CBMS Choice-Based Art Studio

CBMS Choice-Based Art Studio
CBMS Choice-Based Art Studio

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Plans for tomorrow

Gateway from art studio - (quote from 5th grade girl)
My new crop of 5th graders is starting to get the hang of things. I get a new group every quarter, and while the first group arrived all ready to go -go -go, this group has been more tentative in some ways. We still have one more center to open, and only about 2 weeks left until art is over for them until next year. But late last week I heard a student say, as she left the room: “I know exactly what I'm going to do tomorrow,” and I did a little silent cheer. Hooray for a place where  children's plans set the course for learning.
Grade 5 getting to it
One of the BEST things about Choice-Based Art is the predictable studio setting. Students know what materials, tools and resources are available for them each day. Much of an artist's planning takes place outside of the studio setting, while walking the dog or riding in the backseat. Ideas hatched with friends on the bus or dreamed up before bedtime can be brought to fruition during art class. Students know their ideas are supported and that they can work at their own pace in their own way. 
A new way to paint (Click to Play)
It used to be that students would arrive for art class and ask me “what are we doing today?” Now they tumble through the door and beg “can we just get right to work?”

Friday, December 7, 2012


JUXTAPOSITION: the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side; also : the state of being so placed

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Going Deep"

What does "going deep" look like in a choice-based art program?
6th-Grader "M" at the wheel
Since students choose which "center" they will work in and what tools, materials and techniques to employ, they sometimes find they have an affinity for a certain medium or process and stay with it a while. When this happens, students have the opportunity to "go deep."
Family Portrait by"H" Grade 7

Sometimes specialization results in new innovations and other times in true mastery. I have seen this happen in the Clay center, when a student falls in love with clay, or in the Sculpture center, working with found objects. Printmakers who tough it out are rewarded with a unique experience only this technique offers. Students who stay with a line of artistic inquiry often become classroom experts and can offer advise or provide inspiration for others. 

Sometimes this happens in an "ah ha" moment, when a student realizes that they can accomplish something new. Other times, serendipity steps in, as when one material pushes up against another and passively suggests a new idea. 

 I am watching this happening with a new crop of 5th graders. One student has moved beyond the mere mechanics of the paper-making technique I demonstrated to all and is nudging this process toward the expression of ideas.
Paper scraps are sorted into color families, to facilitate color-mixing practice
Handmade paper, by "A" grade 5
Papermaking is a fairly mechanical artmaking process. It always surprises and delights me when a student jumps from being merely an alchemist, mixing magic pulp-potions, to being and artist who communicates an idea. That is what happened last week when a student moved paper from a 2D process to a 3D experience (photo above - featuring a 3rd-year papermaker), and again when the pages from a discarded children's book came in close contact with colors of the night sky.

Text and color used by this 8th grade artist to convey meaning

Conertible Art

The idea for interchangeable heads and bodies started with a classmate. Here, wood scraps are fashioned into figure-tops that slip into a base.
 The base holds one,
         or the other, 

                                          or both! 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

November is for the Birds

By L" grade 7
As we head off for Thanksgiving break, and in honor of Tom Turkey, I thought I would take a moment to highlight some of the feathered friends that have populating the art studio recently.
Newspaper, feathers and tape - by "G" grade 6
Tempera painting by "J" Grade 6 "I dream to do daring things in art."
"The Puzzler" by "D" grade 7

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mini Center: One Sock Doll

"Gift for my cousin" By "R" Grade 8

The art studio at CBMS is set up with several “centers” to facilitate autonomy and organize materials. There is the painting center over by the sink, the clay center at the back of the room, one for sculpture collage, digital art, drawing, printmaking and fiber arts. Students choose which center to work in after my brief demonstration or discussion at the start of class. These centers are always there – permanent fixtures for students to rely upon and plan for.
Then there are the ephemeral centers, ones that come and go, like the papermaking center featured in the previous blog post, or the bookmaking center which will come next. Later this trimester I will set up a mosaic center and then an encaustic painting center. Maybe a lantern-making center for the Waterbury Lantern parade?
And then there are the mini-centers, which I think are my favorite.

Mini centers are usually portable and contained in one box – like our little “One-Sock Doll” mini-center. We use a donated divided wooden box to hold everything artists need to create a tiny soft-sculpture creature. The materials are simple, as are the instructions. Given a few parameters, valued skills are learned, practiced and improved. Students need to know how to thread a needle and tie a knot, stitch a seam and sew “right sides together.” Embroidery stitches are used to add a face and other details. It takes some patience, practice and a measure of imagination to transform a little sock into an original sculpture. There is a lot of learning packed into this mini-center!

