I am very thrilled to kick off this blog by featuring the renowned art teacher, Julie Voigt. Julie, now retired, taught for over 25 years at the elementary and middle school levels in the US and abroad. She maintains, in my opinion, one of the best art education blogs, Art for Small Hands, which features a myriad of exciting projects she has developed over the years.
Julie, I have personally taught many of your lessons found on AFSH, including the hanging fish sculptures and the papier mâché bugs, among others. I think your projects are great because they possess a lot of rigor and also provide students with many opportunities to make their own decisions and express themselves. It is as if the parameters you have established actually serve to enable more creativity. For example, each finished work within a given project looks different, reflecting the artist’s singular approach, style, and interests. I think this demonstrates respect for the student’s creative agency and capacity to create meaningful work. In contrast, I believe there are so many art projects out there that are entirely procedural, i.e.: Draw a shape exactly like this, then cut, then glue, all in identical fashion. You seem to have the opposite approach. Were these characteristics and desired outcomes intentional when developing your lessons?
You have perfectly described what is most important to me in teaching art—to find the right balance between providing instruction while still allowing freedom for each child to discover his or her own vision. It is vitally important not to squash students’ innate sense of creativity. At the same time, they’re ripe for instruction and guidance—for teaching—and thrive within a disciplined environment that takes art and its creation seriously.
I just love your “four foundational principles” found in the sidebar of your blog. One of them I agree with cautions to never touch a student’s work when assisting them, and another standout is to “never start with a pre-cut shape”. Could you elaborate on the importance of this?
In a college art class, a professor with a different vision drew directly over my charcoal drawing, ruining it in my eyes. Years later, my ten-year-old daughter came home from school upset that the art teacher had changed her clay project to the point that she felt it was no longer hers. I learned the importance of discussing a student’s work and sharing ideas, while resisting the urge to make changes to the artwork myself. By answering questions and offering advice in the form of open-ended questions, teachers enable students to think for themselves, giving them opportunities to come up with their own solutions and make their own changes. Moreover, lessons presented with step-by-step instructions or pre-made cutouts are uninspiring. The charm of the self-portraits below would have been lost if they had started with perfectly pre-drawn circles.
Could you briefly describe your path in becoming an art teacher?
As a child, I spent a lot of time drawing and was considered the “artistic one” in my family. When I entered college as an art major, I was encouraged to take art education courses, since teaching was considered an acceptable career for a woman. Luckily, that turned out to be the right route for me.
If you had not been an art teacher, what career would you have chosen?
I have always loved clay and would probably have been a potter. I especially enjoy working on the potter’s wheel, combining wheel-thrown pieces with hand-built elements. The creative versatility of clay made me determined to include it in my art program.
What advice would you give to a first year art teacher?
I think it is important to engage students at the beginning of an art program by introducing a project that does not weigh heavily on past artistic experiences. In the lesson Gwiazdy Paper Cutouts, for example, even mistakes can have wonderful results; and Look, Eat, and Draw is so much fun that the students forget their inhibitions.These projects, which are almost fail-proof, build confidence and provide opportunities for lots of positive reinforcement, so critical at this stage of development.
Keep faculty and parents aware of what is happening in the art room by displaying the students’ work in the school and around the community, giving credit to each artist by labeling the work with the students’ names. This gains support from the faculty and parents and cultivates a sense of student pride that builds enthusiasm for the art program. I also invite faculty and/or parents to volunteer in the classroom when an extra pair of hands is needed for specific projects.
Respect the students work. At the end of each year, I set aside the last session to return all artwork to the students. They carefully wrap their projects and pack them into large paper bags with their names attached. The parents are delighted as the students bring home their bags and lovingly go through them, explaining each project and knowing that they are special artists.
Were there any art teachers that particularly inspired you over the years?
My student-teaching mentor in college, Mrs. Anderson, had a contagious enthusiasm for teaching art. She showed me ways to keep control in a classroom while still allowing the students to work freely and how to build a quality art program on a limited budget. With strong reinforcement, she instilled in me the confidence to successfully follow in her footsteps.
Do you make your own art?
I believe that teaching art is my art—it’s given me plenty of outlets for my own creativity. While I don’t believe that good art teachers need to actively produce their own work, I do believe it’s invaluable for students to experience working with a variety of artists, either through classroom visits or by arranging field trips to local studios.
Which artists or art movements have inspired you most (from a teaching perspective)?
I love art appreciation classes and try to introduce artists and art movements that the students can relate to, such as Henri Matisse’s paper cutouts where the students are fascinated with the concept of “drawing with scissors”; Mary Cassatt’s pastel drawings of close relationships between two people; and William H. Johnson’s simple shapes and bold, flat colors in his portrayals of people he grew up with in the South. The age of the students is important in choosing which art movements are appropriate. For example, young students do well with Impressionism, while older students enjoy the challenges of Surrealism, and all ages can relate to Folk Art.
