This weekend I learnt about the artist Alexander Calder. Then today I taught 25 2nd graders (that's 7-8 year olds for my non-American readers) what I knew.
It's part of my volunteering for 'Art Masterpiece' classes. The schools in our District don't have funding for professionally taught art classes, so instead the District pays for 2 co-ordinators and every class in every school relies on 2-3 parent or grandparent volunteers to teach 7 classes spread throughout the year to a set syllabus.
Here's the official explanation:
Art Masterpiece is a national art enrichment program that uses reproductions of fine works of art to promote art literacy in elementary school age children.
The purpose is not to teach specific art/craft techniques, but rather to increase the child's awareness of art. Elements of art and principles of design are introduced in fun ways that the children can easily grasp.
During a one hour Art Masterpiece session, students will learn about a particular artist, their style of art, explore a particular piece of artwork by that artist and then create their own artwork based on the principles they have learned.
So our 6 artists and particular pieces of artwork for 2nd grade are:
- Alexander Calder - Cow (1929 wire sculpture)
- Grandma Moses - Checkered House in Winter
- Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night
- Andy Warhol - 100 Cans
- Romare Beardon - She-Ba
- Mary Cassatt - Children on the Beach
Plus we have one extra session for the children to construct their very own art masterpiece that (and any parents of school-age children have probably guessed this one) we make into mousemats, mugs, t-shirts, fridge magnets etc etc to raise money to pay for all the art materials we use.
Alexander Calder was probably the artist needing the most preparation before class because for most of the painters we have large prints at school we can take into class to show to the kids. We haven't got any source material for Calder which meant I had to go online to find pictures of his sculptures online to print out to show the kids and had a go myself at wire sculpture, look:
It's based on one of the many Cow sculptures Calder made during his life. This one most resembles (I hope) a wire sculpture he made in 1929.
I'm quite glad I had a go at making a wire sculpture, it gave me an insight at how flipping good Calder was but also it was fun...and I'm all about conveying fun to other people.
Anyway, let's start at the very beginning - and my apologies to any serious scholars of Calder's work if I've got any of this wrong - the class is mainly to let the kids have some hands on experience of the technique rather than be an art history lesson.
So I told the children that:
- Alexander Calder was born in 1898 in Pennsylvania. As dates mean very little to 8 year olds, I told them that was a long, long time ago (I wanted to say in Victorian times but I didn't think that would make any sense to American kids).
- He died at 78 years old in 1976 I was a little girl (which they probably consider 'a long, long time ago).
- Alexander was an artist and although he painted and drew things he was most know for a different kind of art and asked what types of art they knew. No-one suggested sculpture which was quite interesting, until I produced my wire cow from a shoe-box. So we talked about different types of sculptures.
- His father and his grandfather were also called Alexander and were both sculptors. So Alexander used the nickname Sandy.
- His mother was a painter too. I said that Alexander was discouraged from being an artist because it was hard to make a living so he became an engineer and was fascinated by how things worked and later used this curiosity in his art.
- When he returned to art at 24 he lived for a while he lived in Paris.
- Critics called him the King of Wire, and he was regularly seen with a big roll of wire over his shoulder and pliers in his pocket.
- He once said "I think best in wire" and he loved motion and movement in his work (and showed them how the cow wobbled at the slightest touch).
And they stuck their hands up, and asked questions, and smiled, and seemed interested :)
Then I showed them another wire sculpture I'd tried to make like Calder had:
I do love volunteering with these kids.
Then we got to really fun part, we brainstormed some 4 legged animals (because I showed them how difficult it was to get the balance right with a wire sculpture and how if you don't they fall over or onto their trunks) and drew pencil line drawings of them. Then we got out multi-coloured pipe-cleaners and made our own animal sculptures.
At first it took some of them a bit to try and work out how to translate the animals they'd drawn into 3D models and how to join pieces together but by the end of the hour we had some of the most amazing pieces of art - butterflies, a frog, a rhino, cats, dogs, lizards, snakes...plus trees, rainbows, caves, flowers and even some clouds suspended from monkey heads.
Here's Melchett's sculpture:
Cynics might say 'that doesn't look that amazing' but it is to me - if you could see the children experiementing with different ways to make legs that would stand up and how they could make faces and eyes with the beads. I tell you as a Mum, sculpture isn't something that 8 year olds experience that much, or if they do it's with playdough that can be solid lumps...trying to work out how to represent an animal out of a handful of long, straight pipecleaners takes a whole new way of thinking.
So anyway, I had fun, the other two Mums helping out had fun, and I'm pretty sure the kids had fun and we all tried something we wouldn't normally. So thank you Art Masterpiece and thank you Alexander Calder - I'm very glad you didin't stay an engineer!