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.
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.
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.
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.
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 process 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:
Process: a 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.
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.”
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.
-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fifth graders created ceramic busts of different characters from the musical Hamilton. They started with two clay pinch pots, which they attached to form a sphere. They then manipulated the sphere into the shape of their character’s head. They attached a larger pinch pot to the base of the head to create shoulders. Then they added details like the eyes, nose, ears, and hair. Once fired in the kiln, students used acrylic paint and a clear matte glaze to add color and bring their characters to life.