Epic Side x Side report

Posted by on Jul 2, 2015 in Art Classes, drawing | 0 comments

A week ago today, I found myself happily in the mix of buzzing teachers at the Portland Museum of Art for the first annual Side x Side Summer Arts Institute. Side x Side is an arts organization whose mission is  bringing arts integration into public schools in Maine. They were awarded an Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination (AEMDD) grant of $1.9 million from the U.S. Department of Education, marking the significance of collaborative work between educators and their creative communities.

Side x Side was formed in 2013 by Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo and Annette Kraus, and partners with the University of Southern Maine and local visiting artists to bring critical thinking, creativity, and innovation back into the classroom. At the invitation of Kelly Hrenko, Director of Professional Development for Side x Side as well as the Art Education Program Coordinator at USM, I joined a stellar team of teaching artists for two days of connectivity with elementary teachers from Reiche, East End, Ocean Avenue, and Riverton schools. Here’s my epic report, but in short: it was a BLAST.

Outside the auditorium, art from Side x Side’s pilot program, Project Imagine, was displayed.


Executive Director Beth Wilbur Van Mierlo welcomed the hearty teachers who had completed their final day of the school year the day before. Instead of taking their first day of summer vacation, this crew was back for Professional Development. That’s dedication!


Both Mayor Brennan and Sen. Angus King (by video) offered remarks on the importance of arts in education, for equipping students with the ability of think critically, collaborate, and make connections across subject areas.

Here Jennifer DePrizio, the Peggy L. Osher Director of Learning and Interpretation for the PMA, leads us in VTS, Visual Thinking Strategies. By looking at length at one piece of art, she asked us what we saw. This method of open-ended inquiry engages viewers in discourse about a work of visual art with an emphasis on providing evidence while considering and building off the comments and perspectives of the group.

Too many people consider art unapproachable because they “don’t know anything about art.” Yet, all we need is two eyeballs, not a Masters in Art History, to enjoy looking and perceiving the story that art tells us. Together, we noticed different things going on in this painting by Edvard Munch.


Next teachers were divided into groups for Physical Theater exercises in the galleries, led by Gretchen Berg, renowned performer and educator who has over 30 years of experience in New England schools.

Each group of 4 or 5 teachers chose a piece of art in the Director’s Cut exhibit, using their bodies to collectively embody the piece, followed by another configuration that represented a focal point in the work, and then another movement that conveyed something just outside the piece. Ambitious! After a short and lively burst of brainstorming, each group performed their physical pieces around the gallery. You had to see it to believe. Incredible!

Next up, a group gathered in the third floor gallery, sitting on little stools before a wall of large format black and white photographs by Rose Marasco. These exercises were facilitated for the teachers, but as a Teaching Artist, I snuck in on this one, being a fan of Rose.

Jennifer led us in a round of prompts while looking slowly at the row of photographs, all of them landscape scenes from Rose’s walks in the woods. We chose one to focus on, breathing in and out, noticing the focal point, then something we hadn’t noticed at first. What would the sounds be if we stepped inside the frame? The smells? The taste? The touch? After mentally engaging all our senses, we made lists of words that came to mind, and finally, we made haikus. Several teachers read theirs while I made this rough sketch of Rose’s photograph:


I was drawn by the strong X of tree limbs, and then noticed an angelic figure perched in the complexity of sunlight and shadow made by the fauna, purely within my imagination, but noticeable nonetheless. I couldn’t stop seeing it once I saw it. My haiku:

tangled brambly limbs

scented by melancholy

reach my open heart

I felt recharged by the entire morning. Becoming more aware of my lens on the world, alongside intrepid colleagues, was gratifying. Lunch was another opportunity to meet and greet, after which my group of second grade teachers departed for our breakout session at Nance Parker’s studio.


Nance, Pamela Moulton, and I were partnered to share the features of Side x Side’s program for Grade 2 curriculum, Moving Oceans.

I totally scored here, getting to work in Nance’s spacious studio filled to the rafters with masks, puppets, materials, supplies. Creative clutter at it’s finest. Nance has worked as an artist and educator at Reiche for many years, and brought her engaging authority to the task of turning 2D drawings into 3D forms with papier mache.


All the studio spirits were watching!


Even the cool dudes.


I talked about drawing as a tool for observation, and the benefits of drawing loosely in pencil before confirming the drawing in ink. Materials and composition come together when deciding placement on the page, how thick or thin to make one’s lines, how much help does one provide a student who confronts the fear of the blank page. Teaching drawing is essentially getting one to explore their capacity to see. Encouragement is the main ingredient. Keep looking, keep drawing. A good drawing comes from practice, like a good soccer game.

