“The man on the screen is Henri Matisse. He lived in France! All together let’s say ‘Henri.’ All together let’s say ‘Matisse.’ Yess!! You were just speaking French!” So began an hour of art class for fourth graders at Salem Heights Elementary School. This class was based on art and design principles pioneered by Henri Matisse. By the end of the hour, amazingly, each student had created a work of art of bright colors and creative free form design applied over a color block background. They had been introduced to concepts of “negative space, curvilinear shapes, and rectilinear shapes.” They had experienced using scissors as “pencils” to outline shapes. They had incorporated contrasts such as black on white, and opposites from the color wheel, such as red and green.
The classroom that hour held 35 students enrolled in the fourth grade class, the teacher, the volunteer art teacher, a volunteer parent assistant, two interpreters for the deaf, a teacher’s aide, a reporter, and a photographer. Space was at a premium. Somehow it all worked. Activity flowed creatively to completion of 35 signed student art projects that would have made Matisse proud.
The teacher held up a project in progress, pointed to a point of contrast, and said to the students, “Do you see this? This element is what gives this art piece its Va-va-voom!! What are you choosing to add the Va-va-voom! to your piece?” Students picked up on this and said to each other as they worked, “See? This is the special part of mine!” and “Look at these two colors together!” This was a high interest lesson, and the class of 9 and 10 year olds stayed focused to the end.
The volunteer artist is Laura Mack, art instructor at Chemeketa Community College. Her appreciation for the value of creating art is deep and contagious, and she works to build visual literacy. She contends that our students need curriculum and hands on experiences aimed to stimulate and strengthen the paths of the brain responsible for creativity, original design, and thinking outside of the box. As a dedicated artist, Laura is very concerned that art instruction is not a part of the regular curriculum in Salem-Keizer elementary schools
In addition to her own volunteer work teaching art in Salem-Keizer elementary schools, Laura Mack is creating art lesson plans that can be used by substitute teachers, relying on supplies already available in schools. Each lesson is self-contained. Also, Salem Art Association is creating Art Boxes which contain everything needed for planned art lessons. These can be rented from the SAA for use in elementary classrooms.
Ms. Mack is advocating to see art classes added to the elementary school curriculum. Not, she says, to try to make all students artists, but to help them all strengthen their natural abilities to think creatively, and to see more fully. If, along the way, they meet Henri Matisse and what he pioneered, that is good too!
you can watch Laura Mack’s TED talk about teaching creative thinking skills on Youtube.