Yesterday I went to a local elementary school — grades one to seven. I set up in the library, and two classes at a time came in to watch me paint and hear what I had to say. The school was in a new suburban neighborhood. Dorothy came too, but she was swarmed and had to leave. I asked if anyone was willing to take her for a walk and 45 hands went up. A teacher took her. I squeezed out and told the kids that in situations like this I try to visualize nice places I’d been. I told them I sometimes started with the foreground and worked toward the back. Some kids were raring to ask questions. Sometimes five hands were in the air at the same time. I had to keep my answers terse.
“What is that you are painting?” (A mountain and a lake.) “Are those supposed to be clouds?” (No, it’s the snow on the mountains.) “You put in the snow before the mountains?” (Sometimes.) “Why are you using that colour?” (It seems right.) “Do you paint other things besides this one?” (Yes.) “Can you paint people?” (I try.) “Were you always a good drawer?” (Yes, pretty good.) By now I was painting with my other mind. One class left and another arrived.
Some kids were interested in the concept of failing. “Have you made many bad paintings?” (Yes.) “How many?” (Thousands.) “What do you do with them?” (Most I throw out; some I hope to fix one day.) “Could you give me one of them?” (I’ll consider it.) “Why do you bother with the bad ones when you already know how to paint?” (I don’t know.) “Is this one of them?” (Could be.)
“Have you always done this?” (Yes.) “How long have you been painting?” (All my life.) “How old are you now?” (71.) “Do you think you have more time left?” (Yes.) “Are there some paintings you will never be able to sell?” (Yes.) “Which ones?” (The personal, family ones, and the bad ones.)
One class seemed remarkably concerned with economics. “How much did you get for the first one you sold?” ($15.) “How much do you get for them now?” ($2000 to $50,000.) “What’s the most you ever got for one?” ($100,000.) “How much do you make, anyway?” (Quite a bit.) “Are you rich?” (Fairly.) “How many cars do you have?” (17.) “Do you have a Lamborghini?” (No.) At this point a teacher interjected that they should stick to questions about art. And so it went. Eventually the final buzzer sounded. I was exhausted. I went home. I had to have a drink.
PS: “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet tired of the man.” (Rabindranath Tagore)
Esoterica: Nothing like a day with the kids to cut to the chase. I was just able to bring a couple of paintings home and fix them up this morning. “The unconscious mind is decidedly simple, unaffected, straightforward and honest,” said family psychologist and cultural theorist Milton Erikson. “It hasn’t got all of this facade, this veneer of what we call adult culture. It’s rather simple, rather childish. It’s direct and it’s free.”
Volunteer program rounds out curriculum
by Dallyn Zundel, Orem, UT, USA
This one of the funniest letters I have read. I did the same thing last year at my kid’s elementary school. Same types of questions came up. I was really astounded as to how they are so concerned with money. I did my thing at the school because the school lost some of their funding so they had to get rid of all of their arts programs, art, music, drama etc. My wife and one second grade teacher started an art program for the entire school (over 600 students) where they brought in guest artists of all types (illustrators, photographers, painters, musicians, dancers, actors etc.) for demonstrations and shows. Then lessons were provided based on the theme of the guest artist. They did this for the entire year on less than $2500 that bought supplies and paid for a couple of groups’ travel fees. It was so successful that the program has received recognition from the governor’s education director (Utah). It’s really sad that the first things cut, when it comes to children’s education, always seem to be the arts.
Kids more informed now
by Sue Corbin, Westerville, OH, USA
Kids are so bright today and they certainly have their eye on the career and money aspect. I am raising my 7 year old granddaughter Leilani since birth and I have to say, she is very bright. Although I do give credit to her innate intelligence, I also include myself and the elementary school that she attends in the mix. A lot of the information that she receives in first grade, I learned in the fifth to ninth grade. Albeit, it was five decades ago but I am still amazed at what is taught and how much she can grasp. The more exposure the brain gets the sharper the child… oops, let me not forget the adults… and older adults.
