no one (except one adult) said, “I’ve learned to draw better:” what really matters in a drawing class

Roz Crews

When the crisis caused by Covid-19 erupted, my work as an adjunct professor was ending, and my freelance projects suddenly dried up. Before quarantine, I worked in an elementary school as part of the artist-run King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), where for almost two years, I taught an experiential class about curation for fourth and fifth graders. At KSMoCA we work intergenerationally in a K-5 public school with kids, college students, teachers, and administrators, seeking innovative ways to integrate contemporary art into the daily lives of elementary students. A friend suggested that I try teaching online classes for kids since everyone would be out of school. In an attempt to quickly scrounge together an income, I decided to pursue the dream I had set aside years before: to teach a “drawing class.” An online group formed under the guise of drawing, focused on imagination and problem solving—skills that will surely be necessary in the aftermath of the global pandemic. Because I missed my undergraduate students so much and I was seeking ways to stay connected to friends and family across the world, I decided to open the class for people of all ages. To bring together a diverse and dispersed group of people in a time when the phrase “social distancing” was becoming normal felt like the most immediately helpful thing I could do.

Considering the circumstances and my proclivity towards depression, especially in times of uncertainty, I knew that I would have to find a way to make the “class” very enjoyable for myself. For that, casualness and experimentation are key. To help prevent the wrong kind of expectations, I decided to call it Drawing Time—just a time to draw. I advertised the meeting times on social media, and I sent it to my email list, asking for an optional $1-$20 per session. It was really important to me that anyone could participate, so I let people know directly that if cash were tight, please don’t pay! Just come and participate. Next thing I knew, the Zoom window was filled with mothers and their children, design professionals from India and Panama, college students from past classes and projects, and artists seeking companionship. The ages of participants ranged from 3 to 75.

People in the drawing class have expressed pure delight in learning and drawing alongside such an age-diverse group. It’s a novel experience because so often in the United States, we’re segregated by age—in school and beyond. Typically, we think of “peers” as being people with similar ages, but I’ve been really inspired by the way the group has adopted each other as peers despite their differences in age. About a year ago, I met Alan DeLaTorre, a coordinator at the Senior Adult Learning Center at PSU, which works with the university to allow senior auditors to enroll in almost any one of Portland State’s nearly 5,000 classes. I was really impressed with Alan’s commitment to raising awareness about the benefits of pedagogies that embrace learners of all ages, so I reached out to see if he could offer any insights for this essay. He now works as the Age-Friendly Cities program manager in the City of Portland Oregon Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and in response to a question about the value of intergenerational education, he explained the important positive impact of people learning from the unique experiences of different generations and the way that experience can help combat generational conflict. He referenced a variety of outcomes including: improved well-being, self-esteem and health; development of stronger links to the community; improved interpersonal skills and communication abilities; and increased knowledge and understanding of life-long career environments. Despite all these benefits, he also acknowledged that systems of age segregation and perceived or real generational conflict can be major challenges to this type of education.

In the early weeks of Drawing Time, I found it really challenging to make an hour long class interesting for people with widely different backgrounds, experiences, vocabularies, interests, and desires. I realized quickly that I wouldn’t be able to make the class everything that everyone wanted it to be, so I had to narrow in on what I wanted it to be and define that clearly for external audiences. I decided on a format that privileges the younger drawers with the majority of the class spent on short, strange prompts designed to get people thinking and drawing in ways outside of their norm. Because the participants change daily, I try to always remind people that anyone under the age of 14 takes priority in the class, and when we’re sharing about our work, the younger folks always get to go first. I think it brings awareness to the adults that kids have equal amounts if not more to offer in this setting. I found my adult friends positively responding to the first few “lectures” I gave as introductions to the content that would be explored via prompts in each class. Some early examples of these lectures included: a brief overview of my favorite cartoon characters; an explanation of how various games and toys like Polly Pockets, Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and doll houses have influenced my drawing style; drawings of and in kitchens with examples by Annie Pootoogook and David Hockney; portraiture but through the lens of pareidolia featuring a discussion of paintings by artists like Laylah Ali and Heidi Howard; and abstract emotions with a focused analysis of Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out. I love preparing and researching these talks, but I try to keep them short so I don’t bore everyone. 

I sent a questionnaire to a variety of regulars, some of whom I’ve known for a long time, like my mom (age 60), and others who I met through the group, like Raizel (age 6). Everyone that I surveyed agreed, learning together with adults and kids is “cool.” Raizel said, “It’s cool! Cuz in normal schools you have to be in a certain grade to be in the class. [Learning alongside adults] makes me feel more grown up.” Her mom, Amy Beedon, who typically works on her computer while Raizel’s in class, noted that she sees her daughter acting independently and sharing confidently with the group. Maggie Heath, an adult multi-disciplinary artist and arts administrator said: 

Working with the younger students is totally beneficial. I feel like I am able to give myself permission to get weird. Maybe it is a “you don’t need to try as hard” to be perfect or smart or be better than others, because you are not in competition…and in turn it allows me to activate my creative potential more genuinely. I’m amazed by the creativity that young kids have, and being around them lets me get back to my own. Maybe for adults, being in a class as a peer with a child allows us to go back to childhood and be less serious. And maybe for children it makes them try to take themselves more seriously, or to try in a different way when there are different skills or thought processes that are not child-like, but are being explained in ways by adults that are accessible to all levels.

