Exploring a wide range of historical periods, artists and cultures

This component introduces every lesson and provides students with exposure to artistic traditions from around the world, exploring diverse styles as well as common themes. The lesson’s ideas are placed on a timeline, giving students a link to artists of the distant past, a sense of connection to artists in the present, and a place alongside the artists of the future. Geographical and/or cultural approaches to the lesson’s ideas may also be examined, providing students with a means to compare and contrast themselves with the world around them, building their sense of community awareness, both locally and globally. The art historical component provides factual information about artists’ lives as well as background on materials and techniques used in the specific artworks shown.

This information is woven into a larger historical framework, touching upon how the artist and the work fit into an art historical timeline, and often expanding into how this fits into the larger moment in history. At this juncture, programming often overlaps academic inquiry, and ARTsmart’s methodology allows students the time to make those connections.

ARTsmart New MexicoIn addition to the presentation of facts and discussion of techniques, there is a deeper process of inquiry that examines context and allows students to develop more complex critical thinking skills. How do the circumstances of society, culture, even political climate influence the choices an artist makes when creating a work of art? In the continual examination of art across a broad range of historical periods and cultures, students gain an understanding of art as an important form of human activity, recording events and reflecting cultural identity.

Students also learn the historical role of the artist as explorer, investigator, and inventor. The ability to engage in pure creative inquiry is a necessary element in the process of discovery, whether creating a powerful portrait or testing a scientific hypothesis. By the end of the discussion, students should feel a personal connection on some level to the artists presented and that like these predecessors, the student can also make an impact on the world around them.


Vocabulary and brainstorming build literacy and language skills

This component is the glue that binds together the historical background of the lesson and the artmaking that follows. Here, students are introduced to the practical application of the lesson’s ideas, with special emphasis on vocabulary and verbal expression. ARTsmart targets New Mexico Standards & Benchmarks (NMSB) for literacy as they relate to critical analysis in oral expression, as well as clarity of verbal expression. The discussion is interactive, as instructors guide students to explore multiple possibilities. A range of questions challenge students to hone their reasoning abilities during brainstorming.

What makes something a pattern,
How can you tell which tree is closer,
Why do you think she looks lonely,
What time of the year does it seem to be?

These are examples of possible directions students may explore. A critical factor is the ability to suspend judgment in favor of consideration of all possibilities, to see all avenues as legitimate, and to make their own thoughtful, intentional choices.

This kind of inquiry is not unique to ARTsmart’s methodology, but utilizes innovative thinking that appears in other nationally recognized arts education practices such as the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), developed by psychologist Abigail Housen and veteran museum director Philip Yenawine. VTS is currently offered to the local community through SITE Santa Fe and is intended to improve a viewer’s ability to find meaning in art and to improve communication and problem-solving skills.

The three questions VTS asks of students are:
What’s going on in this picture?
What do you see that makes you say that?
What else can you find?


A starting point for the lesson’s materials and techniques

Most students need more than a verbal explanation to begin a hands-on activity. The demonstration by instructors provides a tangible illustration that students are encouraged to expand and elaborate upon. Students are shown how the materials may be used in the lesson and are usually provided with a number of choices with regard to technique. One of the greatest strengths of ARTsmart’s methodology is offering choice within a structure, allowing flexibility within a given set of parameters. Instructors often prepare works-in-process at several stages of completion in order to give students a clear idea of how the work might progress over a period of time or how the work might look mid-way through the lesson. This is a guide rather than a strict set of instructions, and demonstrations may involve showing more than one possibility.

Instructors are careful to narrate their thinking process as they demonstrate, often asking questions and integrating students’ responses as the artmaking continues (i.e. What color would give a good contrast to the red apples in my still life? What kinds of lines could I use in this portrait’s hair to make him seem tense? What other details do I need in my background to help a viewer understand my storybox without words?) This is a chance to reinforce brainstorming and historical ideas presented in the first part of the lesson, as well as tying in concepts from prior lessons. The group problem-solving that occurs here sets an example for the individual problem-solving to come during their own artwork.

The discussion of accidents and mistakes frequently occurs during the demonstration. ARTsmart instructors continually emphasize that a spontaneous occurrence may be seen as a new opportunity rather than a disappointment, and how important it is for an artist to be continually alert to unexpected possibilities. In addition, instructors emphasize the idea that practice and repetition are the processes that lead to feeling more confident in any activity, and sometimes we don’t feel successful on the first try. Artists may not always feel satisfied with the final outcome of their artwork yet they put their best effort into the process of creating nonetheless; when students understand this, they are more likely to participate more fully in the activity that follows.


