Art is History of People

Posted by Anna Huntington, Mar 18, 2015 0 comments

Confession #1: I had to Google “cognitive development” before I started writing this. I’m an arts administrator, after all, not an educator.

Confession #2: From my perspective, it seems clear that art makes kids smart. To the body of research demonstrating art education’s score-boosting, transferrable-skills, and college-readiness cognitive development superpowers, I say, “Yup.”

Confession #3. I live in Rapid City, South Dakota (not far from Mount Rushmore). Our community, which encompasses nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has long, deep, painful struggles with racism.

Rapid City recently — mortifyingly — made national news when, at a local minor league hockey game, a white person sprayed beer on a group of Native children, who were attending as a reward for good grades, and yelled, “Go back to the reservation.”

Rapid City’s elementary schools have no visual art education, and we desperately need it.

We need our children to feel cared for. We need them to be happy and creatively inspired. We need to encourage them to become better, kinder, more thoughtful people by helping them see themselves differently and the world through other human beings’ eyes.

We need those valuable, healing impacts of good art education that go hand-in-hand with the cognitive development outcomes and are less measurable.

434A3713The Sculpture Project: Passage of Wind and Water is a profoundly beautiful and meaningful work of public art-in-the-making at the center of our community, Main Street Square, that explores our Native and nonnative communities’ common history and values, and has become a source of educational programming that helps fill the art education void in our public schools.

The project is comprised of 21 large chunks of granite and is being carved on-site over five years by Berkeley-based stone sculptor, Masayuki Nagase.

Using the visual themes of wind and water, the sculptor’s abstract design explores the natural and cultural history of our area. His design is based on the themes of transformation and the aspiration of all beings in nature to live in balance.

My job, engaging the community with this work, is easy. You actually cannot walk past the granite artwork without reaching out to touch it. No matter how many times you look, you notice and understand something new each time.

Hundreds of thousands of people across demographics visit Main Street Square each year to play in the fountains, ice skate, listen to concerts, go to festivals, picnic and meet up with friends. The Sculpture Project forms a gorgeous, harmonic, and gently protective screen between all of them and the world beyond.

The work has inspired ripples of creative and educational programming throughout the community, including two school-based programs.

Nagase, the sculptor, built the concept and funding for one of the educational efforts, Teaching Artists Program, into his project when he discovered in the course of his research the absence of art education in Rapid City’s elementary schools. The program, TAP, brings artists into elementary school classrooms for hands-on lessons.

RapidCityThe other school-based program, Passage to Schools, is a set of K-12 lessons developed by a local high school teacher using The Sculpture Project as a catalyst for interdisciplinary curricula. The lessons are dual-aligned with Common Core and our state’s Oceti Sakowin standards, which contain essential understandings about Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Native American culture and history.

Each lesson begins with the sculptor’s design and uses the principles of observation, reflection, and original thinking to teach about everything from poetry to geology to the traditional value of generosity.

The free, downloadable lessons have been used in classrooms across the state, and the exceptional teacher behind the lessons, Gabrielle Seeley, has gathered mountains of compelling data demonstrating their educational efficacy.

Following a week of Passage to Schools lessons, two sixth graders wrote on surveys:

  • “Making art about Oceti Sakowin culture this week is really cool, because my dad is part Oceti Sakowin, and so am I. Before this, I learned a few Dakota words, because my mom taught me. Now I know Oceti Sakowin means Seven Council Fires. Until now, I never knew how neat I could draw. This week, I can take my time, and I am not rushed. We are making art about texts from Oceti Sakowin writers. We learned about how animals take care of their babies really well.”
  • “I’m not Oceti Sakowin. I’m German, Irish, and Danish. But learning about Oceti Sakowin culture is important because we live here in South Dakota, so we live around Oceti Sakowin culture. Reading Oceti Sakowin texts is cool because the stories teach us values. I never liked art before because I didn’t think I was good at it.”

Similarly, third graders who, through TAP, had formal visual art education for the first time in their lives, wrote on surveys afterward what they like about making art:

  • “It lets my imagination go free. There are no rules, no wrong ways, just art making whatever you want.”
  • “Art really speaks to me as a person and an artist. I am an artist myself meaning I love art and when I see a blank canvas I see it as the beginning of magic.”
  • “The shapes because they look cool. I like art because art is history of people.”

Like good public art, good art education transforms people and builds community. Add either one to a place, and it comes alive by making people happy, causing them to stop and think, sparking their creativity, and prompting connections and conversations about common ground and shared values. Remove either one, and you risk losing elements of a community’s humanity.

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