Rediscovering Ruth Faison Shaw and Her Finger-Painting Method

By Mayer, Veronica | Art Education, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering Ruth Faison Shaw and Her Finger-Painting Method


Mayer, Veronica, Art Education


"Finger-painting belongs to the people. It is an art. It is an activity of people"

-Ruth Faison Shaw

Ruth Faison Shaw was an art educator who developed a nontraditional educational perspective of teaching and a different vision about children's art. As such, she is considered by some to be the initiator of finger-painting in America (The History of Art Education Timeline 1930-1939,2002.) Shaw developed the technique of finger-painting and a method for teaching it. Later, Shaw applied finger-painting to therapeutic uses. Finger-painting reached the height of its importance at the time of the Progressive Education Movement in the 1930s, and educators continued its successful application until the end of the 1960s. The work of Shaw and her finger-painting method should be understood and appreciated in context, according to the paradigms prevalent in her time. This article focuses on three aspects related to Ruth Faison Shaw and her finger-painting method: her personal and professional life; the context in which finger-painting was developed; and the use of finger-painting in education in the present days.

Shaw's Background and Philosophy

Ruth Faison Shaw was born in Kenansville, North Carolina in 1889. She was the only girl of five children. Her father was a Presbyterian minister in a Southern parish in Eastern North Carolina. Shaw began her career as a teacher in rural Appalachia but did not receive specific training in pedagogy like most young women teachers at that time (Stankiewicz, 1984.) When World War I began, Shaw joined the Y.M.C.A. as a canteen worker in France for several years. During her spare time, Shaw drew and painted. When World War I ended, Shaw spent nearly 2 years in Constantinople researching the traditional patterns and colors of Asian rugmaking while teaching history "on location" to young sailors. She took her students to historic places and the class played games on ancient history and made recreations of battles. (Telfer, n.d.).

Shaw decided to remain in Europe and opened a school in 1923 for British and American children, aged 5 through 12, in Rome, Italy. She believed that education should be enjoyable. Her philosophy of education was based on the fact that children learn from playful sensory experiences with simple materials and playing games of their own invention. Shaw also introduced the dictation method using a dictaphone with her students in order to encourage creative writing. She took dictation from stories created by 5 and 6 year old students and then published children's stories as books, like Offerings of Offspring, The Old Shoe, and The Second Old Shoe (Telfer, n.d.). Shaw began to experiment with finger-painting in 1929, trying to foster children's expressions and experiences in a visual way (Stankiewicz, 1984).

It all began, in the most natural way in the world, with a little boy at the school who smeared the bathroom wall with iodine. All the children liked to "smear"-"smearing" with the hands is a primary impulse, a way of having fun and of learning. So, I went about the task of compounding a suitable medium with which they could smear to their heart's content without damaging results. (Shaw, 1947, p. 5)

Shaw named this medium "finger-paint," but finger-painting was not a new technique. Finger-paintings were found in Etruscan tombs in France and in Pompeii. In addition, the Chinese painter Chung Isao painted with this technique in the year 750 (Bedford Betts, 1963). However, finger-painting did not become well-known in America until 1932 when Shaw returned and took a position as an art teacher at the Dalton School in New York, one of many progressive schools that supported art education (Stankiewicz, 1984). At the same time, she also opened the Shaw Finger-paint Studio and began to travel around the country conducting demonstrations based on her methods. The first American exhibition of finger-paintings by children was held in a Manhattan Art Gallery in 1933. …

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