Art Education at TSBVI: “We Make What We Want”
Authors: Sara Kitchen, VI Outreach Consultant, TSBVI
Keywords: fine arts, art education, West Austin Studio Tour, art show, film festival, STEM, Expanded Core Curriculum, ECC, APH, American Printing House for the Blind, COSB, Council of Schools for the Blind, POSB, Principals of Schools for the Blind
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The TSBVI Art Program has an active and vibrant presence in the art community. They put on two art shows a year; one in the fall, and one in the spring. Their spring show has been a part of the West Austin Studio Tour (http://west.bigmedium.org/) for three years running. I interviewed Gretchen Bettes, Art Teacher at TSBVI, and six of her students who took time out on a Monday morning to share a little of their experiences with art. All of the students identified themselves as artists. They spoke of the importance of imagination, choices, the freedom to create, to plan, and to have fun though making art. There were no cookie-cutter answers. Each student’s unique personality shone through in their descriptions of their own particular journey.
Bettes was nationally awarded as the “Outstanding Teacher of Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired” during the October 2018 ceremony at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, KY by the Council of Schools for the Blind (COSB) and the Principals of Schools for the Blind (POSB). She attended with one of her students, NayNay Long, who accepted an award for TSBVI art students’ collaborative work. Their work, The Purr-fect Dream is a stop-motion movie (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STaqJTfFudA) that was entered into the APH InSights Art Competition (https://www.aph.org/aph-insights-juried-art-competition-and-exhibition-for-artists-who-are-visually-impaired-and-blind/) and won first prize for grades 10, 11, and 12.
In educational dialogue, the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) have been considered the most important skill areas a person can have for a bright future. While these skill sets may be helpful, certain real-world applications are not always emphasized, giving students theory but not a lot of practical use. Art projects are basically science experiments. They must be engineered so that they physically work, and they provide lots of opportunities to problem solve, to come up with an equation, and to see if it works in real life. Bettes remarked how physical interactions with the world connect to multiple areas of the brain and build memory. “The more senses you can add into learning about something, the more you’re going to remember it and the stronger it will be. I know that if I think about something, I might remember it. If I write it down, I possibly will remember it, but if I draw a picture of it or something like that, it’s there. I don’t forget that concept because I’ve put my body into it, so to speak, not just my mind.” Art education can help tie the STEM areas with real-life experiences, as well as with other core curriculum subjects like history, literature, and writing.
Not only do art projects give concrete experiences that link to concepts learned in other subject areas, but there is also the “craft” part to consider. Bettes teaches functional, everyday skills a person needs for a successful adulthood. “It’s helpful in your adult life to be able to sew a button on your clothes or to be able to fix your house.” Wealthy Bundage, one of the students interviewed, had a similar take. “It helps me so I can know how to make things—fix things up on my own when I grow up. It’s designing, like building a new house.”
Art offers an opportunity to work with all sorts of media. Bettes explained, “I guide them at first so that they can start guiding me. I teach them various media—we try them out. The only rule I have is that students try out everything we have in here. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t have experience so you can’t give me an informed opinion of what you like and don’t like.” Bundage, who used to like to draw when she had vision, still likes “scribble-scrabbling – it’s still art,” she stressed, though she added, “I’m inspired by new things. I don’t usually turn something down.” Students are encouraged to try all the various methods and media, even when it’s scary. Austin Baxter shared, “I never sewed a fabric piece because I was probably afraid that I would hurt myself. It made me feel a little nervous and then I got the hang of it, and then I was very proud.” In fact, Baxter sewed a 12.5 feet long snake he called Anaconda!
Students are walked through a process when being introduced to a new medium or skill. Bettes shared, “Students try a skill at first and I’m with them, supporting them. And then they do it again and I’m not with them. At that point they know what’s going on because it’s been broken down into simple steps. It’s really structured in here, because that’s the best way to teach, no matter what you’re teaching. It’s doing it in a way so that the kids can repeat it.” Learning a process gives an opportunity to plan, make choices, and problem solve. “I like to think about things for a long time,” Baxter said, adding, “You have to lay out the foundation, then do the constructing of the project, and then complete it.” He let me know how much time it took to make his ceramic work, Baby Anaconda, due to all the necessary steps, and how ceramics take a long time in general. He had to make the snake from clay and let it dry for a long time. Then it was fired in a kiln, painted with glaze, and fired again before there was a final product. He decided to give the snake yellow dots.
