What’s the point of studying visual art?
Every student has asked the familiar question: “When am I ever going to use this?” I recently had a conversation with a very talented artist and art educator, Chris Screws, who helped answer that question for visual art classes. Mr. Screws has 19 years of experience teaching art at all levels. In our conversation, I asked him how he got into art and teaching it. Then we moved to the classroom, exploring his take on classroom management, interdisciplinary collaboration, and finally, his larger teaching philosophy, where he shared with me the true purpose of studying art. Whether you’re an educator, an artist, or just someone with an interest in learning, I think you’ll find this excerpt from our conversation enlightening.
Mr. Screws, how did you get into art? Is it something that you grew up always doing? What does that story look like?
I just want to learn how to draw Batman! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. I think that’s true with most children. It’s just part of your life: you create. At a certain point it stops for most kids, but for me it didn’t. Around 6th grade my parents found someone locally who taught art lessons and I learned how to draw people better and how to paint landscapes, and other traditional aspects of art. I constantly had to remind the teacher that I just wanted to learn how to draw Batman! But we came back to that. I eventually learned that I need to know how to draw a person before I can draw a particular person.
I’ve noticed in your classroom you have a lot of Funko Pops and things like that, so I guess comic books and super heroes are right up your alley?
It’s interesting that you started out with an interest in comics. It makes sense that can be an avenue for kids to get into full blown art careers. They’re in contact with art at all times through comics, cartoons, etc. Okay, you got into art through Batman…. How did you get into teaching in particular?
I think that comes back to what I saw growing up. My father is a United Methodist Minister and my mother is a teacher, so showing other people how to do things is something I was always around. I think art is this perfect combination of showing people how to create things. There’s an educational aspect, but there’s also the fulfilling of our soul within it. It’s not just a typical core class.
Indeed! There’s an expression involved that you may not see in core classes for whatever it is inside that wants to come out through art. Do you think people overestimate the role of talent when it comes to learning art?
I think so, yes.
Right, I’m no artist, but when you talk to people about art they always tend to default to “I can’t draw,” and “I can’t paint.” I always think, well there’s a whole lot of art teachers out there that may argue differently!
Yes! Everyday in the classroom I hear, “I can’t.” What I want to say is, sure, you can’t… yet. We have to add that yet to the end of it. I totally believe that there are people who are more inclined to want to learn, and I think people read that as skill because they’re looking at others who are not necessarily on their first day doing art. This happens in my classroom everyday, but especially in Art 1 classes. You see kids who are trying art for the first time, then there are other kids who are not at the beginning of the journey, they’re in the middle of their journey. The kid at the beginning sees the one in the middle and they see the discrepancies between their pieces, and it’s tough. We’ve got to get them over that hurdle, and that’s part of the job.
I think so much of that is born out of comparing oneself to other people. Speaking of that issue, how do you address your student’s individual learning needs when you have such a wide spectrum of skill represented in your classes?
We have to call it out. That’s the first step. You can’t just leave it unsaid, you have to call it out. As soon as child realizes that you see they’re struggling or having issues, that’s the first step. If you just go on about your business and you’re teaching your content without addressing that kid who has less experience, they’re going to get discouraged, and they’re going to want to quit. They’re not going to stick with it.
It can be easy to assume that student might just ask for that extra help, but that’s not really always the case. Often you have kids who, if the teacher isn’t there and seeing what’s going on, are never going to speak up, because maybe they feel embarrassed or they’re just naturally shy.
Sure. There’s also that comfort level, where maybe we haven’t established that trust yet. The beginning part of every semester is going to be very difficult, especially in the Art 1 class, because the students don’t know me and I don’t know them, yet I’m asking them to do something that they’ve never done before, that they’re not confident in. Because of that we have to establish that trust first. Until then, it’s very difficult to get them to ask questions, so it has to be me going to them and saying hey, we see there’s an issue here, but that’s okay.
I think part of that trust is you saying that it’s okay and completely natural to have made mistakes.
Right. I try to relate to their experience to my own. I was where they were at one point. Occasionally I might have a piece of art that I did previously that wasn’t the best. I’ve got tons of superhero drawings from middle school, and I’ve shared those with some of my kids. I lets them see that I’ve been there too, so they can see that this is what it did look like when I was just starting, and this is what it can look like. Now we can talk about how I got from here to there and how you can do the same.
What does classroom management look like for you?
