Eleven elementary-school teachers looked at a slide of red scribbles Monday afternoon at the Laguna Art Museum, trying to guess the age of the artist.
"Three," said one teacher.
"Two?" asked another.
"Or maybe an adult," suggested Sheila Goldberg, who teaches bilingual first- and second-grade classes in Santa Ana.
Tim Jahns smiled and explained that the "scribbles" were done by American artist Cy Twombly, who produced the work on canvas with a crayon when he was in his 50s. Jahns, the Irvine Fine Arts Center's education coordinator, said the piece was part of Twombly's ongoing exploration of the expressive potential of small marks on a surface.
Jahns' talk at this teacher workshop, part of an ongoing series, was intended to define often-misunderstood terms such as art, aesthetics, taste and standards and also "to pose some challenges" for teachers whose training and backgrounds may not have had much to do with art.
"Good art education involves a lot more than hands-on activities," Jahns said, referring to the painting and drawing activities that typically go on in the classroom.
For children, art education is fun, a great outlet for self-expression and also a means of teaching "visual literacy"--looking at the world with increased awareness. ("Art may be a universal language," Jahns told the teachers, "but it takes experience to learn it and use it well.")
Jahns encouraged openness toward forms of art that may not be considered conventionally beautiful ("Art isn't as simple as we'd like to think") and stressed the importance of the processes that go into making the finished work of art ("A lifetime went into that painting!").
Using slides of freshly painted and chalked lines on a black asphalt playground ("I find these kinds of things all the time"), he illustrated the importance of "seeing the artistic in the everyday."
Jahns believes that it is wrong to harp on "talent" in the classroom, calling it "an unhealthy notion (that) takes the joy out of (art)." At the same time, he said, it's important that students develop their analytical abilities and advised that "it's never too early (to hang up student work and ask), 'Which ones do you like best, and for what reasons?' "
But these classroom projects have to be developed with flair. "Simplistic, standardized art projects stifle creativity," Jahns said. "Children need room for invention--to experiment and test out things."
As if in answer to Jahns' plea, after a tour of the museum's exhibition of Larry Bell's vapor drawings, the teachers regrouped for a lively session of hands-on activity led by Norwood Creech, a museum education intern.
"I've worked with some kids who are scared to touch the paper," Creech said cheerily, eyeing teachers tentatively covering a piece of paper with water-dampened brushes. "Just do it."
The project--a lesson about the differences between cool and warm colors--involved running a blue watercolor-dipped brush over the sheet in one continuous action ("Don't go back over it") and applying yellow on top.
When the paper dried sufficiently, teachers were instructed to cut an elliptical shape out of the center (mimicking some of Bell's works) and paste both parts onto another sheet of paper.
"There's a hole in my paper, teach," whined one of the teachers in imitation of her students.
"Is it time for recess?" chimed another.
Creech surveyed her brood.
"When you hold them up, the colors will run," she said. "Are you doing that because you want that effect or because you don't know better?" Nervous laughter from the teachers.
Cleaning up afterward, they were enthusiastic about the session and the importance of art in the classroom.
"I feel equipped to talk a little more about art," said Terry Hustwick, who teaches fourth grade at Top of the World School in Laguna Beach,
"Teachers don't have the time or background (for art)," remarked D.J. Gray, art educator for the Laguna Beach Unified School District. "Art is always relegated to the last 10 minutes of Friday afternoon (but) in California, especially, where we have so many immigrants who don't speak English, art is one thing that can bring them together."
Future teacher workshops at the Laguna Art Museum will be held March 14 and May 9. Other educational programs sponsored by the museum include "Art From the Museum" (traveling exhibits for the classroom with teacher training workshops) and children's art tours at the museum (Wednesdays between 9 and 11 a.m. and Fridays between 9 and 3 p.m., by reservation). Call the museum at (714) 494-6531 for more information.