Charlie Greenawalt thinks Piet Modrian inspired his students to improve upon his idea. Greenawalt is the art teacher at the Midtown Academy, a K-8 public charter school in Bolton Hill. During the past semester’s art club, he had his students make collages to be included in the Uniting Diverse Artists art exhibit and silent auction benefit the Midtown Academy that takes place tonight at MICA’s Fox Building.
The auction includes the work from 34 working artists—including Ryan Hoover, Zoe Charlton, Leslie King-Hammond, Gary Kachadourian, Joyce Scott, Jo Smail, and BMoreArt founding editor Cara Ober — and pieces from Midtown students. Greenawalt wanted the student to be proud of what they included.
“There were high expectations—you’ve seen the list of artists who have contributed work—and I just didn’t want this to look like we did drawings that had an elementary-school look where it’s cute but that’s where it ends,” Greenawalt says during an afterschool interview in his classroom. “I wanted to see if we could rise above that to get into a level of modernism and abstraction, where it had levels of sophistication both in the principles of design, how it was balanced, the textures, the patterns, the colors, and also the imagery.”
Greenwalt started teaching about nine years ago after nearly two decades as a profession graphic artist and earning his art education degree at MICA. And he says his professional experience and his own multifaceted interest in a variety of interest informs his teaching. He has the kids make logos for themselves, work in 2D and 3D media, think about realistic and abstract imagery, and weave elements of art history into the instruction. He wants to keep them interested in what they’re doing and foster confidence in what they’re making.
“I think about the experience they’re going to have working on a project, and then the final product – is it something they’re going to feel proud of a good about and want to share with their families,” he continues. For the auction, he tried to think about what the students could realistically make in the time allowed. And, he says the graphic designer in him thought mixed-media collage was the right media. Students started by making a watercolor—”we looked at Rothko’s color mixes just so we could have the idea of a beautiful field of color to work with”—and then, using the art books he finds at the Book Thing, students found imagery to slice into vertical strips to make a design.
Greenawalt says once the kids started working with the materials they quickly opened up his original idea. “I had done all these vertical strips and I think because I showed them Mondrians, they were the ones that started seeing verticals and horizontals, how they connect, and adding diagonals,” he says. “Then very quickly I was noticing how their work was so much more interesting when you see little slivers of faces or a cropped hand or something. And we talked about that. ‘Now you’re starting to build a narrative. Now you’re starting to raise questions of the viewer.'”
“So we set as a goal that there would be a bit of a face in the work, or the face could be upside down or there could maybe be just an eye showing,” he continues. “And then another idea that became a theme was having these masters in them. You would maybe not immediately recognize that [the collage] included a van Gogh but you’d see something that made you think van Gogh, or part of a painting you’d recognize.”
You can see their work in the student page of the auction’s web site. Although the work of the lower grades is a bit less confident and sophisticated than the middle schoolers, it’s also immediately apparent that they’re thinking about and interpreting the themes Greenawalt outlined. They’re making creative visual choices. And the results are often disarmingly impressive.
“I did not start out with all of those ideas at all,” Greenawalt says. “That’s a great example of how the kids pushed [an assignment], and it grew, got deeper, got more meaningful, and was more meaningful for the kids. They weren’t in here feeling like factory workers creating art that was going to be sold at this auction. They were putting themselves into it. When they were looking through books they were looking for images that spoke to them and imagery that might conjure up a question or a feeling, a sense of sadness in Frida Kahlo’s face, and asking questions of themselves. What if you sliced that face and put it upside down? What does that make you feel?”
This level of sophistication in primary student artwork isn’t the only thing that makes this auction a different kind of event. Yes: United Diverse Artists is a fundraiser designed to benefit a school. These types of events happen all the time. But Greenawalt says when the idea of an art auction was brought up by the school and its community of supporters over the summer, local artist Tendai Johnson, whose son attends the school, immediately stepped in saying it needed to be more than that.
“Most auction fundraisers for elementary schools are really just looking at the fundraising aspect,” Johnson says. “What I was hoping that we could do, and I think this has been successful with everybody’s hard work, is bring attention to the program and what the students are doing through outstanding artists. [The artists] are contributing their work to highlight what can come out of a good art program.”
Johnson is an artist, art professor, and admittedly a parent invested in Midtown’s mission, but he also points out that “art education is the one that tends to get left off whenever hard times come along, getting less attention than sciences and math. And art is such an important part of the growth of any person, regardless of what field they’re going into. So it is absolutely vital that we support art education.”
Johnson contacted artist Gerald Ross, MICA’s Director of Exhibitions, who both contributed artwork and co-curated the auction as a way to bring working and student artists together. “That way it becomes not only a fundraiser but an art education in itself,” Johnson says. “A lot of the students might not be familiar with practicing artists, with what practicing artists are doing, other than seeing works by artists in a classroom.”
He raises an interesting point here. Outside of artists who teach, working artists in the city and public school kids don’t interact all that often—artists aren’t consistently going into public school classrooms and students aren’t going to openings. So even though Baltimore has a vast and varied pool of working artists, if you’re not paying attention it’s easy not to know those people exist. And, sure, elementary school kids might not know what they’re going to be doing for the next two hours much less the 10 to 20 years of their lives, but if they never see artists working in their city they might not realize that being an artist could be an option for them.
“And even if it’s not an option, artists can be role models for students, just in that sense that anything is achievable and if you work hard you can succeed sort of way,” Johnson adds. “Often sports serve that purpose for students at that age. Why not artists? And as artists, we’re so focused in the field that we’re in we don’t always take the chance to look up and think, Oh, this is a role that I could play here.”
Greenawalt shares this recognition of how art and artists enhance the entire education process. “One of the things we learned [in the art education program] at MICA is that you can teach almost anything through the lens of art,” he says, adding that he did that as a teaching intern. “We would go into biology classes and math classes and teachers would tell us what they’re working on and we would have to figure out how to teach that content through an art-making process. And by doing that you see how history ties into art, math ties into art, science ties into art, how art making ties into problem solving in general.”
This understanding recognizes that, yes, art making in primary can be fun and students get to make something, but it’s not a frivolous part of a well-rounded education. It requires students not use what they’re learning and what they know in different and unique ways that other subjects don’t. “I’ve done this long enough now that when the kids ask, Why is this so hard?, I see that as a good sign,” Greenawalt says. “Of course it’s hard. And you’re going to feel better if you struggle through it. You learn skills, you learn new ways of thinking, and then you have a better product—a product you thought you maybe never could achieve. So being hard, having it be a challenge, is part of the process. I always try to make [assignments] fun and engaging and complementary to other things they’re learning but I do want it to be a challenge for them. It’s always worth it in the end.”
“That to me is what public education should be,” Johnson says. “This kind of art program should be available to all. That to me is such a big part of [supporting Midtown]—yes, I’m biased because I have my son there but I’m all for the idea that quality education that includes art should be for everybody, regardless of economic background. And we as community members, as artists, participate in some way to support that.”
The Uniting Diverse Artists exhibit and silent auction takes place 5:30-9 p.m. at MICA’s Fox Building Dec. 5. More information here.
Author Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.