What are your two all-time favorite projects that you teach? Why are these your favorite
I especially enjoy teaching the lesson Head-to-toe Self-portraits where the value of art lessons can be immediately recognized. After doing some group exercises and observing ourselves in mirrors, you can see where this five-year-old student embellished his stick figure, even including the pockets of his cargo pants.
Another favorite project of mine is teaching African face masks to older students as they study Africa. I love the hands-on versatility of papier mâché. The students and I are always amazed at what can be achieved with old newspapers, paste, and a little paint!
Although I recognize that not all schools are set up with kilns and facilities to use clay, I’d like to include one of my favorite clay projects—a lesson I call Let’s Make a Scene. The students use clay to create familiar scenes from everyday life or favorite stories, such as the barnyard below in Charlotte’s Web created by a ten-year-old student who had recently read the book.
What role, if any, does technology have in art education?
I recently returned from seeing a David Hockney show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I was amazed at the scenes he created while looking out his window using his iPad. It is important to keep up with new techniques, but I prefer that students become adept with pencils, brushes, and scissors before taking on the world of technology.
Do you think assessment is important in the art room? How do you do this?
Without overlooking the importance of process, I place a strong emphasis on carrying each project to completion, even setting aside classes for “catch-up” work. When the projects are completed, I display all the artwork so the students can appreciate what they have achieved. It is the perfect time to have a group discussion about what was learned, the process used, and the different ways that each student interpreted the project.
What has been your most rewarding moment as an art teacher?
I took a group of students on a field trip to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Back in the classroom, we all had lunch together and discussed our favorite artworks. Referring to Vincent Van Gogh’s Houses and Figure, one ten-year-old student exclaimed, “When I saw it, I could hardly breathe!” That, to me, is what teaching art is all about.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered within this profession and how did you navigate them?
Since art classes need to have some freedom to move about and work independently, maintaining discipline can be a challenge. I always put aside the first session of each class to go over rules, safety, and expected behavior in the art room. I’m very firm about enforcing them, especially in the first few months of the year. I also find that keeping the students busy on interesting and challenging projects helps reduce disciplinary problems.
The cutback in school budgets is another challenge. Each year I invest in a few high quality materials, gradually creating a well supplied art room. I also found that many lessons can be presented using very simple materials.
I remember that early in my career as a teacher, I had some very young students do a cut-paper-bird project. I must have over-emphasized the importance of the birds’ legs because they were all at least three times the size of the birds. It struck me how much my introduction to a lesson influenced the students. I became aware that I had to carefully structure my introductions and demonstrations in a way that would not set up preconceived ideas.
From general observation, what do you think is missing from a lot of art classes these days?
There is often no clear separation between the terms “art” and “craft,” which are used interchangeably, but have different meanings. Art is a process of self-expression in which children explore and discover, producing unique and original results. By comparison, craft is a form of imitation that produces a predetermined outcome, without the need for creative or original thought. Crafts develop manual dexterity and have their place in after-school activities and summer camps, but they should not replace art in the classroom. Successful art projects need to allow for a wide variety of solutions, reflecting the uniqueness of each child.
Is there an exciting trend happening right now in our field?
I’m excited by the growing recognition of the value of art education as a core subject in developing the whole person and his/her ability to think and solve problems. I’m afraid it is a trend that will take time to establish in our school programs.
Is there a trend that you disagree with or have mixed feelings about?
While incorporating the art program with other lessons, such as science, math, and literature, has its value, there needs to be a proper balance. The arts can certainly embellish other subjects, just as those subjects can and should embellish the arts. However, too often the arts become subservient to other subjects and diminish in importance.
Within the profession, what issues do you think art teachers need to be talking about most right now?
Too many art classes are a hodge-podge of art and craft projects that lead to no end. As with any other subject, there needs to be a set of goals and accomplishments achieved from year to year.
There has been a huge push in education over the years to implement prescribed curricula with little or no room for teacher-driven content. This seems to me to be more apparent with classroom teachers than with specialists, although the trend among the latter is growing. What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe art teachers should have total control over the curriculum, or should there be an established curriculum put in place by the district?
As the students advance from grade to grade, the district should establish a curriculum of goals to be completed each year. However, how that curriculum is carried out should be left in the hands of the teachers who can take into consideration the size of their classes, the time allotted for each class, and the resources available. Once again, it’s about striking a balance between rigor and creative freedom—what I’ve found to be a recurrent theme of teaching art