NAEA 2018 Preview: A Return to Picturebooks through The Land of the North

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Next month, my friend Amy Brook Snider and I will be sharing the latest installment in a series of presentations we’ve given at the National Art Education Association Convention. The subject of our presentations has spanned a range of enduring topics of interest throughout our relationship and conversations on the telephone.

“Indivisible: A Consideration of the Picturebook, Past and Present” will include a slide show on some great moments in picturebook history. We’ll share criteria for identifying great picturebooks and some of our personal favorites. We hope our session will remind art educators of how the picturebook functions as works of art, one readily available to children and worthy of attention in the art room.

Preparing for this session has led me, quite happily, back to the picturebooks section of the library. As I shared in the fall my daughter (and co-captain in life the past seven years) Cora’s attention span for listening to stories is astounding and she will sit for hours being read to from chapter books. As her capacity to listen longer and her hunger for more complex and developed stories developed, we largely moved away from picturebooks. But as Amy and I reaffirmed through our conversations and investigations, great picturebooks are not just for children, and everyone in our house is happy to have them around again.

This fall, Amy reminded me of the D’Aulaires, a couple who emigrated from Europe to the U.S. in the early 20th century and went on to write and illustrate more than two dozen books. Their books were also included in a classical homeschooling curriculum we’re playing with this year. Cora and I started with their Book of Greek Myths (1962). (Note: We also LOVED Aliki’s Gods and Goddesses of Olympus (1994).)

The D’Aulaire’s storytelling is vivid and their detailed illustrations are captivating. They captured the most essential aspects of their plotlines through detailed drawings that could stand on their own as works of art. First depicted through 4-color lithography and later layered drawings on acetate echoing that process, these images are sure to stick in readers’ minds.

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We currently have at least half a dozen of their books out from the library including Norse Myths (2005) (initially published as Norse Gods and Giants (1967)). We started reading it on a snow day last week (which felt appropriately hygge) and have been devouring it. We are having fun using the glossary to pronounce the Norwegian names. And we’re findings lots of characteristics in the Aesir that mimic the Greeks and other literary characters we know.

While my days with Cora have been filled with Odin and the Aesir, my nights have been spent watching Game of Thrones. The parallels are astounding.

I was not the kind of kid who read fantasy growing up. I never collected crystals or played Dungeons and Dragons. As an adult, when friends first started talking about Game of Thrones I tuned them out. But as a parent, I’ve been given a second change to engage explorations of good and evil through more recent mythologies like Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. 

Game of Thrones is intense. I didn’t have any idea what we were marching into when I suggested to Dan that we turn it on a few weeks ago. I was immediately drawn to the costumes, settings, and characters, at the same time that I was repelled by most of their behaviors. But reading Norse Myths, their intense embrace of all parts of life, death, war, sex, food, etc. makes more sense. The northerners in the story are clearly designed after the Norse, such as that depicted in this story of Odin’s heroes. After fighting to their deaths in Odin’s name, they were granted flown to the world of the gods by beautiful maidens to an afterlife full of all out feasting and fighting (and quiet time with women when their mood allowed).

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The D’Aulaires’ share stories that have formed the touchstone of many Western literary and artistic projects. I’m grateful to be reading them so closely now, wishing I hadn’t waited so long.

[Note: Apologies to loyal readers who have missed updates from me through this space these past months. I have thought of this project often, but been pulled in other directions. In case I fall off the map again, come look for me at overthefenceurban.com and http://www.redoakcommunityschool.org/rocs-blog/]

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Review: Scholastic ART

Time has not been my friend lately and I’ve been neglecting this blog. I was brought back today by an invitation I received at the end of June from Katie Brickner, Editor of Scholastic ART magazine and online content.

Katie asked for an “honest review,” and I accepted. She sent me a complimentary set of the magazine from 2016-2017 and access to the online resources available to paid subscribers and their students. She’s also promised a 2017-2018 class set which I plan to give away to one of my former students.

