Big Ideas, Big Expression

There are so many reasons why I love teaching art.

There’s the creativity – in itself so multifarious. I get to walk into a creative space – a space adorned with second hand furniture, vintage bric-a-brac and posters and artwork that inspire. And I get to call that work. It makes my heart sing. I get to stretch my creative muscles, too. More importantly, I get to be exposed and fed on my students’ creativity, which constantly inspires and excites me. I teach primary school arts. What my kids bring (yes, I call them my kids) to the creative table – with their own views on the world and on life and on their experiences – is always amazing.

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I love the ubiquitous nature of art; how it transcends, how it can cater to so many intelligences and just how much can be expressed through it without someone needing to speak. I love it that my kids can come to it from any angle they choose. I work in a school with a large demographic of ESL students; art is the place where they don’t need language to speak of themselves or their world. The same goes for those students who may have other difficulties that prevent them from excelling in other areas; art can be their place. And for those students who don’t feel like they have much a voice – art can give them one. The fact is – the arts can be anyone’s place. It’s just a vehicle for responding to the world, to experiences, to life and to oneself.

Then there’s the very experience of being so tactile, of getting your hands dirty (and everything else) and of making something come to life with your own hands. I assume it would be close to the elation avid gardeners would feel – of growing something. Our art room is a frenetic hive of mess, noise and movement, a true assault on the senses.

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I love the twenty-first century skills and virtues that are learned through the arts and that I get to facilitate every time I am in my art room:

  • the problem solving (how can I cut this, bend this, shape this, design this – how can I make it work? What will happen if I put this and that together? What will change? How can I make this represent what I want to say?)
  • the confidence building (learning to share ideas, to take on board feedback, to realise that your ideas really are worthy of being put out into the world)
  • the communication (how can I express myself? What do I have to say about these topics? What are my ideas on the world, or the topic, or life, or myself? How can I share this with others?)
  • the collaboration (sharing their ideas, working with other students and teachers to develop their ideas and work, learning to connect their ideas with other people’s to create something new and imagined)
  • the innovation and birthing of ideas (learning to think about things in a new way, finding new ways to express and develop ideas, learning to use the arts to question things and bring new ideas to life)
  • creative thinking skills (thinking outside of the square about things, challenging ideas, experiencing things on a deeper level, developing different perspectives, learning to be flexible and spontaneous)
  • leadership skills (learning to value their own contributions, developing skills that will enable them to make changes, learning to collaborate and listen to others)

I am a big believer in teaching art as a creative thinking subject and not merely one of artistic skill and technique. Naturally, students need to learn both. They need to learn different techniques and styles to learn new ways to express themselves, but I am also cautious not to take on the role of teaching someone ‘how to do’ something. My focus is always – show me what you can do and what your style is and let’s see how we can enhance that to show your ideas, your expression and who you are. When I think about this and try to articulate it, I always come back to the Little Prince. Recently, on one of many library adventures I borrowed Joann Sfar’s graphic novel adaptation of ‘The Little Prince’. The first few pages are brilliant.

            Once, when I was six, I saw an amazing picture in a book all about the primeval forest, called “True Stories”. It showed a boa constrictor swallowing a wild animal.

“Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing. They can’t move after that, and it takes them six months to sleep off their meal.” That got me thinking. Around that time I did my first drawing. It looked like this.

Does that frighten you?

Why would I be frightened of a hat?

It’s not a hat. It’s a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.

The elephant is inside the snake.

You’d be better off focusing on serious stuff.

That’s what people used to say to me, when I was a child. I gave up drawing because of remarks like that. What did they mean? Serious stuff? Geography, history, calculus, grammar?

Grown-ups told me to give up drawing. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves. I’ve lived among grown-ups a lot. I’ve seen them close up. And they still don’t impress me. I talk to them about bridge, about golf, about politics and about knotting a tie. But never about boa constrictors.

The adult man then meets the little prince, who asks the man to draw him a sheep.

            I’ve got other things on my mind. And I don’t know how to draw.

