Today, at Indianapolis Public School # 58, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, we explore the work of the painter Elizabeth Murray. We’re interested in how Ms. Murray’s images might inspire us as we produce our own visual artwork? “We” are a group of elder elementary students who are just a few months away from becoming middle-school students. Our focus centers on Murray’s use of collage thinking to create a unified design from fragments. The young artists make their own fragments by sketching, doodling, playing around with making marks.
As the lead artist on this team of young artists I want to focus on Murray’s use of pattern inside her shapes. But the crew isn’t having it. They, as a group, become enchanted with the idea that you could take a little idea and connect it to another little idea and make something bigger and better. But I don’t have any collage materials for them to work with. This is suppose to be lesson on pattern. So I do what any artist would do – I improvise.
Digging into one of our toolboxes I find a stack of unused name tags and going through all the toolboxes I manage to get enough scissors for everyone. And there is some neon card stock at the bottom of one of the boxes. I throw together a demo on creating visual layers. And, I must confess, I embed a mini-lesson on pattern. I hand out cards, scissors, and sticky name tags. They already have pens, Ebony pencils, Sharpies, colored pencils, and markers. I leave the gorgeous book on E. Murray open on the research table.
I say something about visual electricity and listening to your inner impulses. I say they have 15 minutes to create 1,2, 3, 4 new works. I say they shouldn’t be “perfect” but they should be full of energy. I tell them to get to work. They grab their stuff. I play music. My playlist includes A. Difranco, J.Cocker, G. Armada, J. Coltrane: Old school, soothing, full of sound where you can stand boldly in a place and mean it.
They produce sweet, lovely, things. I say, “We need to clean up by leaving this place more beautiful than we found it.” We clean and organize to violin music. We whisper to each other, catch glimpses of each other’s work, wipe tables clean, get everything back into the toolboxes. I say, “You can take one of your new pieces home tonight.” I see each of the young artist shove their chosen “piece” into their pockets. One of the artists, who has been sitting at the back, channeling G. Braque and J.M. Basquiat, comes up to me and hands me the piece he wants to take home. He says, “You keep it.” You keep it.
Rebecca and I have been doing this work for more than 16 years. We have made a practice of creating the environments, moments, experiences that lead to creative breakthroughs and beauty. We’ve worked with tens of thousands of young artists. And this is rare. Like our appreciation for any of our teachers we grow into an awareness of what they were trying to do long after we have left their classrooms and studios.
I look at the card he gives me. I don’t need to know any of the artists I mention above. I smile. And then I shove the card into my pocket.