Sandoval Signpost
An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Featured Artist

Signpost featured artists: Art in the Schools

(l. to r.) Ellen Faris and Beth Sommer—co-coordinators of AIS.
—Photo credit: Oli Robbins

Placitas Art In The School students experiment with paint and printmaking

AIS—Empowering Placitas’s youngest art buffs

—Oli Robbins

Placitas and its surrounding areas get a lot of attention for the dense populations of artists—the Signpost features one great talent each month, after all. Yes, Placitas is brimming with creative souls, and some are so little it’s easy to miss them. But they’re here, and they’re producing incredible work, thanks to the Art in the School Program (AIS) at Placitas Elementary School (PES). The lucky students at PES are receiving a remarkable education in both the history of art and how to make it. Beth Sommer, PES kindergarden teacher, and Ellen Faris, parent of a PES third grader, are co-coordinators of AIS. They work alongside several dedicated volunteers and educators, including Andrea Fellows Walters, Carla Schmidly, Tanya Mones, and Jean Kolod. The program thrives by virtue of the efforts of these volunteers, as well as the generosity of the Placitas artist community.

Says Ellen, “AIS depends on our local artists... At the holiday show, artists donate pieces of their work and we raffle them. Every artist that donates something always shares a story of how important art was to them when they were in school. It is a passion they want to pass on to the next generation.”

Today, in many schools across the US, art is losing funding and nearing extinction, but in Placitas, it’s more present than ever. While APS integrates art education only every other year, Placitas Elementary offers it each year—under the rich and integrative instruction of artist Juliana Kirwin. So, Placitas children are doubly exposed to art, through Kirwin’s classes and AIS, which was founded in 1985 by art historian Sara Oto-Diniz in reaction to the national epidemic of eliminating art education funding.

Through AIS, children learn about the history of visual expression and begin to grasp the extent to which art reflects the values of the environment that made it. Says Beth, “The thing that’s so amazing is that art is what speaks to the most people, it’s one of the things that makes us human.” AIS imbues children with a real knowledge of, and appreciation for, art—the different ways to make it, and the fact that it has been a present fixture of the human experience, across time and place. By making work inspired by, for example, Mayan art or Greek architecture, students are personally engaging with the cultural developments that informed so many of the structures that currently surround us. Ellen believes that the program “ignites the imagination, enhances creative problem solving, develops critical thinking, and nurtures a positive self-concept.”

Beth, Ellen, and all the volunteers undergo extensive training to teach within AIS. In 2014-15, for example, volunteers took workshops on four different periods in art history: “Greek Temple Architecture and Art,” “Meet the Maya: Royal Relief Sculpture,” “Journey to Japan: The Aesthetics of Hokusai’s Great Wave,” and “Chinese Landscape Painting: A Silent Poetry.” In years past, they’ve studied artists such as Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, and Henri Matisse. Artists and art historians lead the volunteers through lectures and art-making lessons, which focus on how best to teach children about historical moments and artistic techniques. The curriculum is designed with an awareness of the specific learning modules that fulfill the needs of each age group. It takes into account, for example, that pre-school and kindergarten-aged children tend to master information when it’s delivered by means of story-telling, whereas older children respond well to enrichment activities. But regardless of the grade, most lessons begin by asking the children what they see. By voicing their observations and listening to those of others, the children learn that our perceptions are subjective (and we should respect others’ ideas), and that art is indeed relevant. It is neither esoteric nor out of reach, but ever-present. It contains stories and conveys emotions, and it can serve as a source of knowledge and a creative outlet for years to come.

The PES students’ reactions to AIS, and the astounding artwork produced within it, speak volumes about the success of the program. Says Ryan Faris, age eight: “It is awesome because you get to learn different art forms.” Ryan’s older brother Cole echoes her sentiment: “Art in the School is a fun activity that has taught me about techniques and artists through the ages.” And nine-year-old Kiki Hall finds AIS “really fun,” and especially likes “the hands on activities.”

Just last month, in the New York Times arts section, art critic Holland Cotter wrote, “the further we distance ourselves from art itself, from being in front of it with all filters gone, life is what we lose—art’s and ours.” I couldn’t agree more, for in our current era, when in-person experiences are quickly being replaced by virtual ones, it’s more important than ever to establish environments that encourage experiential, tactile learning. Thanks to Beth, Ellen, and all of the AIS volunteers, our children are developing the confidence and skills to comprehend, create, and relate to art.

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