Not only do students get to plan their own projects, they also help plan two art shows a year. Bettes described how they set up the spring and fall art shows: “The students come out into the hallway and we line up artwork and talk about it. I talk about how you can arrange art by theme, by artist, by color; we talk about the different ways to arrange the art so that it has a flow to it. It’s as if we’re telling a story about what we do in art.” Students who have been enrolled in art class for a number of years can share their memories and experience with the newer students. “Yes, we did that three years ago,” “we’ve been telling stories for four years,” and “wow, remember that story we told last year?” This provides students with an opportunity to explore ideas as a group and benefit from one another’s experience.
It was evident from the interviews that for these students, art is a mode of self-expression and self-confidence. Tré Martin said it felt good just to make something, just to create something that “I like and that other people would like.” Making art for the enjoyment of others is a way to connect with the community as well as with the self. Tré draws inspiration directly from the media with which he works. “I picture a lot of things when I’m working with clay. It sends me a lightbulb into my head and then I know what to make.” Bundage is planning her next project as a gift. “I am sewing a pillow for my friend. Her birthday is next month and she likes unicorns, so I’m going to sew a unicorn on the pillow.”
Through the expression of art, students also learn about themselves. “Some people need art to express themselves to other people. It helps me that way,” Martin told me. Of her weaving titled Woven Consciousness (pictured to the left of the shelves of ceramics pieces), Victoria Sanders explained, ‘‘It makes me think about myself, honestly, because it’s so tightly bound and you can’t really undo it. It kind of symbolizes what the inside of my mind probably looks like. It’s not all jumbled, but it’s somewhat jumbled. It’s got knots, it’s got some holes, but it’s mostly neat.” Ilen Valdez expressed a feeling of excitement to show her piece to others even while it’s still just being made, and said it relates to her first love, singing, and to performance in general. “It makes me feel like I’m presenting it,” she said. She spoke of her own imagination as inspiration for her art and how she likes to make tiaras out of clay because, after all, performers wear tiaras!
Through Bettes’ art classes, students gain real-life experience in the art world by building a portfolio of their work and entering pieces into art shows. “They leave here with an artist’s resume that is pretty complete. They understand that if they forget, they can look in their portfolio. They can look back on accomplishments and have a feeling of pride, the ability to look at where they once were and where they are now, which is always interesting.” Other achievements she mentioned include:
- Our music video “Special Ed” won second place on the national level in the APH Insight Art Competition. This is a national art competition for people who are blind or visually impaired. This makes two years in a row that we have not only gotten into the competition, but placed. Last year, we won first place for our stop-motion movie The Purr-fect Dream that we made with Johnny Villarreal and The Edge of Imagination Station.
- Our student work has been written about in the Austin Chronicle, May 2017.
- Our student work will be part of a wall mural by Amado Pena at the Highland ACC Fine Arts Building.
- Our student work was featured in the Winter 2017 edition of Howe’s Now, a newsletter of the Council of the Schools for the Blind (COSB).
- We have been a featured stop on the WEST Austin Studio Tour for the last three years, meaning that the WEST crew suggests us as a cool place to go.
- We were chosen to show at 2dance2dream (https://www.2dance2dream.org/), a program dedicated to providing dance for individuals with special needs.
- We were featured in the Gourd Society magazine for our work The Gourd-geous Gourds. It is part of a permanent installation in TSBVIS Fine Arts Building.
After hearing all these successful ventures, an art teacher might want to know how Bettes is so strongly able to motivate these young artists. Her method is simple, she explains—she just follows her students’ interests to spur their own inspiration. “I do that by conversation. I ask, ‘What is a class that you took that was interesting to you or you thought could be interesting to you? What did you enjoy about it?’ With each answer that they give me, I’m building a little portfolio in my mind of who the student is, what is their relationship to art, and what they enjoy doing, and then we go off that.” When students are allowed and encouraged to go with what already drives them, it makes use of their natural curiosity. Alyssa Bosstick, who was the videographer for the recent submission Special Ed, commented that she is inspired by YouTube videos. “I find stuff online and if I like it, I try to make it within the resources provided by my art room.” Valdez shared that her work, Oh Morocco, which is also her catch-phrase, was inspired by her research on the Middle East, of all things. “I read it in a book called Africa that I got from the library. I was trying to find a book on the Middle East and then I found Africa and decided to check it out.”
In Bettes’ class, the emphasis is on expression and on drawing out her students. Her students flourish in a judgement-free atmosphere that allows them to nurture the budding artists within them, to make their own choices, and to follow their imagination. Bosstick emphasized, “I prefer creative freedom and I don’t want to be told what is considered good . . . teachers should grade art students on how they use the process and their expression instead of a ‘perfect-looking’ item.” Sanders has learned that, “With art, there are not really as many wrongs as there are rights!” She added, “Ms. Gretchen helps us do things we don’t know how to do or that we need help with, but she runs her class by saying we make what we want.”