Essential Steps to Turn Art One Students into Artists

What is the purpose of Art One? You’ve heard some arguments before: to learn elements and principles, encourage passion for the arts, connect to students and their stories, provide meaningful work, and get students to think like artists. While I agree with some of these philosophical rationales, these alone need extra support to transform students into artists.

Whether students elect to take an arts course or they are forced into one, our job is to awaken their inner artists. Students come into classes with stigmas and perceptions around what art is and who makes it.

We must change the narrative students have internalized; when they leave class, they need to believe they ARE artists.

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How do we awaken the inner artists in students who do not relate to the world of art? In my classroom, I have found there are four areas that help students feel like they belong in an art room: art exemplars, creating with your students, cultivating peer expertise, and having an audience.

Art Exemplars

As the art educator, we decide what art is. We are the ones who validate, reject, and define the world of art for our students. It is essential that we do not continue the scripted narrative of Western art history and limit ourselves to outdated representations of art. At my school, an average of one student per grade pursues the arts past high school. In college, that one student will be exposed to every movement, genre, name, and date our institutions deem important. What about the rest of our students? Does showing 16th-century paintings with 15th-century themes connect with 21st-century students? Overwhelmingly, it does not.

There are always exceptions, and some educators are incredible at bridging themes and content across century and continent. However, our job is to inspire and ignite the students NOW. So many students are tired of only being shown white, European, male examples that represent greatness. There are better ways to reach and empower our students.

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To make students believe they are artists, they must feel they belong to the arts. Visual culture is paramount for analysis of technique, content, and communication tactics in order to pique maximum student interest. Studying art that comes from the world of the museum alienates most students because the museum is not their world.

Art that can only be seen when it is paid for causes a separation between those who have and those who have not. Show public art as your representations. Find your local murals, graffiti art, sculptures, and mosaic work. Highlight a local artist from student neighborhoods. If we do not expose students to the art and artists that surround them, the narrative of artists as those “other” people with superb rendering skills will be perpetuated.

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Creating with Your Students

Show students your work. Make art with them. Be vulnerable. Many students walk into Art One classes with the mentality that they will fail, that art is not meant for them. You need to be vulnerable with them and show them your artistic process and products.

How valuable is it to be able to show and tell students about the struggles, mistakes, failures, and learning lessons that have come out of your own work?  How much more authentic are we as educators if we are doing work alongside our students? How much more inspired will your students be if you documented your own work and visually illustrated the thinking and grappling with concepts? If students see you as an artist leading them as artists, relevance and authenticity will increase.

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Working with students can take several different forms. You can simply show off work, or bring in work you have already created. You can make slideshows or videos documenting the steps, techniques, and process you have taken within a project. Or you can actually bring work to do while students are in their own creative practice. Students need to feel they are not disconnected student outsiders but instead co-artists within the same studio experience as their artist educators.

Cultivating Peer Expertise

The mindset that the teacher holds all the knowledge is dangerous. When students believe there is only one keeper of knowledge, they strive to replicate what they perceive the keeper wants. In order for students to believe they are artists, they have to develop expertise. Students have to see each other as fellow artists and resources, not as individual workers in a mechanized production line.

Try redirecting questions to the other students in the room. When a student wants an opinion or has a question, tell them to ask 10 other students first and evaluate the feedback. When this happens, students become less dependent on an adult figure and see themselves and their surrounding community as holding the answers. Not only is this critical for developing student artists, it reinforces the notion that individual communities are the only ones who can solve unique social problems. Authority figures and institutions are not.

Have an Audience

The questions of WHY and HOW art is made serve as the fundamental cornerstones for authentic art making. The next step to consider is the WHO. Art is communication. Artists communicate with others, and it is essential to the purpose and the choice of materials to also evaluate the audience for the art.

If the artist only seeks to create a piece for the artist’s individual experience, then that will influence the choices made. If the artist wants the piece to impact or confront a particular belief, then the audience is profoundly important. Often times the arts are used almost as individual therapy when, in reality, they have the potential to unify, challenge, and inspire many others. In our current time of Snapchat and Instagram, creating and posting works for an audience can be easily accomplished and significantly change the way students see themselves as artists.

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We all have our own personal rationale for being artists. Most of our students have not been exposed to our own influences. Students also do not share our same artistic interests. When we show them art that resonates with them, work as artists alongside them, cultivate peer expertise, and encourage their art to be viewed by others, students begin to see themselves as artists.

What other ways do you help students believe they are artists?

What is your philosophy of Art One education?

Matt Christenson

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

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  • Danielle

    Love this! Exactly the type of article I needed as I prepare to head back to school with even larger Art I courses this semester. Anybody have additional tips for turning Art I Students into Artists in particularly large classes?

    • Valerie Naas

      Danielle, I need the same help. My Art I classes have 30-33 students (33 is the max). Unfortunately behavior management is usually my first job…

      • Matt Christenson

        Hello Valerie and Danielle! It sounds like we are in similar situations. I have 30 students, so not quite as much. Large classrooms are more of a challenge for sure. I still will stand by these same recommendations, regardless of class size. Classroom management is different depending on numbers sometimes, but my suggestion is to hit students with local, public art that they may know right away. If students get a “hook” from something they may have seen or know, then they may feel more interested in participation…

  • Good points, Matt. I teach in a rural area where there is no public display of art, no access to galleries. Over the years, students have painted various walls an ceiling tiles, esp. in our art hall, and I display their art when I can in other halls. I do create art along with students, but I’m not sure they look at me as a fellow learner because mine always turns out better, in their minds? I do it anyway because it feels better than moseying around and (they think) judging their efforts. One things that also works: collaborating on a larger project, esp. if they finish early. This semester, we’re doing Zen Tangles on a concentric circle template, then cutting them into 4’s and piecing them around wall graffiti we did last semester. I’d like to take a picture of your students wearing hats! We teachers battle all the time with students wearing hats b/c it’s against school rules.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Kathleen! I love the work that you are doing! Zen Tangles are really cool…the other art teacher at my school does Zen Tangles with students too and they seem to love them! I like your collaborating ideas with students. Keep doing what you’re doing! Sounds like great work.

  • Jeremy Creecy

    While I agree with most all of what you say, I still think there’s a place for the “dead white guys” in any art program, be it technical, or something that can socially relate to modern issues (and if you look, you can find it).

    Art one students strive for realism. They are not happy with a project unless it’s perfectly representative. The constant encouragement and ability of the art instructors to point out what they did well, and to show them how to improve can really help them achieve as close to a realistic drawing as they can.