Hatching plans

Guess what…I’m moving! Virtually, that is. It’s time for a makeover. This has been a great old blog site and I will keep up for a while, but I am going to transition this blog to my main website, kristin-calhoun.squarespace.com/. The blog page is here: kristin-calhoun.squarespace.com/blog/. Please subscribe there! It mean so much when you do!

The look of the site is more updated than this wordpress one as well. Here’s a sneak peek:

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The focus of my portfolio site will be similar, but it will be easier to see my illustration and design work since there’s a dedicated section for it, much more viewable than on the wordpress format.

I’m also in the process of reviving my etsy shop…more information about that is also on the squarespace blog!

In search of the spark (part 3 of a series)

Ah, why is it that the older one gets, the harder it can be to feel overcome with the joy of the creative impulse? Children do it so easily. I envy my second graders, who couldn’t stop squealing with delight as they made our ‘larger-than-life’ insect sculptures this week.

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As much as I enjoy my work and love the children I teach, various situations lately have made me feel depleted and sometimes even when my students are excited about the projects, I come home feeling tired, and lacking energy to create. But some decisions lately have started to help me feel that I’m coming out of the fog.

This part of the series isn’t so much about teaching children, but about self-teaching, or about replenishing the well that allows one to teach in a creative field. I feel an urge to  create all the time. But, the moment I decide I want to make something new, a hundred other obligations crowd in: the shelves are looking dusty, I am out of coffee, my inbox has 12 messages and counting that I haven’t yet responded to, I haven’t written my lesson plans,  etc, etc.

In the midst of everything, I realize that I must occasionally decide to turn off all the devices and set aside the to-do list in order to actually be creative. The one thing that seems to always work for me, when I make the space to do it, is play. I mean play in a broad sense: just getting out the materials and experimenting without fear of failure. A great part of art-making is interacting with and responding to tangible, messy reality by manipulating actual stuff, which often acts in ways one can’t fully anticipate in one’s mind. Going from idea to thing: it’s being so human, being a creator, following the pattern of God. One doesn’t have to be an artist to play. It’s in our bones to know how, we just have to make time for it and not think of anything else while we’re doing it.

I’ve had a lot of snow days in the past month or so: too many, I feel. But because of that I’ve given myself what I always should: grace to play without the hovering urgency of being productive. It is in play that we replenish the well with groundwater of joy. I think joy is the thing that makes art worth doing. Why be in an agony of self-doubt and urgency while making something, when you could be at peace?

It helps to try something unfamiliar when playing, even if it’s just a craft. That way you can go into it without preconceptions. I feel that joy is often closely associated with surprise, and it’s in new pursuits that we can be surprised, like children to whom the world is a shining place of discovery.

So this is what I’ve played with lately.

~Clay, in sculpting a head in Zaryana Bezu’s workshop in our Craft Collective:

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What a feeling of discovery this gave me! A new face slowly emerged. I had this sense that the man was waiting there inside the clay, and I found him.

~Legos! One Saturday afternoon recently I realized that all the urgent things were done and I had a sunny living room to myself. I dumped out Andrew’s childhood kits and pieced together a little model of our house.

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~Upcycling. Ok, this is an annoying word that I dislike, but I think it’s a good concept. We got this old oar as a gift at the infamous Blosser home group white elephant Christmas party. As a lover of all things aquatic and nautical, I decided to paint it. I was initially inspired by the tribal art of the Pacific Northwest but ended up with something more angular and geometric. Now we have it in our living room.

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(Seen here with one of the models made by my great architect husband)

You’d think I’d be a pro at remembering to play all the time, since I teach elementary art. No, I forget all the time, like one does forget anything that isn’t routine after a few decades of life. The good thing is that it’s never too late.

Craft Collective

Dear 2013, I miss you already. The first month of 2014 has really been a doozy. I have to drink at least a liter of piping hot tea every day in order to keep off the chill, and wear fingerless gloves indoors.

