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Should We Protect Arts Education?

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We welcome this guest post from Clara Lieu, adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

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I was lucky. Despite my intense frustration with underfunded visual art programs at my public high school, I eventually l went to art school.  Today, I'm a professional artist and an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I have taught for the past decade.

The students I teach go through a rigorous application process. On top of all the components of a college application, applicants to art schools are required to show a portfolio of artworks. When these students enter my class, they are already equipped with tremendous skill and self-discipline. While there is plenty more for them to learn, there is a lot I don't have to teach them. 

Being immersed in this vital community of artists, it's too easy to take that community for granted. I know I certainly did: I quickly forgot about my struggles before art school, a lonely period in my life where I longed for access to high quality art education, but had none.

In 2013, I started teaching at RISD Project Open Door, a free college access initiative for underserved Rhode Island teens. The students in Project Open Door could not have been more different than the students in the RISD undergraduate program.  Most of the Project Open Door students had never taken an art class before, and even the most basic tasks that I assumed would be obvious, (such as how to hold a drawing board) needed explanation.  My memories of being alone in high school started coming back. Standing in front of me was a class of students who were told the same stories of frustration in their pursuit of art education as I did over 20 years ago.

Last spring, I did a clay portrait project at Project Open Door. Students had the opportunity to sculpt a portrait by observing a live artist model in class. We constructed wire armatures on wood bases, and used oil based clay.  One of the students commented that the last time she had touched clay was in Kindergarten, and it wasn't even clay-it was play dough. For every student,  this was a completely new experience.

By the time the sculptures were finished, the results were not that startlingly different from what I've seen in my college level courses. How is it that a group of students with no prior experience in studio art could create pieces that could have been easily mistaken for college level artwork? Seeing these sculptures crystallized for me that what art education really comes down to is access. The students at Project Open Door were given the same materials, resources, and environment that the degree program students are given.  I truly believe that any person, given the opportunity, resources, and environment to flourish artistically can create wonderful artwork.

Yet it's surprising that so few people hold the same opinion as I do. Many people think doing well in visual arts is as cut and dry as to whether or not you have "talent."  Either you have talent, or you don't. When I tell people I teach studio art, most people say "I don't know anything about art" or "I was so bad at art in school." I usually ask them to describe to me what their experience with art was in school, and the answers are almost always the same: "we didn't have art in school" or "we had art once a week for 30 minutes, and no one took it seriously."

Initially, I always thought my primary goal was to be a college professor, where I could foster the next generation of professional artists. My work with Project Open Door made me realize that it doesn't matter whether a student in my class becomes a professional artist or not. In fact, it is perhaps the students who go into other fields for whom my art class could have the greatest impact. Innovation happens when someone is willing to take a risk and try something out of the norm. Art class is the ideal environment to take risks: there are literally no answers at the back of the textbook, and so much of the creative process can be simply trial and error.  In visual arts, you have to facilitate your own path, and be willing to give anything a shot.  I've had students in my classes who were absolutely baffled by the creative freedom I gave them. Having been taught to follow the rules and be "correct" all the time, the thought of a teacher actively encouraging them to fall on their faces and fail seemed downright alien.

People always ask me what I want my students to get out of my classes, and they expect me to state some drawing technique that I wish everyone had. Actually, this is what it really boils down to: my greatest aspiration as a teacher is that a student leaves my class with a positive memory of visual arts. I want my students to develop an enthusiasm and appreciation for the artistic process that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. If I accomplish that, I'm satisfied.

I had a student once who was quite possibly the least skilled student I have taught in my entire teaching career; they couldn't draw an apple to save their life, and they rarely finished any of their projects.  One would think a student like this would be frustrated and not want to come to class. On the contrary, this student came to every single class, was always happy to be there, and never got down on themselves.   For that student, art class was more than just part of the curriculum, art class was a safe place in their life where they felt nourished and supported. That's what art class was for me as a child, and to this day, I do believe that art education saved me from developing a permanent inferiority complex. In art class, it was permitted, and even encouraged to explore without any pre-determined answers or expectations.

Art education provides a vitally important sandbox for learning in unconventional ways that is essential to education. With standardized tests becoming more prominent, the opportunities for play and experimentation in school curriculums is dwindling. Despite what an effective, positive influence art classes are proven to be, art education is always the first to go when there are school budget cuts. Art education should not be a question of access. Let's recognize that art is not optional or supplemental, but a subject in itself that is just as critical to future progress and innovation.

 

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