Each teacher chose a sea creature to draw from provided reference. Kristina Singer of Ocean Avenue is a girl after my own heart, tackling the humpback whale.


Kristen Fox of Reiche School chose a seal. She wasn’t confident of her ability at all. But look, she’s made a very crisp line with fluid curves and delightful expression. What’s not to love?


Melissa Maher is the Art Teacher at East End School. She wasted no time capturing the exquisite details of her cod.


Nance brought out the piles of newspaper and masking tape for everyone to begin shaping their forms.


Tactile delights awaited us when we dug into the goo that spreads over the papier mache.


It was a fast 3 hours. We resumed first thing on Friday morning, during which teachers began painting their sea creatures.


Janet Harrison of Riverton gave her sea urchin a vivid mix.


Kristen’s seal is in conversation with Emily Liebling’s turtle.


Pamela Moulton, a wunderkind multi-media artist, took the floor to share a myriad of material possibilities.


Here are a few cyanotype works-in-progress on the fire escape, gathering sun to make patterns on paper.


Meanwhile I documented the drawings done. For folks who claim not to be artists, this group did just fine. Which demonstrates the message of the day: don’t disavow your human capacity to create. Creativity is not the sole property of artists. We all have it. I visualize it as a well within us, waiting to be tapped at any time.


I discussed the importance of drawing to create mental focus. There was talk about “product” in terms of what students will produce from the art programs. I firmly believe in process as a significant aim of any art undertaking. It’s in the making! As an example, I scanned Nance’s studio for 3 objects to make a still life.

I found a bulbous vase, a tall bottle, and an iron. Using a cheap newsprint pad, I quickly sketched the simple forms, with the challenge being in seeing the relationships of forms in space, drawing through them as if I had x-ray vision.


Any classroom could begin the day with a 15 minute observational drawing exercise as simple as this. I did this with my illustration students at Maine College of Art. I draw with them, the better to understand how differently we each see and use our signature in our drawing. Inviting them to bring in a favorite object was also a good source of discussion, and recognizing the multiple ways we see and make marks is a fantastic reinforcement of how drawing sharpens our perceptions and understanding of the world.

Once teachers had added material to the base of their sculptures, I brought them to the PMA for display.


After another lively lunch break that made the PMA hum, we convened again for presentations. First grade teachers went first, with book making under the leadership of master book artist, Rebecca Goodale. Combining book forms, collage, illustration, and seasonal themes, their projects jumped off the page.


Third grade teachers shared Mapping Portland with Molly Brown, involving several map schemes, culminating in painted panels. Here they are, holding them in their relative locations.


Kindergarten teachers worked with Meg Christie for improv, Portland’s Poet Laureate Gibson Fay-LeBlanc for poetry, and Colleen Kinsella for printmaking. Man, they did it ALL, creating a story panel.


 Fifth grade teachers shared the story boards created before making their films.


Working with Cat Labarre and Terry Wolfe, they created  multi-media short films that explored this over-riding question:


They were each hilarious and informative.

Photographer Tonee Harbert was roving among us documenting all this spontaneity. He was impressed.


In fact, one teacher remarked, “We’re a talented bunch. What we’ve done here is impressive.”

BINGO! The powers are in all our hands. And hearts.


Gretchen Berg read in droll tones a Jack Prelutsky poem that was performed by a group of 3/4 teachers.

Pretty much brought down the house. Each of them confirmed that the poem was completely memorized thanks to kinetic understanding.

During an afternoon break, I sprinted over with Reiche teacher, Emily Liebling, to Pamela Moulton’s studio for a tour, which we’d both missed. Pamela’s studio is utterly filled to the brim with fiber art, assemblage, and her lovingly hoarded collections.


Emily happily donned one piece. I think this sums up the mood of Side x Side: art = joy.


Our final gathering took place in the auditorium during which Jennifer asked teachers to share how it all went. The feedback confirmed that the art experience allowed them to realize ways to enliven the classroom, put themselves in the shoes of their students, and provide inspiration to see curriculum in innovative ways. A certain sadness was present that today’s educational model has taken the joy out of learning. It’s time to encourage the thinking behavior of wonder. To paraphrase: It’s not about filling your bucket with correct answers, but lighting a fire of ideas and what ifs.

Thank you to Side x Side and all the participants, it was an honor to be amongst such a brave and original crowd! Keep your eyes and pencils sharp.

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