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By Kristen Cox Roby
A beloved Santa Fe Public School art teacher shares tips for inspiring creativity at home. Get ideas for setting up a kids' workspace, stocking up your home art station, and deciding what to do with it all.
Miss Mary Olson, we hardly knew you!
When we enrolled our son in kindergarten at Wood Gormley Elementary School last fall, one of the selling points was the world-class art teacher. Olson, 60, taught art at an array of museum programs, private and public schools in Colorado before coming to Santa Fe Public Schools in 2003. And her reputation as an enthusiastic and passionate teacher was well founded: She was named New Mexico’s Arts Educator of the Year by the New Mexico Art Education Association in 2018.
Just after the new year, though, we learned Olson (or “Miss Mary Olson,” as she’s widely known) would be retiring at the end of the school year. And then, of course, schools swiftly closed as the coronavirus made its way to New Mexico, meaning no more hands-on instruction in Olson’s vibrant, beautiful art classroom.
“The retirement decision was very big and hard and sad,” Olson said. “It’s difficult to let go of all the young artists at Wood Gormley, families, amazing parent volunteers, beloved staff, art colleagues, visiting artists and deeply supportive principal. It is an honor to work with children and the arts in the SFPS.”
But she’s ready for a new chapter: Olson, a clay artist, said she plans to spend a year finding her artist-self in her pottery work. “I know I will work with children again, though I’m not sure what form that will take yet.”
Even in those too-few months my son spent in Olson’s art class, I got to bear witness to that brand of magic. Once a week, kindergartners rushed to parents at dismissal eager to show off rolled-up paintings and 3D sculptures. My own son, who’d never expressed much of an interest in art, began making “puppets” at home out of popsicle sticks and begging me for bits of recycling — boxes, ribbon, plastic bottles — to fashion his own DIY creations.
That’s a testament to Olson’s lifelong dedication to fostering a love and passion of the arts in children. She is an art educator who honors choice, which means Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB), encouraging kids of all interests and abilities to develop their own ideas for making art. As she puts it, "The point is the creative thinking process enriches the whole child, and that is ultimately what we are all after."
It’s an approach that’s particularly well suited to inspiring children of all ages at home. Setting up a multifaceted art environment — using simple art supplies and inexpensive household items — lets kids take the lead when it comes to creating.
“This is our world right now, and we need to care for families and kids,” said Olson, “and I can’t think of a more powerful tool than the arts.”
Here are some of Olson’s tips and ideas for inspiring your budding artist:
Setting up a space
The best way to get kids creating is to set up a space for them to create and have simple materials within reach, Olson said. It was a savior for her own boys -- former Wood Gormley students who are now 24 and 28 -- to have a home workplace where they could get messy, explore and try things out while making art.
If you can, provide a child-friendly work table -- and perhaps even an easel for little learners to let them make big marks on their paper.
Then set out your supplies. In Olson’s classroom, materials are organized by “centers” where kids can discover the tools for drawing, collage, painting and other arts. Think about what your child in particular might be most interested in.
Put materials at kids’ level so they can grab what inspires them. And don’t feel like you need to give them access to every type of art supply. Rotate a selection of items in and out and introduce new ones to keep young artists engaged. “If you have every resource in the world, it’s overwhelming,” Olson says.
Stocking your art station
So you’ve made your child a space to create; now what? Olson says basic supplies like crayons, markers, watercolors, scissors, glue and paper are just the beginning. Look around your house (and in your recycling bin) for items to inspire.
One example: brown paper bags of any size. “A bag can be absolutely anything — a mask, a costume, a canvas, a puppet,” Olson says. Set out spare rubber bands, twist ties, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, feathers and old buttons to help kids flesh out their creations.
For paper, start with simple copy paper or a heavier pad of drawing paper, but also try making a “collage area” with age-appropriate magazines, cut-up old maps, music books, labels, and wrapping or tissue paper. Olson suggests making gluesticks available, but also consider giving your child a brush and glue in a small tub. And offer them a roll of masking or other tape, too.
A small fiber box filled with fabric scraps, yarn, string and similar items can inspire kids, too. “Kids love to shop and hunt and dig through things,” Olson says. “Simple scrounge boxes give them a chance to rummage and are also ideal for knowing where to put that prize fabric scrap.”
Play-Doh, air-dry clay such as Model Magic, and even homemade salt dough give kids a chance to think in 3D, she says.
And then, of course, there’s the recycling. Cleaned and dried plastic bottles and lids can be everything from booster rockets to time capsules -- and nothing beats the imaginative power of the simple cardboard box.
That’s because kids love “world-making,” Olson says. “Every kid does it, around the world and through all of time. You make your little world come alive in that box.”
What to do?
If you’ve set the stage for artistic exploration, your child should have plenty of their own ideas on what to create. But here are a few more bits of inspiration:
A drawing a day. Have kids examine the world around them and then re-create it. Olson helped create a drawing choice board for Wood Gormley students learning at home that includes options like drawing the view from a window, your own breakfast, 100 eyes, the clouds, or yourself as your favorite character from a book. Other drawing challenges:
Take advantage of the local museums’ art resources. (We’ve compiled a handy list here.) And visit vitalspaces.org to learn how you can recreate New Mexico art works at home and enter to win prizes.
For middle school-aged kids, try this simple experiment: Head outdoors and fill a pan with low sides with water, then drop in a little cooking oil and some food coloring or watercolor. The colors will marbleize and shift in the sunlight. Capture the changing patterns with a camera or iPhone for a technique called abstract photography.
And speaking of the outdoors, Olson says it’s a treasure trove of inspiration. Have kids build a sculpture garden using natural materials. Make a life size fort for all kinds of play or build a miniature world for fairies or trolls. “No glue, no tape, no staples,” Olson says. “It’s ephemeral.”
Home learning is particularly great for kids because it’s easy for them to engage in the “flow” of creating without having to interrupt it when the bell rings. “When they’re creating,” she says, “time stops.”
In these uncertain times, a little kindness goes a long way, and encouraging kids to create with compassion can be rewarding for them and for the recipient, too. Olson shares a few ideas to spread the love:
Kids can write and draw cheerful messages in chalk on the sidewalk or driveway to make passersby smile. Or simply help them to display their most colorful artwork in the window of your home.
They can collect rocks, then paint designs on them and place them along trails or even on the neighbors’ front porch.
Or try this unique mail art project: Have your child start a drawing — index cards work well, Olson says, or fashion a small book by accordion-folding a long thin strip of paper -- and mail it off to a friend or relative. Include a stamped and addressed envelope and a note asking the recipient to finish the drawing and send it back. Don’t forget to decorate the envelope, too! “We all love a letter in the mailbox,” she says. “There’s something about it that’s so personal and tangible.
This, Olson says, is the kind of art that’s simply to be enjoyed. “Kids love nothing more than to make gifts, and there’s nothing more tender than receiving a hand-crafted gift,” she says. “When the kid has their heart in it, you feel it.”