On the first day of my Drawing & Painting class last week, knowing that these kids have willingly signed up for a full-year, upper-level art course, I figured we would jump right in to some art making! I distributed very oddly shaped pieces of paper to all of the kids and gave them a set of two instructions:
1. Think of ONE word that describes YOU as an artist and write that word on your paper.
2. Design and decorate your shape to your liking in a way that helps expresses that word.
Number 1 gives them anxiety, and Number 2 makes them excited (art is always an emotional rollercoaster, whether you feel you are "good" at it or not).
Brainstorming a word is so hard for them, or at least they say it is (I don't totally believe this). There is such a great fear in most of them that they will be judged by the other students based on their chosen word, so instead of coming up with their own adjective, they openly state to their peers that they "don't know what they are" and ask their friends to describe them instead. Once that anxiety is over with, they suddenly get really excited about decorating their shape because they have the freedom to choose their materials and create whatever they want!
Why would I create such an activity if I know they don't enjoy part of it, and if even I get frustrated by their inability to freely express themselves to the group?! There is an important lesson here:
Once the shapes have all been beautifully decorated (and I've told each and every one of them a bunch of times that their work is SO GOOD), I tell them that they each hold the piece to a puzzle. This is usually when it clicks that their drawing paper is shaped so strangely, and by now some of them have even noticed that their pieces fit together. The students all work together to connect their pieces (and I don't make this easy so that it takes some serious grit and teamwork to complete the task).
When all the pieces fit together and the puzzle is completed, I asked them very excitedly, "What is it?!" Looking at me as if I were insane, they referred to the finished product as a "big blob," and very openly expressed to me that they were disappointed with the result. I laughed at them as I walked into the closet and pulled out my handmade backdrop:
That big ugly blob is an illustration of their hard work and valuable time spent making their art. That big ugly blob is their collective (and metaphorical) paint palette! Individually, their puzzle pieces were hard to create, "weirdly shaped," and lonely. All together, their puzzle is a beautiful work of art, symbolizing the determination, collaboration, and creativity it takes to become a serious artist and create successful work.
I get my students to buy into the fact that art is a learnable skill. We may not be "good" at it now, but with lots of practice and dedication, we can improve all of our skills; and there is no better way to do this than to collaborate with each other. Sometimes I can say something that I feel is helpful eight times, and no one really catches on or puts forth the effort to try it out, but when one of the kids has a tip or a trick that can make their artwork better, THEY ALWAYS LISTEN. I teach them lots of skills and give them tons of tips, but I can only do so much as one person in the classroom. Together, all of their knowledge is like a dirty paint pallet, full of problem-solving and creative thinking that they can pass on to each other.
This collaborative artwork will hang in our art room for the remainder of the school year to serve as a reminder that making art together is way more powerful than making it alone. We can learn SO much more when we view the work of others and ask questions. It gives us new ideas and different perspectives. So we can make art independently all we want, but until we learn to respect the ideas of others and appreciate their work (no matter their artistic abilities), we will never improve and our artistic talents will never grow. COLLABORATION is the key to success!