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  Featured Artist

Julianna Kirwin with PES students

Artist and art teacher Julianna Kirwin (center) stands with her Placitas Elementary School students afront their award-winning Bernalillo Public Schools’ homecoming float. Students pictured are (l. to r.): Brooke Brown, Cole Faris, Allie Hogan, Katelyn Plank, and Gabriel Medina. Photo credit: Oli Robbins

c. Julianna Kirwin

Accordion Player, by Julianna Kirwin

October Signpost featured artist

Julianna Kirwin: integrative teacher and artist helps students find their creativity

—Oli Robbins

On a rainy Wednesday in September, about half an hour before school let out, five Placitas Elementary School art students worked feverishly to complete a giant paper butterfly that would don the side of a float in the Bernalillo High School homecoming parade. Rather than counting down the minutes until they could leave school for the day, these fourth and fifth graders were totally engaged in the project at hand. As they stuffed colorful piece of tissue paper after colorful piece of tissue paper into a chicken-wire outline of a butterfly, Allie Hogan, Brooke Brown, Katelyn Plank, Cole Faris, and Gabriel Medina chatted me up about art. Fourth grader Gabriel explained his love of abstract art as follows: “I like abstract art because it doesn’t matter what it looks like—you don’t have to make it look like something specific.” Fellow student, fifth grader Brooke, adds that she loves art because “you can just do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.” Thanks in large part to printmaker, painter, and collagist Julianna Kirwin, Placitas Elementary students are, at the ripe young ages of ten and 11, beginning to understand the expressive potential of art. Kirwin believes that it is essential to expose children to art-making at a young age because “art is so important for the brain” and is capable of “integrating everything that’s going on.”

The butterfly only comprised part of the homecoming float. The Placitas Elementary School art students also made a giant caterpillar and dozens of butterfly wings—out of coffee filters—that decorated the side of the float truck. The caterpillar and butterfly were inspired by Eric Carle’s beloved children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar and successfully reflected the Bernalillo Public Schools Homecoming theme, “To every end, there is a beginning.” They also made quite an impact on the parade judges, who named the Placitas Elementary School float “Best of Show” out of a whopping 52 entries.

The homecoming project is one of many that the students eagerly dive into throughout the course of the school year. Through a variety of assignments, the students experiment with nearly every medium and a multitude of materials. With the fifth graders, Kirwin works on integrative art projects that support what the students are learning in other disciplines. For example, Kirwin’s students will craft big maps at the same time as they are learning about continents and countries outside of the art room. Last year, the students helped create giant robot puppets for an opera that they also wrote and performed at the Scottish Rite Temple in Santa Fe. The students reminisce about events like this, or their trip last year to the Folk Art Museum, with such enthusiasm and delight that the importance of art in the schools can not be questioned.

Kirwin’s educational background helped equip her with the tools needed to foster a productive and exciting classroom environment. Many years after receiving her undergraduate degree in Art Education from UNM, she achieved her Masters in Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies. She explains that her graduate program, a department within the Education Department at UNM, “orients you towards your students in a sociocultural way.”

As much as possible, Kirwin bases her lesson plans on her students’ pre-existing knowledge and needs. When teaching art at Algodones Elementary (where she works in addition to Placitas Elementary), she doesn’t use “the Euro-centric way of referring to art history because most of the students there are from San Felipe Pueblo.” Her curriculum at Algodones is instead largely informed by the Native legacy, and she makes her students comfortable by showing them styles and types of art that they likely have already been exposed to at home. As many of her students at Algodones are second-language learners, Kirwin works alongside the Spanish and Keres language teachers in order to ensure that her projects are culturally relevant and connected. “We do a lot of wildlife there because the kids hunt—they’re very oriented to animals.” As a result, the culture of the students is reflected in their artwork. Noting the way that non-Pueblo students approach art as compared to the San Felipe students at Algodones, Kirwin explains, “Their works are very much like field paintings—they are very integrative and seems to reflect their cosmology.” Kirwin’s lessons are always devised with her students’ strengths in mind.

Kirwin has been teaching art for nine years, but before that, she worked full-time on her art. Recently inspired by the Globalquerque music festival, Kirwin began brainstorming and working on four collages that treat Globalquerque’s theme of global music and connectivity. Kirwin’s piece Accordion Player includes musicians and musical instruments and explores the history of the accordion through the inclusion of maps from around the world. Music features prominently in Kirwin’s work, and has since 2011 when she spent a month in Brazil. Living on the corner of Vinicius de Moraes street, named after the Brazilian songwriter and poet, Kirwin found that “music was just everywhere.” Kirwin’s time in Brazil inspired her to shift gears thematically—prior to traveling to Brazil, she primarily focused on New Mexican landscapes and homes—and also encouraged her to transition from printmaking to collage-making. The change happened organically when Kirwin decided to upcycle old print editions that weren’t selling. She explains, “I didn’t want to throw them away, so that’s how I started—cutting them up and putting them in collages.” She admits that it took a little while to become comfortable cutting into old works, but eventually she embraced the process. “It kind of takes you back in time, remembering what you made, and you don’t feel bad about repurposing because it has a        new life.” That Kirwin finds creativity in diversity is reflected in both her art and teaching.

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