I currently run programs for kids and families at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine. I also teach art lessons and visit schools as a teaching artist. My article title comes from something one of my students said about our art club. It made me laugh and think it might deserve some explaining!
I don’t care if any of my students become artists as adults. I’ve really got no business discussing the preparation of portfolios or comparing undergrad programs. My home-field is social psychology, my passion is experiential learning, and my motivation is preparing kids for the mess of a future we’ve made for them.
There’s a weird irony that my programs are often represented by images of products—the brilliant compositions, the genius-level absurdity, the explosive, fearless use of color… it’s cool stuff. I love to look at it. I love to share it during our annual Young Artists’ Gallery Takeover show and see people stop dead in their tracks to take in a piece created by a first grader.
But if I had my wish, each of the 200+ pieces displayed would have with it a pair of headphones. After diving into and climbing out of the artwork, the viewer could hear what that object is an artifact of—what trip that simply-framed souvenir is from.
The experiences I design, whether sensory explorations for toddlers or studio classes for homeschoolers, are about the mental, physical, and emotional processes needed to develop survival skills. Call them Artistic Behaviors or Studio Habits of Mind; they’re basically the do or die requirements for life in 2040: divergent thinking, complex problem solving, persistence, flexibility, daring, self-direction, resilience, and contextual awareness. They are on the list of qualifications for the jobs that will still exist when artificial intelligence dominates the labor market. These also make up the creative suite needed to deal with the barely-imaginable outcomes of climate change. As an informal art educator, I’m free to create the conditions for those aptitudes to grow, by any means necessary.
Yesterday at Waterfall Arts I had an All Ages Art Happening called Waterworks, where parents and kids worked together to make water slides for rubber duckies (in case you were worried that our programs are as serious as their objectives). As this was not my first water rodeo, I denied two boys use of the hose. Repeatedly. I eventually shut off the water supply to end the pleading. Five minutes later, water was coming out of the hose! Fifteen feet away, a posse of boys was cheering—they had unhooked the hose and figured out a way (with a funnel, chair, and a row of buckets of water) to get water through the hose. They didn’t need the hose-water for anything. But there they were, riding the high of applied creativity, spiking duckies in the grass like they’d won the Super Bowl.
I’ve got nothing to hang on the wall for that one!
Or for the kids with no interest in the elaborate tower of recycle-bin plastic they taped together for TWO HOURS one afternoon, happily imagining stories for it while learning wordlessly about physics and form.
Or for the tween who went from tearfully sharing her test scores to grinning contentedly after rearranging 100 colored pencils in order, realizing aloud the power of self-care.
There’s no record of the hundreds of rounds of our game where kids take turns making up stories about a random object (off the charts creativity, every time).
Nothing was kept after the paint-pours or the attempts to invent new slime.
The “favorite thing” feedback about our 6th grade art club is never the projects—it’s “I could be myself here.”
But it’s true… sometimes we make art, too.