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How Artists See

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Colleen Carroll knows the value of visual literacy. The mother of three girls and an educator found herself creating the art book that didn’t exist. Actually a series of them.

How Artists See, a popular 12-volume series of art books, was written and designed to teach children about art. But not at all like the boring dusty volumes filled with dates and facts.  Each of these simple books take children through a familiar subject, animals, heroes, feelings, weather, etc. Young readers are encouraged to come up with their own ideas and responses, prompted by everything from cave paintings to contemporary art. The open-ended questions in the book stress individuality, and encourage one’s own. Children relate to various artists, empathize with their feelings, culture, tools, times.  Through this lens, they see how the work came to be.

Carroll, who started college as a photography major, soon went on to Art History.  She eventually taught sixth-graders in Southern California, and found no visual arts instruction (or music, dance, and drama). That led her to develop an art appreciation curriculum that dovetailed with the world cultures social studies curriculum. The kids loved it.

 But how did all this start?

“One of my earliest memories of art is looking through a monograph on the Italian master, Leonardo da Vinci. The book was a tome: it was absolutely huge and must have weighed 20 pounds. Every so often my father would hoist it off the shelf and let me flip through the pages. While I was too young to read the text, the plates captivated and mesmerized me. The power of the artwork spoke to me and touched my spirit. Even though I didn’t know who made the beautiful pictures, somewhere deep down I knew I was communicating with a genius.”

By creating the series Carroll makes Da Vinci, and other geniuses accessible to the young. As an art educator, Carroll knows firsthand, the importance of the arts.

“Great art is a powerful visual tool that stretches across many barriers: language, class, race, and literacy, to name a few particularly wide ones. Exposing young children to art sparks the imagination, and when shared with a parent, teacher, caregiver or even a peer, promotes dialogue, vocabulary growth, and critical thinking. Introducing young children to art from a broad range of cultures and time periods builds background knowledge and teaches them that there is a bigger world beyond the one that they know. Interacting with art can help young children grasp abstract concepts, such as hope, justice, and courage. In an increasingly visual world, early experiences with looking and talking about art build visual literacy and analytical skills: skills that are becoming more and more important to possess.”

 Sharing art with children is so simple, yet rich. Carroll lives her life like she teaches it.

“When I was completing the research for my new book series, How Artists See, Jr., the time had come to choose the final images for the volume which looks at dogs in art. I had already done the first cut, but was having difficulty selecting from the fifty or so images left on my list. My kindergarten daughter happened to be home from school with a tummy ache, so I asked her to help me. Spreading the prints out on the living room floor I said, ‘Honey, come on down here and pick out your favorite pictures.’ Within minutes she had the prints in a neat stack, her favorites at the top and least favorites at the bottom. Without prompting, she began to tell me why she liked some dogs better than others, and what certain ones looked like to her (critical thinking and evaluation, expressive language). I share this anecdote to illustrate how fun, educational, and easy it is to share art with young children. Their innate curiosity and imagination, paired with rich imagery is, indeed, a potent learning tonic.”

Lucky girls, Carroll’s three.

 “That Leonardo book? It’s now on my bookshelf within arm’s reach of my own children.”

Maybe this holiday is a good time to gift your own family with a special art book. Visit the art section of a local bookstore and let your children explore. See what they find interesting. You might just be surprised.

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