The Power of an Inspiring Visual Arts Program

Juli B. Kramer, PhD
January 2016
Art work

Picture ziti pasta shells strung into a necklace with yarn or glued onto flimsy paper. Think back to dried leaves and flowers cracking and falling off of cardboard squares, or paint peeling off of the tips of pinecones. Envision images from coloring book pages filled in with crayons and dried-out markers. And what about countless misshapen pinch pots with paint slapped on in a hurried dash out the door?

While we should commend any kind of effort to get campers making some form of art, these examples are missed opportunities for young people to learn something about themselves, develop their creativity, and take home something beautiful that makes them proud. Many camps have strong art programs that spin off story after story of lives changed and countless images of beautiful artwork. Others have not yet realized the value, or do not yet have an idea of how to get where they want to go with visual arts.

Why does art matter, and what does it mean to inspire campers? It helps to define the word "inspire." A great working definition of inspire from a Google search is "to fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative." When campers have materials and instruction that are inspiring, they want to take risks; they want to try to make something special. When the project yields something cool or beautiful, campers feel further inspired. They also see themselves differently and feel a sense of pride and power at their capabilities. Some campers find this love at school. However, with the pressures of standardized testing and dwindling resources, many campers have only a few days of art each year, while some may never have any art at all. How are they to find this side of themselves? How are they to find their inspiration, the urge to do something creative? Camps can fill this gap.

In my experience, an inspiring visual arts program at camp consists of so much more than simple projects. Time in the art room with a motivated specialist can help campers by enhancing positive identity development, promoting healthy risk taking, and working past mistakes and failures. A meaningful program also strengthens the overall camp mission and bottom line value for campers and their families. But how do you build a great program? A few key steps can help.

Passionate, Skilled, and Caring Instructor

A visual arts instructor who has experience with a wide range of materials and loves bringing out the best artist in each child will do more to build a strong art program than any investment in supplies. Such an instructor can go to the back of the kitchen or shop shed and design projects that will wow the campers. This person may be an art teacher working at camp during the summer or even a college student. In addition to having a strong skill set, this person's love of children and inspiring their art-making is critical.

Questions asked in the hiring process can give you a glimpse of what candidates will be like in the art room.

  • What does creativity mean to you?
  • If all of the campers get a piece of canvas, the same paint colors, and an assortment of brushes, how do you make sure they all create unique products?
  • How to you motivate campers who say they are not artistic?
  • How do you manage your art space to help campers access materials and finish their projects?

Look for concrete answers that draw upon past experience. Good answers include responses such as:

  • "I never have a model of a finished product that the campers have to copy."
  • "Trees with pink trunks and blue leaves are totally fine with me."
  • "Creativity means that each work of art has a unique story behind it."
  • "When campers say they are not artistic, they usually mean they cannot draw. Art is so much more than drawing."
  • "I have a great pinch pot project; instead of campers just making pinch pots, they make rattles from pinch pots. Before they put the two sides together, they write a wish on a piece of paper to put inside the ball. Every time they shake the rattle, they think of the wish."

These answers suggest thoughtfulness and care for the campers and the creative process.

During the summer, you can assess your art staff 's performance using some of the following criteria:

  • How does the art instructor look at your campers?
  • Does he or she see the unique artistic potential in each person?
  • Can he or she take a camper with weaker fine motor skills and improve those skills, or even help him or her make a sculpture versus a drawing?
  • How does the art instructor help campers overcome frustrations when things do not go as planned with a project, what tone of voice is used, and how are suggestions offered that enable campers to keep trying?
  • Do campers finish projects?
  • How does the art room's organization and flow facilitate creativity and completion of artwork? How does the art instructor weave in the camp mission, themes, and goals in a creative way to inspire campers?

What if you have to grow your own art specialist? Partner him or her with an experienced teacher in his or her home community as a mentor, or find a camp that has an art specialist who excels and have that person mentor your instructor. The role of a mentor is to help plan out how to store materials in a way that allows a smooth flow and access to resources, to share fun and unique projects, to brainstorm on how to bring in the camp's mission and themes, and to explore how to best support campers' creative development. A teacher in the community will need to remember that art at camp focuses on fun and creativity rather than theory and art history. One can find many resources online that can help jump-start ideas for projects, but a mentor offers a wider range of support and increases the likelihood of success.

Meaningful Materials

Meaningful materials do not have to mean expensive materials, but quality materials go a long way toward campers feeling that their finished products matter. The idea is that campers feel like they are taking home something worthwhile, something they want to keep and display. A mixed media sculpture from found objects at camp can create this feeling and only cost the price of quality glue. Instead of using flimsy paper, the art specialist can buy a large role of untreated canvas at a relatively low price, gesso the canvas, and then cut it into smaller sizes for the campers. Instead of tempura paint, campers can use nontoxic acrylics purchased for about the same price as the tempura. Painting on canvas with acrylics has a more substantial, quality feel than painting on paper with tempura paints and is a method I've used with campers as young as four years old. Asking the hardware store near your camp to save quality trimming scraps from which to make frames is another way to give a painting, drawing, or mixed media piece a feeling of importance and quality.

If you do not have a kiln, is there a potter or pottery studio in your area that can fire pieces for a small fee? Having a fired product, versus one made from air-dried clay, feels more permanent and professional.

For more cost-efficient materials suggestions, and a host of other online art resources, refer to the Additional Resources sidebar accompanying this article.

Choices, Risks, and Community

Once campers are inspired, the real value of making art begins. Making art involves choices and risks. What colors of paint do you combine? What brushes do you choose? What objects go together in which ways to make a sculpture? How do you collaborate with others to paint a mural? In your program, what choices do campers get to make with the quality materials you provide?

