Spotlight on Curriculum: Visual Arts

by Stefanie Victor, Visual Art Curriculum Coordinator, JK-12

“Art is food. You can’t EAT it but it FEEDS you.”
– Peter Schumann, Bread & Puppet Theater
There is an accepted self-contradiction in the whole enterprise of teaching visual art. Can we really teach it and what, exactly, are we teaching? The answer to the latter question might besome of the following: imagination, invention, otherness, ambiguity, abstraction, insight, pleasure, critique, humor, generosity.
Can we teach art? No,we cannot tell a child or teenager which of these things to express or how to express them, but we can create the conditions to elicit them. We can be open, kind and supportive and ask thoughtful questions. We can model the kind of thinking we want to see. To do that, we have to try new things all the time. We have to be engaged and excited – experimenters without foregone conclusions. We have to be wrong and humble. Our highest expectation for students is that they shift our expectations.
We want the purposeful purposelessnessthat Immanuel Kant described in his “Critique of Judgment.” However, when there are immediate, tangible, and threatening issues at hand, it is hard to avoid questioning the import of teaching something innately purposeless. This purposelessness sometimes feels like an Achilles’ heel for the arts, and scholars, artists, educators, and politicians have had to make efforts to account for art’s place in the system.
Some of these efforts point to the role the arts play in relation to other fields. At Grace this is seen in many ways, like the role that visual arts plays in supporting, illuminating and expanding the learning in the humanities and sciences in JK-8 classrooms, or Ms. O’Mara’s collaborative work in creating the elaborate puppets that take center stage during the annual Martin Luther King. Jr. Peace March. We embrace these roles at Grace, and these purposes are a rich part of the fabric of our curriculum.
But there is also something to be said for the inherently stubborn, even defiant lack of purpose that defines the field. There is value in that which is less concrete and recognizable. Schumann continues:
“Art has to be CHEAP & available to EVERYBODY.
It needs to be EVERYWHERE because it is INSIDE of the WORLD.
Art soothes pain!
Art wakes up sleepers!
Art fights against war and stupidity!
Art sings hallelujah!
Art is for kitchens!
Art is like good bread!
Art is like green trees!
Art is like white clouds in the sky!”
It is the adults, I sense – myself included – that sometimes need to be consciously reminded of this. Our students across the school, from the first-time molder of clay in Junior Kindergarten to the Visual Art Major in his or her Senior year, already seem to know. In that spirit, here are some of the implicit and explicit questionsthat the visual art faculty asks our students.
How do you balance expression with self-control?
In Ms. O’Mara’s first grade class, students visualize what they have been learning about Australia in their homeroom classes. To bring the coral reef to life, Ms. O’Mara guides them through a watery jellyfish lesson. First-graders dip their brush into colorful, juicy, watercolor paint, depositing a blobby pool of color on their paper. “Now, wait.” (That’s the self-control.) “Now – shake!” (That’s the expression.) The results are a careful balance of restraint and intuitive, physical response.
How can you literally build a drawing?
In Mr. Hawkin’s fifth grade class, students build on learning they’ve been doing in their social studies courses around the medieval period. After looking at images of different examples of medieval period architecture, Mr. Hawkins has students work in teams to envision their own medieval building. Using printing foam, students literally build a giant relief plate stone by stone. Over the course of their progress, each must make decisions about composition, negative space, and of course, style and engineering. Once completed, students roll up their plate with ink and produce a print for each student who worked on the building.
How can an individual project harness friendship and collaboration?
In Mr. Robinson’s 7th grade class, students take a close look at some of the skills at work in observational drawing, including scale, line quality, perspective, and value. To make the process rewarding and personal, Mr. Robinson asks each student to bring an object from home, then to pair up with another student who brought an object that would complement their own and create an interesting still life. Both students draw the same object pair. Over the course of their progress, Mr. Robinson prompts students to support each other through casual but productive conversation by asking their partner questions, and looking to each other’s work when they encounter a challenge along the way.
How can you reframe something everyday as something mysterious?
In Ms. Salazar’s Drawing 1 class, students are asked to reframe reality. How can you leave “just enough information” to make something recognizable but still mysterious? How can something be both real and abstract? Using cropping, careful attention to the edges of the page, negative space, and by making careful choices about showing or hiding critical pieces of visual information, students set out to make mystery drawings. Using the seemingly simple tools of pencil and paper, Ms. Salazar asks students to be everyday magicians, carefully re-casting the observed world around them.
How can you direct a viewer to see what you see?
In Mr. Todd’s Advanced Photo class, students work within the tradition of street photography and create artists’ books that immerse a viewer in each students’ individual way of seeing their city. Students go out together onto the streets around school over a period of several weeks, shooting images that capture decisive moments that unfold around them. Back in the classroom, students carefully edit and sequence their images into a coherent book that intensifies their vision for a viewer.
How might making art be like giving a gift?
In my Art Major class, students research contemporary artists and the historical and conceptual links that connect them, throughout the year. Halfway through the year, students select an artist with whom they feel a strong connection, and are asked to create a gift and a letter for that artist. The gift might be made in any medium. Their gift is something the recipient should enjoy, but not necessarily something they would make or get for themselves. The idea is for students to make history personal and for the real-world to become an accessible forum for the making of connections and the exchange of ideas.