Evans, Spitzer, O’Neil, and Knoll are some of BCD’s art teachers. Evans is a local ceramicist and educator, who is drawn to geometry and structure; Spitzer, a RISD graduate and Hudson-based sculptor, luthier and teacher, is experienced in a variety of media and processes, from mold making to oil painting to ceramics to woodworking; O’Neil is an internationally-exhibited abstract painter, whose colorful work often arises from the tension between intention and chance; and Knoll creates humorous figurative drawings and paintings—some included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. While two of the four happen to be past parents, it’s their lives as full-time professional artists, and their ability and willingness to examine their own artistic processes alongside students, which make them perfect prototypes for teachers in BCD’s recently created studio-based arts program.
Previous Head of School Paul Lindenmaier, at the Board of Trustees’ direction, created the studio-based arts program, hoping to expand opportunities for student creativity and enhance what program coordinator Sasha Sicurella describes as their “artistic toolkit.”
A multitude of independent studies indicates that studying both fine and performing arts positively affects everything from cognitive reasoning to confidence and character. Participation in art education in the elementary years has even been shown to correlate to higher performance on the SAT test later.
At BCD, says previous Head of School Paul Lindenmaier, “The goal was to expand the culture of creativity by connecting our program to art and artists in the larger community, and to allow our students to create in well-appointed and materials-rich spaces. Art is a critical tool in achieving BCD’s philosophy of encouraging excellence, creativity, and strong character, while supporting the School’s values of quality, originality, and citizenship.”
To these ends, Lindenmaier spent much time meeting with local artists and leaders of arts organizations. After selecting local artist and arts educator Sicurella to coordinate the program, three medium-specific studio spaces were created. On the west side of the building, there is a fully-functioning Ceramics Studio, and the larger space on the east side of the building now houses a Drawing & Painting studio and an adjoining Sculpture & Mixed Media studio.
Sicurella is eager to explain the purposeful design of the new program. “It was really important that our faculty were working artists. The students form a different relationship with an artist who’s working alongside them,” as opposed to a more traditional art teacher. It’s also critical that students have agency in shaping their creative projects. One of the ways Sicurella judges the success of the program is to encourage students to create their own assignments. “If they jump to do that, I know it’s working,” she asserts.
Phil Knoll embraces this way of teaching. In his Upper School drawing classes, he offers students a range of techniques such as tracing, sketching basic shapes, and drawing with charcoal and water, and then encourages them to apply this “creative toolkit” to any subjects that engage them. As a result, on one recent winter afternoon students were drawing everything from abstract patterns, to optical illusions, to large-scale portraits of familiar cartoon characters. One seventh grader, tackling a particularly complex drawing, sought Mr. Knoll’s counsel. “I’ll help you sketch out the basic shapes,” he offered, and then leaned over next to the student to discuss what those shapes should be.
What about the younger students? Their curriculum has also been designed to allow deep engagement with different ways of making, viewing, and understanding art through working with teaching artists. Ben Evans’ kindergarten students are constructing ceramic houses, which they design, assemble, and glaze with his counsel and support. Sculptor Max Spitzer’s fifth grade students are preparing for an upcoming field to trip MassMOCA by collaborating on their own version of a Sol Lewitt wall drawing. When the fourth graders asked to learn digital animation, Spitzer designed a project that allows the children to work both collaboratively and individually to create characters and backgrounds for the project.
The collaborative, hands-on approach to teaching art reflects Sicurella’s commitment to giving students the tools they need to have a confident relationship with “both the experimental and technical aspects” of making art. “When kids leave after 9th grade at BCD,” she says, “they’ll leave knowing they can problem solve, visualize, and articulate things creatively. They can be engineers or artists!” she exclaims. Eventually, she says, she hopes the curriculum will expand to allow students deeper exploration and integration of multiple media—to make films out of their drawings or design sets for performances, for example.
Ingenuity on display in the upper school drawing class seems to support Sicurella’s prediction, and her hopes. While Michelle continues to refine her complex abstract drawing, Ruby is constructing a masking tape truss to hold her smart phone; she wants to shoot a time lapse video of the large scale portrait she’s creating. “Whatever they draw,” says Knoll, “I tell them to make it theirs. I’m giving them tools I use every day in my own studio.” What will they make with them? That’s their decision. “Draw whatever you want!” he exults. “But whatever you draw—make it your own!”