Students pose as “sculptures” while others practice their quick drawing
When I was in elementary school, my art teacher Judy Broekemeier shepherded a group of us young students around our rural town of 3,000 with sketch pads and pencils. We drew a Victorian style home, bicycles at my family’s store, the town’s small lake, and the Swedish folk art sculptures sprinkled around town. The program, called “Drawing Our Community,”  is one of my best childhood memories. I even volunteered to assist as an older child. So when I began dreaming up Teaching Artist initiatives I’d like to try, this summer art program quickly came to mind.
However, I wanted to add value if I was going to request to insert myself in a long-standing program. As a choreographer with a strong interest in site-specific work, I suggested adding some “dancing in your community” elements. Unfortunately, with our home base at a school on the edge of town, those downtown exploration elements I had envisioned were no longer an option. But, when I suggested adding movement to the program, the teacher heading up the program this year, Kelly Gams, was not only open to the idea but inspired to suggest the work of visual artist Keith Haring as a way to bring both art forms together. Before I’d thought much about the details, she emailed over several links to his work and the Keith Haring-inspired projects other teachers had done. I was quickly inspired myself to move my focus from site specific studies of art and movement to how movement inspires art (in Keith Haring’s case) and how art inspires movement.
An example of Haring’s work from http://www.haringkids.com
Keith Haring’s “simple and happy” style, as Kelly described it, was the best way to teach our elementary students about replicating movement with visual art. Experimenting with performance, video, installation, and collage, Haring remained strongly committed to drawing. In 1980, he began creating chalk drawings on blank billboards in the subway system. “Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of these public drawings in rapid rhythmic lines, sometimes creating as many as forty ‘subway drawings’ in one day,” explains the Keith Haring Foundation on their website haring.com.
On Monday, our first day together, Kelly read the students a book called Ish by Peter H. Reynolds so they’d begin to value their work and that of others that wasn’t a mirror image of the work’s inspiration. Then I showed the students some examples of art and movement meeting and taped them up on an inspiration wall. We examined how different lines can be used to illustrate a variety of movement styles. While Keith Haring is known for his vibrant colors and thick bold lines, interdisciplinary artist Lara Hanson, for example calls her work “performance drawing” and typically captures the movement of dancers with fluid black brushstrokes on white canvas.
Then it was time to head outside and give our sketching lines a test-run. We lead the students in an altered version of “freeze tag” I called “sculpture tag,” dividing the group so some would practice their Keith Haring style “fast sketches” while others were actively involved in the game. Over the next couple of days students built upon their “fast sketches” to create Keith Haring-inspired works. They transferred their favorite sketched shapes onto brightly colored construction paper that was then cut out and assembled into collages on long lengths of black paper and painted vibrant murals, again using their fast sketches for inspiration.
Teaching assistant Julia Gams helps art students complete a Keith Haring-inspired mural.
After several days of letting movement inspire their work, it was time to let art inspire their movement. Just as we can draw/paint/sketch a line that illustrates the way someone is moving, we can also use a line to inspire the way we move. Students took turns drawing dotted, jagged, wavy, and diagonal lines on a white board and leading each other in movement inspired by their lines; it was an art-inspired follow the leader. (I wish I had a film crew so I could teach and capture these fun moments at the same time!) Using a single line to inspire movement was a tangible way to try on this idea with our elementary students, but I also shared examples of visual artists like Jia-Jen Lin who regularly create sculptures and wearable art and invite dancers, choreographers, and performers to create movement that is inspired by and interacts with the original visual art piece.
My goal for the week was to give a classroom full of small town kids like me not only a peek into the work of one prolific artist from years ago, but, more importantly, a glimpse of a few up and coming contemporary artists of today who I’m certain aren’t included the school’s art curriculum (yet). It might be a stretch, and it’s not something I could ever measure for a final project report, but if the week sparked something for one of our students, if it put one career (or even hobby) in motion, I would count it a huge success. So here’s to one of them someday, somewhere making a sculpture her stage or a dancer the subject of his abstract painting.
Earlier this summer, I danced in a collaborative performance with saxophonist Nathan Hanson at Franconia Sculpture Park in response to artist Jia-Jen Lin’s site-specific installation “I Hear Your Eyes.”