Most of the adults shared sentiment similar to Maggie’s, emphasizing the way working alongside kids has challenged their typical process or experience of “negative self-talk” during artmaking. I think the class paves the way for people to break down their own barriers in a creative process they’re developing for themselves. When I asked people to remark on what they’ve learned from the class, no one (except one adult) said, “I’ve learned to draw better.” Instead, people discussed the ways they’ve become more open-minded, found community, discovered artists who were left out of their art history lessons, loosened up their idea of what constitutes a drawing, discovered new approaches to quickly expressing thoughts through drawing, realized the way drawing can express emotions, and observed ways that art and critical theory can enter into discourse designed for kids and adults by refusing academic jargon and “art-talk.”

By rejecting typical norms of an art class, like offering critical feedback and teaching specific technical skills associated with drawing, I’m hoping to make space for people to develop their own style and process. In an anecdote from Lynne Werbel, she describes the way the class has helped her heal from past art education trauma:

I used to love drawing, until I was a Freshman in college, and took a drawing class. I was the only non-art major in the class, and the teacher would point to my work and say, “This is what we’re trying to avoid!” Needless to say, I dropped the class, and stopped drawing. Your class has allowed me to start enjoying making art again! Thank you!!

Hearing people’s reflections on the class and the way it has offered them a space to build confidence as an artist has made me very reflective about my own pedagogical practice. I’m asking myself, “What is the point of art education? How can I support people to become the artists they want to be? How can I acknowledge and respond to the various goals each artist has for their work in the course? And how can I inspire people to be more inquisitive, more willing to speak up, and more able to articulate their ideas through art?”

The work has also led me to a really critical realization which is that I want to encourage artists in my classes to refuse my assignments. Rather than encouraging people to strive towards mastery, or teaching that there is a hierarchy of techniques and approaches, my objective is to teach people how to think for themselves and design their own goals. In order to do that successfully, I have to support, embrace, and motivate people to break the rules. Maggie Heath reflects on this aspect of the class:

I had an art teacher as a child that told me not to worry—not everyone can be an artist. Sometimes I think about Mrs. Harla and I think about how much she missed the point of teaching art to young students. She had a rigid structure of what art was and if you didn’t fit into it, you didn’t flourish and you certainly wouldn’t be nurtured into flourishing. I thought of her when you said something like “So our next drawing is going to be 3 minutes and you are going to draw xyz. But you also don’t have to. You can break the rules. You can do the opposite. You can do x and z. Or you can also do nothing. It is up to you.” To give permission for rule breaking allows the students—both children and adults—to remember that deviating from the rules does not have to be considered deviant behavior. It is simply a different way to interpret what is in front of you. And it also implies choice for the student, which I think is huge.

In Drawing Time, I offer very specific prompts each day. Things like, “Draw three baby animals that you hand delivered” (based on a dream I had where my dog had puppies but one was a gray roach and the other was a tiny version of the pink Courage the Cowardly Dog) or “Draw many of your favorite animals cascading out of a basket” (borrowed from a scene I saw of a little girl in my neighborhood who was carrying a basket shaped like a rabbit filled with four tiny brown puppies). Both of these prompts came from a session that was simply about “Spring Scenes” inspired by my deep desire to feel positivity in a sea of quarantine dread. Most people drew the baby animals and the basket filled to the brim, but Moe (age 8) drew colorful spiral geodes. After each prompt, we usually hear from a few people about their drawings. This time Moe spoke a lot, and he described each new geode in relation to the prompt. For example, he said something to the effect of, “In this drawing, the reason you can’t see the basket handle is because you’re looking at the bottom of the basket and the animals are on the other side.” He had really great explanations of each drawing (which mostly all looked the same) that deeply related to the prompts. At that moment, I realized the class is for learning to talk about and describe your process and your practice. This is something I really value in art—hearing artists talk about their work—so I was excited to see it coming through in the class. Another attendee, Benjie (age 6), has a similar talent for explaining his drawings, and it was really exciting to watch the details grow in his work while his explanations became more and more elaborate each class. Moe and Benjie are exactly the kind of students I’m interested in teaching because they’re able to listen, refuse, imagine, produce, and offer new possibilities all at the same time.

Now that I’ve had the experience of organizing and developing my dream class with no syllabus, no burdensome grades, and no exorbitant tuition, I can’t really see how I’ll go back to the university and fit into such rigid structures prescribed for “learning.” I know that I’ll continue trying new ways to teach online because I’ve really enjoyed having people together in a shared space despite being hundreds and thousands of miles apart. I’m sure that I’ll use this experience to stay closer to my own flexibility and responsiveness. With so much freedom to experiment and explore various approaches and formats within a tight framework (1 hour, twice a week, rotating cast of classmates), I’ve grown more resilient and assured in my approach. I also feel grateful for the opportunity to work with people who genuinely want to be there—in fact, that’s probably my favorite take away from the “class” so far. After this experience, as a student, I will never again attend a class that I don’t want to be part of. Learning and teaching are so joyous when the participants are willing to check in with themselves and each other to see how things are going. If they should shift, then they shift! To be able to integrate my life and interests so deeply into my teaching practice and share that with a willing audience is a true pleasure. If you’re currently enrolled in a class that you hate attending, please get out. 

Roz Crews is an artist who makes work about education, friendship, and community-formation. She teaches research and social practice classes at Portland State University, and during Covid-19 quarantine, she’s teaching an intergenerational drawing class on Zoom. She’s a program manager at the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, a museum inside a functioning K-5 public school, where she curates a public lecture series, edits publications, and organizes exhibitions with the Student Curatorial Committee made up of 4th and 5th graders.

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