Paint Bomb Girls / David Rufo

Six girls sat atop a large canvas drop cloth they had spread out inside the doorway of our fourth grade classroom. They had developed a technique for making what they referred to as “paint bombs.”

To create a paint bomb they poured viscous blobs of school-grade tempera paint onto an 8½ by 11 inch sheet of copy paper, gathered up the four corners so it resembled a giant Hershey’s Kiss, and affixed it with masking tape. The paint bombs were carefully placed in a box and carried outside to the soccer field. The girls then climbed to the top of a small set of bleachers and hurled their paint bombs onto a large piece of stretch paper rolled out on the ground below. The effect was cathartic. As the paint bombs exploded and splattered onto the bright white paper the girls shouted: “Whoa!” “I made the biggest splat!” “Woo!” “They’re literally bombs” and “Look how awesome that looks!”

The paint bombs were made during a time we referred to as Media/Shop/Studio. Each week during the 2011-2012 school year two hours were set aside for students to engage in self-initiated creative explorations. During Media/Shop/Studio students were allowed to use and explore a variety of digital devices like computers, iPads, and Flip Cameras, or engage in more hands-on activities such as woodworking, sculpture, or painting.

Resurrecting Joan Mitchell
As an artist, the exuberance of the paint bomb activity evoked for me the persona of the 20th century abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell. Although Mitchell manifested a “rage to paint,” her milieu was the mid-twentieth century “male dominated art world” [1]. Mitchell “often felt overshadowed or marginalized in the competitive and male dominated group of New York Abstract Expressionists” [2].

Unfortunately, this bias persists in our twenty-first century classrooms [3] and “gender equity remains a problem in schools” [4]. Recent studies have shown that math and science are identified as male dominated subjects and the arts as female domains [5]. But even within the arts, gender stereotypes exist which diminish the importance of women artists and how their artworks are perceived [6]. Gender stereotyping has also influenced “the formation of gendered styles in children’s drawing” [7].

Yet at the same time, the arts may be used as a “platform to communicate” [8] and as a way to empower students. According to Wagner-Ott, a postmodern approach to art education disrupts traditional barriers and opens up avenues to “engage in classroom discourse at a deeper level” [9]. Growing up in an age influenced by the postmodern aesthetic, the six girls had no problem initiating the paint bomb activity. They devised the concept, gathered supplies, and began production without having to wait for instructions or attend to “narrowly prescriptive theories” [10]. My role as a teacher was to make sure they were safe, offer logistical advice, and then step out of the way and allow their self-initiated creativity to unfold.

After the last paint bomb had been tossed, I helped clean up scattered bits of paint-laden paper and trekked back to the classroom with the six girls, leaving the painting out to dry in the bright afternoon sun. Once the students left for the day, I returned to the soccer field. As I attempted to transport the painting back to the classroom I soon found that the weight of the dense puddles of coagulating paint caused the paper to tear and shred.  Realizing the futility of this effort, I decided to dispose of it in a nearby trash bin. I felt guilty making this decision without first consulting the girls but knew it would provide a good future lesson on materials and techniques.

The following morning as the students arrived I was surprised the girls did not inquire about the painting. But a week later at the start of the next Media/Shop/Studio, I saw the six girls, now with two boys in tow, joyfully traipse out to the soccer field paint bombs at the ready.

[1] Livingston, J. (2002). The Paintings of Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art.
[2] Prouty, L. (2011). In Context: Untitled. In Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction (pp. 98-101). New York: Sotheby’s.
[3] Owens, S., Smothers, B., & Love, F. (2003). Are girls victims of gender bias in our nation’s schools? Journal of Instructional Psychology, 30(2), 131-136.
[3] Tiedemann, J. (2000). Gender-related beliefs of teachers in elementary school Mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 41(2), 191–207.
[4] Garber, E. (2003). Teaching about gender issues in the art education classroom: MyraSadker Day. Studies in Art Education, 45(1), 56-72.
[5] Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.
[6] Keifer-Boyd, K. (2003). A pedagogy to expose and critique gendered cultural stereotypes embedded in art interpretation. Studies in Art Education, 44(4), 315–334.
[7] Tuman, D. M. (1999). Gender style as form and content: An examination of genderstereotypes in the subject preference of children’s drawing. Studies in Art Education, 41(1), 40-60.
[8] Pennisi, A.C. (2006). Voices of women: Telling the truth through art making. The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, 26, 85-104.
[9] Wagner-Ott, A. (2002). Analysis of gender identity through doll and action figure politics in art education. Studies in Art Education, 43(3), 246-263.
[10] Gude, O. (2004). Postmodern principles: In search of a 21st century art education.  Art Education, 56(1), 6-14.

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