This week I began a new concept project for kids centered around the word “elevate”. Let me first say, on a heavy week, I work with about 120 different middle school kids, though that is only half of the attendance on the camp. I teach one group of boys and then one group of girls every day. The class size fluctuates from 18 to 32. This was a heavy week.
The kids come for one week from schools all over Maryland to participate in outdoor environmental education at NorthBay Adventure Camp. The camp’s mission is to teach character building concepts through outdoor environmental education. NorthBay asks the question, “how will your actions affect your future, your community, and your environment?” It’s an excellent program run by excellent people.
This is the camp that I went to when I was their age.
This is NorthBay.
That’s a vulture lesson. My favorite lesson so far, but I haven’t experienced them all yet. I’m looking forward to the clam lesson and beach debris.
This is my favorite view…so far.
Stuffed animals everywhere. The better to draw from…when I get a free moment.
Ropes course. My personal favorite challenge. I never felt more accomplished than I did after completing this course.
The art room when I started. Middle school kids should never be in a room full of red. Red is a color of passion. I wanted to tone things down. Baby baby baby blue foundation.
And these pictures don’t even scratch the surface.
So the environment, education, high energy levels, and the fact that every week is completely different from the next depending on the group of kids attending, obviously inspire great art ideas.
Due to my unusual educational experience, I took my first art class in 7th grade. I made nothing worth keeping, but I loved the way the materials felt and smelled and I loved my teacher, Alexander Holyfield (ex pro-football player and cousin to Evander). He was so kind and laid back, but everyone’s a little laid back in Hawaii. Especially if you’re retired, huge, and burdened with old football injuries.
At that point, I didn’t think I’d have any kind of future in art. I was more interested in Hawaii’s biological oddities like the Pe’epe’emaka’ole, a.k.a. No-eyed Big-Eyed Wolf Spider. My mom was teaching science in my school at the time. I was far more interested in the stuff she was teaching. To study biology in Hawaii is a dream, as I’m sure you can imagine, but my social experience was otherwise. I often felt like an invasive species when I moved into a new community. We did this often as my father served as an officer in the Army. I didn’t think I would have a problem settling into friendships in Hawaii, after all, I was coming from Korea. When we first moved to Korea we lived in an apartment building in the middle of Seoul and my only friend was the ambassador’s daughter that lived down the street. I played with the Korean kids in my building, but never really belonged. Once we moved onto base, I easily made great friends with Sarah Hanks and her crazy awesome family.
We had so much in common. It was devastating to leave that family – my community, but I thought it would be easy to make friends quickly in Hawaii. We spoke the same language.
I was wrong. I started at a private school consisting of about 85 students from kindergarten through 7th grade. I was one of a handful of white kids, mostly missionary’s kids or passers-through. I was not local. I was a “ha-ole”, a.k.a. white non-local. All the kids in my school were Japanese, Filipino, Samoan, even some native Polynesian, but most importantly, born and raised in Hawaii. I realized quickly that I had to work to make myself useful in that ecosystem; to naturalize myself or I’d always be sitting alone at lunch and getting balls thrown at my head. I had a lot of help from an amazing girl and great friend, Tracie Watanabe.
Naturalizing myself to that ecosystem was one of the best challenges I’ve ever had. Because my experience as a middle school-er was so poignant, it helps me to better connect with my kids at North Bay, but it wasn’t the only experience which shaped my lesson plans.
My second best experience in an art classroom was at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington in 1995. The art therapist there (whose name I unfortunately forget) had one thing on her wall: a poster with the word “Empathy” and it’s definition. We made a very simple mosaic pot holder and other small projects and I was hooked. The connections I made in that room building things, making personal creative choices, and owning things gave me a sense of self worth and pride of ownership I’d never had before. And the concept of Empathy stuck with me forever.
17 years later I have the opportunity to impact 120 students a week in that way. I chose the word “elevate” and I am now in the process of directing the kids to participate in my living art environment with the hope that when anyone enters the room, they look up. I have two trees to be filled with leaves made by the kids. I tell them they can cover that leaf with anything they want as long as they fill up that leaf with color (and I let them know that only Ravens are allowed in my trees – I’ve been tempted to throw away Steelers colors, but that seriously effects the color wheel).
We also talk about their “niche” in their communities and families. The thing that sets them apart. Every once in a while, depending on the energy level of the group, I do a logo project. I have the kids list their niches, draw a representative image of each and then combine and simplify those drawings to create their own logo or symbol. I encourage them to put that logo on their leaf, but it is not expected. The guys generally like this lesson more, but the girls are more creative with this one.
