Saturday, October 16, 2010

Unintended Consequences

In our preschool, most of our "art" projects involve providing children with interesting medium or media and one or more kinds of tools for working with that media. The rest is up to them. Every now and then, like when we're making props or sets for our Pre-K play, we manufacture art with a specific end result in mind, but generally speaking art at Woodland Park is about exploration and experimentation.

I know the preschool mantra "process over product," of course, I use it myself, but can what we're doing in preschool properly be called art? I suppose at one level it doesn't matter what we call it. As my blogging-teacher-artist colleague Anna Golden at atelierista once wrote about burdening something with the label of art, "Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them." Of course, she's right, especially since what we usually do at the "art table" has as much in common with science or math as it does art, so why even bother with a label?

I know when I set out on my own to "make art," I start with an idea of what it's going to look like when I'm finished. I usually have some concepts about the emotions or thoughts I hope to evoke. Sometimes I even have a message in mind. I always try to think through how I intend to get from nothing to something. What tools will I need? What kind of space should I be working in? Can I do it in bits and pieces or will I need to set aside chunks of time? The art I make tends to come together over days and weeks, and in that process it always becomes a kind of exploration, one of taking my original ideas and transforming them into what you see as the artwork, which never exactly matches my original concept, sometimes dramatically so. Even when it winds up looking like the picture in my head, it often creates an entirely different emotional or intellectual space than I'd expected. I think that's the quality that makes it art as opposed to mere manufacturing: the unintended consequences.

As children begin their third year with me as their teacher, I start looking for opportunities to give them experience with a conscious, as opposed to a purely intuitive, artistic process. 

Recently I challenged our Pre-K boys (they're all boys this year) to take on an "If . . ." project.

We start by reading Sarah Perry's brilliantly illustrated book If . . .

If... (Getty Trust Publications : J. Paul Getty Museum)

I introduce it by telling them that the woman who wrote this book, asked herself some "what if" questions, then painted pictures of the answers. "If frogs ate rainbows," "If toes were teeth," "If clothes were butterflies," "If worms had wheels." Her watercolors are hilarious, thoughtful, grotesque, and beautiful. Both children and adults laugh, ah ha, and ewww, their way through this Getty Trust Publication.

The challenge, should they choose to accept it (and this year 6 of the 7 boys in the class that day chose to accept it) is to start with their own "If" question, one they must speak aloud to an adult who will write it across the top of a piece of watercolor paper. 

The next step is to use a pencil to plan the drawing.

When you're satisfied, I tell them, you'll use a "super indelible never come off until you're dead maybe longer marker" (black Sharpie) to "trace over the pencil lines."

The next step is to decide what colors you want. An adult then gives them their own personal portion of the colors they chose. They can choose as many or as few colors as they want. And, of course, they can always ask for more and different colors if that's where their process takes them.

Isak and Charlie B. started with strong ideas of what they wanted to create and carried out their artistic plans, throughout all the steps in the process, winding up with finished pieces that, I suspect, came pretty close to their original ideas:

What if kids could fly

What if a monster could fly

Ariya moved through the steps quickly, almost like ticking off items on a checklist. His question was about geometry and while I don't know if this is what he envisioned when he set out, it's clear that his process was about exploring shape.

What if squares were blocks

Dennis seemed to struggle with the pencil and marker stages of his illustration, but became particular when it came to color. He wasn't satisfied with the standard primary and secondary colors he was offered. He wanted pink, which he finally created by diluting red liquid water color with water.

If a zebra could fly

Orlando started with a challenging concept and worked it through to the end, but the most meaningful part of his experience, I think, was his careful exploration of how his water colors mixed and merged together on the paper. He took a lot of time, using short, purposeful, delicate brush strokes, observing closely, finally trying out every hue available to create a tint I call "preschool gray."

What if glasses could hang by themselves on the counter

Although it may not show in his "product," Charlie L.'s process was as intense and focused as anything I've ever seen from a preschooler. Once he had the pencil in his hand, he put his nose to the paper and drew, covering nearly the entire paper, muttering softly to himself. When it came time for the marker, you can see that he started tracing the meticulously detailed ranges of pencil mountains with which he had cover his paper, but gave it up suddenly, finishing with a scribble. It seems he had done everything he needed to do with those mountains.

What if the mountains were snow monsters

Lachlan was the only one who chose to not make an "If" painting. 

Interestingly, although the boys were in no way compelled to see the proscribed process through to the end, they could have at any moment moved on to something else, none of them missed a step. This is the first time this has happened in my 9 years of going through this exercise with children. Typically, there are several "abandoned" efforts.

As the kids worked I was reminded of Jarin's "If" painting process from two years ago. His concept was, "What if 1 were 2?" He sat there in front of his paper for a long time, holding his pencil, occasionally touching the paper with it, then stopping himself before making a mark. You could see in his expression that he was struggling with the idea, his big brain working the notion around and around, trying to figure out how to abstract this mathematical impossibility onto paper.

In the end, he laid down a couple of faint, feeble pencil strokes on the white paper, a truely mind blowing masterpiece of process.

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Time For Play said...

Love, love "If". Wow, did your boys do a nice job! I really respect your work as well! Thanks for sharing.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

One of my favorite books! We've made similar books for several years (each child contributing a page.)
I wonder if you realize how many people read your blog, see something they do in their own classroom and mentally give themselves a pat on the back for meeting "the gold standard."

Unknown said...

Tom, I don't know the book, but I'll have to check it out! I love the emphasis you put on the process. I can't wait to read "If" and see what the kids come up with!

andrea gardiner freeman said...

My Mom gave me "If" as an Adult and I have kept it and used it in my own preschool teaching experiences and with my children.
I reminds me to believe in the impossible and to never stop dreaming.

Those are some hard working, creative preschool boys!


Play for Life said...

I'm not familiar with the book "If" but I do love the idea of such a story. I really like the process the children took to create their art. I agree it's always nice to provide materials and just let the children go with it but by introducing 'instruction' they have now learned a new process by which they can create ... a process they might not otherwise have thought to try. Nice teaching Tom.
Donna :) :)

Alison @ Educational Creations said...

How timely! I just posted a post today about the use of worksheets for crafts and the butting of heads I have with my preschool aged daughter.

This was perfect timing! Thank you , thank you, thank you!

kristin said...

oh, fantastic.

Anna G said...

A couple of days ago someone was sharing an innovative teaching process in an innovative college engineering program, and it was this exactly. Students think of an idea of something to build, and then figure out what they need to learn, what skills and what tools they will need in order to make it. It was so similar what you describe here, and shows again how similar thinking in art is to other, more scientific disciplines. and now, I need to find that book!

Unknown said...

We have never read it. Can't wait to check it out at the library this week. Thank you.

Saya said...

I gave a pat on my back for "meeting 'the gold standard'"! hehehe

Anonymous said...

Wow --- sorry that Max missed out on this one. I would love to see his "IF." Maybe I can recreate the moment at home, but likely the magic only works at WPPS.

The Sunshine Crew said...

Great post. Good insight regarding art and children. As always, thank you for sharing what you and your crew are doing.
Also, wanted to see if you and your class would ever want to do a pen pal project with us. We are beginning to start to try to line up some pen pals and thought it would be fun to exchange with you and a few other schools.
Hope that you are having a happy weekend!