Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Missing Link

Last night my husband and I went into the city art museum to hear a talk by a well-known illustrator. Aside from the pleasantness of an evening out with my hubby, the talk was great. I came away energized and inspired.

The illustrator is working on a book that’s kind of a follow-up to a bestseller from a few years back, only it’s about how we – our bodies – work. It’s going to be an amazing book. Seriously. The moment it’s available for pre-order on Amazon, sign up.

(Until then, he as numerous books in circulation, and all of them are worthy additions to your home library.)

At the end of the talk, the illustrator took questions from the audience. In response to one question (and, sorry, I don’t remember the actual question), the illustrator said that his work is all about the drawing. Making art is not the focus. He draws for himself, to learn, and in the end, his measure of success is how well he understands his subject.

It struck me that here is the missing link between arts education and pure academics in the schools.

Now, I love visual arts and creating objects or images just for the sake of it is a joy to me. I would not have majored in art history and studio art otherwise! I think kids should have that opportunity, too. That is the ideal, of course. But in this time of tight budgets and focus on standardized testing, art for the sake of art in the schools isn’t winning funds (at least in my district).

I think what visual art teachers and departments need to do is show how the skills and techniques kids learn in art class can be applied to learning in the academic classes. Maybe even disassociate some of those skills from “art” class.

For example, how does one represent what is in front or in back when you are drawing a cell? How do you show where the light is coming from in an image of the solar system? How do you show which mountains are taller on a map? What is the relative proportion of an atom to a molecule as a whole? These questions apply some basic drawing skills. When the art teachers can link some of these observation and drawing skills into other parts of the overall curriculum, the teacher can show how integral art class is to overall learning. Then they can move on to using other techniques and materials to develop appropriate visual metaphors for those academic topics.

The illustrator also talked about the materials he uses. He said he uses “cheap” tracing paper and pencils and markers. When he’s working out these problems of how to understand and represent how bits fit together, using expensive paper and materials just impedes the process, and using tracing paper, he can continually build images as his knowledge advances.

It’s just so simple and logical! Thinking back to my own elementary and high school education, I always understood more when I could map out or sketch or diagram what I was trying to learn. It was part of the doing that lead to the true understanding. The sketching wasn’t always pretty – it doesn’t have to be! – but it helped clarify and set what I was learning.

When it comes to arts in my local schools, music definitely has an advantage. I support music, of course (C plays French Horn), but visual arts need more of a representation. Just this morning, while talking to C about the illustrator, I learned that C doesn’t even have art class right now. He only gets a half year of it, and his half starts in January. I was horrified (and thank goodness he’s in an extra-curricular art class). Music, however, is twice week, plus small group lessons. The music department has a non-profit supporting organization in town – but visual arts does not.

One of the cool things about thinking of arts education in this way is that it removes the pressure of (perceived) talent from the equation. These are some basic skills in hand-eye coordination and observation and spatial understanding I am talking about, and relative aptitude for color or gesture have little to do with it. But like other muscles, these are muscles that need to be exercised regularly to be strong and flexible. Once the muscle is strong and fears and perceptions overcome, creativity and confidence flow. Then the art for art’s sake is a fuller and richer experience.

Art classes are more than extras in school, and they are more than fund-raising greeting cards for other school programs. They truly are a necessary and important part of our kids education.


Anonymous said...

I think you may be onto something. I remember being told in maybe 5th grade that my painstakingly executed drawing of an eye looked like a fried egg by my teacher, and from that moment on, defined myself as not being an art person. Ever. Now that I am an adult, there are areas of my life where I wish I had had the time or opportunity or inclination to exercise my creative side more often. I envy you your ability to sew for example! Perhaps if we could stop seeing art as a pleasant but ultimately useless/frivilous activity, it would "fit" into people's definition of what schools should offer.

Pantheist Mom said...

What an interesting post. You can take almost any component of education in isolation (outside of the "core" subjects), and argue its frivolity. But how shallow and shortsighted.

Visual arts gets a good emphasis in elementary school here but in 6th grade, they only get 9 weeks of it, if they're lucky enough to be randomly assigned to it as part of the "sampling" (along with foreign languages, drama, computers, etc.). I like the idea of introducing kids to a wide array of subjects, but it'd be nice if they could elect to take a more intensive course in addition to their sample electives (like they can for band).