Beyond the page with Georgia O’Keeffe

rose“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.” Georgia O’Keeffe

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings and thoughts about flowers are impressive and thought provoking. Her thoughts suggest mindfulness and reflection.  Her paintings translate the small and easily overlooked, into something large that captures attention.

My students are always impressed with Georgia’s work. But, while they marvel at the size of her flowers, I  think they have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the changes she makes. In Georgia’s hands, flowers became larger than life – even larger than the canvas on which she painted.

I have done Georgia O’Keefe inspired art with my classes other years, and each time they struggled to use the whole page. They made lovely flowers but they made them small – in the center of the page – not covering the whole page. I encouraged and reminded, but still the flowers were smaller than Georgia’s. I loved watching them examine the flowers, but I hated the feeling of pushing them, and constantly having to say “Oh, can you make that bigger?” or “The whole page, use the whole page!” or thinking in my head “eee GADS, that’s not what I asked you to do.”

This year I tried a new method. I wish I could remember the lesson or book that contained the spark which led to this lesson, because I would love to thank them, and give you a great resource, but alas, I cannot. So, you will have to be satisfied with my lesson!

First we looked at her flowers and talked about what we noticed. One thing we noticed was that Georgia’s flowers often look like they go beyond the edge of her canvas. “Oh YES!” I excitedly exclaimed. “EXACTLY!” I told them I had never been able to figure out a way to help my students draw their flowers off the edges of the paper – until now! I told them I read about what other artists had done, and I found something I thought would work perfectly for us.

I explained that I had covered the tables with white craft paper so they would feel free to draw off the edges of the page. I told them their art piece would actually be the piece of watercolor paper I had taped to the white craft paper (I taped them underneath.) but I said they should imagine the whole white space as their canvas. “When you draw your flower, make it big. Make parts of it land on the white craft paper!”

They asked if they would draw a flower from memory. “No! I brought lots of flowers for you to look at!” I dropped many flowers on the carpet in front of them amidst “ooohs” and “aahs.”

“I want you to be like scientists. I want you to really look at the flower you choose and then create it on your paper.” I suggested they try to make their flower have a shape similar to the flower they chose, but told them they could be creative and change things up a bit. The most important things were to trust themselves as artists, really see the flower (like Georgia did) and to draw their flower big so others would see it too.

Armed with a sharpie marker, I chose my flower and began to  draw for them. I made the shapes simple – matching the flower in some ways and changing it in others. I commented that sometimes I changed shapes because it was a bit easier for me to draw, and sometimes I tried really hard to draw exactly what I saw.

They all wanted to know if we would add color. “Absolutely! But, we are going to use a new method.” I brought out a tray of sidewalk chalk, a cup of water and a paintbrush. I explained we would color with the chalk and then smudge it – just a bit – with our fingers. Then, we would use the paintbrush and water to create our a watercolor on the page. I cautioned them against too much water – “Squeeze the brush out like this before you use it. … There will still be plenty of water. Look!” I told them they might have to experiment with the amount of chalk they added and the amount of smudging they did. I showed them a few different possibilities and set them free – with my fingers crossed.

After carefully choosing a flower, and navigating how more than one might use the same flower, they uncapped their sharpies and began drawing. They were fantastic!!! All the girls made their drawings larger than the flower they observed, and all but one extended their flowers beyond the page. And, perhaps best of all, it was so easy for them!!!!

 GO collage5

They were incredibly engaged in every step of the process – choosing a flower, observing it, drawing it with the black sharpie, coloring with sidewalk chalk, smudging the chalk and turning the chalk into watercolor. I wish I could share photos of their faces with you. They were girls – 5 and 6 years old – transformed into intent, focused artists – easily mistaken for students well beyond their years.

GO collage3

As always I was impressed (and humbled) to be there for the “magic” that took place in that art class. Together, somehow, my students and I found that synergistic space where we were able to become more than … or perhaps just exactly … who we are.


Two nice Georgia O’Keeffee resources:

Quieting my mind with a good tangle

Wow I had a tough time turning off my brain … and to be honest, my spirit … last night. It seemed everything just wanted to stay wound up a bit too tight to allow for sleep.

Thankfully, as I went up to bed, I noticed my black art squares sitting with a pack of white, gold and silver gel pens. “Oh!!!” I thought, “That’s what I’ll do! A zentangle ©.”

I’ve zentangled – or did my version of a tangle – many times previously. I have always enjoyed it but never really experienced it as zen-like as some suggest it might be. But I have to say, for some reason, last night it was really a zen experience!

