Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teach the Young: Create Connections Binding Cultural Heritage

I was toying with whether or not I wanted to post this today. Then, @evolvingcritic posted on Twitter that today is National Arts Advocacy Day. It seems appropriate.


Once a month, I visit my daughter's classroom to take part in a series our school calls "It's A GAS."

"The Great Artist Series is an innovative and unique way in which your children learn about the Great Artists of our time. Volunteers will visit a classroom each month and discuss the life and times of an artist and then sponsor an art project which related to the artist’s style or medium."

When I was an art history student, I worked on stipend to write lesson plans similar to those provided to volunteers here. The idea behind this program excited me as a young woman, showing me an avenue for sharing my passion for arts and cultures with a younger generation. Today, as a cultural heritage professional and a mom, the program shows me the true power that art has over children, empowering them to be creative, encouraging them to consider the context of artist's creations, and helping them understand connections between themselves and a larger history.

Yesterday, I had the honor of introducing children to one of my favorite artists, Claude Monet. I headed to school in my little white car. I grabbed a large "Create and Barrel" bag filled with books, postcards, and art supplies from the passenger seat and popped open my purple umbrella to protect it all (and my hair that tends towards the frizzy) from the raindrops. It was a perfect misty Monet kind of morning.

I began by reading a children's book about Monet's work to the students. They enthusiastically raised their hands to interject stories about times they encountered his work in a museum or to tell me if they thought something was particularly beautiful. Then, the children eagerly sorted through postcards to find inspiration for an art project we did together after story time. They talked about color and light and painting outside.  The "oohs" and "ahs" over Monet's art work were enlightening. This quiet class that I am lucky enough to lead once every other a month for an hour is always attentive. They are always interested, but the reaction to this particular artist's work was beyond the norm. There was a true passion for what they were seeing that reverberated through the room. 

During our time together, I try to make connections between art and the larger world. A couple of months ago I discussed Louis Comfort Tiffany with the children. I brought in pictures of Tiffany with his children. I explained that these famous artists are just like us. They have families. They were once children with big dreams just like them. Each time I visit, I talk about how we preserve memories of the artists' by displaying their work, but also by keeping their letters, photographs, and even by maintaining their homes. I explained to the children that Monet's house in Giverny is still there and is open to visitors who wish to see the "real" waterlilies and bridge.

These connections are valuable to a child's understanding of history, culture, and the child's own place in the world. The connections cross disciplines and show the value of cross-professional collaboration to strengthen the overall value of cultural work by demonstrating the blanketing nature of the information that we have to share. Art is not just about the canvas. Art history is not just about the artist. It is a discipline among many forming a foundation for our understanding of humanity and what binds us.

One of Monet's powers was in his ability to see and show beauty in the world around us. The children immediately recognized and appreciated that vision. I think that the uplifting imagery spoke to their innocent view of the world. The children wanted to share the happiness they felt when viewing the images. They understood on a gut level the bond they felt to Monet. They connected his work to what they know and appreciate while demonstrating a curiosity for the artist's life and times. I watched them process the information I gave them when I explained  that the art they so immediately liked and identified as good work was not appreciated by the majority of the art world when the Impressionists first started showing their paintings.The children absorbed human ideas that were formed a long ago time, considered how ideas change, and sought to connect these ideas to themselves. I tried to drive home that they should trust in their own creativity and try new things.

For me, It's a Gas is more then learning about the "Great Artists of our times." It's a Gas is empowering kids to use art, history and stories to better understand their own place in the world. That is what cultural heritage work is all about - connecting the past to the future.

Happy National Arts Advocacy Day! 

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