Jody Noelle Coughlin Art Blog
One thing I have learned is that still life's and ten year olds don't mix. Lately, I've been teaching art classes to fifth grade students from my hometown of Hartland, New Brunswick. These classes are not formal or anything extraordinarily complicated. In fact, they are put in place within the community as a bit of an escape from the everyday and are meant to be fun, plain and simple. Funded by the proceeds raised by the annual Paint The Heartland Fine Art Show and Sale in Hartland, New Brunswick, these classes provide the students with an opportunity to enjoy a little exposure to art in various forms. Sometimes we draw and sometimes we paint or goof around with modeling clay. I try to keep the structure of the classes loose and free in hopes that these young aspiring artists will just feel free to express themselves. Sometimes, though, when I think I've got it right, I don't. Nope. I don't.
Last week, I was pleasantly surprised to witness, first hand, the fact that some of these kids were not interested in a stringent set of guidelines. I should have known this, but I somehow I just didn't. When I presented them with a predetermined art project to work on within the time we spent together they seemed completely unable to relax. It seemed to me that they were very shy because, deep down, I think they wanted more than to be told what to do. They wanted to, in essence, be left to explore art on their own. They seemed very curious about art and what it means to be an artist, but they did not want to be asked to demonstrate their abilities in the ways that I had set out for them to do so even though I was sure what I had planned would be fun. I think I am getting old because my idea of fun and a ten year old child's idea of fun are seemingly two completely different things.
I usually have about a dozen students per class. Each student gets to take two classes each which makes it nice and manageable. When the classes are small, however, the students are quiet. Quiet is good but sometimes quiet translates down to nervousness. I couldn't believe it, but last week, when my students arrived at the gallery where these classes are held, they were visibly nervous. So much so that it made me nervous. It was very strange.
At first, we did some warm up exercises by way of five minute gesture drawings. I asked for volunteers to model for the class, meaning the models stood in the centre of the room making a gesture as though they were throwing a ball or something like that. Then the rest of the kids drew the model. It was a just a little something to get them in the right mindset for creativity.
Right of the bat the air seemed laced with tension. I wondered where I had gone wrong, as their teacher and leader of this fine enterprise called art class. Music played softly in the background and I had lots of great supplies-plenty for all. I smiled and I welcomed them and told them the class was meant to be fun so no worries about doing things just right and so on. After a while I realized it wasn't me alone they were intimidated by. It was one student in particular, a boy who-by and large-seemed to fit the very definition of the alpha male. He had the attention of the whole class whether he wanted it or not and unfortunately for me the class took their cue from him. Or so it seemed. This would have been a good thing had this boy actually exhibited an interested in the class. At the time he wasn't. Or was he?
I found that he seemed almost embarrassed to admit whether he liked to draw or not. I always ask the students, when I first meet them, if they draw or paint at home. This kid was quick to shout out a resounding no with a miserable scowl on his face. This was a first for me. I have never met a ten year old who didn't like art. I've met kids who seemed to feel they were too intelligent to be bothered with it, thinking perhaps that art is a witless pursuit (it isn't), but this boy was almost angry about the entire notion of art. It perplexed me.
I went on with the class. I worked one on one with the kids who asked for help to draw this or that. I praised the kids who seemed to be charging full steam ahead with the exercise I prepared (a still life drawing). All the while, I kept my eye on the kid with the bad attitude. He did what I asked him to do-albeit halfheartedly. Then something changed. Near the end of the exercise, some of the kids asked me if they could draw whatever they wanted while the others finished up their still life drawings. This was the first bout of excitement they had exhibited in almost an hour. Of course, I said. Go to it, I said.
Within several minutes the boy who seemed to adamantly hate art started to draw. Not only did he draw but he drew something rather magnificent. His drawing was all about flames and a sword with all kinds of shading and then I knew exactly what was happening with him. It was obvious that this kid drew. He exhibited real ability within a matter of seconds. All he wanted was a chance to do his own thing. He was fairly bursting at the seams to exhibit the talent he had already been cultivating on his own. It seemed he was very sheepishly proud of his drawing. I recognized this in him right away because I felt it myself a thousand times over when I was a child.
I watched him work away. It was pretty amazing. As soon as he finished I took the drawing and showed the entire class what he had done. At that moment, he warmed up. He even showed a little excitement. Unfortunately, by that time class was almost over and it was time to go but before they all packed up and went back to school I asked the students if they would like to paint the next time around. They all agreed that painting would be great but I got the loudest response was from this particular boy... an exuberant yes! Finally!
And so, next time, they will paint. They will paint whatever they want to paint. I will stand on the side lines and let them do their thing. I am learning as much as they are as I go along. Through it all I figured out exactly where I had gone wrong. It was when I introduced the still life drawing project. No ten year old wants to draw a still life. Of course! What was I thinking?