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Welcome to “The Barnesville Buzz!” I am excited to offer this blog as an opportunity to share some of the amazing work that my students are creating. Time permitting, I will post images of each assignment, including information about source artists, unusual techniques, and in-process photos.

A buzz is a murmur, a quiet hum that can be amplified through great numbers of voices, hands, hearts, and minds, working in unison. A buzz is a state of movement, filled with energy, a busyness on the brink of chaos, yet perfectly orchestrated. This vibration is the spirit of joy that I carry into the classroom and that I encourage each of my students to embody through the process of art making.

Meet Mark

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Last spring, I introduced seventh graders to the sculptures of Mark Jenkins, a local artist from Washington D.C. Jenkins who uses tape and plastic wrap to create plastic casts of people and objects. He then places his sculptures in various environments, some clothed and others partially translucent, with the process of casting left visible.

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The sculptures run the gamut from serious to mischievous, humorous, and disturbing. They often draw the attention of police when a passerby, tricked into believing a sculpture is real, reports it to 911. Many of these clothed sculptures appear to be homeless, or at the very least speak to the feeling of emotional isolation. Closer inspection would surely reveal that they are not real, which makes me reflect on the distance we so often put between ourselves and those considered different, perhaps even dangerous. We choose not to interact, to avert our eyes, while casually dropping coins into re-purposed containers. Or worse, we wait for the next person to come to the rescue, which inevitably leads to a kind of bystander apathy. In both of these scenarios our own comfort wins out while we move through the world paralyzed by the thought of confronting our personal biases, assumptions, and widely-held stereotypes.

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Jenkins’ clothed figures have an especially powerful effect in the way that they startle and surprise. His work reminds me of that strange mix of fear and exhilaration I get when riding on a roller coaster. In the image above we see three men, completely concealed by hoodies, ski masks, gloves and other articles of clothing. They sit, each with a baseball bat in their hands.

When I talk to students about work like this (or any image for that matter) I am always curious to know what they notice first. Their responses, and the order in which they come, provide a glimpse into our brains’ thought processes and our collective biases. These conversations are more important than anything else that happens inside my classroom because they prompt students to observe not only images, but the way we absorb information and interpret it.

A (fatal) love affair with efficiency:

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Each day we are inundated with thousands of images, and even more so in our technology-driven world. In order for us to process all of this visual information our brains need to be able to “read” images efficiently. This process helps us to categorize, store, and retrieve information quickly, so we can do things like recognize people we know next to people we don’t; a shirt next to a sock- can you imagine how long it would take to sort through a basket of laundry if we could not distinguish between the two?

The examples above are just two of the many practical reasons why our brains have developed to work this way, but a consequence of this efficiency is that it opens the door to all kinds of stereotyping. One way that I help students to recognize the “pitfalls of efficiency” is to teach them to closely observe images and artworks and to notice the assumptions they make surrounding issues such as race, gender, and sexual-orientation, just to name a few.  

If I can return for a moment to the image above: I observe that the figures are probably men, wearing hoodies, ski masks, gloves, and holding baseball bats. They are also wearing long pants, high socks, and shoes. Nowhere is any part of their skin or hair showing. They are sitting down in a public space, all three gazing at the tile floor in front of them. If I were in the space with the sculptures, and if I stopped to look at them even for 30 seconds, I would probably realize quickly that they are not real. But if I was walking by, my brain would see the ski masks, the bats, the gloves…now I am turning around and walking the other way or picking up my pace to move quickly past them.

I’ve observed three things about the entire scene and decided it’s unsafe to get any closer. While I’m walking away, my heart rate begins to slow down and I start to build a narrative around what I have just seen, only I haven’t really seen much at all. Maybe in my narrative the men are black and they are waiting to attack. They’re probably gang members out to get retribution. They are moral-less and uneducated. Before I know it, I have constructed an entire story around three articles of clothing.

In this case, I have the benefit of being able to look back at the photo again, see that the men are completely covered, and that there is no possible way for me to know their race. I can take apart my thought process and begin to see how the ideas I have inherited about black men and violence are so powerful that they exist even outside the observable facts of a situation.  

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Some of you might be thinking, well okay but we need to be able to make judgments quickly in order to protect ourselves from danger. To which I would say, this is true but not to the extent of our ancestral cavemen and women. I think the main problem here is that our bodies haven’t quite evolved to function within the world we now live. And perhaps more problematic, we continue to teach fear at the expense of seeking to understand and connect with people different than ourselves.