Kids say the funniest things
by Marian O’Shaughnessy, Charlotte, NC, USA
This was so funny!! It reminds me of a few years ago when I was at IBM as a female engineer visiting schools. My favorite was a kid who was so proud of his Daddy because he got $1/hour (stated as if that were $1000) for just wearing a pager. The class was amazed — and I knew that the $1 for the hassle and interruption to your personal life was SO not worth it. I had a hard time not laughing out loud on that one. They also asked me which computer was better — Apple or IBM (because his friend thought his Apple was better). When I paint plein-air I get a lot of these types of questions from kids and their parents. It is pretty hard to answer their questions and paint at the same time. I think you have to be painting something that requires not much concentration in the classroom situation. Interestingly enough, when I paint in other countries, people don’t bother me as much. They might stop and look but they don’t ask many questions. I think they are more polite.
Kids have no filters
by Lori Levin, Pennsville, NJ, USA
I almost wet my pants laughing at the child asking you if this was one of your bad paintings! I truly believe children ask the very things most adults want to ask. Adults are afraid to look unknowledgeable about art so they try to ask more lofty questions. However, eventually they get down to their real curiosity which usually is how long does a painting take to do and how much money you make. Kids have no filters, you got to love them! I think after that day two drinks might have been in order. I need one just for reading about your day.
Discovering the ‘Art Department’
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
By doing this you have changed the trajectory of any number of these kids just from leading by example. When I was growing up and in elementary school, I was sent to remedial reading when all the other kids went to arts and crafts. I was horribly dyslexic, still am and way back then, it was deemed a learning disability. I failed grade 3. But in grade 7, I saw something called the “Art Department” and my life forever changed. It helped me overcome a lot. I think that one of the best things an artist can do is give back to the community. They can do this by donating to charities, do interviews or teach seminars to young and inspiring minds. I love doing stuff like that and anything done with enthusiasm is a good thing. Whenever I meet with kids, I always tell them, pick one thing they really love and become really good at it. The rest will come.
Memories of an art teacher
by Lauri Svedberg, Minneapolis, MN, USA
For 30 glorious, hectic, uplifting, frustrating years I taught high school studio art. Now that I am alone in my studio I marvel at how I was able to keep up with the pace of a teen-packed classroom, manage all the supplies, do all the bureaucratic paperwork nonsense, be a surrogate parent /counselor /confidante, mount exhibits, supervise the halls and cafeteria, stay awake through tedious faculty meetings… I think you have an idea. I am thrilled to have time for my own work at last — and yet, your school visit description made me nostalgic for my amazing students. My garage wall is covered with their senior photos and farewell messages. Some still visit and write me with tales of their adult lives. A number are making their livings in the art world and many have become teachers themselves — which warms my heart. As you might have discovered on your school visit, teaching is one of the most important (yet sadly underpaid /underrated) vocations in our world. Kudos to the teacher(s) who went the extra mile to arrange your visit.
Art education civilizes kids
by Bernard Victor, London, UK
It is amazing the way Art can connect with children. Our local Dulwich Art Gallery is always hosting groups of young children. My son-in-law is a primary school teacher, and a time ago he was working in a local school with a class of very deprived children, a large proportion of whom did not have English as their primary language. He found them very difficult to control, but he took them to the gallery and said he was amazed at how these usually unruly classmates were so quiet and got so wrapped up in having the paintings explained to them. Our grandson, when 8, was taken there by his school. He really enjoyed it and insisted taking us round afterwards to tell us all he had learned. The works in the gallery are all Old Masters, whilst we have found that when taken to a gallery our grandchildren prefer abstract paintings to figurative works, so it says a lot for the teaching staff that they can keep quite young children interested in traditional paintings.
