Last week I had the pleasure of accompanying four Fourth Grade groups to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art to view the exhibition Hawk & Handsaw: Twenty who Know the Difference. My role was to document the experience, recording children’s thoughts as they discovered the inner meaning and common themes of varied work.
In just about an hour’s time, each group looked deeply into Art that promotes creative sustainability. Here on the mid-coast of Maine, where I’ve lived for just over a year now – the commitment to preserving the natural world and making Art – easily spill into one another’s territory. Combine the two, and what do you get? Creative sustainability or “Making something worth saving, then saving it,” wrote Christopher Cokinos in the 2010 Hawk & Handsaw journal.
Photographs, such as Big Water, in a larger than life format got Fourth Graders’ attention and elicited the following revelations: “There are squalls in the water.” “There are whirlpools.” ” It’s salt water.” “It’s of one of the big oceans, and there are no islands.” “You can see how the waves are moving – what direction they’re going.”
It was immediately apparent that these children had grown up by the sea. They could differentiate between fresh and salt water, had the ability to see the attributes of the ocean on the day the photo was taken, and had the vocabulary to capture the mood the picture conveyed. Students who had other life experiences might have missed the details or the artist’s intent.
When the kids moved up close to Big Water, they were quick to comment: “This has to be a REAL photograph.” “It’s computerized.” “It’s blown up large so you can see the pixels.” “It’s blurry” “There’s words.” “You can notice they are stitched together.”
Lauren Henkin’s works of discarded “stuff” are clearly meant to alarm and alert. Instantly a boy expressed incredulity, noticing the focus in one of her photographs on old school chairs – their metal legs, rusted out. How could someone have “trashed up the environment?” Kids rattled off alternatives: “We could find new places for it,” “Make something new out of it,” “Sell it.” These children weren’t going to let anything happen to their world.
The exhibit had gotten their attention. The last half hour was devoted to taking an even closer look. Chris Becker’s Frozen Brussels Sprouts was the starting point for students’ own observational drawings. After examining the photographs, making hypotheses, finding evidence to justify their thinking, Fourth Graders became artists in their own right. They looked at peapods in sunlight, noticing markings, twists and turns, shapes within shapes. Drawing vegetables inspired a new way of seeing. Whether sprawled out on their stomachs or sitting cross-legged “their eyes were on the prize.” Radishes, peas, and Brussels sprouts were no longer just vegetables. They weren’t objects on a plate, dismissed at dinner time. They were beautiful and fascinating. Delicate, and yes – even tasty! When time was up nearly every Fourth Grader ate his or her vegetable. Raw. Recognizing the experience and the object as new and different.
Taking school groups to a gallery or museum is about looking to learn. It’s about taking another perspective. It’s imagining as an artist and discovering as a scientist.
Attention plus Information plus Imagination times Passion divided by Humor. ~ Michael Branch
Children will follow in our footsteps. Let’s lead them in a positive direction.