The First Day

When I'm teaching summer art classes with children, I put a lot of thought into the first day.

I want the students to feel comfortable above all. I will not make them stand up and introduce themselves, talk about what kind of art they like best, or anything that could make someone anxious being in a new place with new people while they are figuring it all out. I don't do anything complicated, messy, or requiring previous experience on the first day. The first project is making nametags for their desks, and everyone learns each other's names by seeing them. I can tell a lot about the students with this first project. Some quickly scribble their name with one colour and then ask what to do next, while others are still putting on finishing touches on the third day. I get a sense of what types of things they are interested in, maybe their paper is filled with Pokémon, flowers, giraffes, fashion ideas or geometric designs. The ones with elaborate cursive bubble letters will be really into the projects, those with a rushed scribble will probably need more outside breaks to the playground. I plan little side-projects for the kids who are constantly "done" while the rest of the group works on the main project. Play-doh is good, until they start throwing it around the room. I imagine their parents saying, "you can't play video games all summer! You're going to day camp! Here, this art one sounds fun." A good compliment I received once from a student, "I thought this was going to be totally boring, but it isn't."

On the first day, I explain what we will do all week. I show them which materials they have free access to and which are in the Teacher Zone. My preferred style of art instruction is "buffet" where everything is laid out for them to choose what they want. I let them know that art is like science, in that we test things out and some things work and some things don't. Failure is very important in finding success, and art is so much more than making a horse that looks like a horse. I tell them realistic art is only one type of art, and we explore and experiment while we create and express ideas.

Within an hour, the kids are feeling like they know what's what, and even the most shy start feeling comfortable. Some are excited that they will try materials like charcoal that they've never tried before. They are starting to make friends with the other children they just met, and think I'm pretty entertaining with my theatric inflections of voice and passion for art.

I take them on a walk around the college before snack break to look at and discuss art, and also check out some cool places we will come back to for Outdoor Sketching. It's like when I used to give art gallery tours, only there are ponds and gardens and an elevator the kids love to take to the third floor. "Look at these four paintings. Do you see things that are the same or different? Do they make you feel peaceful or angry or sad or something else? What was the artist trying to say?" We talk about local artist James Marshall's brick mural at the college, and they can always remember where they've seen his other brick murals around town.

The different age groups have different main projects, but I always say if they have something else really inspiring them they can make their own project. I won't force anyone to create something they don't want to, for example a student could choose to make army tanks instead of flowers with egg carton cups if that's what they were stoked about. The students usually enjoy Free Time in addition to what I have planned, and I've abandoned some projects because everyone was in the zone doing their own thing.

One year I had a student that was really creative and liked trying new things. Her dad picked her up one day and she excitedly began explaining she rolled marbles around in a box with paint and how fun it was. He looked at her paintings and heart-breakingly told her that wasn't art since a 2 year old could do it. Guess he was expecting a horse that looked just like a horse. I was so glad I got to show her a different view of what art can be.

Summer Art Camp

Schools are closed for July and August where I live. I work at the College doing summer day programs of arts & crafts with kids.

This is what I'd like to be doing year round, in my own art school/studio/gallery. Need like a million dollars, seems impossible, but I still wish it.

The biggest difference is class size. Having groups of less than twelve children means that I am able to really focus on my students, give them more open-ended creative and explorative projects, spend time talking about their projects with them, and help them problem solve. This does not work once you see 20 or 30 or more kids in a group. The lessons are simplified to be accessible to the weaker students, because most will be teaching themselves while the teacher is busy repeating instructions. The talented students often get little attention because they've caught on to the idea and the people struggling need the guidance more urgently. Small groups though, I am mentoring each one.

I am thinking about making a book (or maybe a blog) about art lessons with kids. I have some great photos from over the several years I've done art camp. I'd have to use photos without faces because the forms the parents sign to photograph their children only cover consent to the college and the newspaper. I'm not sure what programs I'd need on the computer to lay out that kind of thing, if I went traditional publishing route. In addition to the lesson plans and photography, I'd like to add memories, and descriptions of how each lesson creates different results depending on the imagination of the children.

Every now and then I meet a student that I immediately know has True Talent. Yes, everyone can be an artist. Art skills can be learned and improved. If you can write the alphabet you have basic drawing skills. I tell all my students their work is awesome. "I love the colours you chose!" "This technique is working really well!" type of thing. But some kids really impress the socks off me and that happened today. I can't wait to see her final project, it might be better than the example I made!

At snack break she sat on a couch in one of the student lounges on campus. She put up her feet on the upholstery and I said, "Hey! Would you put your shoes on your couch at home? What would your mom say?" In a joking, conversational tone of voice, not punitive. She very quietly looked toward the windows, and after a pause, moved her feet to the floor and said softly, "my mom died."

It made me think about the connection between artists and adversity, and how she will create with real emotion and darkness and hardship most kids haven't experienced. I wonder if that unspeakable tragedy had to happen to her so the world will have her beautiful expressive art. Or maybe it was just a fluke project, the majority of her work is not adult level, and she said she was orphan because she thought it would be funny. Who knows?