The Project:

All of this looking, and thinking, and reflecting is an important part of how I try to start every project with my students; And so with my seventh graders we started by looking at a wide range of Jenkins’ artwork and talking about how he uses the environment to contextualize his sculptures and to break with the model of the white cube gallery. He uses humble and relatively inexpensive materials, not normally associated with fine art. He takes his work and its ideas into unconventional spaces, making the artwork accessible to a wide range of people, not only museum-goers.

Using Jenkins’ tape casting technique, seventh graders worked in groups to create sculptures of people (themselves), which they then installed at locations around the school. They could choose to clothe their artworks or keep them as they were, but all of the sculptures needed to interact directly with the environment in which they were placed. Casting proved difficult, especially as supplies became depleted (for future reference, it takes a whole lot of tape), but in the end we had at least a couple of sculptures that retained their form, and when dressed, were startlingly realistic.

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The students loved this project. You could hear their enthusiasm in the giggles that filled the art room as they wrapped one another, and you could see it in the care they took displaying their projects around our school.  

Then came some concerns about the artworks’ potential to frighten younger students and a few subtle requests to relocate certain pieces. As an artist these are the kinds of moments that I both look forward to and dread. I look forward to them because they are an opportunity to educate our community about the ideas and artists that have motivated the artwork; And in this case, to explain why exhibiting artwork in unconventional spaces is an important tool that artists use to question how artwork is presented and for whom it is accessible. It is a moment I dread because my initial reaction is often to feel under attack and I retreat from the opportunity to express my ideas and values in order to avoid conflict. I can say this comfortably because I know I am hardly alone in this feeling and because it is something I continue to work on within and outside of my school community.

In fact, I had all but forgotten about the requests to relocate the artworks when something (the very impetus behind this post) transpired.

When Fear is the Elephant in the Room:

Sometime during the weekend of a major wind storm, the power went out at school, causing the alarm to go off, and the police to show up. A staff member was at school during this time and later told me that when one of the officers approached the front of the building and spotted one of my seventh graders’ sculptures (below), he placed his hand on his gun. In case the photo is not clear, this is a child-sized sculpture sitting in a chair, clothed in sweatpants, a hoodie, bearing no weapons, and not displaying them self in any kind of threatening manner. Needless to say, I was shocked and mortified.

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I was not there and cannot attest to the accuracy of the story or its re-telling. Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned by what it communicates about the current relationship between the police, students, schools, and gun violence. Without intention, the group of students that worked on this sculpture created a situation that perfectly reflects the fears and anxieties that are surging through schools and communities around the country, including our very own.  

I thought about this story more and more in the days and weeks that followed: Okay, it’s the weekend, the alarm has gone off, perhaps there’s been a break in, maybe the intruder is still inside…maybe all of those things are true, and there’s a “child” hunched over in a chair with a hoodie on. The officer’s heart rate most likely increased, a momentary rush of fear running through his veins.

That feeling is what Jenkins is after when he creates and displays his work because it is what brings his figures to life. Surprise, even fear, at an artwork’s realness pulls his audience in and hooks them emotionally. And as we all know, emotion is at the heart of almost every choice we make. It is as powerful as reason, and sometimes more so. It connects us to objects, and places, and people…even plastic ones. So when we talk about emotionally-charged artwork, it is about creating the connection between object and audience that allows moments of vulnerability and reflection.

Mark Jenkins’ “84 Men” Installation For Suicide Preventionmark-jenkins-calm-project-84-london-1

So whether we call it surprise or fear, this feeling I am talking about connects seamlessly with what happened with the officer and the gun by underscoring the major role that emotion can play in matters of life and death. The responding officer (hypothetical or otherwise) was scared and in that moment failed to observe all parts of the picture, to contextualize the situation and the likelihood that an alarm went off because of an intruder versus the windstorm that had already downed a number of trees.

As long as we have a human police force we will never have a completely objective one. But there are ways to minimize emotionally-reactive decision making, and dare I say, chip away at this deadly culture of fear. Learning to notice how you respond emotionally in different situations and with different people is one way. While looking closely at how we interpret images, perpetuate stereotypes, and breed all kinds of “isms” is what I seek to do as an important part of being an art educator.  

What strikes me most in all of this is the potential to change the way our youngest people learn to read the world around them, and consequently, to save lives. Students that learn to look at things closely and critically not only dispel the lies of stereotypes but they also learn to recognize real threats. Students that are indoctrinated into a culture of individualism, hate, and fear of the “other,” never learn to be critical thinkers nor to reap the benefits of self-awareness and interpersonal connection.  

