In her autobiographical novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the famous 20th century American novelist Betty Smith writes about her experiences in a grim state school in New York, describing the visits from a couple of Art teachers as “the gold and silver sun-splash in the great muddy river of school days.”
The joy and self-fulfilment brought by even half an hour of sketching and painting is evident in the radiant faces of the six and seven year olds who have chosen this activity as their free lunch-hour extra with Year 2 Teacher Assistant, Maureen Purdue, at King’s College Madrid.
“I dreamed of these shapes and now I am drawing them,” says one small girl, who then proceeds to use a muted palette of watercolours to add to the ethereal effect.
“I love painting. It’s my favourite thing,” pipes another, who is busy with an intricate grangoli pattern she has devised herself.
It is a statement of the obvious that Art is a class children eagerly look forward to. No one doubts that it boosts their creativity and, in early childhood, helps to develop fine motor skills. There are few children in the western world who do not wield a paintbrush at some point during their week, producing childlike masterpieces of people sprouting legs from their heads.
But for some reason, when children move into adolescence, Art becomes a subject that won’t count for much unless the student is a budding Van Gogh or a 21st century Picasso. There is, it seems, more serious, labour-intensive work to be done.
A visit to the Year 13 A-level class in King’s College Madrid, however, explodes this myth. If it were ever true, it certainly seems out-dated now. Scarcely any of the students working on their final exam projects are planning to go to Art College to pursue Art as a career. But they do all consider it fundamental to their futures.
Paula, who has her sights set on the business side of the fashion industry, explains that studying Art had helped her hone her time management skills. “I have to find time to do the work and be mature enough to forego being with my friends to dedicate time to it,” she says.
Meanwhile, Luca, who is going on to study biomedical science, offers this insight: “Studying Art changes the way you think. I want to get into research and that demands creativity and finding something new.”
According to Ian Robertson, Art teacher and Subject Coordinator at King’s College Madrid, Art is no longer seen as a “soft” subject. “Not only is the marking more stringent, but A-level Art requires a tremendous amount of work and dedication that is on-going for two years,” he says.
As Ian points out, the students he is teaching now are looking at the prospect of five or six jobs in their lifetimes. Perhaps it is no longer advisable to stick to a rigid path, choosing instead at least one subject that covers a wide variety of skills.
“The students doing A-level Art work on skills that universities and employers are looking for nowadays,” says Ian. “There’s a lot of research involved, not just for their final project but also for a 3,000-word thesis on their chosen subject. Then there is the experimentation as they develop an idea, which requires thinking outside the box.”
One of Ian’s students who did pursue Art after school in 2014 was Cecilia Sebastián de Erice who did an Honours Degree in Fine Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University. After a Masters in Art Market, she now has a diverse professional life, working for the International Contemporary Art Fair (ARCO) in Madrid while managing her own art studio and launching an Art magazine focused on events and connecting agents.
“To this day Mr Robertson’s teachings are always on my mind when I paint,” she says. “For me painting is a fundamental means for expression. Also, the Art facilities at King’s College were very complete. We had access to a great variety of materials to explore and experiment freely.”
This is a concrete example of how King’s College schools help to facilitate both in the classroom and beyond. But even those who do not pursue Art after school will take away the valuable art of thinking laterally. “They will be better prepared to face the world,” says Ian.
This is something the Head Art teacher at King’s College Panama, Erica Hayward, has been encouraging in her Year 9 students as they carry out independent investigations into how to create images in 3-point perspective while also inventing their own optical art, using their prior knowledge of point perspective drawings.
Independence is key in the Art room. In fact, by Year 13, Ian explains that the students function almost entirely alone. “I am there really just as a facilitator,” he says.
Adaptability is, of course, of the essence. “The fact they can make mistakes helps them to accept their strengths and weaknesses,” says Ian. “If they’re not making mistakes, they are not developing. Really, nothing is ever a mistake as such. Something can always be salvaged and adapted.”
This has certainly been the case with Ana, a student who sees her future in developing her own brand of sustainable products. “I don’t like accepting mistakes,” she says. “But last year when I was exploring expressionism, it allowed me to gain confidence in doing so.”
With the tsunami of technology pulling us increasingly away from the Arts in education in general, scientists have been exploring how they can be used to complement learning.
The 2006 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum study, for example, found that both literacy and critical thinking were boosted when artists were sent into schools to help students come up with a piece of art work.
Meanwhile, a study carried out by the John Hopkins School of Education showed that weaving Art into more theoretical subjects helped these to be better absorbed. “A lot of the information we teach doesn’t stick,” says Mariale Hardiman, a Professor at the school who is directing the neuroeducation initiative. When learning becomes more visual, she adds, students are more liable to recall it.
Finally, Ronald Beghetto, a Professor of Educational Psychology and the Director of Innovation House at the University of Connecticut, is quoted in the New York Times, saying, “We tend as adults to over-plan and over-structure young people’s experiences… Working through some creative endeavour, we’re really resolving uncertainty. We approach the blank canvas.”