Teaching mixed media art lessons at a local school

09 February 2014

Last Tuesday, I had the marvelous adventure of  teaching mixed media lessons (in French!)  to two classes of students, approx 50 kids, around age 12,  at one of the local primary schools. What an amazing experience... and such educational experience, for me, too!

(student artwork: a still-life of paints, crayons, brushes, and a self portrait of the happy artist)

 I was invited by an acquaintance (merci!) who is part of the school's ¨Parent Association, to present the lessons as part of their annual International Week (this year's theme being Art and Sculpture). Never mind that I always swore "I will never teach!"; as per usual, of late, when asked, I said "yes!" without hesitation.  It's inevitable, maybe it's in the genes (I come from a line of teachers,) but no matter how many protestations and oaths I swears, I cannot elude teaching art... and now, not so secretly, I even enjoy it!

Both classes were French-as-a-second-language students, so there were quite a lot of Anglophones present, and much to their delight, I'm fluent in English, so I was able to translate for them, when needed. Of course, delivering my introduction and subsequent lessons in French was a bit scary for me... I've been a French speaker for about 7 years, but I still make a lot of mistakes, and I've never had to do any sort of public speaking en français. The fact that the students were, as a majority, not proficient French speakers, was a comfort for me.

I was asked to show examples of my work (no nudes, since some of the non-European kids' parents might object,) and then lead a lesson in "my style."  Of course, defining "my style" is a bit daunting, because I'm always experimenting, with both style and medium, so it's a bit difficult to define my art in terms of any one particular style.
Variety is the spice of life!

So, after looking over my recent work, I narrowed it down to a few styles that seemed to be where my art is going, these day...

I opted for a really textural (and a little messy!) style, which I have been using more frequently in my own work, that involves destroying old book pages, collaging them on paper, and then laying down a coat of gesso, before drawing with graphite pencil, and painting over the surface with both watersoluable crayons and watercolour paints.

(Sometimes, with this technique, I mix in coloured pencils, acrylic paint, glitter... but, for the purposes of this presentation, with such a limited time factor, I didn't want to over-complicate the lesson.)

Creation, beginning with destruction...

I thought, what 12 year old wouldn't love the opportunity to rip apart books and tear up the pages?! All but one of the kids got really into it, especially some of the boys, who nearly tore apart the bindings!

It was great to introduce them to gesso and watersoluable crayons, too, both of which were totally new to them.

 Watching each student's piece come together was really fascinating. I don't have children of my own, and since I'm an only-child (and my husband is not in contact with his siblings,) I don't have nieces and nephews, so my exposure to children's art mostly stopped once I became an adult.
I loved seeing how each child used the crayons differently, and how some of them were really careful and precious about collaging their paper, while others were haphazard and chaotic about the placement. It was so much fun to encourage them to totally destroy the pages, and then to pound down the collaged paper, before painting. FUN was exploding, all over the room!


I had positioned the tables in a horseshoe shape, so I could walk about the center, and give attention to each student, making the rounds to see their progress, answer questions, passing around supplies, and most importantly: praising their art!

The 2nd group were an art class, while the 1st group were not -- what an interesting difference in the way that the two groups approached the lesson! 

I told them, "draw what inspires you in this moment, draw whatever you want, however you want!" Now, in this, I saw the greatest difference between the "art class" and the "non-art class".

The first group, the non-art class, was very attentive while I gave my introduction, and they were curious, even somewhat reverent, when I allowed them to touch my paintings, while passing them around the room. Once they began making their own paintings, the kids started almost immediately, after just a moment of reflection. They were excited, totally tapped into the creative process and the spontaneous moment of inspiration. Their work was varied, no two were alike, and almost every child was smiling, laughing, relaxed, and living totally in the the moment. They were positively glowing with creative energy!

Several students asked me, "Can I draw such-and-such ?" to which I replied:
 "Of course you can! Why not? If you can imagine it, you can draw it!

Once children are given permission to be creative and imaginative, oh, the beaming look in their eyes... 
it's more precious than gold!

