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Breaking Tradition

Using artists and exemplars in the art room

To begin with... (A Disclaimer)

My journey to being an Art Educator, was slightly different than most. I left school early to follow my dream of being a 'Nelson Artist', and after the routine of dishwashing, customer service, takeaway and video store clerk jobs, I started my own company, painting signs and murals. This quickly grew, and by the late 90's I was painting murals for over 120 hours a week, transforming warehouses into children's playgrounds, and turning children's bedrooms into jungles and oceans.

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It wasn't until I was married and living in the big city (Auckland) that this was no longer financially viable, and so I sidelined the dream to go to university and train as a teacher. This soon became my next dream, and I quickly fell in love with education, specifically inquiry learning. 15 years on, a few teaching jobs, international postings and a few small scale exhibitions and gallery projects later, I was able to merge both of these passions to become an art educator. Using my experience as a self taught muralist and artist and my passion as a classroom teacher, I started to form what I believe is a balanced and effective approach to arts education.

I call this a disclaimer, because I did not take the 'fine arts route' and as a result, was not taught all of the traditional methodology and approaches. I do not believe that these are wrong. I just know, having now met them, and even at times, trying to use them, that these teaching staples, do not fit my practice. My vision as a primary school art teacher is to draw my students in to a world of creativity and confidence. Leading them to take ownership in their art, creating work that is individual, original and expressive. I feel that a unit has failed, if all my students have made similar variations of the same piece. Where possible, I want their media, subject and style to be completely differentiated within the same lesson. I do of course have lessons where I teach specific skills and techniques, and these experiments and individual lessons can have similar results... these are part of the process of creating art though... and even then... I always give freedom to use techniques, colours and skills in different and expressive ways.

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This brings me to the use of 'Artists exemplars'. I see A LOT of art lessons and units structured around famous and established artists. From Van Gogh to Hundertwasser, these seem to almost be curriculum foundations in most schools and programmes. Students duplicate buildings and brushstrokes and blue swirls in everything from digital medium to paint to printmaking and collage.

To be honest... I don't do this. I don't even like it.

I love being inspired by artists, and the greats. I have learned so much from others and I would be an idiot to pretend that my practice was formed in a vacuum. I did however not start by copying. I started by creating, and experimenting. I started with a brush, and when that only took me so far, I looked for a guide, a mentor and an example of what could be done. It is in that spirit, that I teach my students. We begin a unit by exploring the medium and we try the techniques and skills involved. We explore colour and texture, and the elements of art as we create explosions of creativity and confidence. My students engage in the artistic process and plan and create beautiful and expressive art pieces.


We reflect. I give students a range of artist's works to engage with. If we have just been painting, we might look at some Pollock and Van Gogh or Hundertwasser up close, and I will ask simply... "Which artworks here, remind you of the skills and strokes and techniques that you used?" "How are they like you?"

Students of all ages engage with this, exclaiming "VAN GOGH PAINTS LIKE ME!" (Instead of the lesser... "I copied Van Gogh today")

The environment is such, that they are interested and encourage to go further, looking at how he used his strokes, colours and textures. As the starting point is their own practice, they suddenly have an artist mentor that can guide them further and walk beside them. Not offering a voice to copy, but rather a voice to guide. If the age and developmental stage of the student is ready, they inquire into the artist, asking questions and discovering more than you could have hoped.

Students walk out proud of their process, empowered because they are walking the footsteps of an artist, with greats to guide them, rather than simply copying and following the steps.

I Hope that you catch the spirit of what I am offering here. I believe it is an alternative practice, if the more traditional route has not served you well. It allows you to lead with skills, and conclude with context. To lead with expression, and finish with connection. It is always my goal to put the student and their engagement in creativity in the center of their arts experience and I believe that this has been one of the strategies that has really helped me to do this.

Have an outstanding week.