Google the phrase, "why art education matters," and you'll turn up a long list of enthusiastic, well-written and scholarly articles spluttering on about strengthening right-brain connectivity, improved performance in math, and the importance of visual-spatial reasoning.
I'm bored before I even click past the results page.
Which is strange, because as a passionate and experienced art teacher, you'd think I would be ready to hop on that "Let's support the arts!" train.
But here's the thing. I can't get excited about the philosophical arguments, fancy words or high-brow concepts. Those intellectual discourses about art sound strained and uninteresting to my ears.
What fills my cup with joy is to actually watch my students making art, and to see with my own two eyes, over the years, how their work is growing and changing. Today, as we created designs made from the prints of fall leaves, my students gave me ample evidence of their amazing progress.
^ Take nine-year-old Audra, for example. For the past five years, she has begun every painting project by creating a border around the four edges of her paper. Fair enough. But then, she was left with a vast field of white in the middle of the page and, most of the time, precious few ideas about how to fill it in.
This year, something different is happening. I've noticed that her border phase has abruptly ended, and she now creates compositions that fill the entire page. Significantly, she begins her image in the middle of the paper, then deliberately works her way out from there. The end result is a cohesive, unified design that reflects careful forethought and intentional execution.
^ Katie, also nine, has always been a wild and carefree experimenter. A classic introvert and natural-born scientist who has her own ideas and rarely allows others to influence her free-thinking style, her work has often focused on interesting processes instead of end results.
Which is a nice way of saying that her typical painting projects used to be a multi-color mash-up, turned into a brown, muddy mess, with holes scrubbed in the paper from her ferocious brushwork.
Today's project demonstrates a less impulsive, more thoughtful artist. Notice the balanced group of colors she chose - the varying tones of purple, gold, and orange-red play well together - and the delicate, lacy quality of her leaf prints demonstrate a lighter, more accomplished level of handiwork.
^ Caityln (in the white shirt) and Sydney (wearing purple) are the younger siblings of two of my older students. At our school, families hang out together, so both girls have been making art with me since they were old enough to hold a crayon. Their little brains are growing and changing at the speed of light, and I see growth in their work almost every week.
What I love most about these baby artists is that they create in the midst of a group of considerably more mature and experienced artists, yet they find perfect contentment and delight in their own creations.
^ Shannae is the ideal BFF. The youngest of four siblings, this soft-spoken and complacent soul is happy to follow another's lead. In class, she normally sits entwined with her bestie, and the two giggly girls typically end up with nearly identical projects. Such is life with the ten-year-old set, and that's fine.
Today, however, her counterpart was absent, which left Shannae to contemplate this assignment on her own. And she was beautifully, completely confident in coming up with her own ideas and executing them with her individually joyful flair.
Madalen, pictured below, is at the same age and stage. These girls identify themselves as artists, and rightly so - each has both the natural eye as well as the willingness to be trained that complete the yin and yang of accomplished artists.
What excites me most about these two preteens is that they are on the brink of adolescence. Their brains are about to be flooded with new ideas, new emotions and new ways of seeing the world, and I can't wait to see how these transformative energies will play out in the girls' expressive and skillful art.
^ And then there is Myles. This dear, sweet, highly emotional boy has lofty expectations of his artwork and a tender heart that melts down into tears when those high standards are not met. Through the years, I can't even begin to count how many times he has sobbed in my arms over the tragedy of a project gone wrong.
But over the course of this past summer, two big changes have hit nine-year-old Myles. First, he seems to have grown about a foot taller. And also, his heart's capacity for forgiving himself seems to have expanded just as much. Because, despite some stressful scheduling complications that force Myles to make art under a strict time constraint, he has not cried once this year. There has not even been so much as trembling chin or a wordlessly desperate hug. Without holding himself to super-human standards, he has been quite pleased and proud of his efforts.
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These children and their stories, personal and specific though they may be, give me all the proof I need about the value of art education. While my students can elaborate on the composition of the Mona Lisa, describe the difference between oil and chalk pastels, and recite the Elements and Principles of Design backwards and forwards, it's not their technical knowledge of art that is most impressive.
Through the making of art, they are learning to imagine, to create, to know their own hearts and minds, and to express their unique ideas in a way that others can appreciate and understand.
And that is the real reason why art matters.
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For more stories about my talented and adorable art students, read: