There is such power and joy in being able embrace oneself as an artist. An artist able to:
- be inspired by other artists
- use that inspiration to create your own art
- inspire others
- make creative and artistic decisions
- carry out your plan or
- enjoy the freedom of artistic and creative play and experimentation
- speak your truth through your art
- embrace your artist-self by choosing your own name (Hundertwasser)
- share your understanding and vision by naming your artwork (Thomas)
The power and joy explodes, I think, when you can do all these things as a young child.
Last week my Kindergarten artists explored the work and life of Alma Thomas. She began her career as a representational artist, and later in her artist journey embraced abstract art. Amazingly, at the age of 80 in the early 1970’s she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC.
The kindergarten artists loved Alma’s use of color, and enjoyed trying to guess what she named each of her paintings. They worked hard — first in their sketch books and then on the final watercolor paper — to recreate with crayons, the marks Alma made with acrylic paint. By the way, in case you’ve never tried it, it takes a lot of dedication to fill a 9X12 piece of paper with marks the size of your thumb.
As my artists worked in the classroom, I worked alongside them in my home studio. Like them I made my own crayon marks, and then added layers of watercolor wash. My work was often interrupted by “Hey Ms. James. This is …..,” as they slid their work under the document camera so we could marvel and talk together.
Encouraging them to include all the elements we noticed in Alma’s work, yet at the same time allowing them to make their own artistic and creative decisions and plans, is a delicate line to walk. I often wonder how close their work has to look to our inspirational artist’s work.
As I’ve worked with them this year, I’ve become more convinced that there are four non-negotiables. My fantabulous artists must:
- include the elements of the original piece that we notice and spoke about together
- be free to use their big beautiful brains and awesome hearts to decide how to incorporate the elements into their art
- be allowed, encouraged, and enabled to find joy in their process and product
- come to know themselves as artists
So, I work on pointing out what I see — what I see that reflects the elements we discussed, the things I notice are missing, and the many things I wonder about. I do my best to guide my artists to walk that delicate line of agency and requirements with me. Sometimes I set them free to make the decision as an artist, sometimes I request they put the artwork down for a bit and then look at it again to see if they are still happy with it, other times we find a compromise that allows them to have freedom while still following the guidelines.
Here are some of our Alma Thomas inspired works of art. I’m always interested to see how they interpret the current artist’s work, and how they incorporate some of the other artists we’ve explored previously. I’m amazed and edified by their title choices. The titles add to the power of the piece. They speak to the audience to share the artist’s thoughts and understanding, and speak to the artists themselves to affirm who they are.
When I read their titles my heart is full. These Kindergarten artists are perceptive, thoughtful, confident, and invested in sharing what is in their minds and hearts. Everyday I do my best to affirm them “Indeed my young artist sisters, you are masters. You are inspired and inspiring artists. Don’t every believe anything less.”