One of the trickiest balances to get in teaching children art is the one between direction and imposition; between mastery and the imagination. I remember dissolving into tears in 3rd grade over a rabbit I could not get to look recognizably like a rabbit and a teacher who kept telling me to use my imagination. I most definitely did not want some abstract geometric bunny to give my mother for her Easter card. I wanted a fluffy little thing she would be able to instantly identify. But my teacher wouldn’t help me figure out how to draw it.

Children want to make beautiful things – but after a certain wonderfully unself-conscious period in which they are happy to trust their own instincts entirely, they also want direction and skill.

Enter the teacher.

Young woman looks on at her art students

Gracelia Gangmei turned up at the Foundation last summer and offered to do a class with our kids; big hit! When she offered to come again this week, we jumped at the chance.

Head and hands of the Mona LisaThis time, she came equipped with something magical. Each child received a big sheet of paper – blank except for two things: The face and hands of the Mona Lisa (and you can download the template for the same right here).

What a fabulous idea. Start with the hardest bits already done and leave children to add their own versions of hair, dress, chair, background . . . the results were quite amazing. I remember in 5th grade when I had a more inspired art teacher. She gave us all pieces of string dipped in glue and told us to drop them on our blank sheets. Whatever shape we ended up with became the basis for a watercolor. Mine reminded me of a ballerina’s legs and I can still remember the thrill I felt with the painting I came up with.

Writing teachers do the same by providing the first sentence of a story and leaving students to add the details, parents start their kids with blocks by creating that first tower . . . sometimes it’s just that one little push you need to get going.

And then the balance, the balance.

Girls - one thinking about her painting, two discussing theirs

How much of it can be taught, how much has to come entirely from within, how much of it is relying on tradition and the old masters and how much is branching out into the new, listening to inner voices and teachers from our own era  . . .

Art teacher leaning over table filled with busy students

Of course, art is about more than a face or a pair of hands; writing is about more than one clever line.

And teaching is about more than standing on the side and leaving kids to it.

Gracelia amazed us with her skillful ability to go back and forth between encouragement and prodding, between showing how and leading on . . . she asked the kids to imagine and dream and then she suggested how they might make what they saw in their minds come to life on the page.

Triptych of two art students and one art teacher

So young and so talented. It gives me hope and courage and a little Mona Lisa smile.


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