Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What a Great Way to Spend a Day!

Earlier this year I was contacted by Kelley Baum, a teacher at Franklin Fine Arts school in Chicago with a request that I participate in the school's annual Arts Day.  I was happy to have been asked and eager to participate in this annual event.  Every year artists from all areas of the arts are invited to spend the day with the student body.  This year artists included dance companies, authors, theater companies, visual artists, actors and musicians. 

I have some experience with teaching art in the classroom.  During the 2005-2006 academic year, I designed and implemented a weekly comprehensive art education curriculum for a Montessori class of children ages 6-9.  This curriculum amounted to a hands-on trip through art history.  The challenge was to create weekly projects that not only followed the history of art but were engaging and workable with the ages included in the classroom.  We began with one of the earliest examples of art, cave paintings.  Working with clay each student created his/her own individual section of a cave wall and carved and painted it using the original cave painting images for inspiration.  Well, needless to say, working with clay was a big hit with 6-9 year olds.  It was a messy but successful first class!  Throughout the year we progressed through the history of art.  We made papyrus scrolls with glue and brown paper bags (which was  messy and therefore a hit!) which we decorated by adding each students name in hieroglyphs.  The students got to feel what it must have been like for Leonardo de Vinci to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when they created drawings on boards fastened to the bottom of their chairs.  They also were introduced to artistic concepts such as cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism.  During one class I told the children about Jean Arp and the idea of chance.  By tearing  pieces of paper, dropping them onto a sheet of paper and gluing them down where they fell, each student was able to create their own collage using the law of chance.  This also taught them the importance of letting things happen and being ok with that lack of control.  That was probably one of the most important lessons taught in art class that year; to let things happen, to embrace that your art was not like the example or the student sitting next to you.  "Happy accidents" became my mantra and I repeated it more times that I can remember during that year of art.
So back to the present, as I said, I was eager to participate in Arts Day and looked forward to having the opportunity to work with students again.  Now, the question was, what was I going to do with a classroom of 4th graders for two hours!?!  I decided to create a project that the children could do that was similar to my encaustic and fiber sculptures but had a decidedly less abstract, more familiar form; the hand. 
I began my time with the fourth graders of Franklin Fine Arts by talking about encaustic, demonstrating  the process and showing them my work.  The first question I received was whether or not I was a REAL artist.  It was with that question that I knew that it was going to be a great way to spend a day! 
The excitement level in the classroom was really something.  They were going to spend the next two hours learning about something they did not know (although one little girl told me with great seriousness that she was very familiar with beeswax as her grandmother has candles all over her house).  For the next two hours they were going to make art and that was cause enough for excitement!  Yeas, this was going to be a great way to spend a day! 
Using paper outlines of their own hand, each child used a lightweight wire to trace that shape and create a simple wire armature.  Looking at the final hand shape that each student formed, I questioned my earlier belief that the hand shape would be a less abstract design than some of my own works! 
With each new sculpture I make, there is inevitably scraps left over of encaustic coated fabric.  It was these remnants, pieces that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, that the students were to use for their sculptures.  Laying their wire hands on a piece of wax paper, they chose shapes and colors from my many bags of scraps and layered and layered until their design was complete.  Now it was time to fuse.  This, was a highlight of the day for many of the students who returned to the back of the line again and again to see me heat their hand sculptures again and again.  The heat from the hot air gun causes the fibers to move slightly as the wax melts and the fibers fuse and that, to a fourth grader, is really something to see!  For a final "hands-on" fusing, each design was covered with wax paper and a towel and it's creator was able to rub the surface to ensure a nice smooth fuse as well as being able to feel how warm it had gotten.  Probably the students biggest challenge was waiting until their hand sculpture was cool enough to peel off the top layer of wax paper.
That really was a great way to spend a day!  I came away with a lot of great memories of the children I met and especially of the things they said and the way they viewed those two hours in their life.  I think my favorite quote of the day was made by a little girl, who, upon hearing someone say that they were not good at art, corrected him by saying that "everyone is good at art".

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