It’s always difficult to come back to class after a week off for spring break, but driving back to campus on the last day of break, I was already looking forward to my first afternoon back at ACH. I was thrilled to be met with kids calling me by name for the first time this semester. Despite any challenges the children may face as a result of going to school in the hill district, the students of ACH are some of the most compassionate children I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Upon entering the cafeteria, I found that the afternoon would bring another opportunity to watch the kids flex their creative muscles.
With the school year speeding by, for college students and elementary students alike, the ACH counselors spent last week and this week helping the students prepare artwork for the end of the year gallery show. The importance of nurturing each child as an individual is something ACH emphasizes, providing the kids with a variety of materials to express themselves in their own unique ways. While each member of the younger group was tasked with creating a mural, they were given the choice between canvas and paper and a cafeteria table full of materials to exert their creative liberty. Meanwhile, the older kids were working on painting watercolor chess boards, a practical project which still allotted space for artistic expression. It was a colorful and fascinating experience to walk down the table and look at each child’s ongoing project. Given the same instructions and the same variety of materials, each child’s product was undeniably distinct. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find noticeable threads of similarity between any of the murals. I could not help but realize that they might be reprimanded for ‘coloring outside the lines’ in the typical classroom environment, but at ACH, the students were each praised for coming up with their own unique ideas.
On the surface, the project seemed to be a simple coloring project with little direction. As I went down the table, talking to each child about their artwork, it became clear that this was anything but a simple art project. With the freedom they were given, the children were developing entirely unique narratives and expressing them, independently, through visual art. Even more admirable was the mutual respect the kids themselves had for each other’s art. Each mural was different, but the whole time I was there, I did not hear a single child or adult comment on the value of one work of art versus another.
Instead, I was able to sit and listen. One little girl beamed, telling me about the Rockstar in the middle of her picture and the rainbow colored walls which made up the picture’s background. I watched as a little boy worked from an image out of an art history book, as a first grader, and matched the colors and technique exactly. Near the end of the afternoon, two girls at either end of the groups’ age limits worked together to create an oil pastel picture of a cupcake who lived on the moon.
As the afternoon came to an end and the children wandered towards the door, I thought about the materials ACH provided for these kids and the question of limits. So often, elementary school students are confined to safety scissors and colored pencils – materials they can’t use to make a mess. At ACH, under the watchful eyes of the counselors, these children were allowed to use real art materials (as the kids call them). I watched little girls in safety goggles using paint thinner to blend the colors of their paintings into just the right shades. At the next table, the children grabbed oil pastels to cover their canvases. These materials gave the children a sense of importance and, from their perspective, the right to call themselves artists. The question of limits even reached across the cafeteria to a little boy who refused to work on his mural. While his peers worked on their murals, he spent the entire afternoon creating his own book. Instead of limiting him to the common project, ACH allowed him to do his own thing. As a result, he raced over with a grin at the end of the afternoon and explained to us that someday, he would be an author and an illustrator. I can’t wait to see what ACH will bring next week!