Monday, December 27, 2021

Six Lessons About Creativity from "The Beatles: Get Back"

Peter Jackson’s, new and nearly 8-hour documentary, The Beatles: Get Back,gives a great look at how the creative process works. Here are a few takeaways for me:

1. Creativity is messy

You never know when you are at the very beginning of something great. Often you don’t know it’s going to be great even by the half-way point.

The famous minute-long video of Paul strumming and humming could have gone any of a million ways. Or it could have died in the next minute. Once we recognize a few notes of what would become the song “Get Back” we feel the thrill of being there for the birth of a classic. Ringo stares into space and George yawns. The start is just that. The real work comes in figuring out where to take it once you start moving. “Get Back” was a protest song: a rebuttal to the white supremacists marching the streets of London...until it wasn’t. It became a song about people with a lot of names from a lot of places until it became a song about Jojo, the man from Tucson, Arizona. 

As Scott Adams explained, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” You try things out, and see what works but generally you’ve got to wade through a lot of mediocre ideas before finding a great one. In order to be creative, you don’t only have to be willing to make “mistakes,” you actually have to make them. Paul Simon talked, in an interview with Dick Cavett, about feeling stuck with Bridge Over Troubled Water when every direction he started going, took him to someplace he didn’t want to be. You’ve got to keep pushing through. 

2. Creativity takes time.

One of the only complaints I’ve read, in the dozens of reviews about the "Get Back" documentary, is that it is too long, but following a band from brainstorming songs to the final performance in the span of one hour doesn’t teach us anything about the real process. Having the privilege of being in the room with the Beatles and seeing a song evolve over days and weeks mixed in with a bunch of other songs, helps us understand the truth about how these things are made. There is no button songwriters push for a finished product, they need to put in the work over a period of time to bring a song to life. It is a courtship and eventual marriage of craft and inspiration.

One of my artist friends told me that she is just standing around in all of the photographs of her working on projects. One might think that she doesn’t do much, except that there are many large sculptures to prove otherwise. She works with brick, which is physically intense and requires lots of pauses. And then there are inevitable setbacks, which will require more time than expected. Even when work is constant, progress generally comes in spurts.

3. Creativity thrives on collaboration

While solitude definitely has its place in the creative process, one person with one idea bouncing around isn’t usually as interesting as a few people with several ideas bouncing off of each other. Others can serve as sounding boards. They may give a suggestion that leads to something that works. They may turn or nod their head when you’ve found the right word. Having another set of ears and eyes is extremely helpful, especially when the other person, or people you are working with are geniuses. The documentary shows Ringo coming into the studio with the start of "Octopuses Garden" but unsure of what to do with it. George gives an encouraging smile and starts plinking away to give a little momentum to moving the song along. He got by with a little help from his friend.

4. The Creative process requires play

I was starting to feel a little anxious watching the part of the documentary that showed the days leading up to the Beatles’ rooftop performance; and that’s with me knowing that it would work out. (The Get Back footage is 50 years old after all.) I was a little frustrated with Linda bringing her daughter into the studio, even though The Beatles' adorable interactions with her were fun to watch. I was a little annoyed when Paul and John were dancing around and singing old songs they wrote as teenagers, because they were down to the wire and needed to get serious about finishing writing the actual songs they would perform. But even during those “goofing-off times” they were tapping into their creative and musical minds. They were in a mode where they were working together. The silly voices, silly facial expressions, trying out different tempos, chiming in on rest notes was all part of the process. Silliness keeps ego at bay, promotes camaraderie, and risk-taking. Artists aren’t robots. The best ideas don’t always follow deadlines. All the little ditties that didn’t amount to a song in time to make the Let It Be album, were seeds that blossomed into the album that became Abbey Road.  And the audience is more likely to enjoy the product when the artists enjoy the process. 

5. Creativity requires faith: 

Understanding that obstacles are part of the creative process means it takes faith to even get started.  Creativity means working until the solution presents itself, and recognizing it when it comes. The problem that came with making a live performance recording was that the Beatles couldn’t layer lots of instruments. They’d each be playing one in the performance and the recording would come from that. What about keyboard? With four men on two guitars, drums, and a bass, they’d need another person. George mentions an amazingly talented person named Billy Preston. A week or so later, Billy happens to be in London and stops by to say “hi.” They invite him to jam, and after one song, John says, “You’re in the band.” They recognized Billy as the solution to their problem. On Billy’s end, he’d spent a lifetime gaining the skills that would open doors like that. He had the faith of a musician and put in the work. Many years later George Harrison died of cancer, and Billy played keyboards and sang at the Concert for George.

