Open-Ended Arts and Crafts

Yesterday Cora worked on some “tissue paper stained glass.”  To do this: Tape some clear contact paper to the window (sticky side facing out) and adhere tissue paper to the surface.  I pinned a range of examples on a Pinterest Board.  And, below you can see Cora’s take.

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I was first introduced to this technique by a friend with a son just a bit older than Cora. Once when we went to their house, we found a huge bowl full of tiny bits of tissue paper her son had produced.  The pieces were a beautiful mix of orange, yellow, and brown and we were going to use use them to make fall leaves. As we sat down to work, her son lost interest and went running to an adjacent room.  She tried to draw him back into the activity a few times, but he was only interested in throwing the tissue paper around the room, anywhere besides the sticky paper.

The leaves turned out beautifully, the naturalistic shape of  real leaves, but I recall my friend being a bit disappointed that her son wasn’t quite as invested in the project as she was.  I told her that it sounded like he got what he needed out of tearing the paper, he was, afterall only 2 years old and is, I presume, more used to being told to stop tearing things up.  I have to remind Cora of this often, one too many times when a library book is in her lap.

Since Cora did enjoy sticking the tissue paper, I tried making some stars and the moon with her.  She wasn’t really interested and the star we made felt more like my star than her star, or even our star.  It just didn’t feel authentic enough for me. So, we set all that aside.  Until yesterday.  She was not napping, as usual, so I committed to setting my grading aside to play with her for awhile.  After afixing some tissue paper to the back of a spaceship we’d made for Buzz Lightyear, she asked for some scissors and commenced cutting.

Cora likes to cut paper.  Sometimes for 30 minutes at a time. She has no goal in mind.  I think she just likes to feel the power of using a tool and seeing a result. (She’s her daddy’s girl.)  In the past 2 months she’s gone from (1) needing me to hold the paper for her so she could use both hands to make the scissors open and close, (2) to opening the scissors, then placing them in one hand so she could hold the paper in the other, (3) to opening and closing them with one hand.  Amazing.

As she was cutting, I noticed there was sunshine streaming through the window, rare in Central Ohio in January. I held some of the tissue paper up to the window and we watched it change as the light shined through it.  This reminded me of the tissue paper stained glass and sent me searching for the clear contact paper.  I only found a few scraps but that didn’t seem to matter.  I just wanted to let Cora play with the tissue paper and the light. Turns out she also enjoyed played with the tacky surface of the contact paper.

She stuck pieces up and she took pieces down.  In the end, she took all the pieces off as if cleaning up a stack of blocks.  I’d trade the chance to her experiment in her own way for a tissue paper Valentine any day.

Freestyle Preschool

This post is dedicated to my friend Melissa, a partner in parenting and inspiration in all manner of creative and intentional living.


Melissa and I met on a playground when our daughters, were just learning to walk. I felt an immediate connection to her, another East coast gal making a go of it in the midwest.  Like me, Melissa came to Columbus for Ohio State. Her husband is a graduate student in the Art & Technology program and another person I am thrilled to have Cora spending time with.  Andrew takes apart toys so he can mess around with their electronic guts.  He builds 3D printers in his basement studio and prints things that contribute to, and alter, the world the girls’ play in.  Case in point, the urinal he made for Maya’s dollhouse.  Melissa can make anything out of felt.  She sells her stuff on Etsy and gives the most beautiful gifts.

Harboring not so warm-and-fuzzy memories of their own early educations, Melissa and Andrew plan to homeschool Maya, beginning with preschool.  Since we do a childcare swap a few days a week, we’ve batted around the idea of doing this together. But I know that we have already begun.  As I said, when Cora is at Maya’s house, she is learning all sorts of things from the handmade and repurposed stuff there.  It’s like a museum with salon-style collections of images on the walls and shelves full of things collected and crafted over the years.  The girls roam pretty freely, exploring how to get along and make their own fun and games.

