Artists on Stilts: Part 2 – The Portfolio of Sketches

frankWhat do you do when a student turns in a piece of art that looks like a piece of…um…you know.

This is not the Rhode Island School of design. This is a high school Jewish Studies class, finishing a unit on the Tabernacle, the portable tent the Israelites bring through the desert in the Torah. Students are designing a “Personal Mishkan,” a temple designed to address and improve their own Quality of Life needs.

This is not an art class. I have not taught the class any art skills. I cannot grade them on their art, per se.

And until today, I figured I was grading them on their concepts and their process. Do they carry out the instructions, solving the problems in whatever creative way they choose? Do they pitch the ideas to classmates thoroughly? Do they use feedback from classmates to improve their work?

Process. That’s what the grade is for.

What do I do, then, when a student turns in a piece of art that is…sketchy? It’s drawn with markers – more a doodle than a drawing.

I asked her about it: “Well, did you take about 1.5 hours to work on this?” That was one of the guidelines to help students get a sense of the time-investment required for a decent piece of work. I figured that this would help her understand why it wasn’t sufficient. It looked rushed.

Mind you, students choose their medium. I didn’t require her to draw. She could have used any number of media ideas I provide them with – some requiring the “artist-on-stilts” only to drag and drop material together, like this film I made using animoto.com. [Artist-on-stilts] is my nickname for students who feel empowered to envision and create, though they may lack technical art skills.

As it turns out, this student had tried tinkercad.com – a program anyone can use to design objects and send them out to be 3d printed. Instead of it being “mind to design in minutes,” as the website promises, it was “mind to disaster in hours.” She’d used up all her homework time trying to get it to work, erased the screen full of blobs she’d designed, and turned to markers and paper – more familiar territory, dashing off the scribble in minutes, hoping it would satisfy the requirements.

Yesterday, after listening compassionately to her story, I suggested that her sketch was not sufficient to earn the credit for the project. It needed a second draft. “Process!” I thought. She will learn the value of a second draft.

“How should I make it better?” she said.

I came up cold. Color it in? Stronger lines? It felt like it missed the point.

“I’m not good at art,” she said.

The project was causing her to say the exact thing I was afraid of reinforcing: that creativity is the secret realm of artists, and the rest of us will accept a C+ and vacate the art room 2 minutes before the bell rings.

The dozens of options I’d provided accomplished nothing to empower her to create art.

Over lunch with the art teacher, I shared the dilemma. What meaningful 2nd draft could I ask her to do that would focus on process and concept and problem-solving and not on how good the – the whataver it was – looked?

Answer: a portfolio of sketches.

On the one hand, students can still opt to produce a piece of art that they will design and hone. I know who they are; they will labor diligently and of their own according, far beyond the hour/credit requirements.

On the other hand, Students can opt to turn in a portfolio of 4-6 sketches.  The sketches show their design from different angles. Or – one sketch focuses on the furniture piece, and the other shows it in the room.

How big or small is it, compared to everything else?

Are there windows in the room? Lights? Is the furniture piece surrounded by other objects?

If a student draws a picture of the room, with a dozen sketchy details: he or she can do a series of -close-ups! Is there a symbol on the wall?  What hangs down from the ceiling?

Do a sketch of what hangs on the end of the thing hanging from the ceiling! Draw the outside of the building – showing one acre of land around it. Draw a map of the whole area. Mountains? Desert? Spikes?

Sketch the doorway. What words are carved into the doorpost? What does the doorknob look like?

Who cares what it looks like! Have you ever seen a Frank Gehry sketch?

I told students about the portfolio idea. Some students nodded: they’d already designed and built all manners of beautiful art.

But many looked relieved! Like I’d given them permission to walk out the door of a prison I’d inadvertently led them into.

They turned to partners to begin work. And as I heard them brainstorming, animated and excited, I could picture them walking briskly off into their own creative sunsets, perched high atop their stilts.

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