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GRAVES: A full slate for art's sake

The other day, I was sitting in an elementary school art classroom, awaiting the students who would come in for a lesson. The teacher was an applicant for an art position. As part of our hiring process, we require all candidates to teach a lesson...

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The other day, I was sitting in an elementary school art classroom, awaiting the students who would come in for a lesson. The teacher was an applicant for an art position. As part of our hiring process, we require all candidates to teach a lesson in their field. It's not a perfect technique but it does tell us if the person we are hiring to teach can teach.

As I waited, I scanned the walls of the classroom. It was filled with an eclectic assortment of "art" images: color wheels, an orange-and-white smiling triceratops, the Mona Lisa, as well as displays of student work of every stripe. When the students entered - a group of first- and second-graders - I paused for a moment, trying to pluck something from my increasingly cobweb-filled memory. Just for a moment, I was back at Cleveland Elementary, trying to remember my art class when I was a first-grader. Finally, I remembered: we had no art "class" until I was, I think, in the fourth grade. Art in grades K-3, to the extent that we had lessons in it at all, was taught by our classroom teacher.

I had wonderful teachers at Cleveland, Miss Johnson in first grade, Mrs. Peterson in second. To be candid, though, it didn't seem like art was really their thing. Hallowe'en Jack-o-lanterns were drawn freehand, lopsided images with skewed smiles, and colored in with my handy-dandy 64-pack (of which I used about seven) of Crayolas. We traced our hands and colored the fingers, again, with crayons, to produce Thanksgiving turkeys. Santa was lovingly cut from red and white construction paper which we treated like gold, it was in such short supply.

That art was not truly emphasized or taught by people who really understood underlying artistic principles and the best pedagogies for teaching them was unfortunate, though nobody thought much of it at the time. (Besides, my artwork was apparently fabulous. Why else would my mother still have a boxed collection of it at the time of her death more than 40 years later?)

Yet, art is extraordinarily important. It is part of what makes us human. It is one of those subject matters that needn't justify its existence based on college entrance or mercantile necessity. It is important in and of itself. John Adams, one of the founding fathers, wrote persuasively of this to wife, Abigail, in 1780:

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"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Art is not the servant. It is the served.

Mitchell offers a full slate of art instruction, from kindergarten, through middle and into high school. Thanks to some excellent art teachers, the instruction we do offer is also of a rather lofty level, qualitatively, exponentially, better than what, at least my memory suggests we Baby Boomers enjoyed. (Which is no slight upon the good name of my elementary school. That was simply a different time.)

Returning now to the present, this prospective art teacher began her lesson and I lurched back to the notion that I was about to hear about coloring Easter eggs on white construction paper. Instead, the 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds were introduced to tint and shade, with how such notions could illustrate weather conditions using watercolors and the mixing of greater and lesser amounts of water, and to the use of texture - as simple and as nuanced as moderately-sprinkling salt onto the dampened page - as a way to give the viewer a multiple-sense experience of the imagery.

Even had I been taught by a teacher of the expertise and enthusiasm and care standing before me in this teaching episode, I would have never made even a passable artist. But there are students for whom art is a great love and at which they shine more than in any other field. Many, perhaps most students, go to school out of a love of one or perhaps a couple subjects or activities, taking the rest as the price of admission to their Muse. For some, for many, it is art. Thus, the advances schools have made in art education are fortunate. They are praiseworthy.

This is not, however, solely because of this delightful impact on some students. Nor because some of these students will go on to art careers. Rather, it is because we are now better at teaching art, at transmitting a deep and loving understanding of art, and the beauty it brings, to the next generation.

And art, as Adams offered so eloquently, requires no justification.

Related Topics: ART
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