A great project for offering choices is making ceramic whistles, which can be crafted in a wide range of shapes and with a variety of glazes.

Have campers keep all of the objects they use over a specified period of time. Then instruct them to use these items — whether a special rock, a candy wrapper from the camp store, a used battery, etc. — to make a sculpture about themselves. The objects themselves are unique to each camper, with the final construction of the sculpture further allowing individual choice. Most importantly, encourage the use of special activities, themes, and camp goals to inspire art lessons. Your art instructor will approach instruction differently when creativity and unique products serve as the primary goal.

Art also allows kids to make mistakes, find solutions, and learn resiliency, an important goal for many camps. If you're just learning to draw, how do you find your style? How do you bounce back from breaking a clay whistle after working on it for many hours? When your art specialist stays calm when a camper feels upset and helps problem solve with that child, the camper learns how to better manage his or her stress. Sometimes the camper can find a solution that does not require starting over. Other times, it's back to ground zero. The value lies in the process of purposefully talking about what happened and moving forward.

Providing examples of famous artists who made mistakes and started over can help. A fun lesson from the Denver Art Museum Creativity Resource goes into how an x-ray examination of a work of art showed how Bernardo Zenale completely changed the positioning of his final painting from his sketches on the canvas (Denver Art Museum Creativity Resource for Teachers, 2009).

Allowing a true studio environment at your camp to f lourish stands as an important goal of a strong visual arts program and leads to an important outcome — community building, leadership, and relationship development. As campers work on a project, allow time for them to walk around and see what everyone is doing. Encourage them to gather ideas from projects they like, telling them to tweak the ideas to make them their own. Take time to talk about what they see, both during the intermediary gallery walks and when the projects are finished. Display the final products with the artist's name on a small card and the title of the piece pinned on or placed next to the piece. Just the simple act of naming creates in a camper a sense of pride and ownership, and the feeling of being an artist.

Support campers to help each other. They will have different levels of ability and confidence, which vary depending on each project. Set up the tables in a way that allows them to talk with each other and move around easily to help a friend. The studio feel also comes from having systems that afford easy access to supplies, clearly understood and reinforced systems for cleaning up, and art talk from the counselor. When these elements are in place, the art room becomes a special place that invites campers to create. Building relationships in the art room motivates campers to try new things and get more creative. They find success and a sense of belonging, which feels great.

Skill Development and Creativity

Finding the "just right" level of skills development is important. Imagine jumping over a creek. If the distance from one side to the other is only one foot, you don't feel like you really had to work hard to get from one side to the other. If the distance is six feet, you cannot overcome the distance and either end up stuck or in the water. However, if you have to jump a few feet, you might feel a sense of accomplishment when you leap across. Having just the right challenge helps campers feel accomplished — the exact feeling you should aim for in the art room. Taking a baseline measure from warm-up activities that have the campers work with the medium for that day without a high-risk final product attached is a great way to assess campers' skill levels. The art specialist can then adapt the lesson as needed to make sure everyone can succeed.

Once they have the technical skills, campers can think and produce more creatively. They have the confidence to find novel ways to apply paint, bend wire, sculpt clay, and more. The artistic process can also invite campers to think more deeply about who they are. Projects can ask them to examine who they are culturally, why they choose certain colors, and what story they want the art to tell. As campers enhance their creativity, camps can achieve their mission in deeper, more meaningful ways.

How Art Helps Camps

Camp is made for art. We want campers to connect with their inner selves as well as each other. We want them to try new things and get a little out of their comfort zone, and art does just that. At the same time, art is made for camp. When campers take home and revere a work of art made at camp, they add to their positive memories. Parents have a tangible product of their child's experience. Often the artwork helps parents see their child in a new light, amazed at what they are capable of making.

From a business perspective, which is important to consider, camp stays front and center every time the campers and their family members look at that work of art. Whenever current and former campers and parents see me outside of camp, they always talk about specific works of art hanging up or being used in their home, even years later. They hold positive associations with camp that could be one important factor motivating a child to return to camp.

The ultimate goal of a visual arts program is truly to inspire — to fill campers with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. Developing a strong visual arts program helps campers feel relaxed and positive each time they are in the art room. To capture that idea, I turn to the wisdom of youth:

Overall, there're lots of people you could tell love art. It really helps them get through life sometimes, and I feel that way too. Sometimes when you're working with art it really helps you and, I don't know, it just makes you feel better. — Kira, an 11-year-old camper 

 

Additional Resources
Beyond your usual art supply resources:

Lesson plans and ideas:

  • Great book: The Art Teacher's Survival Guide for Elementary and Middle Schools 2nd Edition, by Helen Hume
  • Excellent for new art specialists, with ideas on flow and process in the classroom=
  • Incredible Art Department: www.incredibleart.org
  • Beau Coup (article, Learn Art: Be Unique and Let Your Creativity Flow): 
  • University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Spiral Art Education (a great website for all things about art instructions)
    And some specific UIC lessons that could easily meet camp mission and goals
  • Clay Whistles
  • Jerry's Artarama (offers basic lessons, but they're great foundations from which to get creative)
  • Denver Art Museum (these lessons tend to tie to artwork, but they can inspire ideas for other lessons)

Photo courtesy of Juli Kramer, PhD.

References
Denver Art Museum Creativity Resource for Teachers (2009). Getting it right. Retrieved from http://creativity.denverartmuseum.org/?lessonplan= getting-it-right Eisner, E.W. (2004). The arts and the creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Juli Kramer, PhD, owns Art for the Whole Child through which she runs art camps/ classes. She taught K-12 Art Methods at the University of Denver and writes curriculum for the Denver Art Museum. Juli also directed the JCC Ranch Camp for seven years and has taught for 27 years. She can be reached at artmindcreative@outlook.com.