Nurturing the Intuitive Spark

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Two arts teachers reflect on the centrality of creativity

By Robert Medley and Laurie Carlyon-Ward

There isn’t a culture without artistic expression, that isn’t drawn to creation as part of its existence in one form or another, be it writing or singing songs, decorating everyday items, or passing down stories. Every child feels a need for some kind of expression as he or she learns and grows, and that act of creativity lies at the center of a Catlin Gabel education. This very human act leads to far more than a drawing, a poem, or a piece of pottery: it also develops a sense of the self as an individual and as part of a group, confidence, a grasp of how to use materials, and so much more. This is why it’s so important to value and nurture our students’ creativity.

Having the confidence to put ideas out into the world is difficult. If we manage to teach students that ideas are interesting—but that not every idea will gain acceptance—we form adaptable, flexible people who will have the background and strength to use their talents in the world. In particular, our classes and teaching methods in the arts encourage students to think of solutions in situations that demand constant review and analysis, and to bring their ideas to fruition in music, theater, and the visual arts—in short, to be creative.

At the core of every arts class are students working with teachers to build a set of skills. The teacher poses challenges for the students—“springboard moments”—that encourage them to take their skills and go beyond the basics they have learned. That springboard provides the impetus toward creation. Something that on the surface seems as simple as the way a material is used (whether it’s paint, a musical instrument, a script, or a hunk of clay) can present an opportunity. Beyond a material’s common or intended use is an infinite universe of things you can do with that material, and we want students to glimpse that infinite universe.

Visual and performing art classes work differently from other classes. They are structured, and there is a sequential curriculum, but students often tell us they feel a difference in the way they process information when they shift from left-brain activities, such as learning math, to the more right-sided activity involved in visual and performing arts.

In the busy and buzzing atmosphere of visual arts classes, students operate as if they are in a real art studio. They learn where to find the supplies they need, and which materials are necessary for their current work. They set up their own work area and then evaluate, with the help of the teacher, where they left off on their project from the last class. Are they happy with the work’s progress? Is there another direction to take?

At the beginning of new projects, the art teacher demonstrates how to work with the medium and hands outs written material to get students set up for the activity. Students then take different amounts of time to come up with their own ideas, which eventually become the solution to the assignment. For example, if the assignment is drawing a still life, they make several sketches to decide which way they want to build the composition. Each person includes different objects and arranges them from his or her own individual impulse. There is no one “right” way to form the composition or solve an assignment. There are many ways to view the still life and create a pleasing composition. Similarly, when we take students on a photography field trip we all go to the same area, but every person’s eye and sense of what they could communicate through a photograph leads them toward a different location, a different detail—their very own artistic viewpoint.

Performing arts involve both the brain and the body and the integration of the two. Whether in music, dance, or theater, the performing artist is interpreting another person’s piece of work. The very nature of performing arts—doing your own art, with your own body, within the construct of someone else’s piece of equally absorbing work—pushes creativity and problem-solving to the edge. The nature of performing arts lends itself to endless interpretation and manifestation. Whether performing Shakespeare or Tchaikovsky, the performing artist working on a piece will always look for a fresh take on the material, fresh ways of solving the problems within the structure of the text—whether the artist in question is a designer, an actor, a director, a dancer, or a musician.

Performing arts develops in students the ability to reinvent themselves for the task at hand. They also learn how to work collaboratively, so that all facets of the production become one. Each performance is original—unique, never to be duplicated—because things will change in subsequent performances. Even if recorded, once performed it is gone, a lesson about the transitory nature of life.

Teaching students to feel safe in the arts community is an important aspect of how we teach visual and performing arts at Catlin Gabel. We teach students, who are often their own harshest critics, how to evaluate their own work and the work of others with insight and support. We teach students how to give and receive criticism, and how to see the difference between a finished piece of work and a piece that could use more work. It is a powerful experience to express yourself in any media and then hear or see the reactions of an audience or listener. This circular experience unites the artist, the teacher, and the viewer.

One of the greatest benefits of arts education, especially at the high school level, is that students learn that they are free to take enormous chances in their work (visually, verbally, musically, or through physical expression) in both conceptualization and execution. Sometimes that kind of risk-taking produces a satisfying piece of work, but sometimes that final product just doesn’t come together. Praise or criticism may follow. That doesn’t matter. What’s important here is the student develops the courage to take more and bigger creative risks, and learns to shrug off the sense of failure knowing that another opportunity to try out ideas lies just around the corner. Ultimately students learn that taking bold chances is the way to learn the most. Living through these somewhat scary experiences gives depth and richness to their education.

Art allows you to learn how to live a life of quality, beauty, and truth. This is why people often remember most keenly their own artistic experiences. As we think about Catlin Gabel’s construction of a new facility for visual and performing arts (see the next page), we think about how we are forming a legacy of place. We hope to overhear a parent say to a child, “This is where I learned this thing, this is where I took this risk, this is where I was shaped into the person that you see today.” The new Arts Center will be a place where teachers and students see and learn from each other’s creative work. From the common pursuit of art a sense of collaboration, sharing, and most importantly of insight arises that students will pass on to others as their own lives are enriched.

Robert Medley is Upper School theater director and teacher. Laurie Carlyon-Ward is chair of the arts department and teacher of visual arts in the Upper School.