Arts Are at the Core

Send by email

By Nance Leonhardt

From the Summer 2011 Caller

In these troubled times “arts are at the core” are fighting words. My morning commute is peppered with reminders of the campaign to save the arts in schools. From the Campfire billboard offering to paste back what has been cut in schools, to my neighbor’s Subaru packed to the gills with supplies she’ll need to teach her son’s after-school art class, the evidence is clear: we are blessed to be at Catlin Gabel School.
 
Arts have been at the core of Catlin Gabel’s philosophical and pedagogical underpinnings since day one.
 
From Priscilla Gabel’s earliest writings: Let him daily tell or write or sing or dance or act or paint all that he has seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted. We aim to develop in each child an inquiring mind that wants to search out facts and truths about the world in which we live.
 
To Lark Palma’s current charge: We want to create conditions that support students to know the power of their own ideas, develop new-to-them ways of doing things, and be able to think inventively.
 
The arts are inherent to the culture of teaching and learning across this campus. The approach leaves an indelible signature on our alumni, many of whom may never set foot in a ceramics studio again, but when faced with a professional dilemma will conjure the memory of wrangling a shapeless mass of mud and water into a sleek vessel under Judy Teufel’s watchful eye. They will remember how the idea was so clear in their mind and slipped away so easily once the wheel began turning. The feel of the clay veering determinedly off course and then, with persistence and a steady hand, the sense of it righting itself as the circuit came to a close. They will not only remember the success, they will remember the journey and the dividends its lessons paid.
 
For some alumni, their Catlin Gabel arts education sparks something more, a lifelong commitment to the creative process. In addition to those profiled in this Caller, notable alumni include filmmaker Gus Van Sant ’71, opera director Elizabeth Bachman ’74, painter Margot Voorhies Thompson ’66, Broadway lighting designer Carl Faber ’01, and Pixar animator Nathan Matsuda ’03. We send an increasing number of students to colleges with exceptional (and competitive) arts programs: last year that list included the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the California Institute for the Arts, the University of Southern California Schools of Music and of Cinematic Arts, and Cooper Union. Our faculty would never claim these achievements as personal trophies, but like any parent we can certainly feel pride in our ability to cultivate talent and act as stewards of the values that enable these kinds of minds to grow and thrive.
 
Our 15-member arts department attests: from preschool through 12th grade the arts are alive and well at Catlin Gabel. Following Priscilla Gabel’s directive, we weave creative habits of mind into the daily experiences of our student body. Students learn to know themselves and the power of their ideas through our various disciplines. We identify with our students and have the unique opportunity to collaborate with them.
 
Last February I had the pleasure of sitting with my colleagues and devoting two days to exploring our professional practice. Rob and Elizabeth Whittemore, professors and parents of CGS alumni, led us through a series of discussions and reflective writing activities to help tease out our core values. We asked ourselves the big questions: What is the essence of what we do? How do we scaffold this individually and as a department? How do preschooolers with pipe cleaners and pine needles evolve into regional and national Scholastic Gold Key art award winners? How does the shy and awkward 6th grader leap on to center stage as a junior in The Fantasticks? In a program as rich and varied as ours, what are the universal truths behind our diverse methodologies and media?
 

Create , Perform, Respond

 
CPR are three little letters that communicate our directive to revive the imagination day after day, year after year. Our program is about process, the cycle of inspiration leading to action leading to reflection. Like the wheel in the potter’s studio, ideas follow a circuit, and results emerge before our eyes. We guide students’ explorations of the tools and skills needed to perform, and we offer prompts from various sources (art history, current events, poetry, student-generated themes) to draw out their unique points of view as thinkers. More specifically, we agreed that regardless of medium (instrumental music, film production, oil painting, woodworking, lighting design) we shelter our students’ development under the following core values:
 
Community building and trust
Creative problem solving
Collaboration
Risk taking and resiliency
Finding voice
Valuing process
 
How this plays out at the classroom level is as varied as our subject areas. In the Middle School, every student participates in a full complement of arts offerings annually, including instrumental music, fine art, theater, woodworking, and media and graphic arts. Our Upper School program offers more than 30 electives in the realms of drama, technical theater, narrative and documentary filmmaking, painting, printmaking, chamber choir, jazz band, photography, ceramics, and more.
 
Perhaps nothing espouses the value of community building and trust more than the Middle School theater program, developed by traditions of St. George and Gilbert and Sullivan, Middle Schoolers perform in more than 14 productions yearly. Deirdre Atkinson creates a safe, energetic environment that allows students to tackle everything from 20-minute renditions of Shakespeare to developing their own plays through a method called devising. When devising, an anything-goes approach allows students the creative space to brainstorm theme, share ideas on visual and auditory components, and physically construct a representation of their thoughts on the chosen topic. Whether it’s a piece on immigration, cyber-bullying, or gender identity, the students proudly step forth in front of packed audiences to share their message and engage the community in a wider dialogue.
 
In the Upper School, students in Laurie Carlyon-Ward’s honors art seminar engage in a three-semester quest to produce a portfolio of work that reflects the development of their voice as an artist. Visitors to the gallery in the Cabell Center foyer in May see the culmination of this process with displays that include self-portraits, figure drawing, journals, and a personal statement. Whether it’s Mary Bishop 11’s use of line and color to depict her musings on women’s Western attire, or the fleshy graphite textures of Kashi Tamang ’11’s portrait subjects, their voices are etched in the gallery space as distinctly as fingerprints on glass.
 

The Space to Collaborate and Connect

 
As colleagues we deeply value the collaborative avenues opened by the artistic process. For the Middle and Upper Schools, physical proximity places limits on the depth and frequency of our and our students’ opportunity to mingle creatively. We have moments of incredible synergy—like when a student in Mark Pritchard’s music composition class works on a score for one of my student’s films or sound design for one of Deirdre’s plays. Collaboration is a core value, yet restrictions of time and distance push these moments to the periphery.
 
As education theorist Heidi Hayes Jacobs observes, the most authentic integrations are those driven by the students themselves. Picture the student dance group working in conjunction with photographers to build a multimedia performance for the Diversity Conference, the painter developing a mural for the math building based on mathematical algorithms, a group designing sustainable furniture for community partners. Our students are already making these things happen—we’ve fostered that habit of mind in spite of limited physical space. The legacy of Priscilla Gabel is most alive in these moments. Imagine the future where our core values move to the physical core of our campus—a space where the creative process can be witnessed by our community at large, where distinct voices of student artists and musicians meld into a dynamic cacophony of inspiration, and where collaboration and creative risk-taking can thrive, unbridled.
 
Nance Leonhardt teaches Upper School media arts.