Permission to Play: Toddler Paint Bomber

Dan and I are in the process of renovating a rental house. It’s pretty much down to studs at this point. We brought Cora to work with us yesterday, with paints and brushes in tow. At first it just seemed like a good way for her to keep herself busy (and out of trouble) while we did what we had to do. But when we reversed our regular edict to “only draw on paper” and invited her to paint the walls of the kitchen, I wound up distracted in unexpected ways, getting meta about what she was doing.

Cora didn’t just paint in one small area, she relished the chance to tag every surface she could reach. This first had me thinking of her process in relation to graffiti artists “bombing” a site, like the Australian artists whose work went viral last month. But then a friend compared it to Jackson Pollock. Indeed, like the late great Jack the Dripper Cora was following her natural inclinations, approaching the canvas in an all-over style, moving her arm in big circles and dancing her lines around the room. Like Pollock, she seemed to be tapping into something primitive.
DSC_0033Cora took breaks from her painting from time to time, as if stepping away to gain new perspective, then returned with renewed energy and new colors on her palette. Most remarkably, she didn’t paint a single stroke on her body and begged to wash her hands when she was finished. Anyone who has followed her painting practice knows this is highly unusual. She was immersed in the process; experiencing flow.

While at first I was just happy she was keeping busy and out of the way, in the end, I was proud of her work and of me and Dan for providing her this opportunity for authentic creative play. We’re heading back this morning with more materials in hand. I can’t see what she does next.

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I remember when GOOD magazine started in 2006, though I can’t remember how I first heard about it. The subscription was ridiculously low and you could assign it to one of a dozen non-profits the founders selected to receive grants generated by the subscriptions.  That’s right. The folks producing it were not getting paid for awhile for the GOOD of the work they set out to do – to “chronicle and champion the emerging identity of the global citizen and creative changemaker.” Anyway, I stopped subscribing to the print magazine a few years ago, but I still get their emails. These are often buried in my inbox. (I currently have 9,608 unread messages. New Year’s Resolution; do something about that.)  But today’s post caught my eye. “Best of 213: Five Ways Kids Inspired Us through Play.”

I’m not usually one for end of the year BEST OF lists, but this one is worth your time. I’m off to read “Best of 2013: Seven Ways Imagination Ruled the World.”

Our Craftiest Christmas To Date

Ellen Dissanayake (1995) famously suggested that art is the act of “making special.” From that standpoint, I cannot be more satisfied with our family’s crafty Christmas this year. Folks were making things around here for a week and it was wonderful. (Read more about it.) I was proud as a mother. I was engaged as an art educator, facilitating as much as seemed necessary to keep Santa’s workshop operating at maximum velocity. Makes me wish, for the first time in my entire life, that it could be Christmas everyday.

George the Sculpey Charmer

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Dan stole my heart by proving, once again, that he is an artist through and through.
Vintage guitars on wood veneer with freehand drawn detailing.

DSC_0031 Some folks limit their icing color palette for the holidays. We don’t get that.
DSC_0041 Cora’s cookie for Leigh, our music teacher. (Sorry Leigh, I think she ate it.)DSC_0045

Cora-crafted wrapping paper with her personal signature.DSC_0007

The contents of the box. Aluminum foil bead bracelet, from Kid Made Modern.
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Our third (or fourth??) annual handmade gift exchange for adults in the family rocked.
(back to front) Charley Harper inspired sandpaper paintings, wood box, fudge, oil painting of a cow on a slice of wood, guitar magnets, reusable snacks sacks and sandwich wrap, handkerchiefs embroidered with internal organs.

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Permission to Play: Winter Crafting Edition

While I was griping about, what I consider, inappropriate cultural appropriations of Christmas crafting a few weeks ago, I’m now fully engaged in making things to decorate our tree and give as gifts. I am wrestling with what to call this tree, what to call this holiday. There’s no Christ in our Christmas. There are cookies, and crafts, twinkly lights and lots of presents. As far as I understand, all that predated Jesus. So, maybe I can celebrate this season without feeling too much Jewish guilt. While I try to figure all that out in my mind, I’m keeping my hands busy making stuff.

Most of my crafting supplies have been in storage since our kitchen project began last spring and I lost my office space, and I am eager to have them around again.  I’m grateful for the parameters Christmas traditions provide for making things. Since I am out of practice, it’s nice to have guidelines for getting back in the swing of things, with plenty of leeway for improvisation. Tasks like making ornaments, cookies, and secret santa gifts offer a jump start; the supplies I have on hand lend a challenge to make the best out of what is before me. This truly is sacred time. Time I catch up on This American Life and the chick flicks in my netflix cue. Time to spend time with the kids around the table with hot glue guns and glitter. Time to rejoice in all things handmade: edible, wearable, and all things in between.

