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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Rothko’

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Abstract Expressionist artist Mark Rothko had strong opinions on how to teach children art without dampening their natural creativity.

The little I know about modern artist Mark Rothko is from a theatrical production called Red that I saw in Boston. It was pretty comprehensive, but I don’t believe it covered Rothko’s views on teaching art to children. That is something I learned about from an Artsy editorial.

Sarah Gottesman wrote, “If you’ve ever seen Mark Rothko’s paintings — large canvases filled with fields of atmospheric color — and thought, ‘a child could do this,’ you’ve paid the Abstract Expressionist a compliment.

“Rothko greatly admired children’s art, praising the freshness, authenticity, and emotional intensity of their creations. And he knew children’s art well, working as an art teacher for over 20 years at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. To his students — kindergarteners through 8th graders — Rothko wasn’t an avant-garde visionary or burgeoning art star, he was ‘Rothkie.’ ‘A big bear of a man, the friendliest, nicest, warmest member of the entire school,’ his former student Martin Lukashok once recalled.

“Rothko was a thought leader in the field of children’s art education. He published an essay on the topic (‘New Training for Future Artists and Art Lovers’) in 1934, which he hoped to follow up with a book. Though he never completed the project, he left behind 49 sheets of notes, known as ‘The Scribble Book,’ which detailed his progressive pedagogy — and from which we’ve taken five lessons that Rothko wanted all art teachers to know.

“Lesson #1: Show your students that art is a universal form of expression, as elemental as speaking or singing

“Rothko taught that everyone can make art — even those without innate talent or professional training. According to the painter, art is an essential part of the human experience. … For Rothko, art was all about expression — transforming one’s emotions into visual experiences that everyone can understand. And kids do this naturally. …

“Lesson #2: Beware of suppressing a child’s creativity with academic training

“As Rothko saw it, a child’s expressiveness is fragile. When art teachers assign projects with strict parameters or emphasize technical perfection, this natural creativity can quickly turn to conformity. ‘The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic,’ Rothko explains. ‘We start with color.’ …

“When children entered his art room, all of their working materials — from brushes to clay — were already set up, ready for them to select and employ in free-form creations. No assignments needed.

“ ‘Unconscious of any difficulties, they chop their way and surmount obstacles that might turn an adult grey, and presto!’ Rothko describes. ‘Soon their ideas become visible in a clearly intelligent form.’ With this flexibility, his students developed their own unique artistic styles, from the detail-oriented to the wildly expressive. …

“Lesson #3: Stage exhibitions of your students’ works …

“For Rothko, an art teacher’s premier responsibility was to inspire children’s self-confidence. To do this, he organized public exhibitions of his students’ works across New York City, including a show of 150 pieces at the Brooklyn Museum in 1934. And when Rothko had his first solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum a year earlier, he brought his students’ works along with him and exhibited them next to his own. … Rothko wanted critics to see that fine art only requires emotional intensity to be successful.

“Lesson #4: Introduce art history with modern art (not the Old Masters) …

“With 20th-century art, children can learn from works that are similar to their own, whether through the paintings of Henri Matisse, Milton Avery, or Pablo Picasso. These iconic artists sought pure, personal forms of visual expression, free from the technical standards of the past. … But while exposure to modern art can help boost children’s confidence and creativity, it shouldn’t interfere with the development of a unique style. Rothko discouraged his students from mimicking museum works as well as his own painting practice. …

“Lesson #5: Work to cultivate creative thinkers, not professional artists

“In addition to fanning students’ creative instincts, great art teachers can help students become more self-aware, empathetic, and collaborative — and this generates better citizens in the long run, Rothko believed. At the Brooklyn Jewish Center, he hardly cared whether his students would go on to pursue careers in the arts. Instead, Rothko focused on cultivating in his students a deep appreciation for artistic expression.

“ ‘Most of these children will probably lose their imaginativeness and vivacity as they mature,’ he wrote. ‘But a few will not. And it is hoped that in their cases, the experience of eight years [in my classroom] will not be forgotten and they will continue to find the same beauty about them. As to the others, it is hoped, that their experience will help them to revive their own early artistic pleasures in the work of others.’ ”

More here.

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Today I went to the last performance of Red, a drama about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko at the SpeakEasy Stage. It starred the inimitable Thomas Derrah with a young actor who was new to me, Karl Baker Olson.

It’s always interesting to read reviews of shows that touch different creative realms. For example, an opera critic who reviews Porgy and Bess might have a different take from a theater critic.

In the case of Red, theater critics were full of praise, but an art critic I read found the story thin.

Not being either kind of critic, at least not at the moment, I thought it moving, well acted, and well directed. The set by Cristina Todesco and featuring Rothko’s studio was amazing, dim, with the chapel-like quality Rothko found necessary for communing with a painting and seeing it vibrate.

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