Worlds Collide: Art Education at OEFFA

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“What are we going to do with this?!”   “Look at all this yarn.”

“This is fun.”        “This is taking so long.”       “Can I take some yarn with me?”

A few weeks ago, I was invited to lead a 60-minute art activity for 30 kids ages 6-12 during the 37th annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. I was really excited to be asked. Since I started my adventures in urban agriculture a few years ago (see Outside the Lines Goes Over the Fence) I’ve been interested in checking out this multi-day meeting of growers and consumers interested in organic and sustainable practices in farming. I’m not sure I would have made it there without the specific invitation (and offer of free admission for the day) just given how hectic life can be. But now that I’ve been, I plan to make it a point to get back.

Figuring out what to do in one hour with a big group of kids covering a wide age range (a few teens even came and hung out unexpectedly) is not the sort of thing I’m used to doing. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around these kinds of make-and-take sessions. On the one hand they seem antithetical to the meaningful and authentic art education experiences I hope to promote through my teaching. But, on the other hand, they are so common it seems we ought to find ways to make them the best they can be.

My former student and friend Hilary Frambes recommended me for the gig after she had to drop out at the last minute. (I don’t think I’ve a chance to say thanks yet, Hilary!) I was invited to plan any type of art project I’d like to lead the kids in – but with some type of environmental bent. I had to decide quickly whether I was interested and what I would do. The program for the conference was being finalized the next day.

I did a little searching around Pinterest and found a few weaving ideas I thought might work in the name of creating harvesting vessels. I offered to collect containers, yarn, and ribbons through my neighborhood Freecycle group and did so over the course of the next few weeks.

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Other than that, I didn’t think too much more about the workshop until a few days before the event. (This wasn’t procrastination, this was part of my ongoing attempts to schedule my work so I don’t expect myself to tackle my entire to-do list in a single day.) At any rate, I let it go a little too far and didn’t get to really test my ideas until the night before the big day. At that point, I realized that it was harder and took longer than I imagined. I started to worry about how the kids, with their little hands, would handle it and whether they’d get too frustrated to make it work.

In my early days of teaching I would have panicked. But this time I went to sleep, assuming I’d be able to think more clearly in the morning. I woke up thinking about some fairy wands I’d made with the kids at home – wrapping yarn (and feathers and such) around the ends of sticks from the yard.When I got to the conference site, the thermometer on the car read 6 degrees. I walked away form the building and across the street into the woods. I gathered about twenty 18-30 inch sticks and hurried inside to find the room where I’d been working, dropped off my supplies, and found my way to my first (adult) workshop session.

After lunch I got my supplies set up as seen above. I devoted one large table to yarn the other to the supports we’d be wrapping. As the kids filed in we gathered around the table with the yarn. They immediately started pawing the colors, then paused to ask if that was okay. “Of course,” I told them. And in that moment I clearly understood my goal in our limited time together was not to teach them anything major or manage their behavior any more than was necessary to keep everyone positive and productive as we played with yarn and sticks.

I introduced myself and asked them what they knew about weaving. I showed them a few ideas for working with the materials I brought and invited them to play* with them with me.  And that’s what we did. Some kids got frustrated. Some kids seemed to work as fast as they could and then just sat and watched the others. But noone complained, they all tried something new, and in the end they made some pretty cool looking objects.

 

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Acts of LOVING Kindness

I was out of the house today attending a conference. When I got home, I found these on the kitchen counter.

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Since Cora and I started making Valentine’s last week, I’ve left the materials out on the counter in the hope that the other kids might get inspired. I didn’t expect to Dan to get in on the action. But I probably should have. He’s always loved making little love notes – for birthdays, lunch boxes, for my suitcase on business meetings.

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He told me Cora gave him some directions for his making, including on the card he made for her. Above, you can see she gave him permission to use as many gems as he wanted on her card.

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After dinner the rest of the family spontaneously accepted my Valentine invitation. As always, Cora was mesmerized by her older siblings and stayed up way past her bedtime cutting, gluing, drawing, writing, and singing along to cheesy love songs.

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Rosa got so far into the flow that she didn’t stop working for 2 1/2 hours.  She finished 14 unique cards and is looking forward to sharing them with family and friends.

I believe that actions speak louder than words, greeting cards, and even chocolate. Probably another one of those things that goes back to my Jewish upbringing where we are taught that gemilut hasadim, acts done for others out of love and compassion which tie us together as human beings, are as important as giving charitable contributions of work. We show one another our love through acts of empathy and generosity – from putting the dishes in the dishwasher to taking a moment from our busy lives to knock on a neighbor’s door and see how they’ve been. We show love through our communion.

Having my family in the kitchen all together and crafting tonight was the best Valentine I could have asked for.

Rethinking the Valentine

Okay. I admit it. Valentine’s Day has never meant all that much to me.

It’s not that I’m not romantic or anything like that. But, I have historically thought of it as a market-driven holiday; our love for one another measured by the store-bought cards kids pass around at school and candy conversation hearts which never appealed to me on any level.

Likewise, as an art educator, I put holiday crafts in a category of work not worth the time of serious contemporary art educators. As at this time last year, I just finished a unit on the history of holiday crafts in art education (see Paper Heart and the History of Art Education). My students shared their perspectives on the issue, most suggesting that there isn’t much time for holiday crafting in their artrooms even if they wanted to bring it in. They questioned which holidays would be addressed, could be addressed, in a multicultural classroom. And that they feel misunderstood when administrators expect them to celebrate and decorate for holidays like this. I share their views.

But this year, as Crafty Cora and I got to work on tokens of affection for her classmates, we got to talking about what Valentine’s Day is all about. I found our basic research personally edifying as I grew up with some vague idea that (Saint) Valentine’s day isn’t for Jewish people. It also gave me ideas about how it might be meaningfully addressed in a comprehensive art program – not that I’m arguing it ought to be…

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, as with Christmas, Valentine’s Day predates the saint for which it is named. According to the History Channel, it started as a fertility holiday known as Lupercalia and, paralleling the social history of romantic relations, morphed into a holiday about romantic love.

Our search uncovered an interview with Valentine collector Nancy Rosin which positions the Valentine as an interesting bit of visual culture. Rosin suggests they are “important as a social chronicle. Personal communication between people…fascinating stories.” Watching her video, I could imagine using Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to talk with students about the history of romance, the practice of arranged marriage past and present, and the industry of greeting cards (love it or hate it, it’s out there and it’s huge, and a professional venue for artists and illustrators). Rosin shares her knowledge and perspective as a curator about the history of Valentine productions – mass-produced and handmade. I love her notion that the handmade cards bear “the fingerprints of love.”

I had all this in mind as Cora and I got out a big box of papers and started cutting out hearts. She practiced some of the same skills she worked on last year – tracing, cutting, composing, pasting, sewing – and we listened to Motown love songs. A light snow fell outside. It was the perfect weather for crafting.

As we worked, I questioned the benefits of the activity. After a bit of cutting, she passed  that job on to me. After a little gluing she outsourced that as well. Eventually she declared herself in charge of the sewing machine and told me, “How about you do your stuff at that table and I do mine at this table.” And just like, she chose the job she liked best and declared herself the director of our little Valentine factory. She even kept track of how many we’d made on the calculator.

If there is any value left in the notion of holiday arts as motivator for students, I think there could be the start a lesson plan here around the essential question, “Can art be mass produced?”

Mass-production.

Factories.

The Factory.

Andy Warhol.

???