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Please see the follow-up to this post Our Craftiest Christmas to Date.

Wonder Room, Redux

Lots of museums have creative play spaces primarily intended for families with young children. While the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity’s Wonder Room was designed with children 3 years of age and older (and their families) in mind, it serves as a place for visitors of all ages to engage in creative play amidst original works of art.

Scenes from the original Wonder Room:

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In its first iteration, the Wonder Room included the chance to create giant faces with magnetized household items, make constructions with sticks and rubber bands or plastic dinnerware, build a fort, and more. Our family and friends had a lot of good experiences exploring and experimenting in this room together over the past few years. But, I was happy to hear it was closing for an overhaul this Fall. We were ready for something new.

So it was with bells on that Rosa, Cora, and I went to the members only opening of the new Wonder Room this past Sunday. We had a great time exploring the new space and hanging out with some of the artists whose work is included. But, we’ll need to return a few times before we determine how it will best suit our needs. While the old space was a bit of an all-over design, the new room was designed around the idea of an enchanted forest. Anyone who has ever read The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, or The Lord of the Rings know that enchanted forests aren’t always happy places. The components work well in conveying this idea and presenting lots of great art from the museum’s collection, but I must admit that some aspects caught Cora off-guard and will take her time to get used to. The space feels, overall, darker than it was. In addition, many of the activities seem better suited for older visitors, like Rosa, than in the previous incarnation.

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For instance, Heidi Kambitsch, a local artist known for her Openheart Creatures, created capes and masks and wings and claws for dress-up. They are inspired and engaging, and a little creepy. Rosa loved wearing them but it took Cora some time to warm to the idea of dressing up as a hairy wild beast rather than a pretty princess. Kambitsch’s work is positioned beside Alex Andre’s Metamorphosis Project which invites viewers to position themselves on either side of a revolving wheel alternately made of mirror and glass. As the wheel spins, the viewers see flashing images of themselves – check out the videos on the link, it’s hard to explain. All I can say is, interacting with Andre’s work while wearing Kambtisch’s costumes is a trip. Whether its good or bad is all based on your perspective.

On a different note, the environmentalist in me will have to think more about some of the activities that use consumable materials. One of the things I LOVED about the first Wonder Room was the way it presented opportunities to engage in process art without producing waste. As I wrote in my review of Oliver Herring’s TASK, I have trouble fully engaging activities that create lots of trash; part of my mind gets lost in the landfill. Time will tell if visitors can create nests and niches that seem (to me) worthy of the materials they are made with. In the meantime, we’ll be heading back to the museum again soon to play with sticks and stones and cardboard squares. Hope to see some of you there!

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 1

If you are still looking for holiday gifts, one of these books might be just what you need. All are filled with fantastic illustrations and imaginative writing, all set in wintery weather, all were recently released, and all are Cora-approved.

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Please Bring Balloons (Ward, 2013) is a magical adventure that begins and ends with a polar bear on a carousel. I’m a sucker for upcycled materials, and Ward reuses various papers to add both visual and conceptual depth to her illustrations. This story invites one to suspend reality for a moment, something we can all use from time to time.

Brownie Groundhog and the Wintry Surprise (Balckaby & Segovia, 2013) is a great winter solstice story. The illustrations are rich and lusciously painted, the characters friendly and amusing. I like the way this book presents winter traditions typically associated with Christmas like twinkly lights and baking without doing so. In that way it seems to pay homage to the pagan roots of those traditions, responses to our human need for warmth and light in the coldest, darkest part of the year.

The Bear’s Song (Chaud, 2013) is also wonderful to look at and tells a sweet story. The imagery is dense and will keep readers of all ages engaged for awhile. The story will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water and found solace with a loved one and a sweet treat.

Finally Time to Brag About Work Work

Odd as it seems since I teach art education for a living, I rarely write about “work work” in this space. I enjoy teaching and there’s a lot I could write about it, some of which I have, particularly the online aspects which so many of us educators are adjusting to these days. I guess I generally just like to think of this as a space to explore other things, my own ideas and interests, rather than my students’.  The past few days, however, I have been taking time to stop and smell the professional roses; to honor the students I’ve been working with this fall on their culminating projects.

Students in the Master of Art in Art Education program at the University of Florida can design their final projects to be pretty much anything they can imagine, so long as it is doable. The topics are as diverse as our students. They pull me outside the lines into new intellectual and creative territories that I really didn’t recognize until now. I’m grateful for their direction.These projects were all critical, meaningful, and transformative for the student/researchers. My hope is that some of them my prove inspiring to you too.