Our house feels a bit sterile by comparison.  I like to hide most everything behind cabinet doors when it’s not in use and Dan and I, for all our love for and friends who are artists, don’t have a ton of stuff on the walls. I guess you could say we have a somewhat minimalist decorating style.  But I’d like to think that what my home lacks in inherent inspiration I make up for through my interaction with the girls.  Mind you, I also take advantage of their increasing ability to entertain themselves.  (This past week while Maya was with us I got through the junk mail pile and cleaned the microwave!) But, when the opportunity arises, I’m starting to explore more intentional ways to push their learning, as I do when Cora and I are on our own.

DSC_0018And so it was last week when the girls had me playing a hair styling game in which I adorned their heads with every barrette in Cora’s collection.  They were disappointed once the supply exhausted, so I suggested we take them all out and do it again.  As I took the barrettes out of Maya’s hair I was truly amazed by the size of the pile.  I said, “This is a lot of barrettes!  I wonder how many there are here.  Let’s line them up and count them.” And we did.  The girls got a little lost in the counting after 12 or 13, but we made it all the way to 19.  Then we did the same for Cora’s pile.  Next we sorted everything by color.

This activity wasn’t rocket science.  But, it was grounded in a conscious desire to provide spontaneous frameworks for the girls to practice developmentally-appropriate skills.  Next up, developing some real and mental lists of more things to work on so I can be prepared the next time a teachable moment arises.  Recommendations welcome!

Copy Cat


As I was helping Rosa with her monthly book report project the other night, I was reminded of debates surfacing in my Art Education in Alternative Sites course this spring.

In the first lesson, students explore the landscape of art education outside of schools.  They map organizations in their own communities, they tour programs throughout the world online (like The Laundromat Project, ArtWorks, and InnerCity Arts), and they read scholarly articles on a range of issues related to art education-at-large.  Hot button ideas emerge on the discussion boards, varying from term-to-term based on the interests and perspectives of the students.  It’s my job to draw out those common interests, and points of dispute, for further examination.

This time around,  we have been circling the related issues of franchised art education programs (like Abrakadoodle) and the value of follow-along activities.  While I’m intellectually put off by the idea of any art program that has students do the same thing as the person sitting next to them, I can’t deny the success Bob Ross had in getting people painting.  As my students noted, the teacher can make or break this type of program.  Bob was charismatic.  He drew people in.  As I previously wrote, Cora and I have been similarly impressed with our Music Together teacher.  Could I possibly have a similarly engaging experience at the local Kidzart?  I’m trying to approach this idea with an open-mind for a moment, even while I am picturing Andy Singer‘s cartoon “BIRTH to DEATH in a Box” and hearing Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” in my mind..

(No Exit) Birth to Death in a Box

Used by permission of the artist.

The issue of “do-what-I-do” instruction is another aspect of ongoing debate, and here again my views have been changing based on recent life lessons.  In most scholarly circles of visual art education, copying from a master has long been dismissed as denying students opportunities to express their own ideas and emotions through their artmaking.*  I have personally winced walking down school hallways plastered with vases of sunflowers painted like Vincent Van Gogh.  But, as Duncum (1988) noted, there are a variety of positions on copying in art education, and I’ve come to recognize that I’m not quite as far to the anti-copying side of the spectrum as I thought I would be.  I recall, as a child I once followed step-by-step instructions from a book to make a charcoal drawing of a farm covered in snow. I was so pleased to be utilizing drawing techniques like smudging and erasing out highlights to make the scene look realistic.  And, as recently as last month, I dutifully followed sewing tutorials I found online to create holiday gifts.  So what if I was just copying?  I had enjoyed the process of creating things and sharing them with others.

Which all brings me back to Tuesday night, with about 14.75 hours until the book report was due.  These projects have been a nice way for Rosa and I to bond.  Each time they had some visual component that has given us a chance to work together to talk through ideas and imagery, to uncover ways to execute or revise ideas, and to get out the craft supplies -something we used to do together a lot when she was younger but have done less and less as her free time gets swallowed up by electronics and mine by her little sister.

So, there we were preparing to make a box adorned with clues about Scat by Carl Hiassen, the mystery Rosa selected to read.  On the lid, she had to show a scene from the book.  I selfishly suggested that if I were the teacher, I’d rather see her draw her own version of the scene than seeing an image from the computer she had cut and paste.  She conceded and started sketching.  But, she grew frustrated when the cougars she was drawing all looked like housecats.

