I’m so excited about this interview with art teacher, Lee Fairchild. Lee has taught for over ten years at the elementary level in New York City, but is currently teaching for a year at an international school in Reykjavík, Iceland. She maintains a blog, Art with Lee, which showcases some really exciting projects. You can also check her out on Instagram: @artwithlee.
Lee, I’ve been a huge fan of yours for quite some time. I really love your approach to art education; from looking at your projects, it seems like you really emphasize the importance of having the students delve deep into their imaginations in order to express their own idiosyncratic interests and ideas. Is this a fair observation, and how does this tie into your overall teaching philosophy?
This is a great question. As an art teacher I feel strongly that children should be allowed to explore their own ideas, look at possibilities, and discover what works for them. Children’s art should reflect themselves and their own imaginations and feelings. If a child is given the opportunity to be creative and become a confident thinker, then they will be ready to take on the future. Learning how to cope with failure and doubt is a big part of that. Part of my growth as a teacher has been to learn to step back and let kids try to figure out answers for themselves. The best art education should be inspirational and demonstrate possibilities and the kids should take it from there!
How did you end up teaching in Reykjavík? Logistically speaking, was the process easy, and would you recommend it to other teachers? Will you be able to return to your previous school in NYC?
My husband and I were ready for a change, we had lived in NYC for a long time and planned on moving to CA to be closer to family. We never expected to land in Iceland, however! My husband works in advertising, and this opportunity fell into our laps by way of a Creative Director position at an ad agency in Reykjavik. We are both pretty adventurous and we turned to each other and said, ‘ummm, YEAH!’ I actually didn’t expect to be able to find work here, seeing as I don’t speak Icelandic and there is a challenging work visa situation. I was extremely lucky that I got an introduction to the International School of Iceland and began to volunteer. They needed a teacher and sponsored me for a visa.
Teaching at an international school has given me a sense of perspective about arts around the world and allowed me to make connections with other teachers who are international-minded. I would encourage everyone to explore other schools and meet new teachers. I would add that you don’t have to be as extreme about it as us, just visiting other schools when you travel or in your town or neighborhood can be eye opening and inspirational.
How does teaching in Iceland compare to teaching in the US? Have there been particular challenges involved? What has been the best part?
In NY I was very fortunate to be at a public school where both administration and parents supported the arts and raised money and donated to the school. We were very lucky to have a wealth of materials and tools at our disposal. In addition if I didn’t have something for a lesson, I could just order it and have it show up on my doorstep days later. In Iceland it’s hard to find supplies and if you do they are 3 to 4 times the price. If you ask me what I miss most about NY I would say Amazon! I definitely took advantage of the ability to get that special book, that silver paint pen, or that super sticky glue you *needed* for that project next week. Being here has forced me to be more resourceful. When a pack of 25 sheets of cardstock is more than $30 you have to find something else to paint on! Icelanders are also more environmentally aware and better about reusing and upcycling materials. This is something that I think we can all be better about.
Has Icelandic culture, along with its natural beauty, influenced the lessons you teach?
Whatever i’m inspired by I tend to bring into the art room, I’ve definitely been inspired by all the epic nature in Iceland. This winter the kids made Arctic landscapes, complete with northern lights. Many of the kids at the International School aren’t originally from Iceland, and they get just as excited by all the rainbows and auroras as I do.
I’m also a total nerd, so for example when SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon Heavy, I was super excited! I told the kids all about it, showed them the launch and then we were inspired to put our own Starmen in space.
Does Reykjavík have a vibrant art scene? Are there any particularly interesting Icelandic artists that you show your kids?
Just this week I brought a group of kids to the Reykjavik Art Museum to see a show by Icelandic artist, Erró. His work is all over Iceland, you can even see it in the airport when you land at Keflavik. He’s very inspired by comic book art and he paints these elaborate collage type murals. This particular show was great for kids, not just because of the subject matter, it also allowed them to see his process of collaging first and then painting. There is a lot of public art in Iceland and you can see many murals and statues around Reykjavik.
If you had not been an art teacher, what career would you have chosen?
