The Creative Spark: Art Education
Growing up as a child living in a small town in the rural south, I attended school with a multitude of cousins and spent the summers with my grandparents.
How I loved those summers! I’d leave on a Monday morning, bag packed, to spend hot South Carolina days visiting with my grandparents. I remember cutting flowers in the garden, eating tomato sandwiches, and dripping-down-your-chin peaches. I could usually be found painting in the barn loft, building forts in the woods and digging clay from the creek behind the house. Above all, what I remember from my summers was enjoying more creative moments in those two short months than the rest of the year combined. An imaginative and productive family surrounded me. My uncle was a wood carver; my cousin was a sculptor, and my grandmother was a quilter. They were all artists. Their homes were galleries, complete with original pieces of art, simply functional at times but always beautiful. Repurposed tools became sculpture, bolts of textiles and scraps of fabric became quilts or tapestry hangings, all with the timeless elegance of quality. Innovation and creativity were important to my family-a cultural nexus. The making of art was fundamental and came with the sheer joy of creating something new with a unique sense of style. I was given the freedom to experiment with materials, found objects and the space to work on a big back porch. I didn’t know it then but what I was given in those early formative years was a creative spark, or “expeditionary learning”. This catalyst of self-discovery inspired me, motivated me to learn, and fostered curiosity.
My story is not a rare one. No anomaly, but rather I joined a legion of individuals who have found meaning, a method of communication, and a veritable lifeline through exposure to the arts. This creative stimulus was further fueled via encouragement from arts educators in my local school district. As I grew up, I gained more perspective and a deeper understanding with the study of art in school. Beginning with my first art class, my art teacher, Liz Smith, was such a positive influence on me I immediately knew that I too wanted to teach art someday. We traveled to galleries, museums and visited artists’ studios. I experienced first hand her dedication to our profession and she affected my life in a profound way. She inspired me as an artist and ultimately to seek a career as an art teacher. She encouraged me to pursue an arts education in college where I was mentored by Roger Wolford. What a difference great teachers can make!
Again, I share my story as yet another illustration of why it is important to advocate for the importance of a quality, sequential arts education in our schools. For many children, school is the only place where they will get this kind of exposure that will stimulate their creativity. Once it’s sparked, truly sparked, it cannot be diminished, but it must be encouraged. If it had not been for this exposure, I would not know creativity and all of its possibilities. Instruction in the arts can keep our most at-risk students from falling through the cracks. We need the arts so students may have a place to celebrate individuality. One example from my early teaching career centers around a painting class made up of twenty 8th grade boys. I began the year by giving them an art survey to determine their level of knowledge. The results were telling. When I asked, “What are the primary colors?” The answer I received was, “The really important ones.” They thought Leonardo Di Caprio painted the Mona Lisa and Raphael and Michelangelo were both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I threw out all my lesson plans and started over to create individualized instruction. Curriculum that lent relevance to their lives, gave them confidence and avenues for success. And successful they became! These were students who had never picked up a paintbrush or lump of clay. These are the students I keep in the back of my mind when I am advocating for arts education in South Carolina—students who do not even know that they are artists, actors, musicians or dancers.
In addition to creativity, an education in the arts does an excellent job of giving students the skills, knowledge and understanding that leads to art making and skills that last a lifetime. Students will either be creators of or consumers of art. In my current position, I have found that arts education, in all its disciplines, creates a connection with the community at large by utilizing the arts as a tool for communication with families and fostering relationships. As school districts partner with higher education institutions, arts organizations, and local businesses, we expand the opportunities for student exploration and learning. Our most gifted art students need accelerated courses such as Honors and Advanced Placement to best serve their needs. Art education is visible, vital and valued in Spartanburg School District One. I am fortunate to work to work in a district that does not marginalize the arts but has embedded a vision for our program within each school, and has formulated a plan to achieve it. In fact, Dr. Ron Garner was the 2013 South Carolina Art Education Association Art Advocate of the Year.
A student-centered approach recognizes that art education contributes to the overall growth of experience; it enhances the meaning of everyday life and provides cognitive development. In the process, students develop a passion and commitment to achieve excellence as they master the communication, problem-solving, and technical skills to allow for a high-quality personal and work life. As arts educators, we encourage creativity to meet the demands of the rapidly changing workforce of the 21st century. More specifically, in South Carolina, the arts align with the following elements for success; World Class Knowledge, World Class Skills and Life and Career Characteristics, as outlined in the framework that supports the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. Not only does art teach pride in the satisfaction of a job well done, but the arts also teach our students not only how to look at the world differently but how to perceive the world differently.The arts are not elitist; they are in fact, inclusive. The arts have always reflected an awareness of social and cultural contexts. In our world where multitasking is commonly praised, the gift of deep thinking and the creativity and freedom that it brings, are skills that the arts teach. This is the spark that an education in the arts can bring.
Finally, the educational success of our children rests on creating a school environment that is both literate and imaginative, both competent and creative. There exists a robust body of research in various scientific fields including sophisticated brain imaging techniques supporting the idea that music, dance, theatre and visual arts positively affect cognition and intelligence. But consider this, should we just teach art for arts sake? Yes, because it is the right thing to do for our students and can create lasting, positive change. Art, taught with passion and purpose, encourages a child’s creative spark and is an essential part of the fabric of a child’s education. I believe that all children should experience such a spark. Arts education fosters the discovery of our innermost creative selves. Just like that little girl I once was, many students crave a creative outlet. They deserve it.
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Palmetto State Arts Education is a network of professionals dedicated to advancing learning in and through the arts for all students in South Carolina.