Saturday, March 21, 2020

Caroonist-In-Residency: Pearl Creek Recap

Here's some highlights in retrospect about a pivotal experience I had during my continuing adventures with the Fairbanks Arts Association's "Artists In Schools" program - a first-ever stint with an elementary school.

Though I spend a fair amount of time in random classrooms, and do residencies for other organizations, previous to this gig, my policy had always been to restrict any residencies to the highschool and junior-high, and ever since getting certified that's been my basic MO.The reasoning behind that was after spending so much of my professional life advocating for comic arts to be taken seriously as a legitimate medium, it seemed like kind of a step backwards to teach little kids how to draw a cat based on circles and triangles. Except my wife astutely pointed out that in fact, that was exactly what I did in my own work. Huh.

"Keys to the Universe kids!"

Plus all my years teaching at the Visual Art Academy should have clued me in to how rich a vein of comparatively incredible amount of energy + passion was waiting just below the surface of this arbitrary age restriction. Always humbling to realize that you are still teachable - which usually occurs after admitting that one was wrong.

That being said, I did ultimately have to abandon some of my lofty aspirations and goals, namely the usual culmination of of works being published in a comic book, with the best single-panel gags, editorial panels, strips, collaborative and individual pages that I closed out my traditional cartoon and comic art courses with. Likewise I learned to take my expectations down a few notches while paradoxically upping the level of output + intensity of time. This meant no meticulous rendering of forms using textures like cross-hatching or using dip-pens etc. How easy it is to forget that for many folks it can be a simple victory to successfully orient the point of a pen onto a piece of paper so as to make a mark. And the innumerable intermediary steps such as remembering to tell them to take the cap off of the marker, and to remind them to replace it afterwards - such supposedly minor details long taken for granted or assumed when instructing others.

The preliminary portfolio show & tell

While searching for backlinks to previous posts (see 2015 + 2018) I realized I hadn't finished a write-up for this event that actually happened last year. I decided to dust it off as it dovetails quite nicely with an upcoming post about a recent residency that'll go up sooner than later. Also it's interesting to re-edit in retrospect so as to see what aspects remain the most memorable.

Of all the things I still cherish the most was the contagious and spontaneous outbreaks of pure, unadulterated giggles. I really need to just simply spend more time around people who might not necessarily be happy per say, but just laugh out loud a lot. What fundamental difference it makes - and one not readily apparent to anyone used to long periods of isolation. But the immediate cause + effect feedback loop of drawing something silly that would elicit an immediate reaction from a hyper-attentive audience is an uncommon joy.

My version of taking notes

Given my trepidation at operating outside my personal comfort zone and having zero experience at this age level, the host teacher ("In-School Coordinator") and friend/fellow artist invited me into his kindergarten class during an art lesson just to observe, and placate my fears. It worked, and shortly after I was immersed in around five-hundred students, two times over two weeks.

I was based out of the school library, and the librarian was exceptionally gracious and accommodating at my hijacking of the space. I always try and emphasize the library as an epicenter of all possible things!

Once again I honed in on the school's mascot as a starting point for our foundation. Using simple, basic shapes we built up the beginning sketches as they created their characters in conjunction with my demonstrations drawn on a dry-erase board. I was also fortunate to include both actual mounted specimens for reference and an inspirational sound samples to enhance the experience.

And lo and behold, despite the fact that they were all copying me, each and every one of the student's puffins all looked completely unique. I admit that even after all these years teaching art at the college level sometimes it still simply astonishes me, and the best possible explanation I have is that it's magic.

This was individuality of expression was perhaps literally illustrated best by the posters produced at the end of the residency which showcased samples of student puffins which evidently pleased the PTA to no ends.

Then it was on to the beavers. Why? Because that's my thing. And also I hatched a secret plot to incorporate some of the student work into a capstone project that would also double as an excuse to get everybody outside - and demonstrate what our efforts could accomplish as a collective.

And that's where the particular effectiveness of this specific species comes into play: stressing a sense of community and linking it with the efforts of beaver colonies to alter the landscape through engineering. But more about that in a minute.

After rendering some solo Castor Canadensis, we began to incorporate the initial puffin character. This in turn facilitated potential experimentation with longer narratives, which more advanced, enterprising students could explore on their own or during the open studio sessions.

Beside the evolution into simple strip formats, some even began to collaborate with each other. Just the simple seeds were planted it didn't take long for them to begin to start telling their own stories, along with the usual interesting psychological interpretations. If anything, from my professorial perspective the results were often quite illuminating, and comparatively unfettered when contrasted with college kids.

In between the sessions working with individual classes, and after lunch + personal studio time, we offered an open studio. This gave interested students an opportunity to try some different species.

Also there was a much smaller, select group of special kids who exhibited an interest and talent far above their peers. They would make a point of tracking me down each day to proudly show what they had done on their own. A couple I even let play around with my personal tools and participate in the professional process.

During the second and final week we headed out to the school garden, and did some reference sketching of several prearranged displays of logs and sticks. Then we dutifully trooped back inside to an area of the school where I had prepped a giant, temporary banner installation, and they each taped up their contribution to the growing lodge + dam.

Now comes the part where I play my cards right - as in all of the index cars I had been covertly stashing away during the sessions in the library. The grand total was over one thousand pelts

Then at long last every student was arbitrarily given another person's beaver, drawn randomly from the deck, and they decided where to place it on the mural. Some were sitting, walking, swimming underwater, or flying, or even in outer space. Quite the accomplishment, and stood as testament to another outstanding residency. Many thanks to Jesse Hensel, and to the faculty, staff and administration of Pearl Creek Elementary for such a wonderful time.

(student doodle)

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