I think I would always be teacher in some way. I was a Kindergarten teacher for a few years and it was really rewarding. Having spent a few years as a classroom teacher gave me some perspective on what many elementary teachers have to do and all the responsibilities they have. I think my time in the general ed setting made me a better art teacher. Although I have always thought that writing and illustrating a children’s book would be pretty exciting...
What advice would you give to a first year art teacher?
Be organized so you can get messy! This is my number one motto. I’m not a particularly neat person, but I really try in my art room. I make table bins with essential supplies and then color code them to match my tables. Make as many things accessible to the kids as you can and label where everything goes. Even if you’re just working on a cart, you can do this. I set the expectations that the kids must clean up after themselves and teach a clean-up routine from day one.
Build relationships with your students. Especially the challenging students. I ran an art club during recess time and invited kids to come and do special projects with me. I found that extra time with kids that were disruptive in my class gave me insight into why they acted out. I once found out that a student who completely shut down and ripped up his work during a painting project was actually color blind. He was frustrated and I’d never have known if I hadn’t spent extra time with him.
Who are two art teachers that you find particularly inspiring right now?
Stephanie Lee (on Instagram @mizzzlee_art and at missleeart.wordpress.com. Her art room is just infused with a sense of happiness and fun. She has done some incredible projects with her kids in Taipei, including large scale mosaics, huge lanterns for the Taipei lantern festival, and an entire unit she created around Harry Potter. Looking at her kid’s work makes me want to take her class!
You already interviewed him, but Don Masse is always inspirational! I saw him speak at the NAEA 2017 conference in NYC. He is a genius muralist and I love that he always uses contemporary artists as inspiration for his work.
Do you make your own art, and do you think it is important for art teachers to maintain their own practice?
Photography is my newest passion. Iceland is just the perfect model. You can practically close your eyes and still take the most incredible photos. I do think it’s important to have some sort of outlet, but for some art teachers that outlet might be thinking up new and exciting things to explore in the art room.
What are your two all-time favorite projects that you teach? Why are these your favorite?
Toothpaste Batik is one of the most fun projects. It’s one of the few that I bring back each year. Phyllis at ‘There’s a Dragon in my Art Room’ taught me the basics of shaking together toothpaste and hand lotion and using it to create a resist on fabric. Every single time I do this project I am amazed by the results. You can literally do this project with any grade, Kindergarten through high school. The kids are always engaged and they ask for it all year long.
I also love a project that another art teacher and I collaborated on every year. It is an alphabet project that two grades, one lower school one upper (usually 2nd grade and 5th grade) work on together. They make it at the end of the year and it is hung up all over the school the following year. Each year is different, but the constant is that it’s always based on the alphabet.
Do you think assessment is important in the art room? What does it look like in your classroom?
I think the most authentic form of assessment is if a student can revise their art based on successes and failures. If they can go from a draft or sketch to a finished work and adapt then they are showing true self assessment. I believe this skill is more important than giving a grade based on arbitrary aesthetics.
What has been your most rewarding moment as an art teacher?
Every art show I’ve ever put on has been the most physically exhausting thing, it’s so much work hanging and framing and organizing. But seeing the kids reaction, when they see their work hung up like a professional artist makes it all worth it. It’s really important for everyone to celebrate all the achievements that kids make over the year. It also can help raise awareness about your art program with your administration and families.
From general observation, what do you think is missing from a lot of art classes these days?
I used to think it was student choice, but I believe that is changing. There has been a gradual shift in art ed for the past few years toward giving students much more choice in everything, projects, mediums, and materials. In between projects I would have ‘art center days’ where the kids got to choose between collage, printmaking, recycled material sculpture, painting, etc. The kids would absolutely beg for it, and when they came in and saw centers set up everyone would cheer. The kids were completely engaged and to be honest, it was often less work for me, win-win!
Is there an exciting trend happening right now in our field?
I think that art teachers are incorporating more technology into their classrooms. I get really excited when I see 3-D printed projects, animations, app-based projects, and video projects. I think that it’s a really exciting time for both students and teachers to use tech in new and creative ways. There is something really authentic about kids designing their own jewelry, 3-D printing it and then modeling it at a student fashion show, or for kids to design a home, print a small model and then combine them to make whole city. I get really inspired when I see things like this happening in the art room!