When I was in 6th grade, I began taking formal art classes from a wonderful artist and family friend named Caryn Harris. Her skill with pastels and oils leaves me breathless on a regular basis.) Her way of teaching art combines her extensive knowledge of art history with her cultivated skills in every medium. As we traveled through art history from the Caves of Lascaux to the Impressionists (which, I might add, was over the course of four years), she had all of her students imitate the artwork of each culture. By the time we were in our freshman year of high school, we had all created cave paintings of bulls with charcoal dust mixed with egg yolks, cartouches of our names in hieroglyphics, illuminated manuscripts with accurate historical designs and celtic knots, and copies of John Singer Sargent watercolors. (Okay, maybe I was the only one who chose John Singer Sargent, but it was awesome.)
But I think the thing that stuck the most with me was the responsibility she placed on all her students to understand the historical importance of what they were imitating and creating.
Many art teachers now focus so much on the students’ ability and opportunity to “express themselves.” I think for most students, this can be incredibly frustrating. If you give students no guidelines, they will soon become frustrated and give up on their ability to craft a work of art. The way Caryn teaches her students gives them a background and skill set that enables them to be creative in a productive way.
By including art history in a lesson, the students are given a cultural context for their project. This grants a certain responsibility to the students to accurately portray their project.
For instance, I was volunteering in an art class the other day and the 7th graders had been given a project to create a stained glass window. In the middle of their black paper window, they had to draw a picture of Mary and Jesus or the Star of David as the centerpiece. One girl called me over to help and asked “Is this star okay?” Her star was tiny, off-center, and a little oddly shaped. I asked her “How big do you want to make it?”
Student: “Big enough to get a good grade.”
Hannah: “Wrong answer. Think about the point of this stained glass window. What’s the point of making a stained glass window?”
Student: “To get a good grade.”
Hannah: “Think about the point of making a real stained glass window. How big would this star have to be if it’s the entire point of the stained glass window?”
Okay, so she really didn’t care about the point of the window, but as you can see she didn’t understand the responsibility she had to uphold and honor the traditions of stained glass windows. She didn’t know that these windows were created during the late middle ages to help the illiterate common people know their Bible. If they can’t read it and they don’t know Latin, then let’s give them pictures so they at least know that the crucifixion happened or that a virgin gave birth to a child, who was the Son of God. Artwork was given to the masses for educational purposes- education about things that had eternal consequences. But my little 7th grader didn’t know that. And maybe not many 7th graders care – it’s been a long time since I was in grade school. I honestly think, though, that if we make art education more academic, then many children will feel more capable of “doing art.” (More about this later).
If your 7th graders don’t understand this, then of course they’re going to make something just so they can get a good grade. Responsibility is key for success for many children. This is why having a theology of art is so important when teaching the subject. This is why having and sharing your knowledge of art history is so vital.