Taking art education beyond emotional appeal
By Crystal Nay
It spurs conversation. It elicits a variety of emotions. It can make one think, feel, and see in ways both familiar and not. While we could discuss away the criterion that makes art art, there’s hardly room for debate when it comes to the benefits of children and their exposure to the visual arts.
When words are simply inadequate, a visual image often expresses the feeling of the artist while simultaneously engaging a response in the viewer. In an academic world that demands that students communicate thoroughly, succinctly, and in a specific manner, art serves as much more than just a creative outlet.
The visual arts pose a unique question to the brain: How do I communicate an emotion, feeling, opinion or idea without the use of words? It’s a challenge not typically found in the other core school subjects. In order to both interpret and communicate with art, students have to rely on other tools like shapes, colors, balance and contrast.
“Sharpening the skills required to communicate with art – and to appreciate the art of others – encourages creative, abstract thinking,” explains Janine McKeon, an art instructor at Newport Harbor High School. For high school students in particular, art helps them understand themselves and others better in a time when pressures both in and out of school can be highly stressful. “These types of thinkers develop confidence in themselves and their ability to solve problems, in any line of work or play.”
And problem solving is the benefit that some instructors would like to see highlighted far more when it comes to discussing the benefits of art education. They want to see art understood as something far more pragmatic and essential than it is currently.
Brian Bixby has taught art, advanced art and photography at Garden Grove’s McGarvin Middle School for the last X
years. Considered by many county-level administrators to be one of the best art teachers in the county, Mr. Bixby will tell you that art isn’t just about emotions, and to only point to emotional benefits is missing the more important point, which is that doing art is about solving problems.
“I hope to see the arts further gain and maintain a foothold outside of an optional, ‘enrichment’ designation,” says Bixby. “The arts should be seen as essential avenues to teach the problem solving strategies that are now being recognized as our most important curriculum. A set of high-level cognitive skills, developed through the arts, is useful in all aspects of life, including the educational and vocational futures of our students.”
There have been numerous studies done across the country that have attempted to measure the benefits of art involvement. Even in recent years studies have shown that through greater arts education, students have higher attendance, higher graduation rates and test scores, and fewer disciplinary infractions. Visual arts are also often used as therapy for children with attention deficit disorders or various degrees of autism, with studies showing increased attention and decreased impulsion over time, allowing for general growth in developmental levels.
The importance of an arts education, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that districts will adequately budget for it. Some arts budgets get slashed. Many districts haven’t seen favorable budgetary changes for their programs in even the last two decades, meaning the funding has remained the same even though the prices of goods and numbers of students have increased. And there are plenty of examples of budgets being cut, sometimes dramatically. Kathy Flanagan, visual arts instructor for Canyon High School in Orange Unified, has seen her department’s materials budget cut by more than fifty percent during her 15-year tenure.
The once reliable “materials fee” has been legally challenged in recent years, Left: “Lightning” in oil pastels by Riley Cook, 8th grade, St. Anne School, Laguna Niguel. Above: “Rustic Home” in acrylics, by Daniella Montalvo, 8th grade, St. Anne School, Laguna Niguel. Below: Photograph by Dang Tieu, 8th grade, McGarvin Middle School, Garden Grove.
“I used to be able to ‘charge’ a [materials] fee of about fifteen dollars, but with the special interest group that sued the state of California, we now have to provide everything,” says Kathy Flanagan, whose materials budget has been whittled down to about two dollars per student… for the entire school year. “A decent shading pencil is about 80 cents. I usually try to buy the cheapest supplies I can get, and I regularly cruise the free section of Craigslist and my neighborhood for stuff people are throwing away, such as wood, house paints, etc.”
Christina Rising, visual arts teach at St. Anne School in Laguna Niguel, is fortunate to have not seen budget cuts in her time there. However, as a student teacher in the South Bend School Corporation in Indiana in 2010, there were serious budget cuts.
“Luckily, my observing teacher gave me some great tips for budgeting and upcycling,” says Rising. “We worked together to find creative ways to use scraps from the woodshop class to create assemblages, cardboard from old tape rolls to make jewelry cuffs and applying gesso to cardstock to create paintable surfaces for acrylic paint.”
Despite challenges, art instructors all over the county are finding ways to celebrate and showcase their students’ work, an effort that is also a significant investment on their part. But they are excited to do it. They cite exhibitions they generate at their own schools, shows within their districts and countywide programs such as the Imagination Celebration, which every year receives student art submissions from all over the county, via art teachers, from kindergartners to high school seniors, and stages multiple exhibitions in the month of May in various locations such as South Coast Plaza and the Irvine Fine Arts Center.
“We are lucky in Orange County that there are lots of opportunities for art exhibitions,” says Flanagan, whose student Athena Tseng as a high school sophomore has already won several awards at exhibitions including Chapman University’s Holocaust Art and Writing Contest, the PTSA Reflections contest, and the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts.
This spring, Garden Grove Unified School District will host its 37th annual “First Impressions” student art show. “The longevity of this event is a testament to GGUSD’s commitment to the Visual Arts,” says Brain Bixby, who is perhaps able to sustain the high standard of results in his classroom because his district is committed to the arts. “Our superintendent, mayor, board members, and other community leaders have always attended and supported the show, along with hundreds of young artists and their families. It’s a fantastic event, and for most of these students, it is their first opportunity to ‘show’ work, and be recognized for their efforts.”
One thing all these teachers seem to agree upon is this – the visual arts aren’t just reserved for a block of time during school hours. Parents can foster an appreciation for art at home and anywhere. Victoria Rivett of Savoy Academy, an independent art school operating out of Orange County Fine Arts, notes that providing a home environment supportive of creative thinking and the preservation of curiosity is a great way for parents to encourage their child’s artistic endeavors.“ Children are naturally curious. Rather than what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ focus on original ideas and resourceful approaches to promote your child’s creativity,” she says.
Rivett encourages her students to develop a keen eye for color and technique in class, and an open mind for wherever the next art idea comes from while in the real world. It could be from found treasures, a quick photograph, or even from being inspired while in an art supply store.
Whether your child is in a public high school art class or an independent weekly class for younger children, many agree that seeing how the professionals do it provides invaluable exposure to the arts. Several cities in Orange County host free monthly art walks, some have seasonal art festivals, and a few of these cities are also home to some of Orange County’s top art museums.
While attending art gatherings provides a different experience, parents don’t necessarily need to attend an art show with their children to view art and discuss it. A trip to the library and combing through the art books can yield equally engaging discussion.
“Parents don’t need to know anything about art to do this,” assures Newport Harbor’s Janine McKeon. “Just look at pictures and try to name all the details you see in a painting or sculpture, compare ideas about what the details might mean, challenge each other to describe a feeling.”
True to his line, Mr. Bixby goes beyond feelings in his recommendation to parents: “Teach your children about the multiple functions of the arts in our lives: academic, vocational, recreational, as well as their power to inspire us and sustain us through difficulties we all face.”