Cats with Whiskers

Crafty Cora hasn’t shown much interest in drawing for a while. Last week she pulled out some markers for a project – I can’t remember what though it probably involved drawing on one of her toys, or the dog, to embellish a game she was playing or a story she was telling herself. While the colors were out I asked if she would draw with me. She told me to draw a cat for her and I told her I thought she could do it herself. “Just try,” I coaxed. Then I gave her some simple directions and asked a few questions to help her get going.


(From left) Kitty cat and lion.

“First, draw a head.” She drew a circle. “Good start!” I encouraged.

“What else does it need?” I asked. She drew eyes. Detailed eyes, not just circles or dots!

“How about some ears?” The little bumps on top.

“Now a nose. And a mouth,” she told me.

“Anything else?” I asked. “How about some whiskers?”

When she was finished, big brother George asked her to draw him a lion. She started with the zigzag shape for its head. I was stunned! With no prompting, she used her mental image of a lion to guide her. This lion is furry. This lion is fierce.

There are few things I love more in this world than the authentic drawings of young children representing the things they see in this world. I first became interested in this phenomenon while I was at Pratt Institute where I was assigned Nancy Smith’s (1997) Observation Drawing with Children. This book is great for teachers and parents interested in how they can support their children’s drawing with an eye toward real world representation. Note, this is not the same as the professional genre known as Realism. This is is about looking carefully. It about making marks to represent what you see, as best as you can, not like a camera would. In such drawing we can see thinking.

I was so impressed with what Cora was able to draw in response to just a few simple prompts. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

[Companion reading recommendation: Last year I wrote about Rosa drawing big cats. The piece addressed older children and the controversial issue of copying. You can read that post here.]


The Visiting (Online) Scholar

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Ten years ago I moved to Columbus, OH to study art education at The Ohio State University. The list of things that drew me there was long, but ultimately topped by two things: they offered me more money than the competition and Terry Barrett was teaching there. Terry is known around the world for his work on art interpretation. He is the only person I have ever heard of to be invited to schools as an “art critic-in-residence.”  To this wanna-be museum educator turned high school teacher, he was a rock star.

Long before I read his books or studied with Terry I was equally, if not more, interested in engaging people in discussion about artworks as in helping them make their own. As a high school teacher I spent a good deal of class time talking about artworks with students and asking them to write reasoned and reflective responses to them. As a professor of art education I have repeatedly encouraged my students, most of whom are school-based art teachers, to balance studio production with responses to artworks. Terry and his work provided me with concepts and methods to support my own.

Terry has traveled far and wide spreading his gospel of art interpretation. One of the last times I heard him talk about his work he had just come back from time in the Middle East where he had gone to speak with students at a university about art interpretation; Iraq, I think. Tonight, I got to hear him give his first online lecture. Ever.

He introduced himself to students in the UF Art Education program like this:

I’ve been teaching art for 45 years. The most important thing I do as an art educator is facilitate people interpreting art. Aritsts give us knowledge, express experiences, and provide insights about the world through their work. If we don’t teach art interpretation, we are missing a lot of knowledge and experience that is very important. This is something I want to impress upon you tonight, the importance of interpretation, and encourage you all to teach this to your students.

I’m so happy our students got to hear Terry speak about his love of sharing art with others. He has a patient presence, a groundedness, that impacts the work he does. He doesn’t rush conversation, it allows it to unfold, pushes at the edges just enough to keep it going. He suggested, “It’s not about having or providing right answers, rather about engaging in discussion in the interest of discovery.”

[NOTE: This talk was held in Adobe Connect, an online meeting site we use in our program, and worked much better for those of us off campus than the on-campus artist talk streamed last spring which I wrote about at that time. See: Redefining “Artist Talk: Open to the public.”]

Outside the Lines Goes Over the Fence

I haven’t been writing here much lately because I have been deep in the flow of a new project in the tangible space outside of the computer. I spent most of the winter in planning mode, but now that the weather is warming up, it is finally starting to come together which is so rewarding. This a project with roots (literally and figuratively) in my work as an art educator, if not obvious from the outside.

Over the Fence Urban Farm is an urban agriculture experiment I’m working on with my family and some friends. It combines my interests in community-based and collaborative art education with environmental art. The project is providing me a space to be a leader, to organize tasks and delegate responsibilities in the interest of a large scale project.  When I look out at our work at the end of a long day or shoveling, carrying, bending, and seeding, I feel a sense of accomplishment. At 2,000 square feet, this is the largest canvas I have ever painted. A living, ever-changing mural.

The view: Over the Fence.

The view: Over the Fence.

In college, I took an experimental course called “Sacred Space,” co-taught by professors of studio art and philosophy, in the name of cultural geography. I have thought about this course over and over for nearly two decades. The content and experiences we had around what we were learning was so rich. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but I know it now. Together we scrubbed our classroom which no other students would have access to for the semester. We left our shoes outside the threshold, which we adorned in various ways over the course of the term. We altered the room each week to reflect mountains, labyrinths, caves, and trees among other natural and manmade forms that shape the worlds we inhabit, and which in turn, as Winston Churchill aptly noted, shape us.

Sacred Space helped me connect my interests in environmental appreciation and conservation with my interests in art. It primed me to fall in love with artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Andy Goldworthy, Lynn Hull, and Aurora Robson. And it set me up for what I’m doing in my backyard today.

I like to think we’re creating a sacred space, “special” space if we appropriate Dissanyake’s definition of art, on the small plot of land we’re transforming. We’ve only begun the process, but in some ways that is the most amazing part. Clearing the sod was like priming a wall. Turning the soil like establishing the underpainting. All the rest will be details.

[Note: An extension of the ideas begun in this post can be found in “Art education in my backyard: Creative placemaking on an urban farm“) which was published in Artizein: Arts and Teaching Journal, Fall 2015).

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 6

I’m not going to write about my own picturebook experiences tonight. Instead, I’m going to let a soon-to-be alumna of the University of Florida’s Masters in Art Education program do the work for me.

Kaitlin Gallagher Pozzo is lives in the Minneapolis, Minnesota metropolitan area where she teaches art and Italian to homeschooled toddlers and preschoolers and is a Curiosity Center volunteer at the Minnesota Children’s Museum.  For her capstone project, she examined various picturebooks about art, created and tested related lesson plans with her  3-year old daughter and a few of her homeschool tutees. The boys moved away before the study was over so some of their interactions took place on Skype which added another space for research and experimentation.

Kaitlin developed a website to house her research findings and to serve as a resource for homeschoolers and early childhood educators. The site is full of great photos of her daughter at work/play, book recommendations and related lesson plans for projects that go beyond crayons and coloring pages. The books are specifically about art, though Kaitlin also shares my understanding and passion for picturebooks that are art objects and recognition that, all too often, the two don’t overlap. In other words, picturebooks about art and artists are surprisingly not always artful.

Please check out Kaitlin’s work and recommend it to your friends, fellow educators, and parents of young children. She plans to expand it after graduation and would love to hear from readers with feedback and recommendations for new books to explore.