This instalment of the home school crash course focuses on the resources we are using to backfill our daughter’s arts education.

When I was in Primary School, art was presented as a field dominated by talent. It was a simple categorisation: You were either born with innate skill or not.

As a kid who struggled to colour within the lines and the only one in their year to never get a ‘pen licence’, I got placed in the ‘without talent’ group almost immediately. As you can imagine, I had a rocky relationship with art classes throughout most of my time at school.

Sadly, when my eldest daughter started school, I discovered that things hadn’t changed. The way art is taught has gotten to the point where it’s now lampooned in memes:

How to Draw a Panda in Four Simple Steps

  1. Draw two circles.
  2. Add another two circles.
  3. Add four ovals.
  4. Refine with small details.

Picture of the four steps of how to draw a panda.

Skills Development

Art lessons in Australian schools often get muddled up with some monthly theme, and usually the exercises will be long, multi-day crafting exercises for a national holiday. Maybe it’s a card for Mother’s Day? Or a collage for Remembrance Day? In the end, targeted practice of a fine motor skill or core technique gets completely lost in a flurry of other learning objectives.

Michael Craig-Martin is quick to pull these messy learning experiences apart in his book On Being An Artist:

Life drawing is a skill, but it is not in itself art. Art is not a skill, although it does call on skills.

This is a clear echo of Joseph Albers’ approach to teaching at Yale in the 50’s, where Albers introduced a series of art courses: ‘Color’, ‘Basic Drawing’, ‘Basic Design’ and ‘Basic Sculpture’. Michael doesn’t shy away from this influence when he wrote:

Albers was clear that what one did in these courses was not art. They were training courses providing practice, exercises. We were told that we were doing the visual and manual equivalent of a violinist practising his scales, gaining dexterity and subtlety.

To reinforce the importance of this idea, Craig-Martin goes on to quote Albers directly:

When you are practising the violin, you are not playing it; when you are practising drawing, you are not making drawings – you are practising how to observe accurately and how to coordinate your hand and eye.

In many ways, that was the first step toward teaching art in our home. Strip it right back into something more like an Albers style exercise in dexterity and subtlety. Lose all the monthly thematic, primary school ‘art’ stuff and just focus on the different ways you can make your mark.

Art History

I was in year seven when my school sent us on an excursion to the National Gallery of Victoria. Beforehand we had a few weeks learning about the life of the artist, their work and their techniques. Naturally all this preparation was done during… English lessons.

Thinking back on it now, our English teacher may have been frustrated by what we were or weren’t being taught by our art teacher. Regardless of why it was done that way, the preparation our English teacher gave us before the gallery excursion was the best. When I finally got to the gallery, I could actually understand what I was looking at. To borrow the words of Tom Wolfe:

Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.

Our English teacher had given us all the theory and history beforehand, so that we could actually see the paintings. I even have this memory of our English teacher on the bus ride to the gallery speaking to us as he was handing out activity sheets:

Look, the Principal said I have to give these to you. But when we are at the gallery, I want you to enjoy the paintings. If you forget about the activity sheets, that’s OK – we can do them on the bus ride back to school.

So yeah. I lucked out and found myself part of the best art lessons I ever had at school. Except they were being taught under-the-radar during English, by a teacher who loved art and history so much that he just wanted to make sure that we all could see the paintings.

The complete lack of art history or theory in school seems like a weird thing for a classically trained software engineer to worry about. But it bothers me. A lot. It’s one of the most glaring omissions in the school curriculum here. This understanding of art history was what we felt we needed most to supplement our daughter’s art education. After a big of digging, we managed to find the following:

Tate Kids (United Kingdom)

The Tate gallery has an excellent series called “Who’s who” on their website. It’s free and perfectly targeted at kids. This is what we first started using to supplement the ‘art’ lessons sent by our distance education provider. It filled the art history element that was missing from our daughter’s education and started to give her the theory to better see some of the more famous paintings.

Art History Kids (America)

My wife found this one a few months back, and it is fantastic. It comes as a series of once a week lessons, with each month focused on the work of a single artist. Each lesson comes with a little reading and some exercises. It’s the closest thing we have found to those under-the-radar lessons I used to get during English at school. It costs $25 a month, but for that you end up with two months’ worth of content: the current month’s lesson plans, plus another that you (or your kids) can pick from the back catalogue. We all look forward to the part of the week where we sit down and work through these – it is so much better than the ‘art’ lessons we were getting from our distance education provider.

Creativity

I think I’m going reclassify creativity as a swear word in my house. It would fit perfectly alongside divine on my shelf of naughty words. I guess it’s because parents have caught this fever dream where children must learn some sort of ‘creative advantage’ at school. And it’s not so they can better express themselves either, it’s so that children will be equipped to compete in a modern workforce. The theory goes that in the not-so-distant future, our kids will not only duke it out with one another for a spot in their desired profession, but they’ll also be battling a wave of robots and automation. That’s right, corporate terminators storming the workplace and killing all the human jobs. The survival strategy being preached is that our kids need to learn how to side-step and engage in the thing computers can’t do very well – Creative Thought.

How the hell do you teach creativity? A quick Google will leave you with a screen full of clickbait ‘X clever ways to teach creativity in the classroom’ style articles. If you read some of these, the word starts to lose all meaning. I pretty much gave up. Anyway, I’m not even in the classroom. I’m teaching at home.

This was right about the time that Arnold Schwarzenegger kicked in my door and yelled the old proverb. Necessity is the mother of invention. OK. That didn’t happen. Maybe it was a fever dream. My point is this; if the proverb is good enough for Plato, it’s sure as shit, good enough for me. The American sculptor, Tom Sachs puts this necessity in a slightly different way:

Picture of creativity is the enemy. A mixed media work from Tom Sachs.

More recently I have started to think about creativity in terms of malicious compliance. It’s something Michael Craig-Martin also reflects upon when describing his time as a student at Yale:

On that first day, he said that in order to get an idea of what we could do, he wanted each of us to make a still-life painting. I was quite relieved, but most of the graduates were furious to be required to engage in such a demeaning exercise – it certainly was not what they had expected at Yale. No one was more upset than Richard Serra. Eventually they all gave in, including Richard. I started to set up a Cézanne-like assemblage of apples and wine bottles, but I was taken aback by Richard’s approach. In each of the studios there was a large, heavy, beaten-up metal waste bin. Richard hauled ours onto a table so it was at eye level. He proceeded to make a painting of it in profile so that it more or less filled the whole canvas. He painted it with great angry gestures in dramatic blacks, browns and creams. I have never forgotten that painting, nor the discovery that it is possible to follow an instruction while simultaneously subverting it.

In the end, we have largely settled on the following approach to creativity:

  • Dig through history, looking for artists you like. Once you find them, learn everything you can about them. Context is important.
  • Look at the artist’s work and deconstruct it, figuring out the technique or the ‘rules’ they used while creating it.
  • Practice these rules.
  • Then deliberately try to create something that follows the rules while simultaneously subverting them.

I don’t have any concrete evidence that this is an approach that teaches creativity – I’m not sure how you would even design an experiment to figure it out (can you even measure creativity?). Anyway, they have been interesting exercises that push your brain into different places. More anecdotally, my seven-year-old has just started making her own sneakers… out of bubble wrap and tape. I’m not sure how that’s going to help her in battle with the corporate terminators, but I think that might just be the point.