Growing up, I spent every Sunday afternoon with my grandmother, Nan. She was the fun one, the grandparent who let us dress up in her clothes, always read to us, told us stories of her childhood, and drove us to the ‘five and dime’ to spend a nickle on anything we wanted. She made real taffy, and we had taffy pulls until the taffy was glistening. One of Nan’s favorite books was a picture book of Norman Rockwell illustrations. I loved that book, and we often looked through it together, talking about the pictures. Walking into Nan’s apartment hung a picture of ‘Girl Before a Mirror’ by Picasso. As a child I thought this was strange. Little did that I know how it would shape my thinking and teaching. Nan had all sorts of pictures hanging in her apartment. The one that struck me the most was ‘Leaving Home’ by Gilbert Gaul. I don’t know why, but I found myself staring at that picture every Sunday. It seemed to tell a story on many different levels.
The point is, Nan never talked about art. She was the fun grandmother who did things with us. Art was just there, hanging on the walls in her apartment. In those days, that’s all it was. And that was probably a good thing. I now understand that children simply need to see art. It really is that simple. Exposure doesn’t have to be a big event. The rest, the understanding, will come. It did with me. Thank goodness I became a teacher and passed it on to my students.
When my two children became adults, each one had a strong memory about art. Actually, this surprised me. My son remembered the Norman Rockwell pictures. My daughter went to art school in Baltimore, and one summer back home she told me that she had always loved a painting of a bare tree that hung in our living room. It had inspired her. I had no idea! Obviously I was like Nan, where art was just there.
When I started teaching, art was certainly part of my curriculum, and still is. Every day children have a different medium for them to be creative and make their own art. Over the years it has developed and evolved, including introducing real art. When I first did a unit on France in my classroom, I showed pictures of art from the old masters. That inspired the children, so we painted and displayed our own ‘masterpieces’ for the community to see. It was a huge success, and every spring my class has an ‘Art Show’. We have talked about light, and how ‘The Milkmaid’ by Vermeer and Edward Hopper’s paintings show light. How did he do that? We have talked about impressionism and used real artist paints to make our own style. We have looked for the geometric shapes in Picasso’s ‘The Three Musicians’.
The difference is, I am giving children real tools, a visual of all art, and encouragement to ‘go for it’. As such, they see something interesting in real works of art, and create their own beauty. Then, the children name their piece of art, just like real artists do. That final touch is most important. Like Nan, I am showing children pictures of all types of art; except now, I am talking about it with children. I am inspiring them. I believe I am shaping their world, since art naturally encourages so much dialogue with young children. Recently, a child in my class saw a picture of the ‘Mona Lisa’ and exclaimed, “I know her!”