It could be different for younger ages — I started teaching in a middle school, and that was tougher — but in the high school setting, whenever I have issues, I just talk to the student. I try not to call them out in front of their friends because that’s just going to be confrontational, which is always bad. I try to have a conversation with them, maybe when they get up to sharpen their pencil or something, so it doesn’t look like I’m confronting them out of nowhere. I try to have conversations where I’ll just ask them what’s going. Usually it’s totally unrelated to what’s happening in my room. That behavior doesn’t just come out of nowhere or even out of something that happens in the 90 minutes that I have them. It’s something that happened that morning or the previous night. But they also don’t want to share that information until you’ve gained a little bit of trust. Just talk to them. Have that conversation. Show that you care about them as you calmly address the issue.
Let’s say you have a kid who isn’t a behavioral issue, but maybe they don’t really want to do the work. Perhaps they just landed in your class without actually choosing it. What are some strategies that you use to motivate students in those situations?
Going back to that trust, I really find that once they get to know you a little bit they’re more willing to try. Even if art is not something they’re totally into, if they can feel comfortable, they’re willing to try. I’ve found very few students who, once they try it and once they get into it a little bit, don’t follow through. It’s a super rare occurrence. I also set my expectations as clearly as I possibly can so that their pathway to learning and to success in the class is as clear as possible.
What does interdisciplinary collaboration look like in your art classes? Do you do a lot of that?
It happens a lot in our Special Effects class, because the types of projects we do have connections all over the place, so we have to take an interdisciplinary approach. We work with Industrial Maintenance a lot to do 3D printing for some items that we need. We also worked with them to build a functioning heart model that we used as a learning tool for our Anatomy classes. We sculpted a heart that was slightly larger than life size, just for educational purposes. We sculpted it out of clay and molded it using a special type of plaster for molding prosthetics. We put latex balloons inside the mold that we ran through the different chambers. Then we hooked it up to a pump that Industrial Maintenance built so that it could pump and beat. It took a long time! We also have interdisciplinary connections on a smaller scale with some of our Art class projects. We try to involve math classes when we’re doing perspective. Since we’re always talking about angles, math comes into play a lot. When we talk about drawing faces and human proportions, both fractions and anatomy play their part. We also collaborate with the Theatre program to help paint backdrops and design sets. This past year we sculpted and molded five original masks for our Theatre class that went on to be used in our local Trumbauer competition.
That’s so cool! I would like to figure out how to do a little bit more of that in my classes to get that connection going, because it’s really interesting for the kids to break those boundaries and see where subjects can connect. It makes their education more meaningful.
Yes, and you hear that old question less: “When am I going to use this.”
Well with art, I think we underestimate the amount of artwork, and graphic design that is around us all the time. Anytime you interface with your phone or your computer or anything like that, you’re looking at the result of thousands and thousands of artists’ work. Somebody drew and designed all of those little images that flood your screens.
It’s certainly everywhere, but in addition to that, the whole point of an art class, no matter what level, is to learn problem-solving. The goal is to learn how to solve a problem.
So problem-solving is at the base of studying art, for you?
Yes. It really hits in the advanced classes, like in our SFX class or AP Art, because they require you to take those entry-level classes to gain some skills. In my beginner level classes, I’m concerned about them learning how to draw, how to design, how to paint and learning and the basics of sculpture. Then in those advanced classes, it’s all about application. At that point, they have the tools they need to solve the problems that either I present to them or that they discover for themselves. Hopefully that gets translated to their entire life.
To your point, I think when anyone starts teaching become aware of the need and of the situations that some of the kids come from and it’s very tempting to feel, out of compassion, that you are what I see described as “So much more than a _________ teacher.” When I was a first-year teacher, I was certainly in that position. I felt like my content should almost take a backseat to a larger picture. Since then I have come to believe that is an incomplete way of looking at things. I now believe that your philosophical purpose can be set within your content, and that can positively impact your students. When you tell me that the key to art is problem-solving, I feel like you might be on the same page. Would you agree with that idea?
You say problem-solving is the underlying theme of art, and I think that’s the perfect way to put it. For me, as a Spanish teacher, the underlying theme is that we’re confronting the other. There are literacy skills involved in learning a new language, sure, but the underlying philosophical purpose is that you’re going to confront the other if you try to learn another language. That develops things like compassion and empathy, and it fosters an understanding of the sacredness of all life.
When I understand that, now it’s not that I am a public servant first and a Spanish teacher last. It’s really that being a great Spanish teacher is a public service, and that’s a high bar to strive toward. Being a great Spanish teacher, a great Art teacher, or a great Math teacher then becomes a high goal to reach after.
Right. They’re not disparate things.