We pulled up an image of a cougar on my computer and I directed her to look carefully at the shape of the animal’s head, muzzle, and ears to get started.  She gave it a shot but seemed frustrated so I started drawing beside her, telling her what I saw and what I was drawing as I went along.  I was impressed by her drawing, until she told me she made it by copying my drawing, not by looking at the photo on the screen and translating that into her own lines.  I felt like my lesson had gone over her head, like she’d taken the easy way out.  But, I quickly realized that none of that mattered at that moment, because we both agreed that her last drawings were so much improved from her first.  She was proud of what she’d accomplished, and I was too.

* (One exception that comes to mind was Blandy and Congdon’s presentation on their experiences in a Ross-style painting class at NAEA years ago.)

Duncum, P (1988).  To Copy or Not the Copy.  Studies in Art Education, 29(4) p. 203-210.

Globalization, Art Education, and the Internet

Last spring, I taught a section of a course called Globalization, Art, and Education.  The course, conceived by my colleague Elizabeth Manley Delacruz who co-edited an anthology with the same title, provides opportunities for students to explore “the nature of creative cultural expressions (aka “art”) in diverse global contexts; the dramatic impact of transcultural and transglobal interaction on local peoples and communities; and how all of this impacts personal, cultural, professional, and public policies, practices, and institutions.”  I realize this is a mouthful, and students were required to read and digest some heady articles on the subject.  But, in addition, we also played around with a lot of online avenues for engaging the global community of artists, educators, and learners.

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Screenshot of the “View by country” statistics for Outside the Lines.

This week I had an experience that brought some of the objectives of that digital play into focus for me.  When I first read about the Live Action Toy Story project, I knew it was something I wanted to write about here.  It fit nicely with so many things I want this blog to address.  I wanted to write about it as soon as possible so I could ride the trending wave the project was generating and see how far it would take me.  As a result, my post wasn’t very long and it wasn’t thoroughly cited but it was, as of this evening, viewed 754 times by readers from 63 countries.  Amazing.  I never thought my ideas could have that kind of reach.

I’m sharing this experience with my students in the hopes that it might inspire more of them to put their ideas out into the world and see where they land.

3 Reasons to Love “Live Action Toy Story”

DSC_0070Toy Story (1995) was only the second feature-length movie Cora watched in its entirety.  I put it on for her one cold, dreary afternoon a few weeks ago, without any prompting.  I chose it because it is only 81 minutes long and because I love it.  The music.  The animation.  The characters.  The story.  The way it models imaginative play.  Unlike so many other movies intended for kids, I find it hard to find anything about this one that gets under my skin – personally or politically.  I wanted her to see it, to share it with her.

She fell in love immediately.  For the past two weeks, our days have been filled with talk of Buzz and Woody.  Buzz flying down the stairs.  Woody sleeping on the couch.  The pair making off in a Playmobil police car.  So I was primed when, this afternoon, I read about two young guys who also fell in love with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s toys.  So in love, that they spent the past 2 years creating their own live-action version of the film frame-for-frame.  There are a few things about this story that really hit home for me as an art educator.

Jonason Pauley and Jesse Perrotta were 17 and 18 respectively when they started the film, as a hobby project.  If they had been my students, I would have happily granted them high school credit for this, excused them from classes, and advised them to complete it as a senior project.  It’s is a fine example of self-directed, project-based learning that is now being seen and evaluated by people all over the world, including the animators at Pixar.

Pauley and Perrotta’s remake may remind some of the Jack Black/Mos Def film, Be Kind, Rewind (2008).  This is another low-budget affair complete with visible strings and wires.  Evidence of the artists’ hands is visible in every scene.  And that’s what gives the film its charm.  As one YouTube commenter suggested, it’s magical.  This project is evidence that kids, even teenagers, can find ways to loose themselves in acts of creative play.

When the team posted their film on YouTube this past weekend, they entered into the participatory culture enabled by Web 2.0.  They shifted from being consumers to producers of media.  And now the cycle will start over again.  I have no doubt this project will launch a thousand like it, though I’m not sure how many teens will have the perseverance to take it this far.


