Drawing on Tabletops | David Rufo

Or: How My Fourth Graders Produced Work that Rivals Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly

This past school year my teaching partner and I allowed our fourth grade students to draw on the tabletops. Many of the school staff and parents thought this made the tables look dingy, chaotic, and even repulsive. Others described them as kid-friendly, creative, and liberating. It’s interesting to note the discrepancy between these reactions, especially considering that some of our more unique classroom items remained relatively uncontested. Upon entering our classroom visitors were usually delighted to see snowshoes hanging by the back exit, a kid-sized stage in one corner, and a meandering climbing wall. But the tabletops remained a controversial topic.

Over the years we have transformed our classroom from a traditional setting into an innovative one. In the past our students were required to sit at assigned seats, learn from pre-packaged programs, and show deference to a teacher-centered learning environment. After we began to encourage our students to be critical learners, co-creators of the curriculum, and take a role in self-governance, the classroom became their domain as much as it was ours. This approach led to students taking ownership of, and responsibility for, the classroom space. Promoting student agency also encouraged the production of self-initiated creative expressions, many of which came in conflict with traditional conventions, expectations, and protocols. Creativity requires innovative thinking and teaching strategies that “reflect student-centered views,” while traditional classroom practices “where strategies are teacher-centered” [1] compel adherence to ritualized schooling behaviors.

I thought of our classroom tables during a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

MoMA: July 10, 2012
“Didn’t he just scribble?” a young girl asked her mother while they walked past Cy Twombly’s painting Academy. This painting hangs in the fourth floor gallery of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A few minutes later a teenage girl stopped by the work, turned to her friends and said: “I don’t understand that one. I get some of the others but not that one.”

In an adjacent gallery there was an incredible buzz surrounding Jackson Pollock’s massive oil and enamel on canvas work titled One: Number 31. Visitors seemed in awe of this piece. Although Twombly had been touted as the heir apparent to Pollock [2] he never received the same name recognition. Jackson Pollock has become so well known that he is “widely regarded as the most influential painter of the second half of the twentieth century” [3]. Twombly’s paintings have sold at auction for millions of dollars [4], but his imagery has not become rooted in the collective American pop culture consciousness like Pollock’s work has. Maybe this is because Twombly’s work includes marks that appear to be made up of scribbles and doodles [5]. Or maybe, as the artist Richard Serra has explained, it is because you don’t read a Twombly painting “like you read other kinds of paintings” [5] and this departure from traditional ways of looking makes people uneasy.  Pollock was, during his time, markedly un-traditional; however, his radical style has now become internalized and “easy” to view and understand.

I decided to sit for a while and observe this contrast of reactions. Soon a young child entered, let go of her mother’s hand, skipped toward Pollock’s imposing canvas, and whispered in an awestruck voice: “That’s a Pollock!” More people came into the gallery and hardly noticed the other works on display. It was evident that the Pollock reigned supreme. During my hour long observation, people gathered around it, discussed the work in hushed tones, snapped photographs, and had their portraits taken while standing in front of it.

Back to the Tabletops
We decided to exchange our school desks and tables for plastic folding tables so our classroom could be readily transformed and support a wide variety of lessons and activities. The tables were light enough so that students could set them up or break them down as needed. Sometimes the teachers decided to set up the tables and at other times it was left up to the students to choose how they wanted to work. We believed giving students options helped them develop a sense of ownership and responsibility that led to a meaningful and relevant educational experience. In this type of learning environment it was only a matter of time until a discussion ensued relating to the idea of making marks on the tabletops.

One day a student informed me that a classmate had surreptitiously made a small doodle on one of the tables. This led to an extended classroom debate at the end of which the students voted that drawing on the tables should be allowed. Therefore, the students were permitted to draw on the tabletops throughout the day as long as it didn’t cause a distraction to their learning or to the learning of others. At first the students used permanent markers to write their names and draw cartoon figures. As time went on, the markings became more abstract and expressive. By the end of the school year each tabletop became a mix of diaphanous loops, frenetic texts, transparent stains, and large opaque blotches.

“His work is intimate yet it has an epic scale,” Serra said of Twombly [5]. My students’ tabletops produced the same visual effect. Although individual markings have their own idiosyncratic quality based on the students who created them, when the table is viewed as a whole the images move together with “endless rhythm and energy” [6]. Pollock’s work has the same effect.

In an article titled Your Kid Could Not Do This, and Other Reflections on Cy Twombly, Kirk Varnedoe bemoaned the fact that people would often accuse Twombly of scribbling and producing work that they thought their kids could create [7]. At the time, Varendoe was the Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Varnedoe went on to make the argument that, like the art of children, Twombly believed “art of great power and complexity could be built up from elemental marks and ragged, accidental effects…that were in themselves apparently artless and without order” [7].

I believe children can create artwork as stimulating as Twombly’s or Pollock’s. But as evidenced by our tabletops, the key lies in the willingness to allow kids to pursue this type of creativity as they see fit rather than requiring students to produce run-of-the-mill “in the style of” imitations. Having kids create “Pollock” type works is an accepted practice because Pollock has become a household name [8] and his art a common topic for lesson plans [9]. His work is, in a sense, easy and safe because of its accepted place in our cultural pantheon. But people have difficulty accepting the unfamiliar – similar to Twombly’s work, allowing our students to draw on tabletops posed a “real challenge to accepted norms of beauty and craft” [7]. Varnedoe ends his narrative with a series of opposing descriptors he felt Twombly’s paintings captured: “blunt aggression and fragile vulnerability, epic rhetoric and confiding intimacy, liberated indulgence and strangling nervousness, casual vernacular and deft erudition” [7].

Take another look at the tabletops and see what you think.

[1] de Souza Fleith, D. (2000). Teacher and student perceptions of creativity in the classroom environment. Roeper Review, 22(3), 148-153.
[2] Jones, J. (2004, April 9). The last American hurrah. The Guardian. Retrieved August 12, 2012 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/apr/10/1.
[3] Lanchner, C. (2009). Jackson Pollock: MoMA artists series. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
[4] Kennedy, R. (2011, July 5). Cy Twombly, idiosyncratic painter, dies at 83. New York Times. Retrieved August 9, 2012 from http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/cy-twombly-idiosyncratic-painter-dies-at-83/.
[5] Varnedoe, K & Serra, R. (1995). Cy Twombly: An artist’s artist. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 28, 163-179.
[6] Karmel, P. & Varnedoe, K. (2002). Jackson Pollock: Interviews, articles, and reviews. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
[7] Varnedoe, K. (1994). Your kid could not do this, and other reflections on Cy Twombly. MoMA, 18, 18-23.
[8] Capps, K. (2007, May 12). CSI: Art world. The Guardian. Retrieved August 12, 2012 from http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/may/12/csiartworld?cat=commentisfree&type=article
[9] Booth, V.H. (1994). Splashy portfolios kids can make themselves. Instructor, 104(1), 123- 124. [9] Chattin, L. (2004). Controlled chaos. School Arts, 104(3), 46-47.

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