Art students and teachers participate in a delicate balance between freedom and objectivity. (GRAPHIC BY ELSIE MCKENDRY)
Art students and teachers participate in a delicate balance between freedom and objectivity.

GRAPHIC BY ELSIE MCKENDRY

Calculated strokes: where school and art collide

April 20, 2022

The hours given to the creative process, the arc of a crimson brush stroke across a linen canvas, the warm feeling of charcoal values and highlight. All of it condensed into a cold and unforgiving B+.

The question of “how to judge art” can be a fairly pointless philosophical one, and is thus banished to the corner of the brain that keeps the late-night thoughts tucked away.

But for an art teacher, this question is a part of everyday life; it is the reality of grading 20 different pieces from 20 different students. And for those 20 students, those Bs, As and Ds represent long hours of creative effort and dedicated execution.

Junior Lila Yoon has taken a wide variety of visual art classes at the high school, and this year Yoon takes Advanced Drawing and Painting. Advanced Drawing and Painting meets in the same classroom and block as Advanced Placement Art and Design, and both have Donna Sartanowicz as their teacher. Yoon said they are enjoying the class because of the freedom it gives them.

“For visual art I do, among other things, ceramics, photography, painting and drawing. In advanced art, I’m able to explore all of those things with the broad prompts Ms. Sartanowicz gives us, which is very fun and nice,” Yoon said. “It’s a lot less restrictive, because there’s a lot more focus on ‘how do you show this concept?’ and ‘how do you execute it?’ which brings up questions of how to judge that, but I like it a lot so far.”

Yoon said they wish there were more conversations and critiques in visual arts classes at the high school. According to Yoon, these are important parts of the artistic process.

“In my opinion, art is all about communication and how you communicate messages to other people, so having that aspect of ‘look at my art and tell me what you see’ or ‘is there something that I could be doing better to make you see what I want you to see?’ is so important and it’s something that we don’t do as much as I think we should,” Yoon said.

After every assignment, Yoon’s class does a group “critique” where they hang up all of the pieces and classmates give each other feedback. However, Yoon said this feedback is very positive, and more constructive criticism would be helpful for artists to learn as they create art.

“We look at the board where we hang up all of our pieces and say, ‘This is what I enjoy about your piece.’ Sometimes there’s an ‘I think you could have executed this better by doing this instead,’ but there is none of that along the way while creating the piece which I find a little bit problematic,” Yoon said.

In addition to stressing the importance of conversation, Yoon said all art teachers have to strike a difficult balance when teaching their students.

“Because students are developing their own style, the teacher is put in a really difficult position. There’s a really strange but important line they have to walk between ‘technically, you should be focusing on this,’ but also ‘creatively, do your own thing.’ It’s a really complex thing, especially since it can’t be measured quantitatively,” Yoon said.

Sartanowicz, who is also the Interim Visual Arts Curriculum Coordinator, said most of the negative feelings surrounding graded art come from students’ critical judgment of their own work. To progress as an artist she said one must leave that hesitation behind and enjoy the learning process of making mistakes and taking risks.

“When you are an adult artist, the real trick of it is learning to go back to that state when you were in kindergarten, maybe you were in first grade, that was non-judgemental and able to play around with ideas. Once you’ve done that, you have the critical voice of experience that pushes those ideas into something that communicates to other people,” Sartanowicz said.

According to Sartanowicz, art classes can actually provide a way around these obstacles. Peers and instructors are there to add different perspectives and encouragement to the creative process. However, in order to experience true creative freedom, the fundamentals are indispensable. Sartanowicz said it is actually harder to “create whatever you want.”

“I anticipate that our foundational classes are absolutely learning how to draw, learning how to paint, learning how to grow. When you come into the advanced class, it’s a more conceptual class where you learn how to think and express yourself,” Sartanowicz said. “You already have the skills and the tools, but you need to express yourself: ‘What is it that you want to say?’ Strangely, that’s the hardest thing for students.”

Grading

Sartanowicz said visual arts grades at the high school are based less on preference than on concrete learning objectives.

“If you’re going to do a representational portrait, for example, the canon of proportions that governs the human head and skull is very concrete. There is a way to think about most of us: our eyes are placed on either side of the bridge of our nose, and your nose is generally in the center. This is a proportion that you can do that will make the portrait look more human. Does the work give evidence that the artist understands this proportion? That’s pretty concrete,” Sartanowicz said.

Visual arts teacher Eric Latimer said he doesn’t love grades, but they provide accountability for students to get their assignments done and don’t necessarily have to block creativity if used productively.

“I would, in a heartbeat, make the classes pass/fail. It’s as simple as that. I would remove the ultra-competitive, reward-and-punishment type of a system,” Latimer said. “I was a student; I understand where they are coming from, but it undermines creativity. I find that the students who are so obsessed with grades tend to take the fewest risks and tend to obsess on this idea of perfection.”

Latimer said he has profoundly struggled with the complexities of the grading process for years, but he also said the exercise of turning in art projects for a quantifiable standard mirrors the art world outside of school.

“Artists that ultimately follow their own personal muse are kind of rare. The rest of the art world that earns a decent profession is where the world of grades I think comes into play. If there is a scale, employers can exemplify the standard,” Latimer said. “There is an element of creativity in it, but there’s also a huge element of a standard or a conformity that artists strive towards in that domain; a definitive mark of an A versus a B can provide some guidance.”

Advanced Art Classes

The aspiring professional artist must learn to grapple with outside sources judging something deeply personal to them. In advanced art classes, students are exposed to the challenges of the creative process: the intersection of something robotic like work or school, with the freedom of self expression and their love of artwork.

Senior Fiona McGill has been drawing ever since she could hold a pencil. She started with traditional materials like paint and charcoal before falling in love with digital art. Over her four years at the highschool, McGill has been exposed to many of the nuances of progressing as a student artist.

“I took some of the foundation classes like Drawing Foundations and Painting Foundations. I took Digital Video Production in my first two years, and then last year I took Digital Storytelling which was really fun because I got a lot more freedom in that class. This year, I take AP Art and Design which is really fun because I have near free reign in what I want to do,” McGill said.

In AP Art and Design, like any other AP class, students spend most of the school year preparing for the exam. In this case, the exam is an assessment of a student’s portfolio, the collection of pieces that they make throughout the year.

McGill said AP Art and Design is a challenging class because it requires students to continue building off of their pieces instead of beginning with a new idea for each piece. She described the process as a “sprint towards the end,” where students have to get out as many pieces as possible to have enough to choose from for the final exam.

“It’s intimidating, but it’s nice knowing that at the end of this year I will have one cohesive body of work,” McGill said. “It’s not necessarily my favorite thing in the world, but at the same time I’m really excited to see how it all looks in the end and I think it’s a really good exercise in the long run.”

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