Dominic's Egg
This is an essay describing the use of clay and other media in learning visual thinking, imagination, and creativity.  The setting is the Detroit Institute of Arts Education Program.
by Lisa Blackburn

This essay is republished here with permission from the author and the editor of Studio Potter , Gerry Williams.  This article first appeared in Studio Potter , Volume 29, Number 2, June, 2001, pp. 95 - 98.
The Art Department at Goshen College is pleased to make this article accessible to teachers, parents, and others who care deeply about the healthy development of children.


D ominick leaned over and put his ear to his still wet clay creature convinced - you just never know - it might have something to say to him.

Scenarios like this happen on the best of days in the studios run by the Detroit Institute of Arts, though we try to make it the case everyday.  Our focus for studio programming is on developing ways of teaching that will capture the imaginations of our students, and encourage and nurture their creative growth.

When I walked into our satellite studio in the city of Pontiac, I walked into one of our Art Discovery sessions.  The Art Discovery Program (ADP) was started by the museum in 1995.  Initially the program was intended to offer arts programming to fourth and fifth grade students in selected Detroit Public Schools without art programs.  The program was never intended as a replacement for school arts programs but rather to help highlight the need for them.  For that reason we make a four year commitment to each of the schools we work with hoping that is enough time for everyone to see the important benefits of art for the students.  Art Discovery is a multiple visit program in which the students come to the museum for four consecutive weeks.  Each session includes a tour of the galleries and a hands-on studio component.  During the four sessions students work on both individual and collaborative projects.  Based upon the success of Art Discovery in Detroit, in 1999 we received a grant to expand the program by partnering with our neighbors to the north in the Public Schools in the city of Pontiac.  The program expansion necessitated the establishment of a satellite studio to maximize program time by avoiding a weekly two-hour bus ride for the students.

On this particular day the children were sitting in a circle on the floor and had each been given an egg-shaped object to hold and ponder.  These egg forms came in a variety of colors.  Some had spikes, others stripes, and still others polka dots.  The children were then told the beginning of a story.  “A child about their age had been walking on the south side of the city, by the river and stumbled upon this basket of ‘eggs’ hidden under a bush.”

The children were then asked to hold the "eggs" up to their ears and to be very quiet and listen carefully to see if they could hear movement or noise inside.  Inevitably a few did.  A discussion ensued, facilitated by the studio instructor.  “What do you think might hatch from these ‘eggs’ ?  the children were asked.  As they speculated and called out their ideas ”An alligator”, a dinosaur”, “a magical bird”, the instructor wrote them down on the board and asked for clarification.  "What, in particular about your ‘egg’ makes you say that a magical bird will hatch from it?  What do you imagine that magical bird will look like?  What colors will it be?  Is there something special about the way it looks that lets you know about its magical powers?”  And so on, asking for as much visual detail as seemed appropriate and giving as many children the opportunity to offer up their ideas as time would allow.   Each child who shared an idea was also provided the opportunity to give the reasoning behind her/his idea as in the example questions above.  After a good bit of discussion the children returned to their seats where they found clay and canvas covered boards awaiting them.  They were asked to create the "creatures" they had imagined might be hatching from their particular "egg".

As the children worked, the staff circulated giving specific technical information when and where it could be used.  For instance, explaining how to hollow out a solid piece of clay to prevent explosions, or showing a child how to join two pieces of clay together so they donGÇÖt easily fall apart.  Dealing with technique in this way has the specific goal of not impeding the flow of imagination and creativity by taking the entire class through a technical "demo" before they begin working.  This approach also intends to manage the timing of the information to correspond with a time that the students can immediately put it to use, increasing the chances they will remember what they have learned.

The studio is the only place in the museum that someone can have a first-hand encounter with what it means to create.  As anyone who has had this experience will know, creativity must be experienced to be truly understood. Reading about a creative experience can give you information regarding it, experiencing your own creativity allows you to know it.

It is for this reason in particular, though there are others, that I have never felt obligated to use the museum’s collections in what might be considered a more traditional approach in the studio to teach about the object, its history, techniques the artist used to create it, etc. Certainly there are times when this may be useful, but not for beginners.