Thanks to Ellyn Gaspardi for introducing me to this project at the National Art Education Association Convention some years ago.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Paper Casting

Papermaking is a popular choice in the art studio this month. Unlike most of the centers available in the art studio, the papermaking center is a temporary one and will close soon. Students know that if they want a chance at it, they have to act now.
 Some students are new to the process and are learning how to mix recycled papers into their own custom formula, move down the line from blender to iron, arriving at the end with a new, handmade sheet of paper. Some students remember the process from last year and are ready to stretch and explore, discover new possibilities, and initiate daring innovations. 
One new technique students are testing is using a template to contain paper pulp against the background sheet of paper. Students have found that metal cookie cutters work well for this purpose.

One student wondered if he could put the fresh, pliable sheet of paper over his face, using his face as a mold to make a paper casting. It was quickly determined that unless he wanted to sit motionless in the art studio overnight, he needed to find something else to use as a mold. I remembered that I have a quantity of styrofoam faces in the art closet, so we tried these.
The idea of paper casting is new for us and is producing some interesting possibilities.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Too cold for spray paint!

If you follow this blog, you have seen this stencil-artist before.
“A” is amazingly fast at taking a design and rendering it into a stencil. He can visualize the positive-negative relationship and cut them faster than I can say “put a board under it – and don’t cut yourself!”  For his final project, he cut 8 or 9 new stencils to decorate his skateboard. Unfortunately, between cutting and spraying, we got our first snow and things have gotten downright unpleasant out the back door.
Undaunted, “A” completed his project, overlaying designs and colors as planned. He is preserving his stencils for future work at home. The next time I see “A” in class, he will be an 8th grader! Our time is art goes by too fast.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

An Eye for Local Clay

Is it clay or is it just mud?
A student delivered a small baggie of natural local clay to the art room the other day. He dug it up at the reservoir. Frankly, it looked like a little pile of mud – or worse. But “S” claimed it was clay, so I poured it onto a stack of paper towels and let it dry a little. When “S's” class appeared later that day, we talked briefly about where this clay was found, and then “S” set out to form it into something. We wanted to try a test firing. The clay was greenish brown. It had a few sticks in it. “S” made a small pinch pot and we left it to dry.

Pinch pot fired inside a larger pot in case the new clay melts in the kiln
 The next day, we checked the pot and it was holding together well. I explained to the class that we don't know what temperature this clay can be fired to – it could melt if it is fired at too high a temperature. The safe way to fire “S's” little pot would be to place it inside another pot made from our regular low-fire clay. That way, if it melts, the clay we know will protect the kiln shelf.

Finished pinch pot by "S" - Grade 5, made from clay from the beach at the Waterbury Reservoir
 Students predicted that the brownish-green clay would fire red, because I let slip earlier that a similar experiment with “playground clay” in Colorado started out mud-color and fired up red.
They were right! The little pot fired to a lovely terra cotta red.
There is something magical about this process. I hope more students dig up and bring in clay from our area. It will be interesting to see if there is variety in samples from different locations.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Star is Born

The project began sometime before September 7, the date on the photo at right – Now it is the end of October and there is a week left in art this quarter, and today – finally - “J's” soft sculpture is complete! 

“J” didn't work on it every day this quarter – sometimes the going was too frustrating and she would have to put it away for a while. 

Sometimes, the “new thing” in the studio was too compelling, and  the sewing project would be aside, for say, the potter’s wheel, or papermaking. But she would always return to it, day after day – putting it together and taking it apart; constructing and deconstructing. 

She made her way through the directions in a book that anyone would agree were not clear. Hers is definitely a story of the studio thinking habit “Engage & Persist,” if there ever was one. 
Welcome to the world little dude!
 And today, October 25th, The project is complete! What a triumph of will and skill! And what a delightful, whimsical payoff.
Congratulations “J” on a job well done! (I'm going to miss this little dude-with-no-name.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

“Every time I make paper I learn something new about color combinations”

The Papermaking Center just opened in the art studio – to replace the Clay Center, which just closed (in preparation for the end of the quarter.) For some it is a whole new, exciting experience, full of wonder. For others it is the favorite center, back at last, ready for students to pick up where they left off last year. The spiraling curriculum, in which ideas, methods, materials and techniques come around again, provides learners with an opportunity to experiment with novelty and “go deep” toward mastery.

“Every time I make paper I learn something new about color combinations”  - "W," grade 5
Paper makers are also colorologists – blending and mixing hues to achieve desired and often unexpected results. Art teachers are accustomed to teaching about color-mixing through paint, but my students are teaching me that the same concepts can be discovered and understood through the alchemy of handmade papers. “If you use opposite colors,” advises one, it will turn yucky.”