I hadn’t seen this publication in awhile. I remember finding a few back issues in the supplies I inherited when I taught high school art classes nearly 20 years ago. At the time, discipline-based art education (DBAE) was still the most celebrated form of comprehensive art education I knew, and the magazine was a nice supplement. It provided readings and artistic exemplars I could use in conjunction with Ragan’s ArtTalk, the text the school owned and I was expected to teach from.
I started this review with a tour through the magazines, posters, and lesson plans I received. While I teach and do much of my research online these days, I am still a sucker for magazines. I like to hold them, turn the pages and see what’s next, cut them up, and send articles in the mail to friends and family. Call me old-fashioned but I’d like to think I’m not alone.
I was impressed to see some issues of the magazine were based on themes like Beyond the Selfie: Self-Portraits through History and Painting Right Now. Others were built around artists like Edward Munch and Ansel Adams – as I remembered them – with emphasis on how that artist’s work demonstrates various traditional art practices alongside the elements and principles of art.
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The most innovative aspects of the magazine are the other columns including “Art News and Notes,” “Student of the Month,” and “Debate.” In these sections, the editors introduce contemporary examples of artwork that reflected the main subject of the issue and develop real-world connections between art and life, including “Great Art Jobs.”
I spent the majority of my in-depth critical time with the issue on contemporary painting, Painting Right Now (May/June 2017). The following are some observations I made while reviewing magazine and related online resources.
I was impressed by the collection of contemporary painters the editors presented in this issue and felt certain that most educators and their students would find new ideas and information in its pages. In the “Spotlight” section, I was introduced to contemporary artist Nijideka Akunjyili Crosby. Reading about Crosby’s work, and watching to the interview Scholastic recorded with her (available online), I was drawn to her ideas about layering as a way of building and representing one’s identity. It reminded me of Gude’s  (2004) recommendations for 21st century principles of art and design. However, looking at the related “Hands-on Project,” pulled me back to the 20th. I wondered what Crosby would say about it and whether the editors consulted her at all.

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The project and accompanying online video, “Paint an Identity Portrait,” were disappointing.  While it started with a reference to Crosby, the project guide focused on formal aspects of making a portrait – choose a subject, develop a color palette, use a range of brushstrokes, work carefully, etc. It didn’t emphasize anything that reflected Crosby’s specific approach to portraiture which incoroprates “layers images, textures, and symbols from many sources [to] visually present her varied cultural experiences” and would require an artist to know or interview her subject and gather materials to weave into the work that would reflect the identity of the subject.

During a quick survey of students and alumni from the University of Florida Art Education program I heard from both teachers who subscribed to the magazine and those who just made use of the samples they received from Scholastic. They reported that they got some good ideas from the magazine. However, most felt it was just a start which they usually had to follow-up with additional research of their own. For example, “They chunk information in a way that is clear yet informative, however, I have found for more meaningful explorations, this is only a starting off point.

My students reported using Scholastic ART projects as makeup work and as substitute plans. They suggested that it “made life easy” to have something written out in advance that they could leave and someone else could follow. For example, “If it happens to be one of the “artsy” subs of the county they will add some of their own directives. But if it is just a “regular” sub the lessons tend to be more cookie cutterish.” This speaks to my own criticisms of the plans, they are fairly rudimentary and don’t speak to the intellectual or social dynamics of artmaking.

While I wasn’t impressed with the project recommendations, I appreciated the “Debate” column which addresses the oft ignored aesthetic component of DBAE-inspired art education. Each magazine presents an issue for students to consider and debate with their classmates. In the Painting Right Now issue, for example, students read about a pair of European artists who have been painting pigeons bright colors to see if they attract more attention than usual (see below, left). The essential question posed was, “Is it right for artists to capture and paint live animals in the name of art?” Online, students can leave comments, read from others, participate in a similar conversation in a larger public forum with student readers from other schools (see below, right).

 

In the end, Scholastic ART is a resource, like any other. It can aid teachers in their work, but it can’t replace us. It is a tool, but must be used in conjunction with other materials to successfully build something. One new direction I can imagine for Scholastic ART would be a hosting a forum (on their website or Facebook) for teachers who subscribe and use the magazine to share ideas for how they use and extend the materials presented there. This would help push the teachers, as well as the editors in their future work.

I’m curious to learn more about how teachers are using the magazine. Do you subscribe?  If so, how do you use it in your classroom? Do you ask parents to cover the cost using Scholastic’s “Parent Funding Request Letter?” What recommendations would you make to the editors to help them improve and extend their offerings?

