On Creative Thinking in the Classroom

By Perry, Ruthann | Arts & Activities, October 2008 | Go to article overview

On Creative Thinking in the Classroom


Perry, Ruthann, Arts & Activities


If some of the current school-supply catalogs are an indication of what goes on in third-or fourth-grade art classes right now, I believe the state of teaching creative thinking is facing a cruel and tacky fate.

In any field of education, "what used to be" wasn't always perfect. But in the last 50 years, not much in the way of studio art--fine art--for kids has been worked into the curriculum. Every child seems to know who Vincent van Gogh was ("He cut off his ear!") or Michelangelo. But how can we graduate children who can't draw or mix colors or appreciate the poetry of modern sculpture? (Or for that matter, good poetry? But that's another story.)

The relativity of art and the crafts of art are easy to teach, with a little work. But if we're handing out pre-made boats to paint or little foam frames to decorate, all we're doing is training little future factory workers. There's nothing creative involved at all. The paints are prepackaged--every color, with the instructions for assembly. Even an image to copy for your painting pleasure is included.

The proliferation of these "kits" must make many overwhelmed teachers happy. But it scares the heck out of me. What a dreary activity art must seem to be to these kids. Even if by some chance the painted outcome is satisfying to the young artist, what will he do to duplicate the feeling? He would need to buy another kit!

Would he know he could perhaps take an old piece of wood or cardboard and just paint on that? Could he ever find that color if he had to make it himself?.

Maybe it's me. I think I am a hybrid in the art world, of which there are probably many. I started with graphic art, the kind that's no longer used. We learned layout and design with T-Squares and pen and ink, which had to be perfect. I was not very good! Switching to theater arts, I then spent 15 years designing and building props.

For those 15 years I learned by doing, a deeply satisfying way to learn. I went from community theater to network television, and learned how to work with no budget (teachers, sound familiar?) and with excessive "throw money at the problem" and "get me two of them" budgets. And what an education it was!

I was surrounded by scenic artists who could paint a landscape the size of an auditorium wall or recreate a place in a playwright's head in perfect detail. To scale, no less!

And what a revelation! They would paint with broom-size brushes or get down on all fours and use cotton swabs. They would roll on their tummies on flat trolleys to paint continuous patterns. They would climb ladders to get a look at their work. And so I learned adaptability. And the right tool for the right job, something my students hear over and over.

Prop builders are magicians, something every good art teacher must also be. As an apprentice prop maker at Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and later at MRA Studio in Brooklyn, I watched model makers sculpt objects (albeit usually period objects) out of common materials from the hardware store (not the art store) every day, painting them to look like the real thing. Lots of research goes into getting the details right.

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