Letting Go: Materials are What we Make of Them

First Grade classroom Art center“We must remember that everything depends on how we use a material, not on the material itself… New materials are not necessarily  First Grade classroom Art centersuperior. Each material is only what we make it.” ~ Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 20th century architect

I always learn from a master teacher, and Rikki Gallagher at Waynflete School in Portland, ME is just that. Rikki designed the Lower School Art curriculum to include two additional classroom Art times that supplement studio Art. One links Art with thematic content. The other focuses on exploring new materials.

In late May I observed Rikki working with a small group of first graders in their own classroom space. They met just before lunch time – a time when I expected kids to be anything but focused. The minute they gathered around the table, they were transfixed. Although this Art period was short, it didn’t matter a bit. Rikki brought in new materials and modeled the process, saying, “This is what I’m making, but you can make whatever you want!”

Rikki Gallagher
Rikki Gallagher

It was clear that she was being playful.

Classroom explorationFirst Grade classroom Art centerWith water pastels, pencils, and brushes on the table, kids were ready to go. What was Rikki’s goal? How did she both engage the kids in process and free them up from having to make something “important?”

Rikki wants kids to know that they can make Art any place. With anyone. It doesn’t need to happen at school, and kids don’t have to have a teacher there. 

Most of the children had an idea right away and sketched it out. They filled in shapes using pastels and then took a brush and added water. In the process they figured out new ways to make the color spread. They could dip the pastel in water and skip the brush. They could use varying amounts of liquid. Classroom explorationFirst Grade Art CenterClassroom explorationThey were dabbling, discovering what worked and what didn’t. One child used so much water that it made holes in his paper. He took a good look at what he’d done and beamed with accomplishment. “This looks just like old paper! I like it this way!”

Each one of the seven children at the table came with his or her own set of expectations. One wasn’t happy with his initial results. He turned his paper over to start again. Rikki reassured him that, “Like all Art materials that are our friends, an eraser is our friend too!” He went back to the drawing board and tried again.

Having been given small pieces of paper, a repertoire of experiences and skills, kids kept pushing themselves. Some produced 2-3 pieces of Art in the 30 minute time allotted. Others stuck with one design. Whatever their choice, there was a feeling of both light heartedness and intentionality.First Grade Art center

Rikki  said to me afterwards, “I always tell them you can do anything as long as it’s safe and it’s fair.” She is a teacher who gives children wings and enough air beneath them to launch them into the unknown world of mixing and making.

As summer approaches, we can do the same with our own kids and young friends. Gather some materials and let them know that anything goes. It’s not about what they make but what they can make of the materials and the experience.

Thank you Rikki ~ for your unending inspiration,

Nancy Harris FrohlichMaterials exploration

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