“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
– Pablo Picasso
At Oregon Episcopal School, children begin to unfold their artistic wings in pre-kindergarten, setting the stage for original artistic exploration throughout their school years and beyond. In a sunlit and open space, the atelier, these young artists are free to create art independently, and as a group. It’s art for art’s sake, and art for understanding. At OES, the atelierista, Laura Foster-Flynn, nurtures young artists in several media and works hand-in-hand with classroom teachers to connect art to the content in the classroom.
The approach at OES is modeled on the Reggio Emilia philosophy that the early years are instrumental to the development of the individual. Teaching children to explore and pursue their individual interests, to respect the interests of their classmates, and to work together in community are some of the essential tenets at work at OES. As a result you won’t see any pre-fab cut, paste and color craft projects, or drawings of a specific tree or flower that children have been asked to recreate. What you will see is a wide variety of projects, in various stages of development, where the children have been given the freedom to choose, explore and happen upon an unexpected and personally satisfying result.
During art exploration, students are encouraged to make connections with subject matter using traditional art materials, as well as found and recycled items, to develop their vision. Foster-Flynn explains that atelieristas guide with questions such as: “What can we do with what we find in the forest? What can we make out of leaves (pigments and paints, perhaps?) Can we make a sculpture out of what we find on the forest floor that has the feeling of height and breadth of the trees?”
The questions develop as the student, or class, begins to pursue a subject. They are then assisted in thinking about how to create their vision. For example, when one classroom studied caves, the students decided to turn their classroom into a series of caves — scaled to their size — using boxes. A different set of students studied their personal genealogy and discovered they all had castles in their history, so they created a castle in the classroom. Yet another group of students created a paper mache tree in the middle of their classroom, replete with leaves, insects and wildlife around the tree as a result of their forest studies. The young artists are allowed to use any and all of the media available to them while working in the studio, with the guiding assistance of the atelierista.
While the approach may be vastly different from the direct instruction method most of us are familiar with, the children learn the tools, methods and vocabulary of art and artists along the way. In fact, they absorb all that good stuff in an experiential fashion with long-lasting impact. Foster-Flynn states, “By coming to the atelier with a knowledge that it is the process of creative thought and the process of making things that are important, and that what is learned along the way that is valued, children are allowed to explore and develop their own critical thought, and to know that the arts are alive and amoebic and can strengthen understanding and intelligence in all aspects of life and education.”
The atelier at OES is indeed alive. It is a place of discovery and action. A place that Laura Foster-Flynn says “is for focused creative explorations and projects, where all sorts of possibilities can unfold.” Every child should have such a place to begin unfolding the artist within.