We then move into Tuesday when the kids learn about invasive species and degraded conditions. I like to start conversations about how we create a degraded condition in our small communities with gossip and rumors, apathy, and disrespect just as we do by littering, wasting, and polluting, but I also try to encourage them to make friends with the new kid in school so that person isn’t made to feel like an invasive species. So the kids do a collaborative drawing. Sometimes it is a success and sometimes it is a complete failure. Both experiences are educational for the kids as well as for myself.
This group succeeded in completing the project, but because some of the boys broke the rules, they did not see their full potential in the final product. I always ask groups like this if they can imagine their full potential when they look at these drawings and they always agree that everyone should have followed the rules.
I really enjoy Wednesday’s theme, “Filters”. Ann Sullivan, teacher to Helen Keller, and a North Bay Counselor, Phillip inspired a project about how people can act as filters in our lives. I tell the kids about Helen Keller and one of the greatest filters in history, Ann Sullivan. I then split them up into teams of two. One acts as filter (or Ann), and the other is Helen. The Helen’s are given all the tools necessary to complete the project that I will build, but they are blindfolded. The Ann’s will direct them through the process of copying my process. Often they ask to wear earplugs, and that leads us into a good conversation about accepting our limitations, but always working to overcome those limitations.
I also have two volunteers act as “bad influences”. Their job is to distract the Helen’s from their purpose. One of my “bad influences” was so effective that one Helen who wasn’t listening to her filter tore up the work she had just completed.
Unfortunately, I never have time to take pictures of this lesson. It’s very hands-on and totally chaotic in that room throughout the entire hour. I secretly love it when I’ve exhausted a parent chaperon. Coming from hikes, ropes courses, bay clean up, and shuffling excited kids from one highly stimulating education day into activity time, the chaperons are hopeful for a break when they come to art. I’m sure they think “art” is a quiet activity. It doesn’t take long to shatter that illusion. Even better is having the science teachers in the room during this activity. It’s all method, and no madness in their classroom. I’m pretty sure this experience has caused a couple minor panic attacks. I like to do this lesson every Thursday, but it’s so intense that I have to take a break every once in a while so that I don’t lose my voice and sanity every week. The big boss boasts (deservedly) about his ability to never raise his voice. I totally respect this, but I don’t mind when the classroom gets so loud I have to almost yell to be heard. If I took the time to quiet everyone they might lose some of that energy they had in the process of working through their project. This is also part of the lesson. If the filter is not paying attention to my instructions and helpful suggestions, they will have a much harder time helping their Helen complete the project. They have to really listen and be heard in order to get the best instruction and then pass it on. There are strong disagreements as to which job is more difficult, being a Helen or being an Ann. If I had them for two hours, they would switch places. I love thinking of that possibility, but it also makes me exhausted to think of the work involved, and I don’t think it’s necessary.
I’m sure this lesson has had a major impact on some kids. I want the kids to leave the art room feeling accomplished, but not proud. After Q&A with the kids, many of the “Anns” walk away knowing they could be a better filter, but also how they do act as good filters to their friends and siblings and “the Helen’s” understand a little better that a disciplined mind, a compliant attitude, and determination to achieve their goals will elevate their potential. Usually all of the physical results of this project are a disaster, but that doesn’t really matter.
Now I am moving on to “elevate” my students thoughts and actions. We define “elevate” first with things that elevate, then how a person elevates in status or rank or even actually being elevated like MVP’s being lifted by their peers. Then we focus on the third definition ”to improve morally, intellectually and culturally”. I ask them to choose one word or phrase which they relate to “elevate”. The first group to do this was a wily bunch of 24 BOYS from Baltimore. I wasn’t expecting much, because I knew I wasn’t that prepared, but I was determined to give them my best effort. They got it, and they blew my mind.
Some of the words and phrases they chose: Wisdom, perseverance (though I did help that kid find the word), peace, love, achieve your goals, above average, honor roll, falling will get you nowhere, unity, etc… I’m amazed. I also gave them the option to use words and phrases that will de-elevate their status or level of respect from their peers, parents, and teachers. I asked the definitions of “synonym” and “antonym” and that was no problem for them. Their examples of antonyms include drugs, smoking, early pregnancy (though that wasn’t the vocabulary used), failing at school, only thinking about girls, disrespect, not cleaning their room, littering, bullying, etc. I asked them to define apathy and I had three hands shoot up in the air (a first) and the boy I picked got it spot on (very few, actually only three out of hundreds have gotten that right). I told them they could choose whatever word they wanted to put on their birds. If they choose to use a synonym, the bird will fly. If they choose the antonym, the bird will be dead on the ground. They all chose to have their birds fly. The majority of the group completed the project. There were a few that didn’t follow instructions to keep the paint thin and they were unable to write the synonym on their bird, but they gave me all their words to apply later.
