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Collaborative art teaches children to work together

'The arts teach every life skill you'll need'
Saturday, January 3, 2009 | 3:23 p.m. CST
Jody Spriggs, art teacher at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary, works with students Justin Denny, left, and De'Hajnae West as they paint poinsettas during Art Integration time. This is a period where teachers, and sometimes students, from different classrooms work together on projects.

COLUMBIA — When Wayne Leal enters his garage-renovated art studio, he tries to leave "the self," and all of its baggage, at the door. It isn’t easy, he said. But like many artists, Leal enjoys the solitude.

Collaborative art, though, can be just as valuable, he said. "Collaboration is the purest way for the self to disappear.”

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Leal, a Columbia artist who does relief sculpture, shares the challenge of suppressing the self with both kindergartners at Lee Elementary and ninth-graders at Jefferson Junior High School.

Jody Spriggs, art teacher at Lee, introduced collaborative art to her three kindergarten classes.

It proved especially interesting, she said, because this wasn’t only the first time the children had worked together in art this school year — it was also their first year of school.

Leal has worked with artist and friend Chris Teeter, a mixed media sculptor, on two collaborative art pieces. A third, he said, is in the works for next summer.

Collaboration in the Columbia art world exists on the levels of the conceptual, the procedural and the presentational. And you don’t have to be a professional artist to appreciate its effects. Kindergartners, high school students and art teachers, as well as professional artists such as Leal and Teeter, have had positive collaborative experiences. Collaborative art shapes both the individuals creating it and the audience viewing it.

“It was hard for students to get over the ownership of their own work,” Spriggs said. To address this, she assigned numbers to each student that corresponded with a certain task in the collaborative assignment.

The social skills, responsibility and freedom that collaboration develops, Spriggs said, are skills kindergartners will use as they get older. "The arts teach every life skill you’ll need,” she said.

At Jefferson, 46 ninth-graders began another collaborative art project with artist David Spear in January. Twenty-eight panels, eight backgrounds and three months later, the school's entranceway displayed a painted, three-dimensional panorama of downtown Columbia.

Spear paired up with art teacher Diane Strotbeck and her ninth-grade Introduction to Art students as part of Columbia’s Artist in Residence program. The Office of Cultural Affairs and the Missouri Arts Council sponsor the program that teams up a school with a nearby artist.

Spear came up with the idea and general design for the panorama, while both he and the students underwent the creative process together. “It was like conducting an orchestra,” Spear said.

He was also the one doing the brunt of the quality control, Strotbeck said. Spear limited the overall palette so that the colors were uniform from panel to panel.

“They learned the idea of doing art not just for themselves,” Strotbeck said. They weren’t doing it to meet certain criteria or earn a specific grade. They were working together to create an artwork for the Jeff Junior community, she said.

When Spear presented the idea to the class, they reacted with a sort of “deer-in-the-headlights look,” Strotbeck said. “They knew from the beginning what a large-scale process it was overall.”

A great effort was made to divide the project into manageable steps, so no one part seemed too overwhelming, Strotbeck said. Students were put in pairs, and each pair was assigned to a panel; the overall cityscape centers on Jeff Junior, with downtown Columbia around it.

The process is similar to that used by Leal and Teeter. They, too, build upon each other’s ideas until they come up with something completely new, according to Leal. “The reality is no longer either person; the reality is a third person,” he said.

Strotbeck has taken the focus on a process that the collaborative project stressed and maintained it for her other art classes. The building from first drafts to final drafts or from one project to the next requires some sort of deliberate progression, she said.

“I’ve usually been more of a product sort of person,” Strotbeck said.

She now finds herself concentrating on the creative process more, with the hope that the lessons in process and creativity will extend beyond the art world for her students.

The collaborative process is not free of challenge.

“You may feel strongly about something you want to contribute artistically, but conclude it should be left behind,” Leal said. It’s a sacrifice both must make to arrive at the new place — the “result by default.” You must be respectful, however, of the other person, he said.

“There is a certain sense of vulnerability that you are sharing in the creative process,” Leal said.

When you take art to the collaborative level, and even to that of the public arena, its meaning changes, Leal said. There is a degree of formality in the gallery. But on a street corner, for example, everyone sees it, and the art becomes anonymous.

The same is true for the panorama in Jeff Junior’s entranceway. The art stands prominent but nameless, with its individual sectors now seamless. The student artists, Strotbeck said, still realize its impact. “The older they get, the more they realize the importance a work like this has for the community,” she said.

Spriggs also notes an effort by Lee Elementary to display any community art in which they were involved or information related to it, such as a newspaper article. This way, she said, it shows the students they exist beyond the microcosm of the school.  

Spriggs has found the effects of collaboration to be important to her kindergartners. Collaboration at any level is important for the development of life skills, she said, but it is specifically important to young children whose work is often underestimated.

“I am always surprised with the work from my kindergarten students because they come with only their own knowledge, not yet an educated one,” Spriggs said. “They do things intuitively that we spend a long time trying to relearn.”  

Collaboration has the advantage of raising the level of student work, Spriggs said. “They try to internalize what others are doing.” In effect, she said, it improves their own work.

Even though collaboration requires a brief suppression of the individual, a muting of the ego, its lessons resonate with the individual artist.

“It is important to have both individual accomplishment and collaboration,” Spriggs said. Even with collaboration, self-evaluation is important and an internalization of the process, she said.

Leal also has seen a change in his work since he began collaborating with Teeter. “What you learn and experience will come back to you in the self,” he said.

“When interacting with other people, you are thrust into a place where you are unfamiliar,” Leal said. “Being open and receptive to that allows you to be open to a whole other realm of rewarding processes.”

“You tend to go full circle: from the individual, to that collaborative third person, then back to the individual.”


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