Art classrooms are the coolest places in the world. First, there are all the supplies: oil pastels, magic markers, paints, brushes, clay, and crayons–containers overflowing with crayons, poured out of the box. Imagine all that potential messiness and glory within your reach. The walls are hidden under students’ work; paintings dry in racks; easels poised around the borders of the room hold unfinished pastel still-lifes. Color is everywhere.

In honor of Youth Art Month, I spent time in three Triangle art classrooms–the Montessori Children’s House of Durham, Durham School of the Arts (DSA), and Ligon Middle School in Raleigh–observing and interviewing teachers and students about their work. According to the International Child Art Foundation, ages 8 through 12 are a critical time for a child if he or she is to remain an artist. “When the kids are little, you just keep placing pieces of paper in front of them. Nothing stops them,” says Janine Wolf, art teacher at the Montessori Children’s House. As children grow older, “they start to get judgmental about their own things, and that’s the time when I see ‘don’t look,’ and ‘this is just not what a person looks like.’ To get over that hump, we have to give them the manipulative and manual skills they can use to feel confident and proud of what they’ve done.”

When young people are stopped artistically, they lose more than the ability to draw. “I think you can learn anything through art,” says Karen Thorsen, art teacher at Ligon, “and having kids involve themselves and be free and comfortable enough to express themselves is just a good way to help them know how to express themselves period. And this age group in particular appeals to me because this is where the doors start to shut.”

A committment to art and excellence
Ligon Middle School

At Ligon Middle School in downtown Raleigh, Thorsen’s students “get” art for 45 minutes each school day. That’s how long they have to race from the art room to the conference room they are transforming into a glimpse of Italian countryside, then set up, paint, clean up, and put away all their supplies. In this semester-long class, they are making amazing progress on a mural that was designed and will be carried out as a team effort.

“It’s interesting working with a group,” says eighth-grader Maggie Holmes. “It’s not just all your ideas, it’s everybody’s. And that’s more fun, because it doesn’t put as much pressure on you. It’s challenging too, because some people want this shade or that shade, some people get frustrated over it–but it all works out.”

Back in Thorsen’s art room, students show me complicated projects from their printmaking class, pastel and ink drawings and different styles of paintings. Holmes displays a floor cloth painted in the style of Mary Engelbreit, with black and white checks and deep-red painted cherries.

“I like painting the best,” says Holmes. “You can work with more colors, you can be more expressive but then you can also cover up your mistakes–you can let the paint dry and paint over it. It lets you have a little more freedom. It just lets you relax. You’re pressured a lot over the day with academics and everything and I think that it’s good to do something relaxing and therapeutic.”

Thorsen received her doctorate in folklore and folklife at Penn State, and has taught art for over 30 years. She is deeply committed to the service learning program at Ligon, which is a National Service Learning Leader School. To qualify, projects must tie service in with curriculum goals; in one project, Thorsen’s students painted floor cloths for 13 Habitat for Humanity homes on nearby Darby Street. In a fiber arts class, teams of students sewed quilts that were given to the families of premature infants at Wake Medical Center. Most recently, students sewed colorful fleece scarves to raise money for the child of a Ligon staff member who was seriously injured in an auto accident. “Our goal was to raise $2,200,” says Thorsen. “We raised over $3,000.”

The school day is over. Thorsen walks me out of the building, showing me murals painted in the halls, in the girl’s bathroom, and an elaborate sea-and-mountain escape in the teacher’s lounge. She points to where art was hanging just a few days ago, before she took everything down to go home with students at the end of the quarter. And she speaks of the new construction, which promises to include gallery space where she can hang more student work.

“Well, you can tell I like what I do,” says Thorsen, visibly moved. We talk art until I step out the door, flinging my new lime green fleece scarf around my neck.

The potential to suceed
School of the Arts

Today in Kim Page’s Elements of Drawing class, students are working with basic tools–pencil and paper. “We are taking a children’s story or a nursery rhyme or myth, and we are trying to make a really nice scene, an active scene, and draw it from different perspectives,” says Chai Lu Bohannan, a sixth grader at Durham School of the Arts, where she is exploring both visual arts and dance. Bohannon’s sketchbook depicts the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz with a range of facial expressions, convincingly drawn from different angles. “I have a really big interest in art,” says Bohannan. “I like to draw and to look at things and sketch them out. I think it’s a really good way to express your feelings. It’s one of the not as tense classes.”

Jayvon Johnson’s thumbnail sketches are drawn dark and intense, with lots of detail and movement. “We’re doing little small sketches of illustrations and then blowing them up to a big one and doing an oil pastel painting,” Johnson explains. Johnson came to DSA in the sixth grade, on the recommendation of an elementary music teacher who saw his acting potential. Like a lot of DSA middle school students, he has the opportunity to explore more than one field of the arts. “I didn’t draw that much before I came to DSA.” Now, he says, “if I did want to be an illustrator, I would know what to do, how to blend, what principles I should use, what elements to use, to be able to draw different pictures for children’s books.”

Page has been in arts education for 28 years. In that time, she’s learned not to make assumptions about children’s artistic potential. “There are some children who walk into the classroom and they have much more training, more experience; that does not mean that the child who doesn’t succeed at the very beginning can’t succeed. So we try different ways of letting them find their success.”

At DSA, students have the opportunity to stay within the same art department through both middle school and high school. “We have students for seven years,” says Page. “We see them grow in many different ways–the work becomes adult. There are seven of us in the art department, and it feels like a family. Even if the kids are not taking us a particular year, we still see their work. It’s a very nice environment for them to grow up in.”

Art is everywhere and part of everything
Montessori Children’s House of Durham

The six students in Janine Wolf’s fourth grade art class come into her room from the outdoors, pull their denim smocks over their heads, and sit on the floor around a low table to learn about today’s art project, a crayon batik. Wolf asks these 8 and 9-year-olds what elements of art are used in crayon batik. They each chime in, “line,” “shape,” “color,” “texture.” This is the fourth year most of these kids have spent in Wolf’s art classroom, and they are comfortable speaking the language of art.

They are also comfortable making art. “I like art because it’s fun and I don’t have all the pressure I have in regular school,” says Sammy Jackson, coloring in her crayon batik. “I just get to have fun and don’t worry about whether it’s good or not.”

Wolf creates an environment where every student is considered an artist and is given the tools and the skills to succeed. “I believe that everyone is born with the capacity to express themselves, almost the need to express themselves,” says Wolf, who has been teaching art since 1975. This is her ninth year at the Montessori school. “I have seen what happens to kids if their natural ability is not fostered. It does go away–it just fades.”

For further inspiration, Wolf’s students study and imitate the giants of the art world. “I was drawing something in my first grade class and they all said, ‘Oh Janine, you are such a good artist, if you were in a contest you would probably win first place.’ And one of the boys said, ‘Well, that would depend if Pablo Picasso was in the contest.’ And another one said, ‘or even Jackson Pollock.’”

All the students in Wolf’s fourth grade class are excited about Pablo Picasso, whose work they recently studied. “I like Picasso because he didn’t like doing everything like everybody else was doing at that time and he was just a little bit out of the box,” says Jackson.

Max Dearinger created an imitation of Picasso’s painting, “The Old Guitarist.” “My favorite painting was the guitar one because I play the guitar. [The figure in the painting] had a regular guitar, and then I thought I would make it more interesting and I made it a V guitar. And I put an amp right there,” he says, pointing to the corner of his painting. I ask Dearinger if he thinks he will be an artist when he grows up. “Well, I think–not like a famous artist–but I think I’ll keep on drawing through my whole life.” He adds, “But I’m into golf right now.” EndBlock