Using an array of materials, themes, and processes

Over the length of each program, ARTsmart exposes students to many materials, but does so in a thoughtful manner. For instance, students may work with chalk pastels after they have worked in charcoal; acrylic paints might follow watercolors, and exploration of sculpture occurs after fully investigating two-dimensional artmaking.

Materials used may include: pencil, charcoal, oil pastels, chalk pastels, colored pencils, watercolors, acrylic paints, canvas, construction paper, photographs, wood, wire, clay, plaster, and found objects. Students may explore drawing, painting, collage, sculpture, assemblage as well as techniques and materials used in combination under the broad categorization of mixed media. Students learn about traditional uses of materials as well as innovative and contemporary approaches, and the role of traditional art forms in cultural identity.

One of the highlights of ARTsmart programming is the individualized attention that students receive during this part of the workshop. This is made possible by providing adequate resources (instructors and assistants) to ensure a low student to teacher ratio. Instructors do not intrude upon a student’s process, but they do take time to guide each individual to work at the edge of their potential. For the average elementary student, the temptation to stop before the real exploration begins is a limiting factor that characterizes many art programs. Fear of failure prevents many students from taking the first steps to learn basic skills that can lead to proficient expression. It is important to provide support and encouragement at the moment of hesitation. Over time, students’ confidence in their own ideas and choices becomes more self-generated, less dependent upon an instructor’s guidance.

Without question, students hone problem-solving abilities during artmaking. Of equal importance is the development of problem identification. Often students will be dissatisfied with an outcome but are unable to identify the source of their dismay.

ARTsmart instructors guide students in finding problems, offering clues or suggestions without giving out specific answers that would prevent the student from having a personal moment of discovery. Once the problem area is identified, the students’ own problem-solving takes over. The cumulative acquisition of these skills is visible as the program progresses, their impact upon other areas of study invaluable.


Oral presentation and analysis in a non-judgmental setting

In this component of the ARTsmart methodology, students participate in a group evaluation that emphasizes strengths over weaknesses. The format of critique meets NMSB oral literacy skills, which include the ability to articulate clearly in front of a group as well as observing and analyzing orally. The experience is initially difficult for some students, but in keeping with ARTsmart’s overall philosophy of positive guidance throughout the workshop, students feel a sense of safety as they learn to participate in critique. Early in the program, critique may include simply, “my name is…, I am an artist, and this is my artwork.”

With time, students are asked to identify areas of their artwork that reinforce the lesson ideas, such as:

Point to an area where you used warm or cool colors
Use one of the vocabulary words we studied today to describe something in your own work.

Finally, critique evolves to include observations by peers guided by non-negotiable ground rules of focusing on observation using positive and constructive comments instead of judgment. Students understand that negative observations are a normal part of a person’s thoughts, but that in this setting, those observations may not be verbalized. This contributes to the development of a safe environment in which every student is able to present his or her artwork without fear. It also sets a standard of behavior that encourages self-control, providing students with tools for dealing with inevitable emotions and thoughts without translating those thoughts into actions.

Critique provides an effective way to close out the lesson, bringing the students back to the starting point, reinforcing the lesson’s key ideas and vocabulary. From there, the next artmaking encounter builds upon this knowledge, as students acquire new art skills and refine problem-solving and critical thinking skills as they discover their own strengths and expand their personal horizons.


An opportunity to participate in the community by sharing artworks

During the course of each ARTsmart program students are given the chance to exhibit their artworks within their school and in the larger community. It is important for young artists to feel that their efforts are noticed and valued, not only during the creative process, but afterward as well. ARTsmart instructors and staff go to great lengths to create exhibit opportunities for students. Exhibits range from informal displays in classrooms and school hallways to more formal exhibits at businesses and art galleries. It is important to allow students to share their creative success and to experience pride in their work and artistic accomplishment. Events and exhibits bring awareness to the community of the importance of art education.

Through ARTsmart’s methodology a child repeatedly experiences a complete cycle of learning that includes perception, analysis, communication and evaluation.

Integrating the arts with the academic curriculum provides an experiential element that improves retention of information, but also familiarizes students with a basic process of investigation and discovery that is fundamental to learning regardless of specific subject area. Research estimates that 90 percent of all communication occurs visually [1], requiring high levels of visual and verbal literacy to succeed in our current and future society. Heightened visual thinking skills can enhance verbal skills, and vice versa. A great approach to learning, and teaching, that is more comprehensive and less compartmentalized has the potential to educate a child more fully, as it provides a teacher with a greater ability to maximize each student’s individual development.

[1] Hanks & Belliston, Draw! A Visual Approach to Thinking, Learning and Communication, 1992