Saturday, January 31, 2015

Art Show at the Family Literacy Center

For the last several weeks of my residency at the Family Literacy Center in Barre, VT, students have been exploring individual art projects. Many artists painted and drew, while others tried sculpture and photography.

Artist painting a classmate's portrait, titled Sam, 2015, acrylic on canvas board.
Some of the artists had very specific processes, materials, or personal ideas to explore.  The artist above knew before I arrived that she would like to explore building skin tones and values in portraiture. Other students made artwork to put in their child's room to surround them with color and creativity.
Painting a turtle for her daughter

Painting a Transformer for her son- all those shades of yellow!

Sketching a tree
All of the work that students created was hung for the group's art show on this past January 29th. Reporters from the Times Argus and members of the Vermont Art Council, HeadStart, and Capstone were in attendance alongside families and friends of the artists for the event.

The beautifully lit space had perfect architecture to organize the work.
Wherever possible, work was surrounded with a simple black mat.
Student sketchbooks were on display as well.
One project in particular stood out to everyone in attendance for its bold and brave imagery. It is not surprising to find out that many of these young mothers are grappling with issues of body image during pregnancy and postpartum, but it was particularly amazing how one young artist chose to explore this subject.

The artist at right, discussing her work with viewers.
 This artist chose to create photographs intended to elevate and normalize the group's pregnant and postpartum bodies.  Using a digital camera and software to crop the image or change the tonality, the artist documented the stretches, curves, and pathways of their marks.  Every student in the class wanted to participate and have her photo taken.

This created a bit of a stir among some staff.  The day before the show, the artist was asked to pull several images deemed too controversial to be part of the art exhibit.  I haven't had many times in my life that I have had to discuss the censorship of art with staff and students, but this was an exceptional circumstance indeed.  The student was told that close-ups of the skin were fine, but full- or even partial-body images were not. 

Macro lens skin photo. Apparently fine...
  But this one below, we noticed, got an exemption, and was allowed in the show. Hm.

Also, apparently fine...
The real kicker? The artist's self-portrait was "not fine."

Self-portrait of the artist, apparently not fine.
When she and I got down to discussing this, the reality was obvious to her before I even put words to it- images that were deemed "harder to look at" by some adults were not welcome.  In the words of the artist, images reinforcing an idealized, "bouncing-right-back-like-a-movie-star" aesthetic were fine.

Which was her Whole. Entire. Point.
That normal women don't always look the same after children. And that it's okay not to.

The morning of the art show, her teacher noticed this discrepancy- essentially, all of the images were the same, and featured the same scope of the body- and thankfully proceeded to print out almost all of the missing, censored photos.

The grouping of her work on exhibit, collectively titled You Are Beautiful.
I really wonder what she took away from that experience. Mostly, she expressed relief. What does it teach a young person that an art project, in no visible way obscene, can be censored based on opinion? I also try to keep in mind the balance of supporting student ambitions and meeting everyone involved where they are at, so to speak. Lots of people do not like to be uncomfortable, and I try to remember the importance of respecting that too. But is it not the job of art to simultaneously allow the artist to be expressive and to force the viewer to think? I would say real emotional impact tends to make art pretty great.  Many of the world's most celebrated artists- Georgia O'Keefe, Robert Mapplethorpe, Chris Burden, Judy Chicago- make viewers very uncomfortable at times.

Because often, what a person will remember is what stands out- what challenges a person and makes him or her think.  No surprise- the newspaper journalist interviewed the artist extensively about her work, while an assistant videoed the conversation.  Because in the scope of sunsets, landscapes, and cute animals, this is the work that stood out: full of meaning and intention.

Group Mural- Family Literacy Center

The students with whom I have been working in Barre, Vermont, worked as a group to create this finished mural over the course of the residency.

Family Literacy Center group mural, 2015, Acrylic on board, 96"x96"
 The group chose to explore how they look for balance in their lives as young parents.

Two new lovelies in the classroom who supervised the creative process.
The design they created changed and grew over the course of the work. Initially, they set out to create something of a solar system filled with constellations formatted to become text as well as images.

A warm-hued underpainting for the work
As they began painting, they felt the importance of creating spaces in the work for everyone's unique voice and needs, and so moved toward using the grid of spaces which was naturally created by the gridding/enlargement process of the initial sketches.

This grid, with its bold mix of colors and images, quickly took on the look of a quilt.

Going with this theme, students added "stitching" all over the work, creating an image that recalls for me the idea of old-fashioned quilting bees as social events for women to talk about their lives and loves.  It was fascinating to watch these artists move toward working in the realm of Faith Ringgold and her painted story quilts.
Painted stitching on "seams"
 Students used many of the words we had brainstormed in out first session in bold directions on the board to visually unite their separate experiences into a mutual one.