However, I’m hopeful that some of the good things that happened in 2013 will continue to grow in this new year, after this initial hibernation time is past. Among the joys of the past several months, I started this new venture with two of the most wonderfully creative people that I know, Celia Kahle and Nikkita Cohoon:

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What began as semi-regular craft nights at our friend Claire’s cozy attic has now become a Clintonville-based collective of artists.  Our mission is to give creative people the chance to teach their skills locally in the form of workshops and to create a supportive community of artists sharing their work. And by artists I mean people who like to try new creative ventures! So far it has been an amazing experience. There’s something particularly inspiring about working alongside other artists in a studio environment, making things by hand and talking as we work.

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(Using plant and cochineal beetle dyes to dye silk scarves in Celia Kahle’s workshop)

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(the joy of the finished products: hand-dyed silks and yarn!)

We’ve done fabric dyeing with plant dyes, relief printmaking, Coptic book-making, and doll-making workshops since we began in September. I was so enchanted with the book-making workshop (taught by Nikkita Cohoon) that I made journals for several of my relatives this past Christmas:

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(photo credit: Diana Pardue of Frontyard Foodie)

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Coptic book-binding is wonderfully versatile; I made fabric covers for some of the journals and embellished maps or used some of my own art for others. Part of the fun is picking out papers for the inside. Along with plain paper I salvaged pages from old grade books, outdated science and photography textbooks to intersperse the plain pages to make them interesting.

Our plan is to continue finding artists to teach workshops on a regular basis this year. The next workshop will be part two of the doll-making workshop, back by popular demand! Local artist Zaryana Bezu will be teaching it, and if you would like more info, just email her at: zaryanabezu@gmail.com.  I’ll be teaching a workshop on hand embroidery techniques on Saturday, March 1. It’s one of my favorite mediums, so I am excited to share it with others. There’s something magical about drawing with thread; it’s surprisingly simple too. Here are some recent projects I’ve embroidered:

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(I did this dill flower with french knots- they’re the most fun!)

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Also, one of my embroidered figures.

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Let me know if you’d like to enroll in the workshop!

Clintonville art festival

Over the past two years, I have had a slow-growing love affair with Clintonville. It is home to the oddest and most interesting bookstore in the city, Karen Wickliffs, the best movie theater/bar, Studio 35, and three beautiful ravines, which I am especially partial to. It also has a great festival at the Whetstone Community Center: the Clintonville Arts and Music Festival, coming up very soon on Saturday, September 7. 

This will be the second year I’m participating in the festival, this time with my friend Nikkita Cohoon, a wonderful artist and poet. Her works include exquisite hand-bound journals, prints, and stationary. I’ll be selling small sewn and embroidered cases, block prints, and some of my thread drawings as well. Here are a few sneak peeks at what will be included in the show:Image

 

new figures

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new faces

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cases for glasses, phones, pencils

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wee coin purses

We hope you can come and say hi!

 

familiar elements, new directions

Winter is the hardest season for me, but I’m realizing that it’s because of this that it’s also one of the best. Everything becomes much more reflective and internal in the winter; in Ohio the blankness of the chalk-white sky and the landscape drained of all color seem to demand a different, more tranquil way of thinking and being. I read more (right now, a smorgasbord ranging from e.e. cummings to Dave Eggers to Gene Wolfe) and listen to more (just discovered the magic of Radiolab podcasts and enjoying Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me more than ever) and cook more often. 

But I do try to find color in other ways- namely, through paint and thread. I don’t think my latest experiments are where I want them to be, formally, but I am happy making them. Here is one.

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The textures of the paint, especially the way the paint interacts with the thread, don’t translate well in a photograph. Maybe I just need to make the thread denser or the paint lighter. Thoughts?

Practicing mindfulness (Part two of a series)

I feel best when I block out everything except the thing directly in front of me. I think this is true of many people.

