Mentor Artist Sophie Cooper writes about her work with first grade students at San Ramon elementary
This Spring I had the joy of collaborating with over 70 enthusiastic first-grade artists at San Ramon elementary school in Novato for a Ceramics and 3-Dimensional Sculpting residency. Tying into the first-grade curriculum on habitats, each student chose an animal and sculpted their animal out of clay and finally designed a diorama habitat for their clay creature to live within.
One class session was spent building paper playgrounds in preparation for creating the habitat dioramas. Students were given strips of colored paper, a few basic construction techniques and the invitation to create structures that they could explore and play on. The entire session was a flurry of excitement as students created the playgrounds of their wildest imaginations. A simple strip of paper became a slide, a ladder, a tunnel, a swing – anything they could think of. Walking around the room, I asked students how they would play on their structures and they eagerly explained how every line and shape could be interacted with, suddenly taking on a texture, a function and a purpose.
Imagination is a precious thing. It is a delicate quality and one that is not always nurtured or encouraged in our fast-paced, goal-driven society. Not unlike an animal of the wild, it requires a space where it can be, explore, nourish and express itself. The imagination cannot exist without a habitat. That day in the classroom, I began to realize that while the students’ imagination was creating the physical playground, the colorful swooping lines of color became the space that invited the imagination out from hiding, a space for it to breathe and play and explore.
Students brought this same level of active imagination to every stage of the project, from sculpting and glazing their ceramic animals, to painting their backgrounds in oil pastels and watercolor and constructing the trees, grasses, mountains and caves for their animals to live within.
During my final discussion with one of the classes on the last day of the residency, I asked the students a basic but often elusive question: “What does it mean to be an artist?” One student raised her hand, sitting up onto her knees and bouncing enthusiastically. When I called on her, she spoke: “It’s when you have your imagination and you just go with it.”
I smiled, speechless and grateful for the wisdom of youth.