Four of our artists at the January art opening.
In any classroom, among any group of students, you would find a vast expanse of confidence and comfort with the creative process.  There was no exception here, with some artists full of ideas and vision from the first day, while others sat back, more hesitant and terribly concerned that they would "ruin" the work.  However, the marvelous part of the process these artists created was essentially a self-imposed requirement to "own" at least one "quilt block."  Several artists therefore painted and repainted the same area several times to begin anew.

The block on the right, which at this time resembled clouds, changed completely four times.
In the end, their styles blend beautifully, a mix of cartoonish surfaces and fully formed volumes intended to appeal both to adult and child viewers.

Their mural will be installed in the lobby of the school building at 45 Brook Street, Barre, VT.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Water Bottle Reuse Project- RES

A few weeks ago in this post I mentioned that 4th graders would be working as a team to create a project inspired by the glass artist Dale Chihuly.  We have met our water bottle collection goal and have begun the process of making our upcycled plastic chandelier for the library.

Here is a snapshot of the work in progress this morning!

Art under construction! 
More to come when it is completed.

Monday, January 26, 2015

New Group Work and Volunteers Needed! RES

When students are finished with a project, they have many choices about what to do with their time.  There will be more to come about that in another post (soon, I promise!), as it is the perennial challenge of art teachers to support the many different working paces of our artists. In the meanwhile, I thought I might share one of the projects students in that situation just completed.

Group Mural!
This project, done over the last few weeks, is the collaboration of first, second, and third graders who finished early. The intent was to create a fun optical effect, and offer a way for artists of different abilities to work together toward a common vision. Artists used markers and Sharpies to create the work.

Next time you visit RES, pop into the Art Room to check it out in person. Students are very proud.

Coming up soon are arts events for which I would LOVE to have parent volunteers! 

The grades 1 and 2 Art Night is scheduled for February 11, followed shortly by the Richmond Library display in March. Please contact Mrs. Elliott if you are able to help!  Any amount of time you can give in preparation for those shows would be very welcome.

Thank You!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Notan Paper Cuttings- RES

Notan is a Japanese word that translates to mean a harmony between light and dark in a visual composition. Think of yin and yang, and how the dark-light balance works as a means to express the beauty and harmony of opposites. Notan is the way that the dark and light patterns in an image form the foundation of the design and composition.

This concept can be extended into any artwork of any media, but works especially well with innately high-contrast materials, such as India ink, black-and-white photography, and construction paper collage.   The dark/light balance of any image can be analyzed, but the more color an image has, the more complicated it can be for young students to see the shades versus the hues.

These paper cuttings focus on the interaction between positive and negative space as well.  Artists began with a simple starting shape, such as a triangle, square, rectangle, etc. made of black construction paper. 

Each time that the artist cut out a shape from the black paper, he or she flipped the image over onto the white paper.  They could then cut another shape from the first one cut, and flip it back into the white negative space.

That repetitive flipping happens here in the diamond and teardrop shapes

 This project is a great way for students to explore visual weight in a composition. Imagine a paper that is all white, with the exception of a small black dot.  Our eye would be drawn to looking at the black dot, and it would be difficult to focus elsewhere, because the dot has a lot of visual weight in the image.  Adding another black dot in a different place would give our eyes a different place to rest, and would lessen the visual weight of the first dot.

 As an artist you can choose where to draw the viewer's eye through your use of visual weight.  Visual weight is not only about light and dark balance, but also about balancing elements that are cool and warm, large and small, or sharp and soft.

This project also forces students to work very carefully- for the image to work, nothing is waste, nothing can be thrown away.  That's a lot of tiny pieces to keep track of.

The content of the image- letters, shapes, designs, images- were completely up to the artist.  The fourth graders loved this, and each design ended up as unique as each artist.

The play of positive and negative becomes very interesting here. In the work above, the little white hearts are all lined up, and almost appear to be looking at their own shadows, making the white the positive shape.  But the black shapes were the ones cut out, leaving the negative white space, so maybe the black hearts are the positive, with inverse white shadows.

In the student work above, I love the references to shapes that look antiquated, like old-fashioned keys and ornately-shaped picture frames. The optical effect becomes almost difficult to look at, in a way that Bridget Riley might make (see image below).  

Fragment 3/11, 1965, Bridget Riley. Image from
To truly understand the idea of notan, consider these three images from my classroom. In this first image, there is full color, so it is hard to see the notan of the image. 

In this second image, I have discarded the color, to make it easier to see where the darks and lights are.

In this third image, I have increased the contrast to 100% so that all you can see are the lights and the darks.  The balance of these is the notan of the image.