 Experiences and conversations such as these provide teachable “just in time” moments to suggest art vocabulary such as “complimentary colors” for “opposite” ones and “neutral color” for “yucky.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Late last week fifth grade artists finally gained access to the Fabrics & Fibers Center in the art studio. Each new center is opens in turn, and this is the last to open this quarter. It has taken us a little longer to get around to each center because this group of artists is extraordinarily self-directed and quite busy with way too many projects as it is. We are already mourning the fact that the quarter ends in three weeks – there is still so much to do!
Sewing in the morning sewing in the evening sewing at suppertime...
"W" is wearing the shirt she customized over the weekend

One creative, industrious student showed up on Monday wearing a shirt she customized over the weekend. Applying the sewing techniques that were introduced and practiced Friday, “W” sewed a striking design on the front of her shirt. She told me she was originally going for a bullseye pattern, but the resulting asymmetrical design pleased her even more.

Artists know that there is never enough time for making art. What a smart idea “W” had to optimize artmaking time by using both her home studio and her school studio.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Stencil Artist and the learner-directed classroom

"A's" skateboard graphic
“A” started making stencils in art last year. He is extraordinarily good at it. He can take a printout and translate it into a stencil, deftly cutting away parts with an Xacto blade. He can make a “positive” image, or reverse the process and create a “negative” image. Fast too.
One day I found this after class:
I asked “A” about it and he told me that his friend started to make a stencil of his name, but only got as far at the “M” when he gave up. “So I finished it for him.” Guerrilla art stencil-style?
The other day before school I found a big back stashed in the art studio – it was “A's” Skateboard and helmet – ready to receive a stencil design later in the day. This is a concrete example of an artist thinking about and planning for art outside of class. 

One of the strengths of the learner-directed studio is just that: a student can rely on the stability of the studio and can therefor plan their next project knowing what materials and tools will be available to them during class. This is a stark contrast to the way I used to teach, which I sometimes think of as an “art ambush.” In an art ambush, the student doesn't know what the teacher has planned for the day, and arrives ready to be told the assignment. The teacher expects the student to start right in on the project, without the benefit of incubation. In this construct, students often come through the door asking “what are we doing today?”
In our choice-based art studio, the question I hear instead is: “Can we get right to work?”

Art Machine Update

Several weeks ago I drove past a “free pile” (famous in my area) and threw this old bike into the back of my car. 5Th graders organized themselves to turn the sad old bike into “The Art Machine.” They discussed how to decorate it and who would do what, made a list and set to work. Soon everyone had finished their self-appointed task, and they were – done. I asked them if I could offer the bike to 6th grade artists to pick up where they left off. 

The 5th grade group was agreeable to this with these rules:
  • It's ok to embellish areas of color with pattern or other decoration, but no obliterating original work
  • No painting under the coiled bike lock cable, because that guards a little patch of the original bike color, which they want to preserve.
So yesterday the first group of 6th graders started in on it, and I will offer it to another group tomorrow. The plan is that each grade level will get a crack at it. 
Most think of this project as decorating a bike that they will get on and ride away - they do not see this yet as an "object d'art."
I will keep you updated as things go along.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


By H and L Grade 8
 When I observe my students using text in the art, I sometimes reveal to them that once upon a time I strongly discouraged using “words” on art. “Real artists,” I would declare, “don't write on their art.”
How silly. Just look at Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer's Rhinoceros!

Albrecht Durer, 1515 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%BCrer%27s_Rhinoceros
Using text in art is nothing new.
I think art teachers discourage “writing on art” because their taste dictates this. But a child's aesthetic is different from adults'. Teens especially find words very compelling and frequently incorporate words into their art.
Here, British painter John Walker struggles with this issue:
“In college, text was taboo to put in paintings. But I was looking around at what was going on. The first paintings with text that I noticed were David Hockney paintings. And then Pop art burst onto the scene....”

David Hockney, Pearblossom Highway, 1986, photographic collage (http://tinyurl.com/9tjhj5j )
Which brings me to the beautiful series of work underway by two 8th graders in my class. One girl started it – trying to get some feelings out one day she said. Another joined in and now the two are collaborating on several pieces. Some are paintings of song lyrics, they tell me. What is interesting to me is that the words themselves are functioning almost like art media – the paintings are being built from them. Selective use of color, scale and line-quality add to the richness of these paintings, as words are layered one upon the other until the work feels complete. 

