#ArtsEdWeek: An Art Teacher’s Journey From Clueless to Innovative
“What do you think, you are just going to be sitting there and a milkshake will fall in your lap? ……Or a mars bar?”, said Professor Bill Itter, with his eyes bulging out with the excitement of a mad scientist. He was teaching us color theory at IU in 1999 and imploring us to work at our craft; to take it as seriously as he does. This was a lesson that took a little longer for me to learn in the craft of art teaching. When I first started out, I was convinced I was going to be a high school teacher. I worked a couple maternity leaves in high school and middle school, but I ended up at an elementary school; which turned out to be the absolute best thing for me. When I first started I was clueless as to what the younger kids were capable of, having the first graders color in coloring sheets and making crafty cut and glue projects for the older grades. The longer I worked with the younger kids, the more I realized they could truly accomplish. I experimented and learned and practiced and documented, and my lessons evolved. I began to start every day with a 5 minute life drawing; I would collect things: one day it would be an old toy, the next day it would be a pinecone or a thistle or an old pair of sunglasses; and the students would draw from life, adding shading and details. I began to treat it with the same seriousness my IU drawing professors did.
In college (and in life) I had a love of art history. I began to teach the 6-year-olds how to analyze works of art. Every day after the life-drawing time, we discussed an “artist in the spotlight.” A famous work of art poster was presented, and the kids spotted clues in the paintings, made connections to what was happening in history at the time, and began to learn to see the elements in the art as metaphors and symbolism. A dark cloud in the sky became a metaphor for how the artist felt worried about the future; a blue mountain became a symbol for the artist’s sadness. I also began to group the students’ projects into in-depth units of study.
Seeing how good first graders were at abstraction, I designed a unit of study on 20th century and modern artists, eventually changing it to 20th century African American artists when I realized how non-inclusive traditional art curriculums were. Second graders spend the entire year on world cultures and international arts, from the Tibetan Mandalas to the Aboriginal Australians animal portraits to the Kenyan Adire Eleko cloths. Third graders spend the year learning about the connections between art and the natural world; making space paintings, animal sculptures and Andy Goldsworthy outdoor nature sculptures. Fourth graders learn color theory (I’m still teaching some of those college projects I learned in Prof. Itter’s class, especially the Dis-be-Leaf, where the students have to match the exact colors and textures of an autumn leaf). Fifth graders’ projects revolve around expression: how to put meaning into a clay pot or how to put expression into an animal picture. Sixth graders at my school have a theme of “outside the box”. We make junk art sculptures inspired by the work of Sayaka Ganz (another wonderful IU alum), cassette tape portraits inspired by the work of Erica Iris Simmons, and we put on our own Juncanoo festival where students design their own costumes, choreograph their own dance moves, and play their own music (all the special area teachers work on this project in tandem).
About the Author
I love discovering new artists. I love watching ideas click in the minds of the young kids. And I love art. I continue to be a professional artist, specializing in Impressionist landscape paintings, http://jeremymallovfineart.blogspot.com; but I really enjoy stretching the boundaries of what art can be, from origami to ceramics, to Michael Grab rock balancing to graffiti and street art. I love how the arts are blossoming in Indianapolis, and I am humbled to be recognized by the Arts Council as a 2017 ARTI Award Winner.