I was heartened the first time I read the preface of Peter London’s book, No More Second Hand Art: Awakening the Artist Within and came across this paragraph:

Making images is as natural a human endeavor as speaking…However, whereas normally functioning people, having once learned to speak, go on speaking throughout their life, very few people continue making images.  Most of us are severed from this native ability to visually  “speak.”  It would seem
that a major contributing factor must be how we have been taught to make images.  We have learned to be embarrassed by our efforts.  We have learned to feel so inept and disenfranchised from our own visual expressions that we simply cease doing it altogether.

I was heartened to know that a nationally prominent educator was voicing what I knew anecdotally to be true, yet disheartened by the same notion.  This led me to ask what has now become a mantra for me: How do we structure learning opportunities in the studio that are authentic, engaging, and enabling for the students?

Our approach to studio teaching has developed over many years of trial and error.  There have been many influences leading up to our approach but one in particular that has helped move us into more focus of late.

When I started working at the museum in 1995 I was hired for a newly created position that came with the title of studio manager.  The studio had started its current incarnation the year before with local artists being hired on contract to teach a few classes.  The interest level of the public in these classes precipitated the beginning of a bonafide studio program and the need for someone to develop it.   At the time the museum’s Education Department had started using a teaching methodology in the galleries known as the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).  My introduction to the VTS was through attendance at a conference where the co-founders Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine were speaking.  Philip gave an impassioned talk, which he began by saying he felt that having art in our lives is a necessary part of being fully human.  He went on to say that his goal of “enabling people to connect to art in ways that are meaningful, lasting, and pleasurable to them has become more of a mission than a job” for him.

Although Philip was talking about finding a way of engaging people in the viewing of art, I heard my interests and intentions for teaching art-making echoed in his words.

As I mentioned, Abigail Housen, a cognitive psychologist and Philip Yenawine, a veteran museum educator, developed the VTS methodology.  It grew out of 25 years of groundbreaking research and has been field tested in various parts of the world for over ten years.

Housen’s research looks at cognitive development in relation to viewing art.  It gives us a window into the complex thought processes that occur as one looks at and begins to develop a structure for understanding art.  The information gleaned from her research allowed her to create a developmental theory that tells us, with relative certainty, what the characteristics and thought patterns are of people in different stages of aesthetic growth.

Based on Housen’s theory, the VTS methodology was created as an active learner-centered approach to looking at art, one that supports and nurtures aesthetic growth. During recently completed longitudinal studies the VTS has been proven to produce stable and lasting growth over time in viewing skills and in thinking and communication skills in virtually all students as well.

During VTS lessons, a teacher facilitates discussions about works of art using a series of carefully structured developmentally-based open-ended questions.  The conversations are interactive and fun.  Although the process is mediated, beginning viewers examine works of art for extended periods, and debate possible meanings; they engage in a practice identical in type to the most expert viewers.  The experience is authentic and deep, something that is not possible through typical introductory tours that focus on specific areas of information about a work of art, chosen by the tour guide.

After several years of in-depth study of the VTS methodology, I am finding a parallel structure for effective teaching in our studio programs is emerging.  In both instances one of the objectives is to create situations in which authentic first-hand learning can occur.  The focus is on the student.  The instructor takes on the role of a facilitator rather than giver of information.  The methodologies promote active rather than passive learning and both approaches have a focus on group discussion and interaction.

To give another example of our process, as I walk into another Art Discovery session in one of our Detroit studios the approach to making a creature from clay evolves differently.

As the children enter the studio they are asked to find a seat on either the inside or outside of the circle of tables in the center of the room.  Each child is given a large but manageable amount of clay.  They are asked to make a fat coil with it and join it to their neighbors' until they have created one giant circle of clay with children sitting on both the inside and outside
of it.

The children are engaged in a discussion about creatures.  They are asked what they think a creature might look like, how it might move about, etc.  Again, the use of questions to stimulate their imaginations and visual imagery.  All ideas are written on the board.  The students are then told they will be creating a giant creature together.  A decision is made regarding the location of a head and tail (sometimes there is more than one of each) and the work begins.  Wings sprout, legs grow, and scales develop with great abandon.  There is quiet discussion from time to time but mostly focused work.  As the children are working they may run into stumbling blocks because the pieces they have made are too skinny to stand up or the wings too thin to do anything but flop.  As technical issues arise the instructors discuss options with the children and explain what they need to know to achieve their sought after results. When it feels that the energy level in the room has just about peaked and before it begins to wane, everyone is asked to stop working (a very difficult proposition for some) and walk around to see all of the other parts of the collective creature.  There is always discussion at this point as they notice new things.  After they are seated again they are given fresh clay and told that now is their chance to make a creature of their own that will be fired and they will be able to keep.  Energy and enthusiasm are always palpable and we rarely have a child who says, "I can't do this." Or, "I don't know what to make," as can happen in other approaches.  In this process they have brainstormed ideas as a group both visually and verbally.  They have become so engrossed in the process that they never had time to feel intimidated about starting.  For us, this is a measure of success.  Another measure of success is when we can look around the room and see that each of the finished pieces is different, unique, and the children's creation, that children have not resorted to re-creating Pokemon or other commercial characters from popular culture.  This seems to be an indication that the motivation given was stimulating and open-ended enough to spark their inner imaginations.