So, text in art is nothing new - but it occurs to me that the word text has taken on a whole new meaning to teens.What impact will today's understanding of text and texting have have on artmaking I wonder?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Vermont TAB Gathering

On a way-too-beautiful Saturday morning recently, art teachers from around Vermont gathered in the CBMS art studio to discuss Choice-Based Art education and the concept of Teaching for Artistic Behavior.
Vermont teachers take over the CBMS art studio on September 21, 2012
 Each teacher brought a sample of student art from their classrooms, and together we created a “pop-up art show.” Tunbridge, Twinfield, Hyde Park, Waterbury & Georgia were some of the schools represented. Topics discussed included; nuts and bolts for organizing and maintaining choice-based classrooms, approaches to assessment, teaching about and using "artist's statements," new books and other resources, and digital portfolios.
Regional TAB gatherings are happening all around the U.S., organized at the grassroots level for and by art educators who value the opportunity to learn and grow from our collective experience.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tomorrow I am going to mix yellow and white 
and see what it makes - 
                                I've never done that before.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Art Machine


On my way to school I passed a yellow bike in a pile marked “FREE!”
I threw it in the car and brought it to school where I offered the bike to a small 5th grade class - “Anyone want to paint it?”
Before any paint would stick the bike needed a good washing-off - so buckets and sponges came out and 6 students started in on the task of cleaning off years of dirt.
CLICK to play
It was interesting to hear the ideas tumble out as the dirt was washed off:

We could paint polka-dots on it.”
We could paint the spokes rainbow-colors and watch them swirl when the wheels move.”
How about neon colors?
Nan could ride it all over town!
We could put a wagon behind it and Nan could pull us!”
We could put the 8th graders in the wagon!”

It was Friday morning - idea after idea practically exploded out of this group – like fireworks.
I can't wait til Monday so we can paint it!”

End DAY 1

Over the weekend, I spray-painted the bike white and presented it to the group on Monday.
It's like a blank canvas!”

Teacher:Who wants to work on it? How will you decide how to paint it?
Artists: Hands up if you want to paint the bike!
Teacher: Who will do what?
Artists: Let's make a list of ideas
Teacher: How many should paint at a time?
Artists: Two at a time seems like a good number
Teacher: Will you rotate after a certain number of minutes, or paint until you are done?
Artists: We should each paint until we are done and then switch
Teacher: Who goes first and how will you decide?

They decided – it was easy. And then the work began. Kids waiting for their turn mostly went on to their own work elsewhere in the class, checking in now and then to see how things were coming along.

It should have a name – like “The Art Machine.”
If we were driving it around town everyone would be so jealous!
They would crash into a tree if the saw it!


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Emergent Curriculum: Understanding the Art World

I watched a student take out a sheet of paper and begin to cover it all over with graphite from a pencil. It was slow going.
He wanted to create an all-over grey surface and then use an eraser to “draw” an image – Probably something he has done before somewhere else.
The paper he chose was too big.
Progress was too slow.
He abandoned the work and moved on to another project.
Test piece, made then recycled, by "A," Grade 5

But the work he started reminded me of a display I saw last Spring in NYC at the Museum of Art and Design in NYC: http://tinyurl.com/d7bm24u
The show was called: Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design. The work of guerrilla artist Alexandre Orion Ossario was included in the show. He is a street artist who goes into automobile tunnels and creates images by wiping clean the collected dirt and soot. Images of skulls emerge as he wipes away the toxins collected on the tunnel walls. (See youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwsBBIIXT0E)

All this to say that based on my student's work, class started today with a demonstration of different ways to cover a paper and prepare it for the subtractive, or reductive process my student attempted the day before. I showed students that we have dark, rich ebony pencils that will cover a paper quickly with a velvety layer of graphite. I had a box of charcoal at the ready, and we tried that to see how it would cover. We noticed that the newspaper I layered under the paper was leaving marks as the pencil passed over the joints in the layers – leaving behind tell-tale lines, so I brought out the rubbing plates and showed what they can do when placed under the paper before rubbing it pencil or charcoal. 
Charcoal, erased design with oil pastel added (By "A,"Grade 5)
Which goes on easiest?
Which erases off cleanest?
What size paper is best for this kind of work?
“It's just like scratchboard” one artist observed. 
Can we add oil pastel?
We talked briefly about additive and reductive processes and about positive and negative space – just in passing (this will be revisited later no doubt).
I showed the video.
We talked about the legality or illegality of graffiti art – is it illegal if the artist is cleaning the walls to reveal an image?
I wonder.

The World as Light Box

One holds the horse stead - the other draws
Some say art is about transformation.
That is how I am thinking about the activities of two 5th graders last week. On day two the Drawing Center “opened.” The various tools, materials, references and resources artists use when they draw were highlighted and a box of animal models was introduced. One artist decided she wanted to draw from the horse model and slipped out the door with a friend to use the sun for some help. Using the cast shadow as a reference, a drawing was made.
What this artist did was transform a three dimensional object into a two dimensional one that was easier to draw on a two dimensional sheet of drawing paper.
Pretty clever.
But it was very hard for her drawing assistant to hold the horse still enough to get a good shadow tracing, so - 
Looking at the shadow cast above, I think a lesson on Lascaux Cave paintings is next...
the next day they came to the studio, I had an old overhead projector set up, with the horse standing by. The two girls who initiated this project knew at once that this apparatus was for them, and began to experiment with it, producing several drawings before moving on to other work.