 The second group, on the other hand, had a very different dynamic. They were, on a whole, much less focused on my initial presentation, with several chatterboxes in the group, and faces that looked up with either bored or anxious, timid eyes. Most of the kids perked up once my paintings came out, and they started to focus and participate more. I was impressed by several of the kids who were able to answer that one of my works had been influenced by the Mona Lisa (it's good to know that they're getting some art history, either at home or at school!)

It's clear to me, however, that the art students had been well programmed about what to draw, and how to draw it, while the others were so open and connected to their creativity.  The majority of the art students were timid, insecure, and totally uninspired about what to make... several seemed completely lost, while others even seemed anxious and fearful. They stared at their blank pages, hesitant to make a mark, totally disconnected from their creativity. Three kids started making preparatory sketches (which, under most circumstances would be commendable, but not in this lesson, which was about intuitive drawing,) and several asked me, frustratedly, "how do I erase?!", to which I responded, exuberantly, "There is no erasing here! erasers are not invited! Don't be afraid, there are no mistakes!"

There was one corner of the room who, in the face of their creative block,  made their own little conformist hive-mind, as they all drew the same thing, in the same way. Frustrated as I was with it, I didn't want to discourage them, so, instead, I just encouraged them by praising their drawings, saying "well done", and then pointed out that I was curious and excited to see how uniquely each of them would colour their work. Happily, they all chose different colours for their replicate drawings. (Yay!) 

There were many talented artists in that class, and I was happy to see that once they got started, the momentum of art making got stronger, and a lot of them started to relax, to smile, and to enjoy the process of just being free with their paintings. I'm hopeful that this experience has re infused some creative inspiration back into their art making, and perhaps inspired them to be more experimental with their art in the future.

I was really tickled to see a few imaginary animals, as well as a couple of very detailed still-life drawings. All of kids did fabulous pieces, and happily, each one was unique! 


"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." - Pablo Picasso

I could really relate with that second class of art students...
I used to be full of trepidation towards my own work, full of anxiety and self-doubt. I've been paralyzed with fear of "what if I make a mistake?!" while clutching onto my eraser like a life raft! It's taken me many years to overcome the fears of my own art, to learn to trust it, and to learn to be self-critical in a healthy, constructive, and productive way, rather than a debilitating, destructive, and self-abusive way. The eraser and I can still be friends, but it's no longer a life raft, and the anxiety of my own imperfections is no longer the loudest voice in the crowd.

It takes effort, practice, trust, and yes, time,  but I believe that it is possible for all artists to rise out of the pits of self-depreciation and anxiety of imperfection, even to accept the imperfection, while acknowledging the potential for growth, and to allow ourselves to be as we once were, at our core, as "untaught" children are, purely and uninhibitedly creative.

Visual artists, like any other kind, get creative blocks, and sometimes we can't seem to find that spark of inspiration in our own darkness... I've been there, we all have... and I do think that while learning technique, some of our intuitive creative juice is sacrificed in the process. We feed the plant of knowledge, and when it blossoms, we pluck the bloom, but do we realize that part of the beauty that we behold, that we have nurtured and tendered, has also come from within us? Perhaps the key is to not only nurture the blossoms of technical advancement, but also to replenish our internal creative energy by regularly diving into the pools of the unknown, by allowing intuition and pure expression the opportunity to show themselves in our work, if only through doodles and sketches and scribbles.

There are no mistakes; just let it happen.


Iris said...

That sounds like a really exciting and fun opportunity! I remember you posting about this on your FB but I hadn't had a chance to read this until now. How interesting too the difference between the two groups! Really illuminating. I did art while in school and it was one of my favourite classes but my teacher was pretty horrible. He very much perpetuated that view that people who are inherently good at art should make art, but not those who aren't. I remember him once saying that in order to go to art school you 'have to be really GOOD' (the unspoken thing, and what I heard, of course being: you are not good enough). Unfortunately no talk about hard work and encouragement. OH well. Your post and reading about your way of teaching is really heartening!!

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