For me, it has happened at places like these: at the dinner table facing loved ones; in the grass (barefoot or with dirty hands); at my sewing machine alone; or with drawing materials in hand. This concentration is a form of mindfulness, and along with imagination, it’s something I want to help my students to practice. Mindfulness means being fully in the present moment, and I think that today, when screens give us a portal to anywhere but our own tangible environment, it’s harder than ever to achieve. Something more alluring might always be happening elsewhere.

In some experiences, external rules or sheer demand bring about mindfulness- that is, depth of attention and sustained engagement- without conscious effort. A person playing a sport that she loves finds it easy to be mindful about where the ball is. But in daily life, how do we stay mindful in every moment, giving our care to what is right there in front of us? How do you do this? 

Art-making is a form of mindfulness, but until the past couple of years I didn’t realize how meditative and focusing it can be. I return again and again to this phrase from an author I love:

Merely looking at the world around us is immensely different from seeing it . . . Although many of us, under the ceaseless bombardment of photographic and electronic imagery that we experience daily, have lost that gift of seeing, we can learn it anew, and learn to retrieve again and again the act of seeing things for the first time, each time we look at them . . . Once we start to draw, all of a sudden we begin to see again.” -Frederick Franck

It’s true! Franck is speaking of drawing particularly but the same can be said of other arts, such as writing- especially writing poetry. The movement of a hand in the air, the stoop of a shoulder, patterns of light and shadow on a wall, the way a leaf curls. The simplest things, once overlooked, are all of a sudden important and I feel that they are worthy of immense attention. When this happens, I feel a joy I can’t contain.

I want all of my students to experience this. When they do, it is a beautiful thing! I often present lessons that include a component about close observation and interpretation of objects in front of them, or a photo if necessary. My intent is to have them dwell on it and produce their own composition that shows that they were really looking at the subject and trying to capture it, not simply reduce it to a cartoonish rendering. One of the best, and most classic, assignments to produce this experience is the still life. 

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I always bring in fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. We talk about how to foreshorten, overlap, shade, and highlight. I ask them what color an apple is (“red”, I always hear, and “or sometimes green”) and then I hold up an apple and ask them what colors they actually see…and it is red to pink to yellow to green and sometimes they get excited and venture words like ‘blush’ and ‘crimson’. I tell them to really, really look at the fruit and vases at their tables and see how they’re arranged, and then try to capture it on paper as they see it- and to make their fruit look as juicy as possible! For the student whose composition is pictured above, I saw his mindfulness in the gradations of tint on the glass bottle, in the clustering of grapes, and the highlights on all his subjects. 

Sometimes mindfulness in drawing doesn’t result in a polished composition, but it’s no less meaningful. We did a unit on line using photos of bare trees, and I was so pleased at the way this student really saw the overlapping branches in her specific tree and patiently worked to capture their tangled quality:

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I like this tree so much because it is so singular and wild and so unlike the plain simplified ones that children often draw from their mental idea of a tree. Even harder than a tree, though, I think the hardest subject to draw from observation without reverting to mental stereotypes is the human face. I tried to shake up the students’ notions of how to draw a face this year by making the unit on portraiture all about expression. We looked at several of Norman Rockwell’s paintings (I don’t care what the art establishment says, Norman Rockwell is wonderful; no other artist I’ve found inspires such total delight and hilarity in my students) and talked about how we can read emotion through expression. We speculated about the meaning of some of Rockwell’s paintings, and how the expressions on the faces helped to tell a story and show personality. Then, I told them they would paint a self-portrait and that I wanted it to show their personality. I took their pictures while they made an expression. Below is my favorite self-portrait, from one of my first graders. 

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In the interests of privacy I won’t post his photo. But the amazing thing is that this perfectly captures the essence of the expression he had! Even better is the way he exaggerated it. His mouth was pursed to one side, one eye was squinted, and he looked off to the side in a very quizzical and comical fashion. 