6. Creativity can be learned: 

You may have felt the frustration that comes from working on school projects, in work committees or community teams with people who are painfully uninspired. They may show up but they never contribute, innovate, or solve anything. They may respond and critique with an “I agree” or “that won’t work,” but that’s not the same as having an original idea to offer. It is so important for children to be exposed to the Arts so that they can learn how to take initiative and offer a little vision. We need more creative solvers.

Creative geniuses have learned how the creative process works for them. When they were making that

painting or writing that poem, they weren’t just working through one piece, they were honing their skills

on how to create things in the future. It’s called meta-learning. The Beatles learned early in their career

in Hamburg how to fill eight hours of play time with mostly other people’s songs. The more they wrote,

the better they got. They really learned to listen while making the Rubber Soul album, and by Srgt.

Pepper’s they were experimenting with orchestral instruments and layers of complexity. Some musicians

start with the lyrics, others the music. There’s no set formula for creativity, each artist must find their own

way and they do it through many hours and years of practice.

Take the time to be silly and serious in exploring ideas. Get involved in the Arts.

Work with others and spend time alone. Try things that make you uncomfortable but will help you grow.

Learning to be more creative will come in handy every day in unexpected ways.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Christmas Party Decorations

As the co-planner of our school's annual student Christmas party, I try to remember that four things are required for a great party: decorations, festive music, good food, and fun activities. Music is easy with online holiday song streaming, and fireplace videos with background music. Activities can amount to a few tables of board or party games, and a karaoke station. So it's just food and decorations that require the bulk of the planning.

This year, we used last year's Festival of Trees decorations. I kept 200 pastel paper roses in garbage bags all year, so I'd have them handy for this year. (See last December's blog to see how to make them.)

I bought a roll of blue table cloths which were topped with poinsettias, grown on campus and donated by the horticulture teacher. We sprinkled each table with snowflake confetti.

The back of the library was the Santa photo station. with the blue and white snowflake panels we painted in art class.  

By creating a couple of visual focal points and spreading a set color pallet throughout, you can make a space that help people get into the spirit of things the moment they enter it.


Set Painting with Stencils

Making sets and backdrops for students with visual impairments is very doable.

Working large makes things easier to see. And using just one solid color makes it harder to mess up. I can always go back and fill in any spots that are thin or missing.
Paint tape or masking tape also defines areas and protects parts of sets where you don't want paint. It works best for straight lines like the windows for the winter program next week, or the stripes on a flag for the Veteran's Day concert last month.
Plastic stencils can be used for tracing or for sponging paint into the shapes, such as the snowflakes for our Christmas party photo back drop this week.

For organic, one-of-a-kind areas, we traced shapes with Wiki Stix. This was a tactile edge and worked well for students to feel, which parts of the shape still needed painted. Because it meant finger prints were inevitable it was perfect for making stones before adding the mortar colored paint in between. Big Artwork makes a big impact, and everyone should get to participate at their own level.

Friday, December 10, 2021

3 X 5 Card Mobiles

Elementary and Middle School students learned to mix paint with white to tint it and black to shade it. They painted the white sides of 3X5 cards that were later folded in half and glued to string. Fifteen strings of 5 cards each per dowel for each of the 3 dowels and you end up with 135 little color swatches dangling from the ceiling to go with the Media Center furniture. The mobiles were installed the same day as our bottle cap mosaics. It's so fun to have some color in the heart of the school.

Bottle Cap Mosaics & 3X5 Card Mobiles

 Our school's Media Center had a major face lift at the beginning of the year with book shelves rearranged, new flooring and new furniture. I figured it needed some new art too.

People from the school and community donated thousands of bottle caps for the project. We're using more water bottles since the water fountains are shut down during COVID,  and this creates a lot of waste. Our Art class wanted to make use of some of that plastic. Students submitted ideas.  

One new student, on his first day at our school, made a drawing of a face. He's totally blind, so I have him a a Tactile Doodle and we ended up using his idea to do part of a face, at least a set of eyes. A couple of other students made marker drawings of sunsets, so that's the idea we used for our second.

We spent a day playing with the caps on the board to make pictures and see how much of each color we had to work with. Later, most of the two boards were painted in the colors of the caps so we would know where to put them. Then the caps were hot glued to the surface.

I was given the 3D letters GAB to represent Georgia Academy for the Blind. We painted them before attaching the bottle caps.

