None other than John Dewey, one of the most influential voices in the history of modern education, suggested that art should be the center of education, rather than a “nice embellishment.” Why did Dewey place so much value on the discipline of art? And why did he feel that the artistic process is so essential to learning?
In Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking, authors Dan Kirby and Carol Kuykendall answer these questions. They explain that developing a piece of art requires close observation, attention to detail, sensitivity to pattern and form, and selectivity. In addition, the authors refer to an artist’s unique ability to get up close to his or her work, of opening up the senses, and of doing and undoing elements, time and time again.
One Artist’s Process
An artist named Judy Sebranek knows all about this process. She says getting started on a piece of art “involves all my senses, moving my muscles, sorting through gobs of visual material, and drawing on my experiences.” Eventually she asks herself, “‘What do I want to express?’ If I figure that out, then the detailed work begins.” Here is a more thorough explanation of her process:
- Move around, hike, visit an art store, read, smell coffee . . .
- Gather thoughts, sketch, doodle, look at pictures
- Begin to edit thoughts, attempt to focus, visualize
- Re-compose, take a break
- Ask questions: What is working? What isn’t working?
- Step back—view from a different perspective
- Get feedback from another artist
- Get feedback from someone else
- Put the work away
- After some time, take another look
- Ask: What more, if anything, can it do?
The Art and Writing Connection
Teachers in all content areas will certainly appreciate how these “artistic” processes and principles can help students become more focused and passionate about their coursework. (This is why Dewey had so much appreciation for art.) But for the writing teacher, the connections between the artistic and writing processes are especially strong.
They both involve an extended period of incubation (prewriting), composing (drafting), re-composing (revising), getting feedback, and so on. One of Sebranek’s graduate art instructors even referred to his students as authors rather than artists. So obviously there is a lot of common ground here.
But what may set the artist apart is the passion that he or she brings to the process. An artist has the capacity to become totally absorbed in his or her work (art “involves all my senses”), to bring an intense commitment to the composing process.
This is not to say that experienced writers can’t, and don’t, bring passion to their work. But consider the general population of student writers. Do the majority of them truly immerse themselves in their writing? Probably not. Do you think these same students work more intensely in their art classes? Probably so.
The Artistic Advantage
Writing is essentially a sedentary activity. A writer sits in a chair—and stays there—or he or she is not going to get much done. An artist is more active, more mobile. What she or he is producing is right there, in living color. The artist can touch it, smell it, and look at it up close or far away or from the side. As a result, she or he can’t help but become engrossed in the process.
In addition, an art studio provides a very stimulating workplace. The whole atmosphere speaks of creativity and energy and action. Everyone’s work is on display, which promotes a natural give and take of ideas. Artist Judy Sebranek noted that “the desire/passion to share ideas” is an essential part of the process. Few traditional classrooms provide such an atmosphere.
Creating an Artistic Environment
So if you are a writing teacher, what can you do to help your students approach their work with artistic passion and awareness?
- Turn your writing classroom into a studio or workshop. Conducting your class as a workshop energizes students, promotes a positive give and take of ideas, and creates a community of writers.
- Make your classroom an inspiring, inviting place to be. Display artwork, posters, words of wisdom. When appropriate, provide background music. Do whatever you can to create some atmosphere.
- Help students develop their sense of awareness. Clustering, mind mapping, visualizing, and freewriting work well for this.
- Have plenty of reading material on hand. Share and discuss well-written texts and encourage students to emulate their favorite writers.
- Allow students to be in charge of their writing. Let them decide what to write about (so important) and how they want to shape their writing. How else will they feel the passion?
- Give students time to experiment, take risks, and start over. Students need to appreciate that writing is a fluid, developing process.
- Expect students to publish their writing. Publishing is to a writer what an art show is to an artist.
- Invite art instructors to visit your classroom. Have them offer your students suggestions from an artistic point of view. You, in turn, can visit the art studio to see what you can offer to the student artists.
- Lastly, encourage your students to take art classes. What they learn about the artistic process should help them with their writing.