Letting kids crit your work
by Dorenda Crager Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
I have found my second-grade students to be the absolute BEST reviewers of my art abilities. Often I will bring my “finished” paintings in for my students to take a look at and to offer their opinions of my endeavors… after all, I grade them on their work as well… fair is fair! I cannot tell you the number of times they will catch something (out of pure innocence) that needs correction or refinement… and I LISTEN. They are never cruel or malicious in their critiques… merely honest and fresh in their ability to SEE. (It’s SO much better than listening to a group of adults touting art words and “profound” statements that in the end tell you nothing.) The kids often give me SO much information that I often have to take a nap (to ponder) when I get home! Once I brought in a portrait I had been struggling with for my kids to discuss/critique. One quiet 7-year-old child raised her hand and said, “Mrs. Watson, why do you spend time doing things you don’t love?” (“Out of the mouths of babes” and my new philosophy of life from then on.)
An understanding heart
by Ann Weaver, Kenly, NC, USA
I couldn’t help but chuckle as I read about your experience at the school. I am an elementary visual art teacher who attempts to teach 670 kids per week on a schedule of 7-8 classes per day. By the end of the day I’m exhausted and ready to bang my head against the door. I know what I am supposed to do as far as working with kids, but I’ve learned to do the best that I can with the situation in which I’ve been placed. It’s too many kids and too many classes and not enough time. “An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling.” (Carl Jung)
Never know who you might influence
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA
I participated in a similar program at my children’s school, where February is ‘Dedicated to the Arts Month.’ Artists are invited to spend the day demonstrating and discussing their areas of interest. One class of eager first graders came by, and as I showed them some samples of my watercolors, one painting of our daughter’s white pony, Loop de Lou, captured the interest of a blue-eyed, dark-haired boy. He offered to pay me all the money he had on him, which was $1.65. I told him how the painting was promised to my daughter, but encouraged him to try painting one for himself. A couple of weeks later, a newsletter came home from the school, announcing the untimely death of this same little boy… the same virus attacked his heart that took Jim Henson, of the Muppets. The obituary in the local paper had a brief history for the boy and said, “He loved to draw and paint. His last painting, of a white pony, still hangs on his bedroom wall.” Chills ran up my spine, and I was moved to tears knowing I’d influenced this young person so deeply!
Painting with kids
by Anna Hayes, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Instead of painting FOR kids, try painting WITH kids. I teach art to 520 elementary students here in Edmonton. One of my favorite lessons is discovering painting with the grade ones. We learn how to mix colours right on our paper and how to use our brush. The class is usually fairly quiet except for the exclamations of the students when they discover that they mixed a new colour and their neighbors trot over to see. There is much discussion about how the artist made that particular colour and then they trot back to try it on their own paper. It is exhausting but also exhilarating to feel their excitement… I usually HAVE to paint at home that night… and I just play and explore with paint. Painting with kids is very freeing and I recommend it to all!
Response from Bothwell Elementary
by Dianne Harding and Bothwell Elementary School Staff, Surrey, BC, Canada
In their musings, following the event, my students’ enjoyment of you and your art came through loud and clear. They enjoyed making art afterward too, but almost all of them focused on the session with you. (Dorothy was also a big hit.) They loved being able to ask questions about what you were doing, while you were doing it. Every single one of them was in awe that you could talk and paint so beautifully at the same time! They talked about your methods and how the picture looked like a blob at first, then turned into a wonderful cloud or mountain. Many also enjoyed hearing about your youth and various exposures to famous artists. I expect that, one day, they will be telling their own children about having met you! Some students and teachers said that they could have sat there, watching and listening to you all morning. Funny, they never beg me to go on with my math lesson! I heard similar comments about your session from the other teachers. Later, children, even little ones, were creating pictures using guidelines from you. One teacher overheard a kid talking to himself about the “layers” as he painted. You made a deep impression! And they all want to look at the book Love Letters to Art. What a wonderful gift… not just the book, but the whole visit.
