Eleven-year-old Emma Caro was explaining how she got the idea for her painting of a barren colorless landscape with buckets of paint pouring down from the sky.
“I was thinking the world has no feeling and a goddess said we needed to do something about that.”
She added, “It’s surrealism, a dreamlike fantasy.”
Her work was included in a show that opened Thursday featuring the art of 25 Sand Creek Elementary School students at Buttercup’s Frozen Yogurt downtown.
Fifth-grader Dailen Terry was explaining how he came to create his self-portrait in Andy Warhol’s pop art style complete with blue hair, which he really doesn’t have.
“It tells people who I am. There’s a cross because I believe in God. And the colors show I’m a creative person.”
His father, Vaughn Terry, said “I’m proud of him to be in an art show at his age. And his work is expressive of who he is.”
You might think that concepts such as pop art, surrealism and symbolism might soar over the heads of elementary school kids.
But, these days, art class is no longer cut, paste and draw a picture of a house — that is if there are art classes at all.
Some districts have cut back art programs because of budget problems or a desire to focus on core classes. But Harrison School District 2 officials use art as part of their push to create a wider world view for students.
“We believe in well-rounded students who develop talents in multiple ways,” said Rachel Laufer, Sand Creek principal.
Laufer said art is a way to give students self-confidence. “It’s a buy-in. If they have a connection with the art teacher, then that is their safe place to be creative and feel comfortable and confident. And that builds benefit during the entire school day in other classes.”
Art is also a great way to teach critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication skills, all attributes that are being touted these days as the key to college and career readiness, said Elizabeth Domangue, Harrison’s K-12 electives coordinator.
That collaborative effort was evident Thursday. Mekenze Nichols, 11, said that she and another student created a biodiversity painting replete with wild animals. “We both made the color map and did outlines, then I painted it. We used tie dye with paint. We contrasted the deer’s green eyes with his body.”
Her mother, Kathie Halter, called the painting “beautiful” and praised the hard work of Sand Creek art teacher Emily Gray. “She takes all this raw talent and builds on it.”
Gray keeps her classes rigorous in concepts, such as lessons in symbolism and surrealism, and topics that aren’t often addressed much until high school. Reading and writing about art theory and the students’ own work are part of the lessons, too.
But this is not rote learning. For example, instead of defining surrealism, she first shows them examples of artists such as Dali or Kush and lets them define the style in their own terms.
“I give them a lot of choice and freedom. Kids naturally create out of their imagination, without inhibitions and thus make fabulous art,” Gray said.
For example, one student had seen artwork of women whose hair was transformed into objects. He had an idea to wrap a woman’s figure in the midst of a waterfall. He sketched the idea, and Gray helped him refine it and break down the technical steps.
One of her students, Yulianna Mendoza, won an Einstein Award at the regional Young People’s Art Exhibit. Her painting shows a tearful Statue of Liberty, with the explosion of New York’s World Trade Center set into her skull.
Even kindergartners can grasp art concepts like symbolism, Gray said. She has them define what is meant by things like hearts, smiley faces, skulls and crossbones. They are great with abstract art, she said.
She might suggest they use wavy and straight lines in their work. “They don’t have that fear of what something should look like, something familiar. So they just go for it.”
Josh Mitchell, co-owner of Buttercup’s Frozen Yogurt, said they had decided to host the show after seeing the artwork. “It is great. People coming in have said how beautiful it is. They are really impressed.”
The art classes have changed Gray’s life. She is a Teach for America teacher assigned to D-2 for the past two years. The nonprofit organization recruits new college graduates to teach in low-income school districts.
“I hadn’t planned on being a teacher, but I love working with the students. My plate is full as a teacher, and my heart is, too. I’ve decided to stay in education.”