Getting “new” instead of “same old” from art students

Last night’s art class has presented me a dilemma. I have been giving the kids challenges or visual problems and the results are falling a little flat. I seem to be getting what I call (forgive me school system) “school art” from them. What I mean by that is art where students tend to choose pencil crayons, they colour lightly and all in the same direction, their names appear in bubble letters in the art – art that they have done a million times. They choose to represent items they have become skilled at representing, they take few risks, and neatness is the goal. I do not mean to imply that there isn’t artwork being created inside schools that is contrary to this but it is such an ingrained habit for children and it is definitely not the kind of art I try to draw out of my students in our precious time together.

So, clearly the problem is that I am not giving them the right prompts and perhaps not the right amount of direction. Last night, for example, we played an art game, which went very well. We then transitioned into the projects they had been working on. Three of them had been preparing canvas boards with magazine collages. They were then going to create stencils to lay over the magazine surface and paint over top of that, so that when they lifted the stencil, the magazine pattern would create interest within their stenciled images.

M adapted the original prompt by adding a textured surface with tissue on top of part of the magazine surface because she wanted to represent water. Her stencils were trees and she was working on a nature scene. She experienced some success but lost steam after her first layer of paint went down. I suggested adding some painted details, which she did without enthusiasm (compliance) and by the end of class, she had switched projects. The good news is when I invited her to take it home, she refused, saying she wanted to work on it some more.

J continued with her collaged surface but got sick of searching for collage images that were “just right.” She switched to cutting swathes of print and gluing them down. E worked very carefully on her delicate stencils but when she painted, she used a brush instead of a sponge and her stencils “got wrecked” (her words). I had to talk her into repairing her surface and trying again. O was without a project on-the-go. She sat and doodled listlessly for fifteen minutes. G was finishing up a collaged Frankenstein (he’s my five year old).

As people waited for their various surfaces to dry, I moved many of them into the next prompt. Each received a square of thick paper, with a quarter circle arching across the square. I invited them to do whatever they wished with the image but they had to: 1) leave no white on the surface and 2) be as creative as they could. They were invited to use any medium they wished. This is when two of them chose pencil crayons and began to carefully create their bubble-lettered names. The five year old picked up his square, chose a black oil pastel, scribbled for about 30 seconds and declared himself done. I reminded him that no white could be showing, so he scribbled for two more minutes until he complied with my request. He moved on to another collage soon after. Only O showed evidence of exploring her options, researching images on my I-Pad and trying something new. Because she had spent time doodling aimlessly, she seemed eager to receive “something to do.”

As I drove home from class, I reflected on what had happened. There was definitely an atmosphere of “getting it done” with several projects.  Many students seemed to lack a connection to their pieces. There was very little risk-taking and exploration. My daughters (who take the class) suggested that it might be time to build some new skills as a group. This is a fair observation. The thrill of being allowed to use any materials in any way has worn off for some and it seems like it might be time for a little more explicit direction. I also see, as I reflect, that in many instances, we skipped right past the “before” stage of creation. We did not brainstorm, reflect, discuss or explore. Once again, I get reminded by reality the importance of thinking in the creation cycle.

Okay, kick in the pants received.  It is time to plan for next week.

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