That doesn’t matter. Draw me a sheep.

This is the only thing I know how to draw. (Scratch! Scribble) Not grey, hey?

No! No! I don’t want an elephant inside a boa constrictor.

That’s the first time anyone understood my drawing.

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It’s so poignant, I think I will be photocopying it and putting it on my art room wall. In the arts, teachers can always run the risk of over instructing and squandering a student’s personal style and expression. The last thing I would ever want was for my student’s to draw things exactly how they see them, or how everybody else sees them, without any thought or perspective or self-expression. The image of the elephant inside of the boa constrictor is the very essence of the creative thinking skills I want my students to harvest.

I once taught a student. He was the most unique kid I have ever taught – complex, intriguing and outlandish. His drawings were not like anyone else’s. He knew it and he was sometimes hyperconscious of it. But I loved his art. It was such an expression of who he was – this frenetic little firecracker. His paintings and drawings were symbolic and were always full of blackened images, child-like stick figures, fire and explosions. They were so powerful; his world was on fire. His work reminded me of Jean Michel Basquiat. One day I brought in my Basquiat book to show him. I told him that if Basquiat drew like everyone else, the world would’ve lost an amazing creative thinker, amazingly intricate and telling artwork and a person who was not afraid to challenge the norm and express their views on the world in such a unique way. My student’s artwork was full of deep thought and reflection. The way it should be.

Art is a thinking subject, an experimenting subject (the parallel between arts and sciences can never be dismissed) and ultimately a place of exploration and discovery. In many ways, I am more interested in the process my students take than how perfect their artwork turns out and I am more enthralled by the thinking that has gone into their artwork. So teaching primary school arts, for me, is not about replication (walls plastered with one hundred Monet lily pads don’t really fit my job description) but about students having the space to flex their ideas, their creativity, their expression and their views on anything and everything. Art is just the medium.

And that’s why I love finding angles in my art classes. I always reflect on a lecture of David Astle’s I attended as part of my professional writing course. He spoke about finding that point of difference in a topic – how can you spin it, twist it, cultivate it? Our art classes are planned around the integrated units students are studying in their year levels. It’s a chance for students to explore the topics even deeper and in a new context and I see it as the place to discuss those big ideas. And so I try to find that angle in those topics. Last term, my grade five and six students were looking at lightness and darkness in an integrated unit on science. We explored this in art, too, through shadow drawings and the literal act of photography. But the angle, the big idea, was what about lightness and darkness in human beings? We had some deep conversations about emotions, about the multidimensional nature of human beings and how we always have something that is just below the surface that we don’t always show people. It was the students’ role to try and explore this idea, to capture it, through photography.

I’ve just finished off the planners for Term 3 and in their integrated unit on Australian history, my grade five and six students are looking at ‘Heroes and Villains’. I was hugely excited about this one. It is always an interesting topic because it raises the very idea of good Vs evil that runs through our world. What does it mean to be good or bad? Can people be intrinsically one or the other? How much does circumstance play in someone becoming a hero or a villain? Are we wrong to classify people into good and bad? Is that too simplistic? It’s an area long debated in philosophy and psychology. And I can’t wait to hear what my students think about it. We will be focusing on cartooning this term and exploring their ideas about good vs evil through this medium.

And there’s one other thing I love about teaching art – discovering new artists to share with my students. Last term I discovered the amazing work of Marta Klonowska (Polish artist who made animal sculptures from shattered pieces of glass), Maud Vantours (French artist who makes incredible paper sculptures) and Jason Ratliff (an inspiring illustrator who works with shadows). In first term, my most favourite discovery was of Slovenian artist – Tobia Putrih – who makes mindblowing sculptures and installations out of cardboard. This term, I am most excited about sharing the artwork of Aboriginal artists – Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the Ngurrara artist collective.

ngurrara_w480The Ngurrara Canvas. Painted by Ngurrara artists and claimants, coordinated by Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, May 1997. 10 metres x 8 metres. Photo: Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.

 

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