I’ve gone on about this long enough! But I would like to know if any of you reading this can recall art experiences or other activities in which you had a realization that it was totally capturing your attention and engagement in a way that was unusual, and maybe even influential to you.

Awakening Imagination (Part 1 of a series)

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“Imaginary Playground,” Frankie, age 7

It’s been over a year since I stood in front of my very first class as an art teacher, and found twelve pairs of shy and curious six- and seven-year-old eyes looking back at me. It only took a couple of days to fall in love with the students, and with the job. Despite this, or maybe because of it, I was often overwhelmed with a feeling of inadequacy. Time, trial and error eventually built confidence. I also realized that my students could be creative even when my lessons weren’t as perfect as I wanted them to be.

 

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‘Alien Invasion,’ Christopher, age 9 (cityscape collage project)

But, the reality is that even though I’m into the second quarter of my second year, I still come into school thinking about a lot of big questions: Am I fulfilling my mission as an art teacher? Are there changes I need to make to my teaching philosophy? Am I truly connecting with the students and their imaginations? How can I relate to that one quiet child, or the one who is having trouble?

These questions led me to the realization that I want to write about teaching art. Writing was my first discipline; my first ‘real’ job out of college was as a reporter and photographer at a small-town newspaper in Leavenworth, Kansas. Writing, for me, is the way to untangle all the strands of art, instruction, and interaction that compose my job. So although I’ve been recording my impressions of my work over the last year or so, I’d like to write a series on becoming an art teacher on my blog.

This first one is about awakening the imagination.  

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‘Stained glass window’ painting, Ellie, age 6

I can say that, unlike any other work I’ve done, I am obsessed with my job. I always go to school with a feeling of great curiosity, wondering how the children will interpret my assignments with their own vision. The best feeling, for me, is when a student surprises me by taking an assignment in a direction that I could not have imagined. Of course, I want to craft lessons in such a way that there are clear parameters and expectations, so even the most tentative or the most left-brained students can succeed. These are often the students whose work delights me, and them. But there’s a balance between creating boundaries and also letting interpretation flourish.

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Owl in tree, Reagan, age 10 (for an assignment to create their own collaged landscape scene from various textures of their choice; Reagan chose tissue paper, patterned fabric, poly-fill, seeds, chipboard, feathers, and aluminium foil)

Sometimes the students want to be told exactly what to do. They are used to following directions and having a single answer be the right answer. They would feel satisfied, probably, if I taught them a step-by-step method of drawing, say, an airplane. They love doing the color wheel and learning one-point perspective because those have very certain outcomes. So, when we do a project about design and invention (studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machine drawings and watching a brief excerpt from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), as the second grade did last week, some of them have a moment of anxiety or a few minutes of frustration.

“I don’t know what to draw.”

“I can’t draw it right.”

“I can’t think of anything else.”

These are crucial moments for me and the child. I have to be a coach, a midwife for the idea. We brainstorm together. “You’re inventing an imaginary vehicle,” I said to one student last week. “What kind of places do you want it to go?” In the air and on the ground, she said. “What makes a vehicle go in the air? Let’s think of some parts it might have,” I said. Our combined list: propeller, wings, a balloon (hot-air), maybe rocket boosters. “So what makes a vehicle go on the ground?” Wheels or legs. She starts to draw the body of her invention. “Would your vehicle do anything special? Where would people sit? Would it go to any special places in the world?” Now she is smiling, giving her own ideas in the form of questions. “Maybe it needs windows?” she asks. “Maybe it goes to the mountains?” In response, I ask her to think about how the design might be different depending on what specific kinds of places it goes.

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Imaginary vehicle, Ava, age 8

Of course as a teacher there is a pull toward having colorful work that would look good hanging in the hallway…but in many cases the process of invention is wild and daring, and the end result is messy or obscure. Regardless of the final look of their artwork, if I see a forehead wrinkled in concentration or a flash of excitement across a face, I feel proud. 

ImagePortrait of a man, Christian, age 6 (during a class learning how to draw facial proportions)