Sacredly necessary art.
To me, the art area was a living thing. The shelves there were not stocked with things to be had, but materials to be interacted with. My kindergarteners always had paint, even if I had to buy it myself, which was often the case. The classroom didn’t have an easel (which horrified me), and so, if memory serves, I built my own. Details are fuzzy, but somehow cup hooks were involved.
There were always repurposed yogurt cups with a paint brush peeking out from a hole in each lid on the easel, each with some assortment of tempera paints in basic colors. I tried to always have Red, Yellow, Blue, Black, and White, because from these any other color can be made. When paints ran low in the cups we might add others just to see what would happen – mixing it up and finding new shades. To me, it saved money, which was probably my initial motivation. However, the children were learning about color magic – they were learning about risk taking – they were learning about making what they needed and discovering things they didn't know they had.
The children were very interested in animals that year. I thought they would like to make monkeys, so I came up with a project to put out as an art activity. I created patterns from oak tag that could be traced onto construction paper and then cut out. I provided hole punches, brads, scissors, markers, pencils, and glue. I never commented about where pieces should go, or what colors should be used, but I’m sure I created a monkey and left it in the area along with everything else. I looked at it as a chance to be independent and work freely, at their own pace, if they even wanted to at all. These are good intentions right? Of course they are.
As the children finished and monkeys went up on the wall, one by one, I congratulated myself that every child had made at least one and some made more than one. This told me they were motivated, and that they were able to make their monkeys independently. That was a good thing, right? Well, wasn't it?
As I looked more deeply at our monkey display, the more unsettled I became. Even when I wasn’t looking at them, I was thinking about them for days. There was a wall full of monkeys on my back. I thought back to the definition of CREATE- it means to bring into being something that has never existed before. That's when it hit me- the only person who had an opportunity to be truly creative was ME! I came up with the idea. I cut out the patterns. I put the first one together. I made the monkey, not the children! All of their monkeys, give or take a few glorious extra heads and different colored arms and legs, looked like mine.
Sadness washed over me at first, but that soon turned to laughter as I thought how ridiculous it was for me, a woman in her mid-20’s, to have spent energy, time, and money creating plans, cutting and assembling a monkey for children so that they, too, could make a monkey. After all, I had no burning need to create a monkey, so why did I think they children did? Even if they had, didn’t I think they could make a monkey on their own? And, even more to the point, why monkeys at all? Why not lions, or tigers, or giraffes, or frogs?
From that day forward, I never used projects with patterns and called them art again. I included, among a wide variety of art materials, things children could use to trace and cut so that if, for example, a child wanted to use triangles for a collage they could draw or cut their own, or they could trace and cut one using something from the shelf. It was up to them, and they were free to assemble their collage to represent whatever they wanted. It had nothing to do with me. Nothing.
When it came to materials, I adopted more of a demonstrator's role and eased up as an instructor. Let's say I had noticed an increased interest expressed in color mixing over at the easel I'd plop some paint on my own paper and start interacting with my own paint. “LOOK!” I’d exclaim as my blue tipped finger slid through the yellow blob of paint. That always got their attention. “LOOK! What is happening?” The children would gather, wide eyed, and they would explain it to me as they observed the colors changing. “Miss Zukaitis! You made green! You made green! I want to make green!”
One of my favorite things to say to a child in the art area went something like this: “That is a beautiful purple. Wait a minute…we don’t even have purple paint. Where did you get that from?” I’d joke, “Do you have purple paint in your pocket?” They couldn't wait to show me how it was done.
Yep. No more monkeying around where art was concerned. My children deserved deeper experiences.
I am writing this as a grown woman of 56 who just discovered she could paint. I paint every day when I am able, and if not I am thinking about painting. It’s been years since I’ve hawk-eyed an art area, determined to provide everything a child would need to go deeper. My reasons for doing so are clearer to me now. This was what I needed. I wanted to go deeper.
I tell you that so that I can tell you this, dear teachers – pay attention to your passions held in the name of education. Pay attention to what you protect and what you make sacred in your classrooms.
From the depths of your passion comes a whisper from your soul. What is it trying to say?