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Youth Art Month: Celebrating visual arts education

Learning through the arts is an important part of how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools prepares students for college and career paths after graduation. In addition to developing their creativity, students learn to reason and problem-solve, as well as how to see the world through historical and cultural perspectives.

Youth Art Month is held in March to promote visual arts education for all K-12 students. Created in 1961 as Children's Art Month, the name was changed in 1969 when the program was expanded to include secondary school students. It provides an opportunity to recognize the value of a visual arts curriculum and celebrate the work of students as many of them transition from remote learning back to the classroom.

250.Heart.Clear Creek.IMG_5272.jpgAt Clear Creek Elementary, students have been working on outdoor installation artwork. Students in kindergarten through third grade worked together on two projects, adding colorful strips of caution tape on a curved piece of metal fence and creating abstract artwork with string on net. Fourth- and fifth-graders created street art by yarn storming heart shapes on fences in the common areas outside the school near the art room, playground and track.

"I chose to do weaving and fiber installations for many reasons, and one is to allow students to refocus and work on their fine motor skills," said visual arts teacher Jesse Armstrong. "In the short period we have been back in school, I have observed that our students' fine motor skills have suffered during nearly a year of virtual learning."

Displaying collaborative art in a common space also creates a sense of community. "Students in every grade can point out what they added and watch the artwork develop over time as more students add their parts," Armstrong said.

That sense of community is important to Melissa Leftwich, Fine Arts department chair at Jay M. Robinson Middle. She said she is excited to have students back in the classroom and to be able to demonstrate projects in person.

250.Pejot, Digital Mandala.jpg"All the process is the most important part of teaching art," Leftwich said, "and they are used to working with someone one-on-one. They love art, but it's different when you are distanced from them, especially for those where the skill level is not as advanced."

Leftwich said she has tried to find ways her students at home can do meaningful work without supplies and has made videos they can reference to help them through their process. Her sixth-graders have been creating digital mandalas – circular geometric designs – using the free Google Drawings program. The process teaches them a number of concepts, especially radial symmetry and reflection, which ties into mathematics. In seventh- and eighth-grade art, students have been learning shaping and stacking by creating cardboard sculptures with whatever they have at home – from recycled Amazon boxes to food packaging.

"They love three-dimensional work," Leftwich said. "They are sculpting with recycled materials, and some really interesting work is taking shape."

250.NWSA 2.jpgLeftwich also teaches Digital Media Arts, where students have been creating animated GIF files on their Chromebooks and learning to show a story and sequence. She said some are using old-school drawings and photos, making tiny changes for each frame.

"The kids love, love, love making GIFs," she said. "I give them the basic process, and they come up with their ideas themselves."

At Northwest School of the Arts, students in the 2D Intermediate Media Methods and Applications class have been working on a miniseries, with a goal of three pieces, said Bryan Wilson, AP lead for art and design. The project included an artist statement, a timeline and a personal reflection on what they learned in the process.

310.NWSA 1.jpgWith his students dealing with the COVID-19 fallout, Wilson said for some, it was hard to articulate what they were trying to achieve. But meaningful work was produced, such as the series at left and right, which speaks to losing the concept of time. "It's understated but powerful," Wilson said.

In the first semester, the focus is getting students, predominantly ninth-graders, on a level playing field. "Then we try to flip the script and give them more autonomy creatively," Wilson said. "We put the ball in their hands. Some can get overwhelmed and want more direction, but we have to be more rigorous. With more freedom, we get the best work."

And being back in the classroom doesn't hurt.

"When we got here, we found renewed motivation," Wilson said. "There's definitely that energy, and I'm happy to see that. Artists gain some of that energy from being in that creative space."

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