It’s unreal what they accomplished. 24 boys traced their bird on paper they had torn from an old roll of wallpaper, cut out their tracing, painted it, and wrote their own elevated thought on their bird in one hour with 4 pairs of scissors, 7 stencils, 15 jars of paint, and way too much freedom to roam around the room. Miracle. Shout out to Deer Park boys in Mr. Chris’ class for elevating my expectations of all kids entering my art room and elevating my expectations for myself. I will be better prepared next time. I also want to give a shout out to Mr. Fox (science teacher) who completely organized the scissor and stencil sharing and looked insanely stressed by the end of the session. This project was a total success because of the positive attitudes, participation, and willingness to learn from the entire group. I love community projects. I’ve never been more inspired, and the ideas keep coming. I love my job. I’m off to make more bird stencils.
P.S. Rarely, but sometimes it works to take idea suggestions from kids. This is one of them. The littlest lady in the middle front came up with this one. She is one seriously charismatic kid. She said one word and all the kids were on board. ”Mustaches!”
P.s.s. I apologize for the poor quality filtered photos. Hopefully someday I’ll have access to great equipment and the time to use it, but that is not a priority.
P.s.s. This is me in middle school.
Remember Your Creator While Young
7 Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
8 However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.
But let them remember the days of darkness,
for there will be many.
Everything to come is meaningless.
9 You who are young, be happy while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment.
10 So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
5 when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
8 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.[a]
“Everything is meaningless!”
The Conclusion of the Matter
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.[b] 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Current installation at doris-mae in Washington, D.C.
Thanks to Thomas Drymon, a very trusting curator, I was given permission to do a little experiment at doris-mae. Something I’ve been thinking about since 2004 when I made my first crochet installation.
The Whole Duty of Man
The idea was to create a trans-formative installation. I spent five months making crochet strips to be hung from the ceiling and then unraveled by the audience. By unraveling the work, the viewer becomes part of the process of reinventing the work, possibly becoming entangled. I had many intentions for this project and many discoveries while working, but mostly my hope is that the audience will engage in the work and form their own conclusions. Even in the act of deconstruction, a participant is part of the process of creating.
This is the beauty I see in humanity – that while we are cognizant of the futility of making anything as it will all eventually turn to dust, and that all our intentions are subject to subversion, we continue to create. Sometimes doing so with no other purpose than the act itself. We learn so much in the process.
John James Anderson and Rachel England
March 16–April 13, 2013
Saturday, March 16, 6-8pm
Artists talk Sunday, March 24, 2pm
Next post: John James Anderson
In three days I’ll be installing an interactive installation at doris-mae in D.C. I’ve been crocheting since November. I’m very ready to release this work into the world. If you are in the D.C. metro area, come and take it apart.
John James Anderson and Rachel England at doris-mae
1716 14th Street NW, 2nd floor, Washington, District
March 16–April 13, 2013
Saturday, March 16, 6-8pm
Artists talk Sunday, March 24, 2pm
ONE OF FIVE
Some pictures from my piece in progress at Artisphere.
If you are in the D.C. metropolitan area, you should go check it out and participate.
This show is in process. What began as a simple idea of an interactive installation/call-and-response between several artists, became the most complex – sometimes aggravating – sometimes hilarious bureaucratic process I have ever taken part. Due to this, the original concept has been altered and the show has become something entirely different, but just as good. I chose to record the conversations had between artists and curator throughout the process. My artwork in this show is excerpts from conversations surrounding the show. The conversation is now meant to be altered by the public. Please come and interact. It’s a failure without you.
Artistphere Website (Please note: The info posted on this page is based on the original concept, but the dates are accurate.)
Onsite Artist Schedule + Critiques/Discussion:
- Thu June 28: Reuben onsite
- Fri June 29: Rachel onsite
- Sat June 30, 4-6pm: critique/ discussion: All artist’s and curator onsite
- Thu July 5 & Fri July 6: Sam onsite
- Thu July 12 & Fri July 13: Reuben onsite
- Wed July 18: Sam and Rachel onsite
- Sat July 21, 4-6pm: Closing/ final critique/discussion: All artist’s and curator onsite