Arts Learning Week 1 – Reflection on Arts Education

How I got into the arts…

I can point to really three early influences…The first was, of course, my parents who really valued the arts. They were both librarians and really got most excited about performances they would go see in person or on television. They would visit art shows and drag me to museums where I would get “museum feet” and want to sit down on the benches. They collected Japanese prints and fabric and statuary. My mother worked at the Huntington Library, Gardens, and Art Gallery in San Marino, California, and so I grew up exposed to ornate paintings and sculpture. My interest in the arts is in large part about connecting my parents. It’s a defining characteristic of our family, which is why getting an MFA was a deeply personal pursuit.

The second influence was Doris Street, a wonderful art and music teacher in elementary school who just was very supportive of young people being expressive. She called us all her little “pussycats” and had dyed her hair blond and set it in a tall bun with lots of hairspray and wore large jewelry–very seventies. I don’t know how I got started but sometime in the 4th or 5th grade, I would leave the playground during open recess (this was primarily during the summer when they’d let us play outside all day–heaven) and head down to the art room to paint, under very loose supervision by Mrs. Street. I’d show up and she’d have the acryllic paints out and we’d go through these books of paintings and try to copy them. No one else really did this. There were maybe one or two other girls that participated in this “art time,” but I was the one who down there the most, and I remember that as a boy it felt as though I was crossing a line by going to the art room instead of staying to play kickball or dodgeball or basketball. This was about the time that my father first went to the hospital. He went to the hospital with a serious liver infection and my grades started to get better because it was the only thing I could do to help in that situation. But I’ve never made the connection with the painting. He was an amateur painter and so it makes sense that his illness would send me to the art room. I ended up winning second place in a state contest for one of my paintings and got my picture in the paper. My dad, who got out of the hospital but was ill for the next 17 years until his death, was ambivalent.

The third influence was the television show “Fame,” which came on in the early 80s on NBC when I was just starting junior high school. Junior high, I think, is when young people really start to look for things that resonate with them. It’s the age for vision quests and initiation rituals. I moved from my fairly informal elementary school to a more serious preparatory school with school uniforms and a much more regimented look and feel. Most of the families at this school had more money than our family, and my main foothold was that I was a good student. There wasn’t really an art or music classes at that school. I took photography and ceramics for my arts electives. Anyway, I was fish out of water in a buttoned down institution. Then on Thursday nights I discover this show about the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City where students dance and sing in the cafeteria at lunch and all the teachers are about helping young people find and express themselves. I wanted to go to that school. This past year I purchased the DVDs of the first two seasons of the show and watched them on my computer while eating dinner. I was able to see how those episodes really did have an influence on me and how tame 80s television was for teenagers compared to today. I no longer want to go to that school, I want to teach there.

So I should say something about what these experiences say about art education. To me, it’s about the relationships that surround the artmaking, with my parents or my father or my art teacher or my imagination placing me into the group of students in the television show instead of my own stuffy school. The arts are a pool that our emotions flow into, their power is inseparable from the relationships that permeate our lives. This isn’t a bad thing. I think the art educator who recognizes the importance of making art to work out and work on important relationships in our lives will be so much more effective than the art teacher who wants to only teach the color wheel or how to read music. The personalities of art teachers are so important because they are asking students to take risks. Art and music classes always felt risky and fun and produced a bit of anxiety. It’s harder to hide what’s going on inside in an art class. One of my greatest fears and frustrations in elementary school was being called to the front of the class to sing notes on played on the piano by our teacher. We all had to go up one by one and match the note she played with our voice. I could never do it. And was laughed at more than once. The social aspect of arts education is so important.

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