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All things considered.

A Soap Opera

Recently, our five-year-old grand-daughter spent the weekend with us. She brought her dolls--a boy doll and a girl doll. Soon after her arrival, she decided that the dolls needed a bath. We filled a dishpan with water and set up a table on the deck. (That was the extent of grandparent involvement in this little story.) Then she went into the bathroom looking for a washcloth, towels, and soap. In the cupboard she found a basket full of small bars of soap that I habitually collect when traveling. Intrigued, she carried the basket outside and spread all the bars of soap over the table. Unprompted, she then began sorting the soap into two groups--soap for boy dolls and soap for girl dolls.

The first grouping was by shape--round and oval bars for girls, square and rectangular bars for boys. The two piles were further subdivided by the packaging. Unwrapped or boxed soaps were for boys. Bars wrapped with paper and bearing a gold or silver seal (those from high-end hotels) were for girls. Then she assigned the category of smell. I'm not sure what criteria came into play here, except there were moments of hesitation and second thoughts about whether a bar smelled like a boy or a girl. During this round, some bars went back into the basket because they didn't smell like either a boy or a girl. After an intense (and much appreciated) half-hour of independent sorting, she finally selected one bar for the boy doll and one for the girl. The actual bathing of the dolls went rather quickly--and both bars of soap were used on both dolls, "Because," she explained, "it doesn't really matter. Once it gets wet, it's just soap."

So What's the Point?

I'm sharing this story because if I had wanted to plan a lesson on visual culture for young students, I could not have structured a better sequence. Imagination, curiosity, inquiry, interpretation of form and presentation, consideration of sensory elements, cultural influences, criticism, identity, and gender stereotype all came into play--mostly nonverbally--in the inventive and independent play of a five-year-old girl who is adjusting to life with a new baby brother.

This was a visual and sensory exercise involving instinctive observation, ongoing description, systematic evaluation, and reaching conclusions about visual forms in society. My granddaughter's thinking behaviors were directly linked to making choices in her world of play. There seemed to be a natural integration of visual awareness into everyday choices that, for her at the time, were very important and meaningful.

All Things Considered

So what does this have to do with art education? Well, I think we have to assume that, to some degree, art education has something to do with the visual--with looking, processing, and responding to that classification of objects and things in the world that we call art. In what some are calling "visual culture art education," all things are considered: the spaces we inhabit, the places we travel through and seek as destinations, the objects we create, and the products we buy--even bars of soap. My granddaughter could just as well have been looking carefully and comparing her brother's nursery and her own newly decorated bedroom. Later in the day, when we walked to the park, she engaged freely and unprompted in the same processes: looking, describing, inquiring about, and evaluating the landmarks, paths, and structures, including a Keith Haring sculpture of a boy ("It could also be a girl!") with his (or her) dog.

Big Ideas

When constructing lessons in visual culture that might take all things in our visual world into consideration, might we also consider setting aside our traditional emphasis on the elements and principles of design and explore alternatives? While introducing the elements and principles at a young age can certainly help young students develop a language for description, repeating the approach year after year often lacks the meaningfulness that would help students make connections to their own lives and create expressive forms that convey meaning to others. And while the formalist approach does help students focus on particular visual qualities and arrangements, it does not always help us to reach out with our imaginations, to make judgments in the absence of rules, recipes, and formulas, and to bring into play all things to be considered.

As we look forward to a summer of professional growth and to re-entry into the next school year, let's think about the big ideas and human conditions that we all grapple with. I'm not suggesting that we play with dolls or dwell on gender stereotypes, but maybe we could keep a journal about life lessons learned on vacation, about ways of seeing, and about all things considered (and not).
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Title Annotation:Editor's Comments
Author:Katter, Eldon
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 1, 2004
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