Swarming Toward Creativity | David Rufo

There is a photograph of the late artist Francis Bacon sitting on a small wooden chair and appearing vaguely out of sorts. His surroundings are, at first glance, curious – he seems to be surrounded by garbage. Upon closer inspection, one can see a large circular paint splattered mirror behind him. It hangs over a low shelf jammed with cardboard boxes, small canvases, and newspaper clippings. Atop the shelf sit bottles of turpentine, jars of paint, and a dozen or so coffee cans from which protrude a thorny army of paintbrush handles. Paint is smeared on the walls. The viewer eventually realizes that Bacon is sitting in the middle of his art studio. For Bacon, “His own mess had some kind of order that he understood” [1].


My students thrive when they have a role in constructing the structure and determining the routine. In the back of my classroom we have two carts that contain a variety of art supplies. Surrounding the carts are four folding tables. The cart area does not look like a place of structured learning; rather it appears as a wild assortment of paint, brushes, scissors, glue, markers, drop cloths, clumps of string, and torn bits of wax paper. Teachers do not manage this space, nor is it dictated by a curriculum. This space belongs to the children. There is no set agenda or protocol and the students are allowed to engage with the space as they see fit, often blurring the boundaries between art, science, and play. As with Francis Bacon’s studio, this area contains an order that children understand.

During lessons that do not involve this environment, we always have one or two students who will quietly get up as if to sharpen a pencil only to segue to the back of the room and begin picking through various items in the carts. Soon another student will see this, pretend to go to the bathroom but instead make his or her way back to the art space as well. Like honeybees scouting for nesting sites, most students find a way to the carts throughout the day[2]. Although fascinated by their self-initiated creations, I am compelled to shepherd them back to their seats in an effort to ensure they are present for the direct instruction portion of the lesson.


After seeing my students thrive in a self-motivated setting, I decided to see what would happened if I let the students continue their creative investigations unimpeded. As expected, during our direct instruction time two students made their way to the carts. Two other students brought a few supplies back to their seats. One created patterns out of colored duct tape and the other stealthily mixed water, food coloring, and silver glitter in a paper cup. By recess, the swarm picked up in intensity. A lively group of students surrounded the carts and rummaged through the supplies, using their “free time” to essentially continue their education.

When the green paint ran out, a trio of girls began to replenish it by mixing blue and yellow. Likewise, they mixed blue and red to make purple. As they continued to experiment, they stumbled upon a pleasing array of original colors to which they decided to give names. Separately, but in the same space, another student was carefully adding drops of food coloring onto generous globs of Elmer’s glue. She then added glitter and used a toothpick to mix the concoction to create a kaleidoscopic effect. A third student dyed foot-long lengths of string by soaking them in tiny vials filled with food coloring. She then fished each one out with a tool fashioned from a small piece of copper wire and set them to dry on sheets of wax paper. Seeing this, the Elmer’s glue girl began to search for the vials and found them in a bin that I set aside for future science experiments.

Once the science bin was breached, the swarm picked up intensity. When a new hive is chosen, the bee scouts signal a final “buzz run” [2] which triggers a mass exodus to the new hive. Similar to a buzz run, lids were quickly flipped off of the remaining bins as children grabbed test tubes, graduated cylinders, pipettes, and other assorted items. This sudden unorthodox use of equipment allocated for science projects made me uneasy. I worried that the materials might end up lost or destroyed. I worried that an administrator or parent might stop by and disapprove of this unconventional use of materials. But I remained steadfast in my small-scale research project and allowed the buzz to develop.


By the end of the day, the girl who was dying string decided to integrate her idea into a science fair experiment. The group of students who were mixing their own hues ended up bottling samples to sell online under the name Professor Paints. The girl who had first found the vials continued to explore their aesthetic potentials by adding objects to the food coloring: tiny spirals of wire, bits of pencil eraser, and a dusting of glitter. She ended up creating a series of diaphanous works that were at once strange and sublime.


Every day I am torn between allowing the students to go to the carts when they feel inspired to create and making sure they remain seated in order to get the assigned classwork completed. Creative ways of thinking do not align with standardization or predetermined outcomes. Dr. James Rolling describes those who seek a collective self-knowledge as ones who are “willing to slog through the muddy ambiguities” [3] for a true educational experience. When there is a “controlled messinessthe wisdom of the hive emerges” [2]. Self-initiated experiences allow each student to indulge in his or her own project while also promoting a creative environment that benefits the whole classroom.

In his chaotic studio Francis Bacon created paintings that are now considered to be contemporary masterworks [4]. Students who thrive in a creative learning paradigm flourish in the midst of messy spaces and uncertain outcomes.

This narrative was originally prepared for inclusion in the upcoming book “Swarm Intelligence” by Dr. James Haywood Rolling, Jr. and published through Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Edwards, J. & Ogden P. (2001). 7 Reece Mews: Francis Bacons Studio. NY: Thames & Hudson.

[2] Miller, P. (2010). The smart swarm: How understanding flocks, schools, and colonies   can make us better at communicating, decision making, and getting things done.  New York: Penguin.

[3] Rolling, J. H. (2009). Invisibility and in/di/visuality: The relevance of art education in curriculum theorizing. Power and Education, (1), 96-110.

[4] Peppiatt, M. (2008). Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. NY: Skyhorse   Publishing.


David Rufo is an artist/teacher/researcher working on his PhD at Syracuse University in Art Education. With seventeen years experience as a general classroom fourth grade teacher, David’s current research interest is the self-initiated creativity of children in a child-centered environment. In addition to being a full-time teacher, David is also an adjunct instructor at Syracuse University where he has created and taught a course titled, Art Educators as Contemporary Artists. His most recent article titled, “Building Forts and Drawing on Walls: Fostering Student Initiated Creativity Inside and Outside the Elementary Classroom,” was published in the May 2012 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Art Education. His current paintings incorporate watercolor, ink, and antique letterpress to examine children’s literature. Contact David

Also by David Rufo in ALT/space:
When Checking Out is Checking In
Technique Schmechnique: Why Kids Don’t Need to Be Taught How to Use a Paintbrush
Masking Tape: The Artist’s Urge to Wrap
Colored Ice: A Child’s Self-Initiated Foray into Ephemeral Art
Drawing on Tabletops
Ophelia’s Fort
Paint Bomb Girls

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