Sue Skillman likes to teach her students to think outside the box when it comes to the world around them, and there’s no better subject to teach them that than art.
Skillman has a unique opportunity with kindergarten through fifth-graders at Trinity Episcopal Day School, she said, in that she has every student in every grade of the school in her classroom at least once a week.
“My kindergartners can tell you who Paul Cezanne is, and they know how to pronounce Wassily Kandinsky,” she said, and the work progresses from there, with every grade level learning about some aspect of the art world and creating works using the techniques employed by the masters.
Kindergartners start off with lessons about respected artists, she said. First- and fifth-graders learn about art history; second- and fourth-graders learn about cultural art, studying the art traditions of people all over the world. Third-graders, she said, spent their time learning the elements of art, she said.
“Form, texture, perspective — we learn what makes an artwork work, or not work,” she said.
In every grade level, especially the younger students, she said, she can see distinct differences in the work produced in August versus the work in January.
“By that time, they’ve calmed down and have settled into the routine of school,” she said. “Their work becomes calmer, more focused. You can tell they’re better attuned and more comfortable with their routine. It’s very noticeable.”
Every year, Skillman gathers the work created in these classes and hangs them in the activities building for a monthlong art show, she said.
It’s a fairly big effort and one that takes up a lot of wall space.
“We use just about every inch of wall space we can find,” she said. “We also share the exhibit with the church members and parents.”
To teach her kindergartners about Kandinsky’s abstract pieces containing squares with concentric circles, Skillman had the class cut rounded shapes of differing sizes out of colored paper and paste them in concentric circles to create their own works, she said.
Third-graders integrated their presidential history lessons with art lessons by picking and creating a bust of the U.S. president of their choice, Skillman said.
While sculpture may be intimidating to some new artists, she led the class through a methodical process of forming the head and shoulders, pulling out the nose and forming the lips, until each student had formed a reasonable likeness of their president.
They’re not perfect, but neither is art, and Skillman said there is value in learning these techniques and in reaching outside the comfort zone and trying new things.
First-graders re-created the LOVE sculptures created by Robert Indiana on paper, she said, by tracing the letters and cutting them out.
“This also helps them develop fine motor skills,” she said. They also created mosaics using small squares of construction paper.
Second-graders created folded fan art similar to those created by Japanese artists, Skillman said, and fourth-graders created “leather” using paper coated with glue, out of which they made moccasins.
A big favorite among the fifth-graders, she said, was the lesson on pop art, when they created their own pop art food, using masking tape, crumpled paper and plaster to create hamburger, hot dog and other food sculptures.
Skillman also picks one feature of the Mona Lisa every year, and has her fifth-grade students concentrate on copying that feature.
This year, everyone in the class drew Mona Lisa’s eyes.
Art, she said, goes a long way toward creating a more well-rounded, relaxed and thoughtful student, Skillman said.