 

 

Artful Readings: An Introduction

This post introduces a new column, “Artful Readings” which will replace “Picturebooks on the Potty” which I wrote from 2013-2016 in this space. (For a full list of “Picturebooks on the Potty” posts, search for Picturebooks above.)

My daughter Cora, who inspired me to start the column, doesn’t really need me to read to her on the potty anymore, but we are still reading a ton together. Cora goes to school only part time and is unschooled the other parts. Much of that other time we spend reading books and talking about them, researching and writing about things related to what we are reading, and making art and playing games based on the characters from the stories. In upcoming posts I plan to document and share our further adventures in literature, and reflect on them from an art educator’s perspective. I hope you’ll join us.

 

 

 

 

Drawing Lesson: Home

My last post was about the picturebook Home by Carson Ellis.  At the end I set a plan to engage Cora further with the theme of home through art making. On a sunny day last week I got her to go outside with me for an observation drawing session.

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I have long been a fan of a little book called Observation Drawing with Children. I’m sure I’ve written about it here before. The authors describe observation drawing as a responsive process by which “the viewer become[s] aware of the elusive as well as the obvious qualities of subjects,” (Smith, et al, 1998, p. 6). As such it is easy to understand learning to draw as part of learning to look more closely at and see the world around us. When I had a daily practice of drawing from observation I felt more connected to things around me, more mindful of my surroundings.

Cora hasn’t even shown much interest in making original drawings (realistic or imagined). You can imagine how sad this makes me as an art educator… She has made some incredible drawings over the years but it’s not really her thing. “You like to draw. I like to sing,” she tells me. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was a somewhat reluctant participant in my plans.

We started by looking at the cover of Home and picking the house that most resembled ours (a log cabin).  Then we talked about the shapes and lines that make up our house. Smith, etal write extensively and provide examples of dialogues with children to help readers plan for their own observation drawing sessions with kids. There is something about the back and forth between looking, naming, and drawing that helps make everything more concrete.

Cora had no trouble talking about our house. We named the major shapes we saw. We talked about what rooms are behind each window. But when it came to putting these ideas down on paper, she stalled. She’s afraid of “doing it wrong” and, I think, disappointing me now matter how many times I tell her I’m going to love whatever she does and remind her of the great drawings she has made in the past. I have to remind myself not to push her if she’s not ready for this.

In the end, We worked together on the drawing. I made lots of the big shapes (the fame of the house and windows, for example) and she drew the details (panes of glass and siding).

We’ll try this again soon. Like anything, I believe practice breeds confidence. My hope is that at some point she’ll take off on her own and find a love for drawing all that she sees – at home and abroad.

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Our yellow door is a defining feature of our home.

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Testing greens to find the best match.

 

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.

???

New Year’s Day Craft Clean-out

January 1st is all about fresh starts. Inspired by Martha Stewart and self-help gurus of all flavors, for lots of people that means deep cleaning the spaces we fill with junk throughout the year. Today I introduced Crafty Cora to the tradition.

If you’re a classroom teacher working in a choice-based environment, a parent trying to support your children’s creative development at home, or some combination of both, you know that over time supplies get messy. While many people argue that messiness is a sign of creativity, I don’t believe it’s conducive to artistic exploration and productivity over time. Like other professionals, artists need to keep their tools organized so they can find them when they need them.

So, with the hope that organizing Cora’s art supplies would promote her creative development in 2016, we emptied everything out of her four drawer craft cabinet, sorted it, tossed the trash, and reset the stage for new endeavors.

Below is one of the drawers about halfway through our cleanup today. As you can see, it had become a random assortment of rubber stamps, pipe cleaners, cardboard rings, fabric, string, beads, and more.

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It was important to me that Cora help, even if that mostly meant pulling things out of the bins and playing around with them while jamming out to the Beatles on her headphones. That’s what deep cleaning is all about, surveying the content of our clutter, remembering what we have that’s gotten buried, and considering possibilities for the future.

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Here’s where we ended for the day.

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Top to bottom, clockwise from upper left.

Of course, we still have these loose parts left to address tomorrow.

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Because really, the clean-up never ends. Happy New Year!