An art teacher from southern Alabama examined his teaching practice in his very particular Southern, Black, and overwhelmingly poor school community. Jason is a self-described “privileged white man” who graduated from the same high school where he is currently teaching. Through self-study, he discovered that in order to reach his students in meaningful ways, he needs to attend to his manner and modes of communicating with them, as individuals, within a specific cultural context. Conducting this research required some difficult conversations about race and opportunity  which bring to mind Jonathan Kozol’s work – in the field, in our committee meetings, and within his own mind. Jason reported his findings through an altered field journal that can be seen on his website.

“Teaching in a culturally responsive manner takes time and dedication to research and reflect and build interpersonal relationships with students and community members.  For me personally, it means that I have to acknowledge my limitations as a white male teaching to an all-Black student body as well as the importance of introducing culturally relevant topics that my students may not have previously found to be of importance.” (Oulaw, 2013, p. 28)

Hilary, a student from California confronted conflicting facets of her identity in MIrror Changed to Glass. Using expressive arts-based research she interrogated what it means to her to simultaneously be mother, artist, and lesbian. The resulting drawings are hauntingly beautiful, mythic, and engaging as art, not just research.

“LGBTQ educators can benefit from examining the position they hold in society and how the lifestyle expectations placed on teachers affects their identity. If we are too scared to be ourselves, how can we truly model empowerment for our students? If we are too scared to examine our social conditioning, and the ways it has invaded our self-concepts, can we truly lead our students in examining social justice issues?” (McLean, 2013, p. 8)

Trish wondered what homeschooling families in Central Florida were doing in the name of art education. She visited with and interviewed three families, accompanying some to alternative settings for art education where they receive instruction. She wrote descriptive narratives contextualized in a discussion of how these cases compare to the kinds of critical comprehensive art curricula she’d learned about it the UF program. She shared her findings on the self-publishing site ISSUU. In the future, she hopes to develop her own art program for homeschoolers and has already started a  Pinterest Board dedicated to “Contemporary Art Teacher-Approved Lessons for Homeschoolers.” I meet so many people homeschooling their children these days, have thought about homeschooling my daughter, and imagine ways I might play a role in that movement in my own region. I appreciate the background research Trish offered in this study.

“The Internet and ambitious web-users have put sharing and accessing art education right at the tips of our fingers. The issue is in training the user to find the resources relevant to visual arts learning aligned with the NAEA national standards and contemporary art education objectives. This is why I firmly believe that it is in the best interest of art educators and the NAEA to provide high standard contemporary art education programs and resources that are relevant to homeschool students.” (O’Donnell, 2013, p. 58)

Ana conducted research that will form the foundation for a community-based art initiative in her New Jersey town. Through interviews and surveys of key stakeholders, she learned about the history of arts programming in her community and identified opportunities and challenges for future developments. Most exciting for me, were the low-cost projects she developed for drop-in participation at an arts festival and the public library, the latter remembering Super Storm Sandy one year later.

“It is not enough to have public agencies interested in revitalizing the arts in the area if there is not a committed individual, or group, with community-based art endeavors. The challenge would be to find passionate people who would like to commit their time to the town and create, little by little, more community-based artistic projects. From my perspective, by creating small collaborative art projects––such as the one I put at the library––people with the same interest will get to know each other and might foster communication, engagement, and finally support each other in the mission.” (Robles, 2013, p. 26)

Kelly has become a curriculum revisionist, leading her colleagues on a quest for a more comprehensive, contemporary art curriculum. An elementary art educator in Texas, Kelly surveyed her colleagues (members of her professional learning community), about their experiences engaging curricular reform through backward design. She plans to use this information to continue district-wide reform efforts and to help folk sin other areas interested in reform to make changes. She’s starting by submitting a version of her research paper for publication in a national art education journal.

“Surprisingly, teaching experience or length of time in the school district did not become a major factor in the participants’ wiliness to change. Though the art educators involved in the project had different teaching experience, their acceptance of the art curriculum relied on their readiness to change not upon their understanding of their past teaching experiences.” (McGee, 2013, p.29)

Daniela introduced students at the Montessori school where she works to critical visual culture through discussion and analysis of advertisements, documentary films, and artists who employ culture-jamming. While she didn’t get the results she had hoped for, she planted seeds in these kids minds that they may bear fruits later in their lives. Her research  and curriculum ideas are published on her website.

“Popular visual culture is a powerful force in American society. Adolescents have a sophisticated understanding of popular culture, but need mentors to guide them in navigating ethical issues and complexities inherent in its content. Popular culture offers sites of subjectivity, pleasure, and identification for its consumers, who in turn create meaning that are not fixed to them (Sturken &Cartwright, 2001). In the art classroom, these sites can offer rich possibilities for student engagement in critical thinking practices.” (DeSousa, 2013, p. 9)

It’s no wonder I’m tired. I’ve been around the world and back with these students in the past few months. I’m glad we are all now settling in for a long winter’s rest.

Note: References for this page will be updated once these papers have been published through the University of Florida.