School Spirit Totem Pole

Outdoor art isn't something I have a lot of experience making. My class did a totem pole for the sensory garden at our school a couple of years ago and it was a big hit. I don't know that anyone is using it for educational purposes other than me, (It is a Georgia theme so our state, flower, fruit, fish, reptile, insect, vegetable, butterfly, bird, tree, and motto are represented in the piece) but it did make the cover of our school handbook and calendar, and influenced our school theme: Standing tall, standing together, which became our school t-shirt for the year.

This year, I started with asking for student proposals. They didn't seem to grasp the idea of a unified theme. A couple people picked a principle of design, like line which looked like a striped pole. Others, had symbols and letters, but there wasn't much content. When I'd ask questions like, "What is everyone's favorite part of Roni's proposal drawing?"People said they liked "the heart!" So we had a heart, and we had some random letters. What letters represent us as the Georgia Academy for the Blind? G.A.B. So there we had a theme. A heart, and a school. We added an eyeball with the on top of the heart since we are visually impaired here. Then each initial for our school had Braille on top with the part of the school's name represented by that letter. The "A" was in a cheerleader megaphone. We added our school mascot (Panther), white canes, a Perkins Brailler. and glasses.

Working as a team meant that the first period class could roll a slab and cut out the pieces, which would harden enough for the 3rd period class to assemble, and then the 4th or 5th period class could work on details, before you 6th and 7th could start rolling slabs again. Everyone contributed to pretty much every part.
Problem solving: How do you make a big hollow Brailler without it all collapsing in on itself? We can do the bottom and sides, but how do we attach the top on the inside with just a little hole? We started with a big hole that we could fit our hands in to secure each seam, before closing the hole up until it was the right size.

Set backs: The first Brailler, which took an entire day to make, started cracking, and by the time it dried, there were large, irreparable cracks all over. We had to start over, and this time, we would make sure we built up the top from the lowest step. We used thicker laws.

Celebration! We invited the entire high school to the totem pole unveiling, which included the chorus singing the alma mater, the cheerleaders doing a couple of cheers, a drum roll from a percussion student, the big reveal, and then a student giving a speech about the history of totem poles and describing our pole and what each part represents. Short and beautiful. Go G.A.B! Give me an A-R-T! It's fun to teach students how to work together for a cause that is bigger than the individual.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Tactile Art as Gift for Students with Visual Impairments

Shout out to Professor Richard Curtis, who recently had his Thomas College Art students figure out how to make tactile images for the blind. He sent a box to the Academy for the Blind, full of mini canvases filled with line art done in puffy paint, glitter glue, and sand as a gift for my students. The assignment was great lesson in line, texture, problem solving, and some of his students even bothered to learn how to spell some Braille words. My students loved choosing a tactile treasure to take home. 


Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Leaf Bowls


This is an easy and fun project the yields great results. My elementary school students went on a nature walk around campus with me. We felt bark, smelled pine needles, and picked a few large leaves off of the trees or the ground. Then we pressed the backs (veiny side) of the leaves into slabs of clay and traced them with a ceramic needle or knife. The leaf shapes were then placed on upside down metal mixing bowls to help them curve, and we used the score and slip technique to make a foot (either a coil in a ring, or three balls are the easiest). This lifts the leaf bowl off the surface and gives it a little shadow. These can be used for holding soap, earrings, keys, ear buds, or just as a stand alone decoration. I love how in just 30 minutes, my students are getting an interdisciplinary lesson that teaches them about autumn and types of trees, as well as techniques such as rolling a slab and correctly attaching pieces of clay.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Ceramic Food Shaped Boxes


Ceramic pie slices are secret boxes that nod to Wayne Thiebaud dessert paintings

From photography to claymation to clay. It's been nothing but smooth transitions between units this year in my art class and hopefully it will continue as I move the students into sculpture in other media. This was a project week because there is almost nothing high school students love more than food. 

The assignment was to use the slab roller and the score and slip technique,  to create a box with a lid, that looks like food. So students are getting a feel for the medium and the processes, while exercising their creative problem solving skills.

Pop Artist, Claus Oldenburg, is the perfect Art History tie in. And I even included snacks as a real world connection (as if they needed one.)

Teaching special needs means I get to hear a student squeal with glee each time they make a chocolate chip and add it to her pie. Just goes to show that big kids need to play too.

