Art Teaches Me

I teach art, but art also teaches me. I just have to be paying attention so I don’t miss the lesson.

Each year my Kindergartners and I work on a piece of art inspired by Sandra Silbersweig. I love the process, and I think their products are always amazing. Here are a few bits of some of their work.

This time we practiced making various shapes that are present in the inspirational image: an uppercase U, a backwards uppercase L made into a bubble letter L, horizontal lines, vertical lines, diagonal lines, zig zags, pumpkin seed shapes, lips, smiles, and frowns. We make each shape and line in various sizes — big, medium, small, wide, narrow, long, short. We do all of this with pencil in our sketch books. I emphasize that we are practicing, and no one erases anything. They simply work.

After about fifteen minutes of work, I ask them a few questions:
* Do you feel confident with all those shapes?
* Do you trust me?
* Do you trust yourself?
* Are you an awesome artist?
They respond yes to each of my questions.

Before we start I invite them to join me in the power pose. Hands on hips, hearts raised, feet wide, we take a few breaths together and repeat some affirmations.
*We have big beautiful brains.
*We have awesome hearts.
*We are brave.
*We are amazing artists.
*We can do hard things.

When they sit down, I give them each a black permanent marker and ask them to open their watercolor blocks. I guide them through the process of making the face, neck, and shoulders using the various shapes we practiced. I wander about the room remarking on their work, their bravery, their artistic decisions.

Once the framework is laid down, I encourage them to add detail. They add shapes and symbols that mean things to them. Some add stars, flowers, hearts, others add God’s face, french fries, and swirls. We take breaks to do museum walks to look at the work of our friends. We “Oooh!” and “Ahhh” and remark on things that we find interesting and inspiring.

As the Kindergarten artists continue to work, they grow in freedom and boldness. They add more detail, more lines, more things. As they grow in boldness, I notice the feeling of fretting in myself. I fear they may become so bold that they will “wreck” the work they have done.

I don’t say anything, I just breathe and think. I ask myself some questions:
*Do I trust them as artists?
*Is it my work or theirs?
*Do I trust myself?
*What might I say that will help them grow as artists rather than establish my control over their work?

I call for their attention, “Hey amazing Kindergarten artists.” They respond “Hey amazing artist Miss James.” I comment on all their thinking, boldness, work, and product, and then I connect them and their work to me and my work. “I’ve been looking at your work — it’s amazing. You’ve added so much detail! I’m wondering if you think it might be time to stop. I know sometimes when I make art, I’m loving the process so much that I keep adding things — sometimes without taking a moment to look at what I’ve already done. Then all of a sudden I realize I’ve added a too much and I don’t like it as much. So, I’m going to ask everyone to stop, cap your pen, take a couple of breaths, and look at your creation.” I pause as they do that.

I give them a few moments of silence to look and think. Then I comment “Now that you’ve taken a moment to breathe, look, and think. Decide what else you want to do.” I pause again “Do you think you can finish in 2 or 3 minutes?” Heads down, pens moving, most say yes. One or two say “No!” So I ask “How about 5? Will you be able to finish in 5?” This time everyone says yes.

As always their work is remarkable, and it is theirs, not mine. I’m happy I get to be a guide and an inspiration to them, and I’m grateful that they trust me, and in the process, teach me.

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