The views expressed in the post are wholly my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my colleagues or other members of my school community. 

Some of the information presented in this post is hearsay and cannot be substantiated. It is included for its remarkable similarity to incidents of police misconduct that have been documented. 

How to…ZINE!

 

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Zines are low-tech self-published magazines made by artists and distributed in small batches. They can be made up entirely of images or combine image and text, and they address a wide range of topics from the humorous to the political.

Sixth graders wrote and designed their own zines based on the prompt “how to…” They learned to create handmade paper, which they used for the covers of their zines. Then they used Google Docs to experiment with different fonts and page layouts. They printed their text leaving room to paste in drawings and photographs. The collaged draft was then photocopied, unifying text and image and giving the final artwork that quintessential look of a zine.

Once more with Rousseau

I returned to this lesson again after several former third graders told me it had been their favorite.

Using an array of materials, students constructed a diorama based on Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings. We learned to draw various animals using instructional books and images printed off of the web. The animals were cut out and inserted into the dioramas, where students also used feathers, fabric, stones, moss and other materials to build out the environment.

This project offers students lots of opportunities to problem-solve and be creative with everyday materials. By combining sculpture with illustration, students can move between different modes of making and this seems to create the right balance for keeping students engaged.

 

 

The Letting Go

 

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—Illustration by Jori Bolton for Education Week

It’s been a year of letting go. I’m slowly retreating from more traditional approaches to art education, while simultaneously rewriting my own philosophy of teaching.

When once I might have tried to re-direct a project seemingly gone “off track,” saying things like “well, this is not really what the point of this project is” or “uh…I don’t know, could you maybe infuse some of (insert artist’s name here) back into your work?”, I have instead started saying things like, “I want you to be excited about what you are making and if that means it does not look exactly like what I imagined, that is okay.” It is is more than okay. Because learning about an artist is important but imitating one is not.

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“Nice work Jonny! That’s not mine, it’s Tom’s.”

I grew up learning through imitation, making one-off projects that I sometimes loved but never felt I could really call my own. Suddenly I was an undergraduate in college and I had to generate my own ideas, which I had never had to do because my teachers always gave me their best ones. And it’s hard for us art teachers not to. The process of creating a lesson plan is a creative endeavor itself, so much so that it begins to feel like we have some ownership in what our students make. It’s fun to watch your plan soar or crash or land somewhere in between, usually with little regard for how the student may feel about the prRelated imageocess or the finished product.

The arts are one of the only subjects that are regularly presented to the public and as an art teacher everything that goes up around my school feels like a reflection of me. Naturally, I want my students’ work to look polished and precise.

The problem is good craftsmanship is developed over a long period of time, as is the intellectual complexity of a work of art. I can’t reasonably expect my students to make outstanding work every time unless I hold their hand through every step of the process…a set of steps that I have developed for them and which does not actually teach them how to have ideas of their own nor to problem solve.

Luckily, there’s another way to think about this:

Processa way of creating that invites experimentation, challenge, and reflection; where artists engage with materials and ideas through research, observing the world around them (as well as the work of other artists), all while developing their craftsmanship and expressing their feelings, thoughts, and values.

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There’s a lot in that definition but no where does it talk about the product. Removing the emphasis of art making from the product frees art teachers and their pupils to focus on the skills that artists use rather than what they make. This is important because if we follow this model of “process over product” most of what we make, and I mean in all subjects, will fail. But in the process of making and reflecting, students will learn that failure is not an invitation to quit but one to keep going. If instead, we hand-hold through all aspects of teaching, when students do fail (and they will) the effects can be catastrophic:

“Ms. Eargle, can I throw this (artwork I have spent the last month working on) away?”

“Ms. Eargle, do you like this?” (5 minutes later) “Ms. Eargle, do you like this?” (5 minutes later)….

“Well, I think I’ll do it this way because it will be easier.”

“I saw my grade was an F and I knew that couldn’t be right because it’s just art.”

I just want my art to be at least okay. I want standard/average level. I don’t have any big goals for this.”

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My face when I hear these comments.

I love my projects. I love the results and all the parents that tell me how great the work looks. But I hate hearing my students’ lack of confidence and their apathy towards the visual arts even more. And so I find it’s time for THE LETTING GO (which also happens to be the album title of one of my most favorite artists, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.)