I picked up a sheet of paper I had previously discarded because I had been unhappy with my placement of the strings (zentangle boarders). I used the parts of the strings I liked, and casually reworked just a bit of the string placement. I decided to work using only white ink (because I didn’t use any white the last time I tangled). I worked with some designs I’ve used previously, and allowed myself to be inspired by others’ designs, in order to create new ones of my own.

Perhaps it was because I was so tired. (Did I mention it was 1AM?) Perhaps it was because I wasn’t really trying to create something – I was just playing, treating the page almost like a piece of scrap paper. Perhaps it was using the form but not feeling bound by the form. I’m not really sure. But whatever the reason, the process was particularly peaceful, free, and enjoyable.


I added the paraphrase of a Thich Nhat Hanh quote as both an affirmation of what I was doing, and as a reminder of what I always want to do…

Breathe, believe, and be. Smile, cultivate calm, and be cognizant and grateful for the present, wonderful moment.


With gratitude to the creators of Zentangle and the many people doing great inspiring work, here are a couple links: – The website of Zentangle Method creators Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas – The website of Sandy Steen Bartholomew.


The Cloud … in the Classroom

“The cloud stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown, because in order to discover something truly new, at least one of your basic assumptions has to change, and that means that in science, we do something quite heroic. Each day, we try to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and the unknown and face the cloud.” Uri Alon

When I first listened to Uri’s TED talk, I immediately related as a researcher. I had experienced the misery of the cloud, the benefit of support in my cloud-induced-angst, and finally the joy, relief and wonder of new ideas and conclusions. But, then I wondered, where is the cloud in my life as an educator? Where is the cloud in the classroom?

I listened to his talk again, jotted notes from the transcript, and let the question ferment in my brain as I drove, walked, showered and slept … and, I had a revelation. The cloud is in the classroom every day because the cloud IS education! Let me modify his statement.

“The cloud stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown, because in order to discover something truly new, at least one of your basic assumptions has to change, and that means that in education, students and teachers do something quite heroic. Each day, we try to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and the unknown and face the cloud.” Uri Alon rephrased by Molly James

Think about it! Isn’t that what education is all about? Discovering new things? Learning new skills? Challenging assumptions? Understanding things in new and deeper ways?  Bringing ourselves and our students to the boundary between the known and the unknown and facing the cloud … together.

I don’t know about you, but I think that is SPECTACULAR!!! All of a sudden students are elevated to a new level. They are protagonists in their own learning. They are brave, heroic explorers confronting their own clouds and emerging victorious with new insights, understanding and skills.


In the cloud with Uri Alon


If you haven’t watched Uri’s TED talk, you should!

His TED talk bio begins …. “Uri Alon studies how cells work, using an array of tools (including improv theater) to understand the biological circuits that perform the functions of life.”

How awesome is THAT?? A big time scientist using improv theater as a research aid. Give it a look and then we’ll talk.


Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes crack me up! I was reminded of them when I saw the documentary film Dear Mr. Watterson by Joel Schroeder. (

I think Bill Watterson and his characters are quite creative, so I thought I’d share a strip that cracks me up as a teacher (and a student!). It’s published in There’s Treasure Everywhere – one of many Calvin and Hobbes books I own and enjoy. Even the title is fab!


Ok, now, before other teachers (or creativity researchers) crank and kvetch that Calvin isn’t REALLY being creative because his innovation isn’t useful in this application, let me say I get it! I understand that definition of creativity, but I LOVE Calvin’s possibility thinking (Anna Craft), his notion of loopholes, and his desire to use them. That sense of possibility, of playfulness, of seeing and using loopholes, of reckless abandon, of seeing and creating the new – that is important and useful!

Do I think Calvin needs to learn a bit of prudence? Yes, of course — though it would make his character much less amusing — but prudence cannot come at the cost of possibility thinking or illumination.

Illumination – that AHA! moment — and evaluation (prudence) — are two distinctly different things. Both are valuable and both must be given encouragement, thought, space and time. And, both must be celebrated!

So, one of my goals as a teacher is to encourage creativity, possibility noticing and thinking, dreaming, playfulness, and risk taking, while also teaching, and encouraging evaluation.

Oh, and I also hope to be open to those times when my question actually asks to be interpreted creatively! Cause really, read the question before Calvin once more. Didn’t he do what was asked? Hmmm ….

