For the past 10 years, I have focused on introducing my students to a wide variety of contemporary artists. I feel that doing so can make the content of my art curriculum more relevant and engaging for my students.
Kids want to see how what they are learning and experimenting with in class is being applied by creative professionals in today’s world. Seeing how students respond to the works of living focus artists has led me to incorporate more local artists into my curriculum because it ups their engagement and excitement even more.
In particular, I’ve been tapping into the work of the growing local San Diego mural artist community to illustrate concepts like unity and variety, organizing visual compositions, changes in color value to create volume and depth, and how, in turn, these elements all go into works that beautify and activate community spaces in positive ways.
This turn toward the local art community has afforded me opportunities to bring artists on to campus for site visits with students, so the kids can interact with the creative role models that have inspired them and informed their classroom visual-arts experiments. I have found that these up-close experiences are extremely powerful for the students, our school community, and the artists themselves.
THIS FALL, I WAS AWARDED a San Diego Unified School District VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) Foundation grant that allowed me to provide stipends for two local artists to create murals with student assistance on our campus. The work of these two artists, Gloria Muriel and Maxx Moses, served as inspiration for lessons on color value and symmetry with grades 3 and 5. Both artists completed their murals on campus the last week of January this year.
Experiences like this, as I mentioned earlier, are incredibly powerful for everyone involved. Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why.
FIRST, the student participation angle increases engagement and citizenship in class because those selected to assist the artists must demonstrate excellent citizenship and creativity/effort in classes leading up to the on campus mural project. Student focus and behavior is exceptionally on point while they are auditioning for the assistant muralist roles.
Those selected to assist the artists are rewarded with the opportunity to paint and take part in the creation of a lasting work of art with a real artist on our campus. This experience can create a lasting positive memory that can boost a child’s self-esteem immensely.
SECOND, such experiences allow students to see how artists move from the ideation/planning stage, to laying in the basics, on through to the final product. The classroom processes students go through to develop images are being applied by artists right before their eyes over the course of the week they’re on campus. I can share the artists’ plans in class with students, and they can see how the piece evolves over time.
Too often, students only experience the artists’ final products, so this opens their eyes to the amount of work involved in creating a completed image on a large scale. The artists work during the school day and classes are highly encouraged to do multiple mural visits while the artists are working. Maxx and Gloria (and previous visiting artists Santos Orellana and Monty Montgomery) were always open to answering questions from students and the community while they were working.
At recess, there were always groups of students getting close to the process, quietly observing the artists at work. How awesome is that?! Personally, I was a bit jealous of the kids, wishing I could’ve spent more time observing the artists at work, too.
FROM A VISITING ARTIST’S perspective, Maxx said this about this aspect of the experience: “There were so many questions and narratives created on the spot about the concept of the mural. The interaction was the most powerful for me. Hearing the way students think and internalize what they see amazes me.”
I think you’d hear similar comments from most artists involved in such experiences, and I love how the different elements of the visit resonate with not just the students and school community, but with the artists as well.
These glimpses into the creative process also give students opportunities to see how the artists are thinking critically while working through issues or problems they encounter. For example, both artists provided sketches and plans before starting the murals; when Maxx started on the actual wall, his central image was smaller than he originally planned. He talked to me about that and I was able to share that info with classes I was working with during the week.
In class, I am always talking about adding more detail or making changes to their work if they aren’t totally successful scaling up preliminary work, and this served as a great example of an artist going through the same revision/adjustment process … and modeling how to get through the revision in a calm, positive manner.
ANOTHER GREAT THING about bringing in artists to work on campus is that it can be done in a meaningful, intentional way to provide positive role models for diverse school populations. It reinforces that, with hard work and perseverance, everyone can become a professional creative. Kids soak things up when their ethnicity, culture and/or gender are included in their learning. It lifts them and makes them feel valued and respected. And, in the political climate of today, we need to offer these opportunities more than ever.
About the importance of these experiences, Gloria Muriel said, “Having a mural at school is powerful therapy for kids. Having them observe, talk and participate with artists can be mind blowing. It opens up a whole world of opportunities for a child to look forward to as adults. Having passionate art teachers is what all schools need. They make it happen. Kids are happier with art surrounding them.”
So true! This gets at a bigger picture: having color and beauty around a school is going to lift up the kids—and the community in general. I think it’s so important that communities come together and activate school spaces in a positive way and murals can make such a powerful difference in a child’s daily interaction with school. Let the school grounds be an active part of nurturing the children that are part of the learning community.
I encourage everyone to do everything you can to make mural experiences with visiting artists happen at your own school sites. Start developing connections with the community of artists in your area. When you can get them on campus working with your school community, beautiful things happen for everyone involved.
Arts & Activities Contributing Editor, Don Masse, is a K–5 visual arts teacher at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy in San Diego, California.
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