What does this letting go look like?

The short answer:

We never know because each student is different and so is their work.

The long answer:

-Rethinking how to present student work and give it context so that the process, the cornerstone of this philosophy, is made visible. This could mean that all of the student’s sketches, research, and written reflection is presented alongside their finished artwork.

-Re-configuring the art room and its materials to be organized and accessible.

-Making clear in all sorts of formats (visuals, text, video, etc.) how to use materials safely, effectively, and cost-efficiently.

-Modeling the 8 Studio Habits of Mind.

-Scaffolding students in the beginning of each year with a number of skills that they can refer back to as they design and produce their individual artworks.

-Empowering students to think independently and use all of the resources available to them. When students come to see their peers as people they can learn from and the internet as a tool for learning new techniques, they are no longer reliant on me exclusively.

-Regular one-on-one conferences with students as I help each to work through a distinct set of problems.

-Being a coach and a cheerleader, and believing in a kid’s project even when it’s not something I would make.

As you can see, letting go does not happen effortlessly. It is not an escape from planning, but a new approach to it. Where once there might have been a lot of work cutting, printing, prepping, there is now more emotional labor: looking, listening, showing compassion and enthusiasm, encouraging creative problem solving without actually solving the problem for students. I get to keep my best ideas for myself and my students get to learn how to generate their own.

 

 

 

Mexican Inspired Artworks by First Grade

Every year first graders learn about Mexico, concluding with a celebration on or around Cinco de Mayo. As part of this year-long cultural study, students learn about lots of different styles of Mexican folk art. I combine these styles with more contemporary approaches to create assignments that are fun and accessible, all while covering a wide range of art media.

In collaboration with their Cinco de Mayo Celebration, all of the artwork made throughout the year is displayed in the form of a “Mexican Market.” Students, accompanied by their parents, are given fake pesos to walk through the market/exhibition and purchase their artwork.

Some new projects I added this year include:

Esqueletos de Animales


Combining imagery from the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos and the skeletons of animals, first graders created colorful mixed media artworks. Each student started with a print out of an animal in silhouette, then used a white oil pastel to draw the animal’s bones where they thought they would be. They then used markers to add colorful flowers and a background similar to the ofrendas found throughout Mexico during Dia de los Muertos.

Mini Mortars

These miniature tri-legged bowls were inspired by the mortars and pestles used to make guacamole in Mexico and elsewhere. Students shaped a sphere of red clay into a little pot and attached three small coils of clay to the bottom. After the pots were fired once, students used black and white glazes to add pattern and contrast to their vessels.

Still-Life Cacti Watercolors

First graders observed Ms. Eargle’s potted cacti and created watercolor paintings using different techniques, like “wet into wet” and “dry brush.” Students could choose to invent an environment for their cacti or approach the background abstractly. They then used Sharpies to add details and emphasize the spikey bits.  

Larger Than Life

This is a new take on an old idea. Last year I had my 8th graders make drawings of shoes from observation. I loved the results so much, but wanted to take the lesson in a new direction this year.

I had my 7th graders take black and white photographs of a shoe, which they then used to make drawings at a very large scale. Naturally, many students struggled to make their shoes the full size of the paper, which was something like 30″ x 40″. Those that did, frequently ended up with portions gone askew, and a quickness to their shading that was visible as they improvised ways to complete their drawings in the time allotted for the project. These drawings are among my favorites for their quirkiness and personality.

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Drawing big is a challenge for even the most gifted artists, but the rewards are well worth the effort. I find this to be particularly true with drawings of everyday objects, which when drawn larger than life, become celebrated and special rather than predictable and ordinary.

Aside from being very large, these drawings represent a diverse array of styles, with some essentially a series of contour lines and others a feast of textures. In the case of the former, I talked with my students about how you can use weight of line to imply heaviness or differences in materials rather than explicitly stating those qualities through shading. For students who opted to shade, I worked with them on using different techniques (a ruler, a smudge stick, etc.) to create texture and a wide range of values.

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Antarctic & Arctic Animal Tiles by 3rd Grade

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Third graders researched an antarctic or arctic animal by looking through books in the library and pictures on the internet. They made sketches from their source materials, and chose one that would become the image on their tile. To begin, each student rolled a slab of clay, placed their sketch on top, and traced its lines with a wooden stylus. When the paper sketch was removed, its impression remained on the tile and students used clay tools to add additional details. After being bisque fired, each student used glazes to add color to their artwork.