If, on the other hand, in either session we had told the children they were to make dinosaurs rather than creatures I expect a few things would have been different.  All of the children would have had a pre-determined notion of what a dinosaur is supposed to look like from either books or movies.  Given this I suspect the pressure to make something look a certain way would have gone up, and thus the “copying” of others’ dinosaur interpretations.  I also suspect there would have been a number of children in the class who just weren’t interested in dinosaurs and therefore would not have been motivated to participate.

Facilitated discussions at the end of a session provide an opportunity for reflection and it can serve as a form of assessment as in, “Kenyatta, tell us about your creature.”  “Did you have any difficulty as you were making it?”  If she had difficulty with something the class could be asked if they had any suggestions for her, ideas could be brainstormed and all might come away with a solution for future sessions. Another purpose of facilitated group discussion at the end of a class is to celebrate each child’s accomplishments and to give them the opportunity to share what they have done and to tell the stories behind their work.  A child’s artwork almost always has a story behind it.  Their stories also serve as a window into their thought processes and provide opportunities to know one another better.

We don't always work with clay, though for those of us who have been seduced by this medium know there is nothing else quite as engaging.  Sometimes our discussions serve as the starting point for the development of stories for which the students create their own hand-bound books complete with illustrations.  Sometimes our discussions lead into painting or printmaking projects.

In addition to Art Discovery we offer many other studio programs.  As part of our community outreach we offer multiple-session programs for senior citizen groups, adult clients of social service agencies, students in youth detention.

Programs for the general public include drop-in workshops, drawing in the galleries, panel making workshops for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and a full range of focused two-hour programs for children in the areas of clay, painting, printmaking, cartooning, and videography; one-day and week-long summer camp programs and for adults in the areas of figure drawing, clay (handbuilding & throwing) and painting, teambuilding workshops for business groups, and specialized programs for art teachers.

When it comes to working with adults in clay we hope to inspire the same level of excitement and enthusiasm as the children have when they are listening to their "eggs".  We try to create opportunities that will open people up to personal journeys in creativity.

One example of this can be seen in our teambuilding workshops.  The participants in these sessions are generally business professionals.  They are often those individuals who left behind their art making endeavors as children because they were made to feel inept.  Often they are fearful of participating and enter the room with disparaging remarks. I start by giving them clay.  I ask them to make 5 small balls about the size of oranges.  This serves as a way for them to start feeling the clay, exploring it, and getting "dirty" before they know it. I tell them I am going to give them words to model in their clay, one piece at a time, each taking only about a minute.  (Something I adapted from experiences I had in workshops with M.C. Richards and Paulus Berensohn).  I give them words that are feelings or emotions, nothing concrete in which there could be an expectation of what the outcome should look like.  They go through them one at a time, inevitably there is laughter at what emerges from the clay.  It loosens them up; they are making objects in clay before they have time to say they can’t.  It is fun, and it lays the groundwork for us to move on into a more collaborative process.

It seems to me that whether we are teaching children or adults, it is our collective challenge to develop teaching strategies, whatever they may be, that engage and enable our students to participate fully in the arts.  To the extent that we don’t, we diminish the potential of ourselves, of others and we contribute to the marginalization of the arts in general.

Studio programs at the Detroit Institute of Arts are taught by a team of seven artists.  We regard our teaching as a creative process in itself; one that is alive and growing.  We continually move between theory and practice, meeting regularly to develop, discuss, assess, and refine our curriculum and teaching practices.


For more information about
studio programs at the
Detroit Institute of Arts:

Lisa Blackburn,
Head of Studio Programs
Education Department
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, MI 48202

For more information about The VTS

Visual Understanding in Education
149 Fifth Avenue, #708,
New York, NY 10010

this page posted in February, 2002
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