Festival of Trees Clay Ornaments: Peace, Love and Braille

Claymation is as natural a segue into ceramics, as a school-wide event is to a community event. So my art students went from having our mini animation film fest to the festival of trees. This is our 3rd year to participate in the Festival of Trees exhibit at Macon Georgia's Museum of Art and Science. It is a way for us to have a presence in the community, support the museum's fundraiser, and to subtly advocate and inform. We titled this tree: Peace, Love, and Braille.

Most terracotta ornaments were dry brushed with paint, while most porcelain were glazed 

My students love working in clay because it is such a tactile experience. For this tree, they rolled slabs, cut shapes, pressed textures, and stamped words into the clay ornaments. If we didn't have cookie cutters or cups to cut the shapes we wanted, we made our own templates out of Braille book cover plastic. 

 Many of the students at the school read Braille, which is a code created by Louis Braille in France about 200 years ago, using raised dots to represent letters. Other students have some vision and can read print if it is large enough. Peace, Love Hope, andJoy are the words represented in many of the ornaments (in print and/or Braille) because that is what we wish for each of you this holiday season, and always.

While at the museum decorating the tree, we explored what the museum had to offer: mini zoo, art galleries, bat cave, artist's loft, and science floor. We met the museum's director and the director of education, who is hopeful about working with us at some point in the future. We topped off the trip by stopping for ice cream on the way back to the school. 
Whether in Large Print or Braille, what better way to usher in the holiday season than with peace, love, hope, joy, and a morning to explore  the museum?


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Pinch Pot Sculptures

 Pinch pots are the perfect clay project for little hands. And while some students insisted that their little pot was a pot or a cup or a mug, encouraging a little personification really brings that object to life.

It's easy to find a favorite animal and have students to name body parts of that animal, this fish has fins and a tale, while the parrot has wings and a beak. It's OK to turn the pot on its side to make a monster or frog mouth or turn it upside down. 

Students are also making a choice between whether they want to do a whole body or just a head. Most of them don't realizing their making choices until you start asking questions, like tell me how you decided to have the opening of the pot facing up? I don't want my students to think that default mode is the only mode. I want them to get so used to being asked questions that they ask themselves questions and open up possibilities for future projects.

Friday, October 15, 2021

World Premiere of the Art Student's Animated Shorts

Trying to rewrite the curriculum every year, means that by now (year 9) I am stepping way outside my comfort zone and doing things I've never done before. But that's what being an artist means, making something that has never been made before. I got a Stop Motion app, made a make shift tripod for the iPad from a bag of clay, and my art students just started moving things around in front of the camera. Bottle caps, magnets, and lumps of clay. Animation takes 12 pictures to make every second of film, which means we needed over 1,000 photos for a 90 second film. At first students came up with the ideas as they went along. This was just practice. We went back to find back ground music and sound effects to reinforce the motions.

After we got familiar with the app, we started with the end in mind. A couple of students who improvised some pretty fun songs that we used for content. Students brainstormed ways to illustrate the song lyrics, created original claymation characters and built little sets.

We edited the films by adding titles and voice-over for all of the students who are legally blind (100% of the student body). I wanted to make a very big deal about the fact that animation had never been done before in the 170 year history of our school. Just sending links out in one of the hundred emails wasn't going to cut the mustard. I got a teacher to help me find gowns for my girls. I spent a week ironing brand new $135-225 donated white shirts. I learned to tie bow ties. I dusted off the big popcorn machine, bought drinks and chocolate bars for a mini film festival.  My students took turns at the podium introducing  the next film, the way they would introduce a winner at the Academy Awards. I really wanted them to feel like it was a red carpet event and they were each a star.

A claymation project by the Academy for the Blind's high school Art students

We printed and posted fliers around the school that read "The World Premiere of GAB Animated Shorts: Art Class Boogie, The Secret Life of Bottle Caps, Come Fix your Plate. Starring: Blurb, Bob, Awesome Possum, and the Neck Bones."

At the Assembly, we started with the film by the little kids in self contained classes, and worked our way up to the the Art Class Boogie. We also included a film of puppet jokes by the middle schoolers.

Elementary and Middle School art students from the GA Academy for the Blind try their hand at animation

High School Art students from the Ga Academy for the Blind try their hand at animation.

A student's improv song about food inspires an art class claymation video.

From moving magnets on a whiteboard to moving pictures on the big screen It was really fun to see these little iPad films get to be seen by the entire student body in the auditorium. We couldn't have asked for a more supportive audience. The school laughed when Bentlee said his named, clapped when Jordan spelled his name, and clapped along with the music.  Our World Premiere/ mini film fest/ animation celebration was totally worth the effort! Not too shabby for two weeks of animation experience in the classroom.