are “those” kids. Even if they normally display a prodigious talent for drawing horses or kittens or trains. Especially that. I could do a whole blog on the kids who have been told their whole life that they are terribly gifted at drawing, and how, by about third grade, they are so clenched about how they draw that they HAVE to draw the same thing over and over again, EXACTLY the same way.

Not that I’m dissing natural talent, or a child who loves to draw. It’s just that every kid has a challenge of some kind. For some, it’s holding scissors correctly. For some, it’s learning that there is MUCH more to the world of art than drawing dogs realistically.

So to the kid who says “I can’t draw” I say “Hallelujah! Neither can I. So let me show you how do do art.”

Which brings me to my fifth grade tile project.20160121_150225(1)

Personally, I love my rock-star status as Art Teacher. I would not be a classroom teacher for all the money you could throw at me. The kids who come to me to work with clay do not have to be motivated. They come fully loaded and ready to go.

We start by talking about the project. We go over what they need to know about the theme of the tiles, how to design in a four-inch square, and the basics of the clay process. I ask for a show of hands—who has worked with ceramic clay? A hand or two goes up. They’ve painted bisqueware at a local business. Not the same thing. How many love to get their hands into mud puddles? They look at me as if I’m daft. These are mostly farm kids. They know mud puddles. They don’t put their hands in them. “Imagine if you were drawing your design in the mud with a stick,” I tell them. Hmmm…well that sounds a little crazy, but they can kind of go there.

I keep forgetting that these kids, even though they are almost all 12, have never made a pinch pot, or done a coil pot, or built a slab tray or even used air-dry clay. Most of them have never, ever been taught in the course of a regular school year to get their hands into real clay.

In about a week, after they’ve worked on researching their individual subject, I “approve” their design. This year our theme is State Symbols, so they find birds, flowers, trees, bugs, and even firearms. That last one was quite the coup, since students are technically not allowed to draw weapons, but he found a way. Resourceful young man. It was also quite a challenge, being a muzzle-loader long gun, which does not fit well into a four-inch square. He got a wonderful dose of problem solving, thinking on his feet, working and adapting to the circumstances, patience and focus.

Actually, ALL of the students got some mega-doses of all those skills and more. The student who wanted to do the Texas Bluebonnet drew a lovely pencil rendition of that complex flower. She got her wet square of clay to work on, and a slab of clay to cut out and build the relief of her design. When she cut the design out of the paper, it looked mostly like a lumpy bunch of…well, lumps. Problem solving, thinking on her feet, adapting to circumstances. I asked her, “How are you going to solve this?” She looked back at me. I said, “Pick up the clay, play with it. See what it will do.” She did, I turned my back to talk to another student, and next thing I know, she had an amazing relief of a Texas Bluebonnet she accomplished by cutting individual pieces out of her little flat patty of clay, and sticking them onto her wet tile.

Her neighbor says, “Wow! That is so cool! How did you do that?” And we’re off. Everybody sees how she overlapped clay and cut little pieces to make a bigger shape. Light bulbs go on. Someone else needs to do a flower and now he knows how he’s going to solve the problem of making it look like a daisy and not a blob. Another wants to use the idea to make his tree look more dimensional.

This is how it goes.

Then we get to the group of six kids who have been chosen to do the American Flag. Each will do a portion, which they’ve drawn. Heavens. It doesn’t seem like they’ve consulted each other at all, though they swear they have. Some of the squares with stripes (all they had to do was draw stripes) look like zebras, with way too many lines that wander and straggle down at an angle.

Long patties of clay are passed around, they have to match the raised stripes on THEIR tile with the one that will go next to it. The student with the field of stars has to figure out how to make 50 stars fit into a four-inch square. We find tools, they look a little lost, then a girl says “Okay, let’s start with the top stripe raised and go down.” The others look relieved–the logjam is broken. “Here, use some of my stripe, I made too much.” “Stick it down like this and then trim it so it looks neater.” “Let’s put them together so we can see if they match okay.” “Hey, if we all make them a half-inch inch wide, it’ll work!” I step back as much as possible.

At lunch break, I talk to the teacher. It seems she put those six students together to do the flag because she thought it would be simple. These six were kids who she saw in the classroom, day after day, for whom she felt it would be a challenge to design and create anything more complicated than stripes and stars. What she didn’t know was that coordinating the effort, making a two-dimensional design (a flag is flat) in a three-dimensional medium, and making it all look interesting and individual without being a hot mess, was a LOT harder in many ways than just cutting the shape of a peach out of clay and sticking it onto the wet clay tile. What I didn’t know ahead of time was that these kids were “those” kids. It’s not that their flag ended up amazingly better than any of the other kids’ work, but it came out really nice, they were extraordinarily proud of their product, and so was I. Where they came from in their thinking and skills to where they ended up when they worked together like a little machine was pretty awesome, even when I didn’t know they were the kids who were assigned the “easy” job.

I know that art is not the only subject in which students learn to solve a problem that is unexpected and complex. I know that math and language offer the same opportunities, especially with the new techniques, which stress flexible thinking and multiple strategies. But I also know that there are very few subjects in the school day for which almost every single child lights up with an eagerness to get their hands in, and get going on the project.

They don’t even know that they are reinforcing neural pathways to be flexible and responsive to challenge. They have no idea they are learning to make choices, learn from consequences and solve problems that have no “right” answer as they will when they enter the real world beyond the classroom. They just know that they want to “do art” with me.

Amy Gibbs
About the Author

Assistant Art Heritage Coordinator at Mesa County Valley School District #51

I am a native of the part of Northern California that is considered by many to be more Oregon than California. Far from the urban centers, blue-collar, with blazes of surprising liberality.
I now live in the part of Western Colorado that is considered by many to be more Utah than Colorado. Over the considerable barrier of the Rockies from any urban area, ranch and mining country with flashes of neo-liberal outdoorsy environmentalism.

I am a working artist, a mother, an educator.

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