UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Art, more art!

Pablo Picasso once said every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain one once the child becomes an adult. As an educator I know all too well that fading loss of faith in our creative muse as we grow older. Ask any kindergarten class which kids are artists, and every hand will go up. Ask the same question of a high school class and chances are no one will move, even the kids who do draw, paint, sing, dance, and create regularly.

What happens to the artist in us all? Why do we stop seeing the world like an artist?

This weekend I joined thousands of people at the Affordable Arts Festival
in Littleton, and it filled my soul to see so many people turning out to support, not to mention get great deals on, original art. I picked up a unique and engaging multimedia collage from Palm Springs artist Richard Curtner. Last time, I came home with two pieces from Aurora artist Stanislav Sidorov. One, an impressionist urban landscape of figures walking in the rain, and the other an abstract-expressionist piece with a color scheme I couldn’t resist. Siddorov noticed me shifting between the two, unable to decide, so he gave me a discount for both.

This weekend the Cherry Creek Arts Festival returns to Denver for the first time in two years. Front Range fans and aficionados of the arts are fortunate because Denver hosts a truly vibrant art scene. From a thriving, well-supported museum system with world class exhibits to the dozens of galleries downtown and out into the suburbs to First Fridays on the Sante Fe Art District to a seemingly endless string of art festivals and events, it is easy to get your art on in the metro area. 

It’s also quite simple to immerse ourselves in the fine arts, and that extends to opportunities for rediscovering that confident kindergarten artist in us all. A couple years ago, shortly after I turned fifty, I signed up for an abstract drawing class at the Curtis Art Center. It was my first art class since elementary school. The talented, inspiring teacher Christian Dore helped me rediscover the artist’s instinct buried deep inside, and I had so much fun I immediately signed up for his abstract acrylic painting class. His teaching approach was built upon encouragement and discovery, and it seemed everything I tried was “brilliant.” Perhaps more importantly, he always talked about improving. “And this is just your first painting,” he said. “Imagine what number one hundred will look like.” Christian also introduced me to Mirada Art Gallery, where he is currently exhibited.

Sadly, while Denver-area residents have an art-rich world which seems to expand weekly, there is a distinct, intentional restricting of art experiences and opportunities in the education system. Beginning in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, the myopic focus on standardized test scores in reading and math has led to widespread cuts in art classes and fine arts programming. A recent study and article from the American Enterprise Institute noted that despite broad support for arts education, an increasing percentage of children are growing up in America with no exposure to the arts. This is despite broad consensus and definitive evidence that the arts positively impact the emotional and intellectual development of children and have a causal effect on higher achievement across all academic areas and student engagement.

In 2002 mathematician and math professor Paul Lockhart published an essay entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament” in which he criticized our current model of math education and called for viewing and teaching mathematics in a more aesthetic and intuitive manner. In making his case for the inherent beauty and art of math, Lockhart asserts “The first thing to understand is that mathematics is an art. The difference between math and the other arts, such as music and painting, is that our culture does not recognize it as such.”In the beloved movie Dead Poets Society, the humanities teacher John Keating strives to inspire a passion for the arts in the young men he teaches at a rigid boarding school. In teaching them to appreciate and even love poetry he tells them, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

We can, of course, include art on that list.