Creativity of the concussed

Marvelously resilient

Yet frighteningly fragile

Beautiful, brilliant and

Responsible for so much

And perhaps beyond my wildest dreams

Incredibly important and

Not to be banged about, like a ball within my


Under no circumstances!” you assert and

Really I agree, but

To my chagrin

Sometimes it happens

And wow does it hurt, but

Lest I forget – beautiful, brilliant and marvelously resilient

Oh yes,

That’s right, don’t fret, just rest

Writing and drawing … or, Kindergarteners tackling the blank page!

I enjoy the “mixed media” of writing and drawing. They compliment and enhance one another, making my art more satisfying and beautiful.

After working on my blank page art project I knew I wanted to try it with my kindergarteners. I wondered if they would have a similar experience of comfort using the magazine as a scrap paper journal, and their words as the background for their drawing.

It was fascinating to be part of their experience!

I began by sharing my own work – both my process and my product. I shared my reluctance to work on the beautiful, blank pages, as well as how free I felt using the magazine as scrap paper. I told them I loved being able to experiment on the magazine pages. I showed them my magazine drawings and talked about my thoughts – what I liked, what I didn’t like, how I studied the faces I found in the magazine, and how I eventually developed a face that I liked. I commented that I didn’t think it was perfect, but that I really liked it just the same.

I encouraged them to relax as they worked. “Don’t worry making mistakes. It’s all part of the process. Look at what you did. If you see something you don’t like, don’t fret, just do it again until you do like it.

I asked them to be free and soft – in their minds and in their bodies – as they used sharpie markers to make the faces. I reminded them there could be no erasing but assured them they would be fine.

They were very funny in their interpretation of my words. I had to explain to some of them – as the pen almost fell from their overly relaxed fingers – “Oh no, that’s fabulous, but you really do have to hold the pen with a nice grip. What I meant is relax your arm, make your strokes easy and smooth. Like this.”

I started by giving them a drawing technique that would allow them to be successful while at the same time, giving them the freedom to create “their own faces.” I told them they would be able to make as many faces as they liked, but asked them to make their first face by following the steps with me.

The technique was quite straightforward.

  • First a large oval for the head.
  • Then a column for the neck, with two small hills on either side to form the shoulders.
  • One long curved line for the eyebrows and sides of the nose came next. We noticed that the shape of the eyebrows really changed the emotion of our faces. We had a really tough time with the tip of the nose, so many left it out.
  • The eyes were almond-shaped with circles. We experimented with different sized almonds and circles. We placed the pupils in different places. Some of us added glasses. The faces had great character – even without lips or hair!
  • Lips were a bit tricky and some wanted to just make a smile. I told them they had to give the lips a try. After a bit of “ugh” and a sigh, they relented and tried. They drew awesome lips.
  • Some of us added ears – amazed that they actually go from the center of our eyes to the center of our lips. Finally we added hair.

mag work 3

My students seemed intrigued by my thought process and used my words throughout their work. One student drew something she didn’t like and said “Well, that’s ok, I can just go to the next page.” Another told me “I’m trusting myself, Miss James. I’m being brave, doing it and just believing it will come out alright.” It was absolutely amazing to see my words empower them!

After a good bit of drawing, it was time to fill a page with words that made them happy. I suggested they think of their handwriting as a beautiful part of their art piece. They worked hard choosing words and then filled the page with their handwriting. (It’s a LOT of work for a kindergarten student.) When every line was filled they were ready to make their final face.


I gave them the option of practicing in their magazine again before working on their art piece. Some did, some didn’t, but either way, they were all engaged, confident, happy, and successful!

Our bulletin board is filled with different faces – each unique and fabulous – just like the artists who made them. Occasionally I shake my head, amazed that the artists are kindergarten students.

face 1

Why were they able to be so successful? I’m not certain, but I have some ideas.

I believe they are fantastic and capable. I value them and their work, and my behavior and language reflect that value.

  • I share my expensive art pencils with them (and they treat them like treasures).
  • I give them the best paper I can, and even if it is simple, inexpensive paper, I make sure it is worthy of their work – clean, cut straight, and unwrinkled.
  • I treat them as fellow artists.
  • I ask them to do art that I do – not just “kids” art.
  • I share my thoughts and work with them.
  • I don’t hide my struggles. I consider their suggestions and offer my own.

And, wow, there is something powerful about the process.

  • The technique is easy to remember but still rich enough to express the wishes of each artist.
  • There is a nice balance of structure and freedom.
  • There is the comfort of the non-blank page of the magazines and word filled pages.

And some how, that all combines to be magical, powerful and emboldening. I dig it!