Friday, January 13, 2017

Art Is Not An Elective For Everyone

James Ransome

He did this one
I met the incredibly talented visual artist James Ransome about a decade ago. He illustrated one of my books.

I sat in an auditorium and heard the tale of how he'd discovered his love of graphic arts by reading comic books. He showed an amazing image of the first pen drawing he'd ever done. It was fantastic. It was difficult for me to understand how he'd done the work with a ball point pen, but that's because I'm not a visual artist.

I've met a number of talented artists in my life. A good friend of mine, Clay Carmichael, who is the award-winning author of Wild Things and Brother, Brother, and a fabulous illustrator to boot is married to Mike Roig.

Clay Carmichael

Mike makes some of the most beautiful kinetic sculptures I have ever seen.

This week was another one of those experiences where I got whiplash. I started in Swan Quarter, NC at a small school. I had Kindergarten through fifth, and then sixth through eighth.

The principal told me that the eighth graders at the school had arrived as Kinders when he was the elementary principal. When he moved to the middle school the kids had come with him. Now he was the high school/early college principal. He reckoned if he stayed long enough, he would be the only principal in the state who'd shepherded one group of kids from kindergarten to associates degree.  He was very proud of that.

He told me to watch the eighth grade while I was performing. They were not the most academically gifted kids, in fact, he confided, they were considered at risk kids, but they were really talented. He told me a story about how they'd written and choreographed their own piece for the Christmas play when they were in fourth grade, and it was better than anything the teachers had done.

I did the show. We had a great time. As I was leaving, the principal was geeking out about how into the whole event the eighth grade had been. He kept telling me how they weren't "smart" or anything in the sense of school, but they liked things like this. As I was leaving he said in parting, "It's a shame we don't have a music teacher here."

So, a group of kids who like music and dance don't have an outlet for it at the one place they spend most of their time.

This "at risk" group of kids who might very well respond to arts centered education doesn't have access to the arts. They don't have performing or visual arts. Brilliant.

This morning I was at Durham Academy in Durham, NC. It's a private school...with a gorgeous modified black box theatre, state of the art sound system, music rooms, Djembe drums, choral rooms, grand piano, and a full-time dedicated music teacher. Their facility is less than a decade old and it is envy inducing. They also have a theatre program, visual arts curriculum, band...the whole suite of arts.

Before my show this morning, the music teacher had a small group of third and fourth graders who sang a call and response song for their peers and parents. Before the event began, I heard one of the little boys say, "This is the coolest thing I've ever done at school!"

For some kids, art isn't just something fun they get to do. It is a fundamental part of how they interact with the world.

My son is studying three-dimensional digital design and animation.

Here are some of his pieces.

He is also a pretty fierce beatboxer, has done some theatre, and is pretty amazing at putting together stories.

My daughter is not planning to study visual or performing arts. She is a logical, science oriented girl. In fact, she is really interested in physics or engineering. She attends a boarding school that specializes in such things.

 That does not mean she doesn't find joy and stress relief in the arts. She's been in a number of plays including being Anne in the Diary of Anne Frank. She loves attending musical theatre and she is an excellent fiction writer.

She also designs and draws mandalas.

She did this one for my parents

She made this one for my niece and nephew

She made this one for my sister and her husband

Both of my kids use art as a way to relax and refocus, and my son hopes to make his living as an artist.

How different would their lives be if their father and I were not drawn to the arts, and there were no arts in their schools? What if they never even knew you could be an artist as a career? What if they didn't have any place to practice their talents with people who understood and nurtured them?

What about the kids who learn best through the arts? What about the kids who could learn math through music? What about the kids who could use visual arts as a way to reading? What about the kids who could use singing as a way to increase literacy or vocabulary?

When the budget hammer drops, art is the first thing they cut. Imagination is the first thing on the chopping block. Dance isn't all that important, right? Forget that having it might help that really hyper kid learn how to focus on his/her body.

Theatre Arts aren't important, right? Forget that they might help that kid learn how to stand in front of a group of people and speak with confidence. I mean, when is that ever going to be a necessary skill?

Music? I mean honestly. It isn't like there are reams and reams of studies about how music aids in learning math and patterning, right?

It isn't like any of those things are life skills. Oh, and it isn't like any kid in that school will ever actually want to become an artist. 

Ax the arts!

I sat in that state of the art building this morning listening to jazz come through the fabulous speakers as the first, second, third, and fourth graders filed into the room and thought, "Every school should be so lucky."

For some kids, art is not an is the only way.

When will we ever learn.....

Happy Creating.


  1. So, a day or two ago on PBS as part of their Education Series, there was a piece about how arts are being used in some very low-economic low testing schools in Louisiana to teach all the disciplines and how it has changed those schools. ReNew Cultural School and a group called KidsmART, have changed the lives of these students: their test scores higher, far less discipline problems and attendance no longer a problem. Hmmmm.....maybe the arts should be given more time.

    In the 18th century it was nothing to spend 2-3 hours in an upper income family learning to dance properly. A woman's stitch could be her "calling card" for a good husband. Thomas Jefferson was an artsy scientist. Patrick Henry was a sought after fiddler. The songs of Fisk University Jubilee Singers helped a school survive. And just today, I was reviewing the biography of a man speaking at my father's club's event: this awesome African American man is University of Richmond President AND still teaching as a Professor of Music AND this past summer spent touring with a trio in US and Europe. Sorry, I'm writing a blog. I just so agree with you and it is hard to my heart to see how the arts are cut quickly, without seeing what happens to our next generation.

  2. I love what you say here. It is all so true, and said in a way most people 'should' understand.