I have always been a staunch believer in the importance of the arts in education and the community, both at home and abroad. In the '80s, I spent time at a college in Taiwan as a visiting lecturer on Western art, and more recently I led the art program at a summer camp in Croatia for children with Down's Syndrome and related illnesses. Art programs at schools across the country are often the first to fall to budget cuts, and I have gone to many schools as an advocate for the value of a strong education in the arts.
Recently, as part of a political science class at Williams College, I was invited to spend two days as a visiting artist at Brayden Elementary School in North Adams, Massachusetts. Being with students and children is always a refreshing change of pace, albeit in an exhausting sort of way. One thing that always stands out is the incredible focus and concentration of the students as they work, whether at a private school like Westminster School in Connecticut (where I was the Visiting Artist), a Croatian camp for children with Down's Syndrome, or the 5th grade class at Brayden Elementary School this past week where we worked on watercolor washes.
I gave a short demonstration and then the class of around 30 students turned their attention to their own individual projects. For close to 35 years I had saved some watercolor paper that my mother, a gifted artist and head of the Pratt Art Institute's Design department for 10 years, used to paint. It was this paper I gave to the students to work with, making it a very special occasion for me. The children had the opportunity to work with professional supplies -- and indeed many enjoyed the unique texture of the paper, commenting on its feel compared to your run-of-the-mill printer and construction paper -- while to me the supplies were a symbol of the continued tradition of hands-on teaching, helping, and involvement passed on from my mother to me.
There was a dynamic attentiveness as the students worked on their washes; the engagement and concentration palpable. Each student had his or her nose to the paper and their unique personalities were evident in the way they did the washes -- some (well, more than some) were messy, others careful and methodical, while still more were bold and daring with their strokes (although this category often overlapped with "messy"). The students' washes turned out as different as the students themselves.
A couple of the children came up to me after class and thanked me, expressing their interest in becoming artists. I had shared with the class how my artwork has taken me to lecture in museums and exhibit overseas, to the White House for dinner with the president, and down to Cape Canaveral for several NASA shuttle launches (as a NASA artist documenting space history), among other wonderful opportunities, which led to several widened eyes. As a member of the National Council on the Arts, which supports arts education in the U.S, it was a treat to be on the other end and out in the field.