I encouraged students to cut a minimum of ten pieces to keep their images challenging, but some, like the work below, went beyond by beginning with a particularly complex shape, sort of a square donut, which meant that work cut from the inner edge had to be flipped inward.

These marvelous artists always take pride in going above and beyond!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Painting At Home With Children

In a very unscientific poll of parents, most adults seem to agree that the two art materials they most fear their children using at home are paint and glitter.

Poll children, and most will agree that the art materials they love best in the world are- surprise!- paint and glitter, followed by clay in a close third place.

Aaah!  Striking fear into the hearts of people who like clean homes.

So what is a person who 1. Wants to foster creative interests, and 2. Hopes to maintain a semblance of cleanliness, to do?  Don't despair. I just found the answer.

Make These Toys by Heather Swain
This book is a little miracle I borrowed from my public library, but in case you don't find it at yours, you can order it.

In a nutshell, this book is amazing, and contains dozens of keepers, but the recipe for Glitter Paint really caught my eye.  Who wants that at home?! I thought. Your kids, that's who. And mine, too. Never fear- you and the kids both get what you want. Really. No compromises! 

The recipe is on page 207 of the book, but it is so simple I will tell it to you here. 
1 1/2 t dish soap
4T light corn syrup
Food coloring

Put those ingredients, with however much glitter you want, into little jars. I used baby food jars and mason jars, but anything with a top works.  Make several, so you can create lots of colors by mixing your food colorings. Feeling brave?  Let the little artists do the food coloring.

I put a small brush into each jar so that I could skip a water cup to clean the brushes.  Here is what they looked like when I called my test subjects over. 

The artists were pretty excited. How could they not be.
So I let them do the stirring.

Once all of the jars were stirred up, the guys used the paint on regular paper. Here is the beauty of it- it is paint + glitter, AND it is soapy! The glitter is fully encapsulated by the paint, so it will not flake off the page, even when dry, and make its way into every corner of your home. 

Smocks all around.  They are never a bad idea.

The book states that it is great on paper and cardboard.  It is thick and viscous, but worked well on paper, and drizzles beautifully, especially for my older boy, who decided to make this a Jackson Pollock moment.

Even as an art teacher, I usually cringe at paint, like tempera, being thrown around my kitchen. But the amazing thing about this paint is that it cleaned up more easily than any I have ever seen.  And I play with a lot of paint, so this really is saying something.  

When you  pour water into the jars at the end, this is what happens:

It. Foams.  

Self-cleaning magic! Note that soap in the recipe. It makes all of the difference. No one had stained hands, my counters and floors are spotless, and the paint washed away from the brushes and jars without scrubbing needed. 

So, whether your child holds a brush or prefers finger painting, this is your new recipe.  Sparkly, painty, and clean as a whistle.  It dries pretty quickly to a glassy finish with tons of sparkle. Try it out and let me know what you think.

And if you didn't use it up, just pop the lids on top of the jars and save the paint for another day. 

Have fun!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Art Lives On- RES

Early on this year, I noticed this necklace that one of my students wears. 
And I loved it.

He is never not wearing it.
 This necklace is exactly what I wish I were wearing.  Every day. 

And I wondered where he got it. The whole aesthetic of it is so perfect. Together, but not too together, a little messy, edgy, asymmetrical, cool, fun. Pretty much what I aspire to, actually. And fail to achieve, might I add.

 Maybe it's from an island far away where everyone is relaxed, and they all sit around making cool accessories out of lambs wool and coconut fibers.  A perfect souvenir.

SO, I asked this sweet face, where did you get that necklace?

Student: Mrs. Elliott, I made it last year.  With you. In art class. 

Me: Um, huh? We didn't make necklaces last year... (er, um... searching memory... could be wrong...)

Student: No, we made bracelets at the end of the year.  I turned mine into this necklace.  I never take it off.  

Student 2: Not even to shower? What about when you swim?

Student: Not even to shower. I never, ever take it off.

You just never know how lessons you teach will live on. 

It's serious food for thought, actually.  This artist should do more weaving.

Most students wear their bracelets for a day, or maybe a week.  But sometimes, a lesson is really important to someone, and you never know to whom it might be important. Totally unpredictable. I just taught sewing in third grade, and a young man told me it was the best part of art class, ever. Who would have known?  And it makes me wonder- why have I not sewn earlier with this child? How did he feel about weaving?  Should I carry sewing into the next lesson?

In my life, the special carry-over is a recipe from my sixth grade teacher that I still make each holiday season. She made it each year with the entire sixth grade, a huge, unforgettable, candy-making extravaganza.

It really is an incredible gift- a gift to the teacher- when a skill you taught or an object 
a student made with you becomes a treasured part of a child's life.