Importance of Art Education as we Celebrate Youth Art Month

The Hammond Regional Arts Center is a place for people of all ages to enjoy local creativity, but this month we are focusing more on the youth in our community. Through March 30th the Arts Center is displaying the artistic output of our local young people in our Young Artist's Exhibition. If you haven't been able to make it yet, please do come by and support the students who have worked so hard to create these beautiful pieces. The gallery is a site to behold during these green spring days, and the budding talents of Tangipahoa's youth are a treasure well worth appreciating.

To explore what this exhibit, and art education in general, means to students and the larger society we live in, guest blogger Seth Pevey recently caught up with local art teacher Jordan Kenning. More specifically, he is an instructor for the Talented Visual Art Programs at Ponchatoula High and Hammond High. He also happens to be board president here at Hammond Regional Art Center!

What follows is Seth's Q&A with Jordan on what it means to teach art to young people. We hope you will enjoy, and that we will see you at the Young Artists Exhibition sometime soon!

Pevey: What are some benefits of art education for young people?

Kenning: "I think it's obvious by now that the creative arts help to develop a 'well-rounded' student; in my opinion that's the moldy chestnut we hold onto too much when advocating for the arts. It's great for selling the need for arts education and programming, but what does that mean, 'well-rounded'? It's just too vague. In my experience with teaching art, there are deeper values to our students that often get ignored. Students use artistic practices to escape trauma, deal with stress, organize their thoughts, etc. Call it 'art therapy' because at the end of the day this is a therapeutic exercise, regardless of if the practice is instructor-guided or independent learning. The unique thing about art, and we'll stick to the visual arts for this point, is that everyone has a unique experience; this is true in every art classroom worldwide. 

Through artistic explorations, students can truly self-express and share thoughts without using words; in a time where uniqueness is scarce, art becomes that moment where you can connect with your most true self. Teaching and fostering creativity is something nearly exclusive to the arts. While "out-of-the-box" thinking and problem-solving are indeed valued in most subject areas, the arts are different in that there is no uniform result, variation is ideal. Academically, the interesting side effect of working on art is self-assessment and self-discipline, often unregimented by comparison to most subjects in school. By having clear expectations and goals for students and then drawing the correlation between the work done and the results, students can begin to shift their motivation, resulting in a much healthier and more sustainable learning environment." 

Pevey: How do you choose what art/medium/culture to teach?

Kenning: "Well, honestly, it comes down to money and time for the most part, I never seem to have enough of both. But, if art teachers are one thing, we are 'resourceful.' I remember taking all of the cardboard spacers from the ACT testing boxes one year and then having this nice clean board for my ART 2 students to work with. Some chose to paint on it, others carved and manipulated the surface, it was a great use of something that was going to be discarded without looking like repurposed trash. Teaching high school exclusively, I will have some students for up to 4 years and so throughout that time I try to get them knowledgeable with as much media as I can. Sometimes I have to get creative with my supplies due to cost and facilities. 

For example, when working with clay we use polymer clay (which can be baked in an oven) as opposed to a traditional clay; and when we discuss printmaking, they'll use Plexiglass sheets and a pasta machine instead of copper plates and engraving presses. At the end of the day, they still have a learned skill and can progress with it or learn that it's not the best fit for their method of expression. My students are on a constant journey of self-discovery, their goals are individualized so that their experience helps them build a library of skills and techniques, while developing a style that reflects their personality. By the end of high school most of my students have practiced with almost every art medium we possibly can and mastered at least one; when they graduate, they have a portfolio of work that can carry them through to becoming a professional artist or a hobbyist—I feel accomplished with either path or I try to impress the importance of feeling equally accomplished.

Culture is a little tougher now that I only have my students for one session per week, but with every unit I expose them to as much art history as I can. With time being such a precious resource, I have employed our digital communication channels to share presentations that students can explore independently. Since art is mostly about 'connections' my goals with units (take Color Theory for example) focus on the "Who" and the "Why"; the "What" is pretty basic, and most students understand how the color wheel works in just a few minutes. The end result should be that the students understanding why they chose the color palette they used and what it means to them and their audience. In reflections we often discuss the meanings behind our decisions, both in content and concept, and that gives me a good opportunity to flip it back to the student's individual culture and expand that idea and understanding to fit within a global dialogue."

Pevey: What is the best part about being an art teacher?

Kenning: "I struggled with what I wanted to 'be' when I grew up for a very long time. I'm not a traditional art teacher, my undergrad is in Art History, and I went into education thinking it was a good 'Plan B' until I found a career that fit… turns out teaching fit pretty well. Yes, there are mountains of paperwork and red tape, but at the end of the day I get to share my knowledge and skills with students who really crave learning about art. Personally, I find it most rewarding to teach skills and techniques that are dying out, like lithography. And you won't find an art history textbook on any shelf that can hold the amount of good energy and artistic pride you'd find in just one art room, it's a completely different universe in there. 

So, I guess to answer your question is to say that there isn't a best part, even the paperwork has its purpose in helping me to reset and escape for a brief moment, the career is the best part really. I'll leave you with this quote from George Bernard Shaw that I've been mulling over for the past few years, I can't find a better way to describe how I feel when I go into work each day, 'I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.'"

Pevey: How does the Hammond Regional Arts Center impact the local art education scene?

Kenning: “The HRAC is such a vital part of our community; and it is such a privilege to be a part of that mission to improve the community through the arts. The happenings in the classroom are only part of developing a successful artist. Real gallery experience and examples are so crucial in understanding the very complex workings of the art world, so having a hub that can support artists both experienced and emerging is a gift.”

Pevey: What makes our local art scene here in Hammond so special?

Kenning: “I think we benefit mainly from our geographic location and proximity to a major interstate exchange. Both New Orleans and Baton Rouge are incredible cultural banks, and our suburban areas undoubtedly reap the benefits of those resources. Southeastern being a short walk to HRAC is also a huge benefit to our community and emerging artists. The recent creation of our Mezzanine Gallery space allows current and graduated art students to start their careers in a familiar and unique space. Given its compact size, the Mezzanine gallery is also able to accommodate smaller bodies of work from accomplished artists struggling to find an exhibition space that works well for more casual shows.”

Pevey: Can you tell us about the Young Artist's Exhibit currently on display at the Art Center?

Kenning: “This exhibition is one of our largest events every year, during the opening reception it's shoulder to shoulder throughout the whole space and a constant buzz of excitement from our students. The opportunity to have students in our local schools exhibit their work in a professional gallery setting is both rare and incredibly special. With over 100 different art pieces, it's easy to see how important our art classes are to the development of our future creatives. For our students (and teachers as well) this is our opening night, our playoff, our opus and it perfectly fits our mission to bring together students, families, and other stakeholders through the practice of art making.”

The Art Center is popping off this spring, with a whole host of lovely exhibits on display. Come support local artists and promote art education in our community!

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