The whole experience, especially your visit, has helped to stimulate a lifelong interest in making art and viewing art in many of these children. In a world where parents pay hundreds of dollars to take their children to one hockey / basketball game, we need to create at least an equal interest in patronizing art exhibitions and the theatre. Can we raise a generation that has a desire (and the financial commitment) to surround themselves with beautiful, original art? The “starving artist” is such a cliche, but an unfortunate reality. In contrast, there are a lot of millionaire athletes. To create a society where there is a more balanced appreciation of culture and sports, we need to address this at the elementary school level. Thanks, Robert, for helping us get a start on it.
(RG note) Thanks, Dianne, and all the other teachers who brought their kids around. It was totally my joy and pleasure. There were so many penetrating questions that my twice-weekly letter could have been much longer. As it is, my head is still spinning with wonderment.
Among the truly deprived
by Hanna MacNaughtan, Kemptville, ON, Canada
I took part in a recent mission trip to El Salvador. I travelled with the local Rotary Club for a 12 day mission in which we delivered much needed medical supplies, clothing and personal hygiene items to the poorest of the poor. We also worked hard in the 40 degree heat helping to build houses in a remote village and even painted a couple murals. One at the remote village on their water tank and the other at a small overlooked orphanage where 13 pre-teen children lived in horrible conditions. As a Registered Nurse I felt saddened by all the hardships of the people there. Many living in shacks of sticks, mud and cardboard. No bathrooms, no kitchen sinks, no pretty pictures on the walls, no nice furniture. The living conditions of the children are like nothing I had ever seen. The smiles and hugs from the children (you wished you could bring home to Canada with you) just melted your heart. As an artist my senses were truly awakened. I felt the spirit of Vincent inside of me! Being with the poor, seeing how they live gives one a whole new awaking in life. I had brought along a small watercolour paint set and some 300 lb arches cut in small pieces hoping to have the opportunity to paint. Reality was that we were on the run so much I was lucky to be able to stop long enough to take a snapshot. A million paintings went rushing through my head everywhere we went. One day while working at the remote village I took a rest under what the locals call the “Giving Tree.” I always brought my little paint set in my back pack hoping for a moment to arise when I could paint. Finally, I had the chance.
For the first time I attempted to paint some portraits from life. I was surprised to see how the very young children would sit and pose for me for a good 15-20 minutes while I drew and painted them. And I was further delighted to see how appreciative they were to receive the paintings. I realized at that moment that they didn’t even have any photos let alone paintings of themselves in their little homes. I could see the gratitude in the mothers faces as the children ran to show what I had given them. What greater pleasure could an artist have in this life? I was in heaven at that moment. This was my first mission and I know it won’t be my last. “To save a life is a real and beautiful thing. To make a home for the homeless, yes, it is a thing that must be good; whatever the world may say, it cannot be wrong.” (Vincent Van Gogh)
I encourage other artists to reach out beyond their comfort zone and arouse their senses.
Enjoy the past comments below for Fun with kids…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Dawn Jacoby of Phoenix, AZ, USA who wrote, “Very amusing! I just realized why I am exhausted each day when I go home and can’t find time of my own. I am an art teacher and every day is filled with much more than art.”
(RG note) Thanks Dawn, and thanks to all the other teachers, art and other, who wrote in sympathy and amusement. I don’t know how you do it. Congratulations.
And also Pauline Lorfano of Vienna, VA, USA who wrote, “It’s called ‘artist in residence’ in my local school. Besides similar questions, that you got, I would always hear ‘My mom (or aunt) paints pictures, too.’ And ‘Can you paint a panda (cat, or other animal)?’ Many times the children didn’t want to leave and the teacher had a problem. I know you enjoyed the experience as I do. But it is exhausting!”
And also Rod Morgan of Edmonton, AB, Canada who wrote, “I have taken my Powerpoint presentations to elementary grade schools to get kids interested in light, colour, and the physics of vision. They are a better audience than adults.”
And also Moncy Barbour Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “At age 55 I am trying my best to be a child again. I have been a grown up and developed the mechanics of art. Now I am getting to the heart of the idea.”