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.

???

Paper Hearts and the History of Art Education

DSC_0142The course I’m teaching on the history of art education explored the history of holiday arts in school last week. Just in time for V-Day. Students had interesting discussions, based on our readings and their classroom experiences, about whether, to what extent, and how the holidays might to play a role in the art curriculum today. Not surprisingly, there was a mix of responses.

19th century schools operated seasonally and so the holidays were important benchmarks in the academic year. It made sense to bring them into the school as a way of marking time with students whose lives, and livelihoods, were also tied to the seasons. During the industrial revolution, holiday arts served as a respite from day-to-day routines, and as motivation for students trying to conform to a more and more systems-driven society. Holiday projects were also used as a way of acculturating immigrant children to traditions of the dominant culture (read European-descendant and Christian).

But, “contemporary recommendations for a balanced, multifaceted art education suggest that holidays and related arts and crafts should be neither an organizing principle nor a major focus of the art program, whether taught by a generalist or specialist” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 68). I agree with this statement and have worked most of my professional life in accordance with it. However, as I have written about extensively in the past, over the years, I have some to embrace holiday arts and crafts in my home life and art education of my own children. Today I had an experience that could relate to classroom practice as well.

I abide by the Charles Schultz philosophy of holiday gifting, handmade is best. And so over the years I have made lots of Valentine’s with the older kids, mostly Rosa. This year, for the first time, Cora was celebrating the holiday at school, so we got a project going. We used air dry clay to make heart shapes into which she pressed all kinds of materials to create patterns and texture – forks and spoons, a potato masher, seashells, old perfection pieces, a toothpick. She painted them, and added glitter before we glued magnets to the back. She got lots of compliments, and was the only kid with something homemade to share. (Yes, I’m bragging.)

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After watching Charlie Brown’s Valentine specials with her G-Ma last night, Cora woke up ready to cut some paper. So we did. She got great practice cutting along a line and had a chance to try using the scissors in her right hand as well as her left, which she typically favors. She glued the hearts together to make a few of these.

IMG_9354As she was cutting and gluing, I was sewing a pillow cover. When she was finished with her collages, she asked if she could use the machine. She made about 25 passes before we got distracted and moved on, but by the end of the session, she was independently lowering and raising the presser foot and needle and cutting her line so she could start again. Not bad for a four-year old.

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So while I’m not prepared to advocate a return to our roots in which “every day [was] a festival” (Stankiewicz, 2001, p. 67), I am convinced that a symbol like the heart or a star, or product such as the valentine or ornament, could serve as a vehicle for material exploration and practice. I’m sure some of the T.A.B. adherents reading this will have experience in this department. Any advice for others interested in using holidays as meaningful motivators for student learning?

Revising the Writing on the Fence

A few years ago I noticed the emergence of a cultural phenomenon that truly irritates me. Kids were leaving messages for one another in the fences of local middle and high schools, composed of styrofoam cups. “Jane is 16!” “Go Cards.” That sort of thing.

Now that I’m sitting down and writing about it I see this as the manifestation of a desire to make their mark on the world around them using tools available to them. The cups are an everyday part of disposable culture they are growing up in. (When was the last time you were in a school cafeteria?) It makes me incredible sad since I’m the kind of person who will decline a beverage on the airplane in order to save the plastic cup it would be served in. You may not know anyone like this but we’re out here. I’m sadder still when I see the messages weeks later – falling apart, blowing away in the wind, waiting to be cleaned up by the custodial staff – no longer of interest to the kids but forever with us as fuel for the global trash heap.

Lots of artists are making interesting work with styrofoam. I wonder if any environmentally conscious art educators out there have used this opportunity to share this work with their students, perhaps harvest the used cups, and make sculptures of them.

For my part, I have a little local intervention in mind based on an idea I found at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) this fall. Organizers left strips of t-shirt jersey by a chain link fence with a simple invitation: “Be Creative: Use the fabric to weave fence art.” The moment I saw it I imagined this process replacing all those cups. The t-shirt material could be gathered from old shirts (stains and holes welcome) and reused over time. Every time I see a new cup message pop up in my community, I feel a small pang of guilt that I haven’t introduced this new fence writing method to kids in Columbus yet.

So, last night, as a very last minute Valentine’s gesture, I made a big ball of red t-shirt yarn and went down the street to the neighborhood middle school. I didn’t come close to replicating the vision in my mind. It was late. It was cold. I realized I would have been better off with multiple shorter and fatter strips than the super long skinny one I brought (with no scissors for alterations on site). But I made a gesture. And I plan to make more as the weather warms up. I hope others might follow my lead.

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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.