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By Shari Cassutt
Deepening vocabulary, creative thinking and self-awareness through art immersion.
My 2-year-old grandson and I were spending early-morning cuddle time looking at art on my laptop.
“Wha’s dat?” he’d yell as a new picture came up on my screen.
“What do you see?” I’d ask. Sometimes we saw horses, or fish, or hats. Sometimes we saw colors, but my favorite moment was his response to “Tausendfüßler” (Centipede), by German artist Frank Schwarz. The painting is a series of thin vertical lines in various colors, predominantly green. They fill the entire canvas from top to bottom and edge to edge. My grandson put his sticky finger on my screen and traced the lines “up, up, up” followed by “down, down, down.” He connected with the image in a very 2-year-old physical way. We remained snuggled on the sofa flipping through picture after picture until this sweet moment was interrupted by the urgent cry of “Pee pee!” and he scampered off, pulling down his Thomas the Train undies on his way to the potty chair.
I have another memory, from many years ago. In this one there’s an infant in a backpack perched on his father’s shoulders in a crowded exhibit at a Los Angeles art museum. He is peering around his father’s head at a Gauguin painting while Dad keeps up a steady but quiet stream of observations: “See the reds and the yellows. See the sun.” The baby on the back is too young to respond but he is tracking his father’s gesturing hand, intently following every move. I carried this memory with me into my career as a teacher and my years as a parent and now grandparent. Patience, connection and seeing the world from a child’s perspective is the heart of good teaching, wherever it happens.
Years later, in the 1990s, I was teaching kindergarten at Acequia Madre Elementary School just as the school embarked on a concentrated effort to design and implement an arts-immersion curriculum, an effort that eventually resulted in national recognition by Businessweek for instructional innovation.
What did I learn when I, a non-artist, was thrust into a curriculum infused with art, theatre and music? What was that baby in the backpack learning? How can parents, especially those who haven’t picked up a brush, crayon or stick of charcoal since elementary school do to enhance their own children’s art education? Finally, most importantly — why bother?
Baby in the Backpack was certainly expanding his vocabulary as Daddy commented on the art around him. When you talk about art you use all kinds of wonderful words like swirling and whirling and scribble, vibrant and vivid. There are new words for colors — vermillion and crimson. But more than that, art opens the door to emotions. Monet’s “Water Lilies” are peaceful. Picasso’s “Guernica” is disturbing. Art stimulates the imagination. What are those shapes that Miró painted? What stories is Marc Chagall telling?
Kai Cassutt, at age 2, loved to make, look at, touch and talk about art, and he still does.
Mark Rothko is known for his abstract works of fields of color but he was also a beloved art educator. For 20 years he taught kindergarten through eighth grade at the Brooklyn Jewish School. In 1934, he published an essay, “New Training for Future Artists and Art Lovers.” One of his oft-quoted guidelines is that teachers should “Work to cultivate creative thinkers, not professional artists.” We need creative thinkers. They solve the world’s greatest problems in medicine, science, technology and the plagues of the modern world like homelessness and poverty. Art makes us smarter, not just about art but about the world. Creating or appreciating art forces us to think and experiment, to try on new ideas perhaps only to abandon them to new thoughts. Art has no right answers but engenders many questions.
Here in Santa Fe, art is abundant. We are blessed with many excellent museums, galleries and art in public places. As parents and educators, be bold. Take your preschooler by the hand and go look at art. Ask the important questions: “What do you see?” “What’s going on here?” “Why do you think that?” “How does this painting make you feel?” Share your own insights with phrases such as “I notice…” or throw in a big word like “I’m intrigued by.…”
Observe the colors that are bright and those that are dull or muted. Find the shapes. Talk about the lines—lines that are jumpy or smooth, lines that are tangled or straight. Which paintings are happy or laughing, and which are sad or scared? Most importantly, have fun. Find those sweet, cuddly moments with your little ones.
Here are some resources that will help you in your journey into art with your children.