by Mike Dunphy
Time was (and still is) that students got a break from their studies in math, science, history, and English for a class in art that usually involved stringing macaroni together, gluing Popsicle sticks, painting rocks, and on one day in 1989 at Mater Christi School in Burlington, drawing supermodel Kathy Ireland from the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (the Sisters of Mercy were not amused, or merciful).
However, with art classes cut, or severely reduced, in school programs across the country, Vermont schools may be in quite a pickle, as “creativity” is mandated as a “transferable” skill by the Education Quality Standards of Vermont State Board of Education. As a result, more schools are bringing in working artists for short residencies, as well as forming partnerships with staff teachers to integrate artistic creativity into classic subject areas, be it math, history, or science. In short, Art 101 is gradually morphing into Art 4.0.
“How do we bring creativity into those non-art content areas,” asks Paul Gambill, executive director of the Montpelier-based Community Engagement Lab, which has promoted putting creativity at the center of learning. “How do we teach it? How do we assess it? How do we make sure we’re developing creative thinking?” he asks. “The arts are a great path for teaching so the notion of having creative engagement as a through line through all content areas is certainly something we are finding schools are more interested in exploring.
”On January 13 and 14, the Community Engagement Lab launched Vermont’s first formal Teaching Artist Academy. The four-day intensive program, split between a weekend in January and March, aims to facilitate and improve the process further, both in their own individual classes and partnerships with schools, to use the creative process as a learning path in any content area.
Word of the program inspired much enthusiasm in the Vermont arts community, leading to 44 applications for 20 spots (expanded to 23 as a result)—somewhat a surprise for Paul Gambill. “There really is an exciting degree of enthusiasm and interest in doing more of this work in partnership with school and communities.
”Selecting from the applicant pool was not easy. “There were two main things we looked at. One was the level of experience with co-teaching in a school setting and how much integration work have you done. The other was really the aspiration expressed by the applicant in their essay questions. One key question was. ‘What do you want to get out of this work?’” The top answer related to the opportunity to collaborate with other teaching artists in Vermont, often an issue for artists spread out in small towns all over. “There’s a sense of isolation that artists feel in Vermont,” Gambill points out, “they are not connected to a larger field.
”One person who participated was Gowri Savoor, a Barre-based visual artist working in sculpture, painting, and works on paper. What drew her to joining the Teaching Artist Academy was her previous experience with the Community Engagement Lab, which she’s had a relationship with for four years. “They are just a fantastic organization. And especially in a place like Vermont, where there are a lot of artists, and teaching artists, and the networks, and ways in which we can get together and collaborate and meet and talk about our techniques and ideas are very rare occasions. So I always jump at the opportunity.
”Savoor acted as both student and instructor during the program, presenting a lesson for grades2-4 (but adaptable to others) that asks them to identify and collect patterns around them and put them into a printmaking block that allows them to experiment with pattern, size, texture, contrast, balance, and economy. “It’s a very versatile lesson that can be changed, applied, and evolved depending on your own art form, as it’s so much about pattern, whether that would be a rhythmic pattern in music, or poetry, or literacy.
”Heather Bryce, artistic director and founder of Bryce Dance Company and a teaching artist for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Lincoln Center in New York City, also joined thanks to her high esteem for Paul Gambill and lab co-founder Eric Booth, “father” of the teaching artist profession. Plus, her roots in Vermont are strong, having attended Goddard College and worked for the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Catamount Arts, and the Vermont Arts Council.
“One of the reasons I really wanted to come up for this,” Bryce explains, “is that Paul and Eric are both just absolutely brilliant, and the work that they’re doing to support teaching artists is not happening anywhere else in the country.” As for the weekend itself, she considers it planned really well for having teaching artists get to know each other and share their work. “There was a lot of dialogue time, and a lot of time for Judy [Judy Bose, Creative Education Director of Community Engagement Lab], Eric, and Paul to address questions and talk about best practices in the field,” she recalls. “It gave us things to look at, what is it that we actually want to do in our teaching practice that we haven’t got to do yet? And how would we make that happen?”
For many artists joining the program, career development goes hand in hand with employment, which for any artist is a continual challenge and a situation Bryce knows personally, both in New York and Vermont. “What’s interesting about being a teaching artist in Vermont is that everyone wears all the hats all the time; you’re doing admin; you’re balancing other work on the outside; you’re doing in school teaching, in studios, and doing independent work.
”It’s a struggle that Gambill understands and uses the program to also address. “How can you survive as a freelance artist in little Vermont?” he questions. “The tool kit that supports being a project developer or entrepreneur and understanding how to position your role in community or school opportunities is definitely a skill we can teach.
”The upside is that, by and large, Vermont, and Vermont schools, are receptive and supportive of the arts community, despite the small market. As Savoor points out, “I think Vermont is really unique because there are so many artists here, and people consider themselves to be artists whether they are full-time practicing professional artists or whether it’s a spare time hobby, but whatever the art form is, it’s really important to people, and that’s really beautiful. It’s an incredible gift to have the Teaching Artist Academy in Vermont.