Art Education in the Antique Shop


One afternoon back in the fall, Cora and I headed to a vintage consignment shop focused on checking out a mid-century modern sofa I had seen online.  However, when we got to the store and learned the sofa had been sold the previous afternoon we made the most of it.  We played a baby grand piano and tried on fur hats.  We roared at life-size ceramic lions and sprawled across velvet lounge chairs.  We ogled case-after-case, and shelf-upon-shelf of collectibles figurines, toys, and telephones, jewelry, teapots…

The experience was actually my impetus for starting this blog.  I had just taught about art education in informal learning environments (ILE) (Paris, 2002) for a course on museum education I was covering as an adjunct at Ohio State.  Walking around the Grandview Mercentile, following Cora around and watching her through the lens of my camera, I felt like I had found the ultimate ILE for art education.  Reflecting on our field trip that evening, I realized, there were overlaps between my double-life as an art educator and mother that I wanted to explore and share with others.

Cora took in the shop with her eyes, hands, and whole body at times.  Within reason, I allowed her to independently approach objects, following her curiosities.  After a few moments of uninhibited investigation, I talked with her about whatever she was looking at – often beginning with a reminder that it was breakable and she needed to be gentle – and asked her a few questions.  We talked about the objects’ formal qualities and we compared them with things we’d seen in books or elsewhere in the world.

As in a comprehensive art museum, the objects on display presented a seemingly endless opportunity for material culture studies – links for exploring how the objects in our world contribute to the development of our personal and cultural patterns of behavior, sense of self and community, and help preserve our heritage and our memories.  Each time we turned a corner, a new space revealed itself – a Victorian parlor, an office made for Mad Men, a French garden cafe…   These spaces showcased various aesthetic styles, advances in manufacturing and design, and palettes of colors, textures, lines, shapes, forms.  Unlike in most museums, we were allowed to get up close to the objects, to touch them, and (more or less) to play with them. All that, and it was free.

What’s your favorite informal learning environment for art education?

Permission to Play (Finale): Imaginative Play

“Occasionally in her travels through her childrens’ minds
Mrs. Darling found things she could not understand…”
(from Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie, 1911).


Over the past few weeks Cora’s become an imaginative babbler.  Since she rarely naps, I often use the baby monitor to listen to her talk herself through rest time.  She loves to sing, so these monologues often turn into musicals.  This morning, as I tended to some half-mindless back to school business like organizing and archiving documents, and marking the calendar with upcoming assignments and meetings, the other half of me watched and listed to her play. I realized that as her storytelling skills develop, she’s simultanesouly becoming involved in grand imaginative play scenarios.  Nothing could make me happier.

Before I became pregnant, I had a lot of concerns about parenting an only child 50% of the time.  When my stepkids were young, they were one another’s best playmates.  (Not so today, though they still have their moments.)  But I was really worried that I would have no time for myself if I had to make up for absent siblings.  I hoped for a child with an independent spirit and ability to entertain him or herself.  So far, I’ve been pretty fortunate. What Cora lacks in the sleep department, she makes up for in playing on her own.

Around the time she started talking, Cora began to make regular reference to a place she calls Penza.  For awhile, I thought she was trying to say something else and attempted to crack the code.  But eventually, I came to accept Penza as a part of our lives.  Something I could even rely on to gain Cora’s attention and cooperation.  For example, one afternoon she wouldn’t get in the car so we could run an errand.  When I asked her why not, she said she was going to Penza and she started off across the yard.  I asked if it was far away and she said it was.  So, I offered her a ride in the car.  No more argument.  When we got to our destination, I told her we had arrived, in Penza.  She was delighted and the game went on from there.


This afternoon found Bert, Ernie, a Playmobil elephant, and a Hotwheels car on the road to Penza.  For the most part, the journey seemed to be the destination in this game.  The four were alternately moved around the bathroom, only to be moved again a few minutes later.  I’m not sure where this all might have gone if we weren’t called to neighbor’s house for a playdate, likley just back in circles.

I think of Penza as Cora’s version of Neverland, a place for her to work out her burgeoning understandings of the world, both real and imagined.  It certainly bears all the characteristic benefits of imaginative play.  Perhaps Peter Pan was right afterall.  I think we could all use a Penza to call our own.  I think this blog just might be mine.  What’s yours?