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Days of myth and magic.

How do I compete with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons and countless other superstars on the minds of the elementary students of the 90s? How can I show my students that a person can actually make a living as an artist? I'm sure these kinds of questions plague every art teacher at one time or another. I know how hard it is to capture, let alone hold, the attention of fifth graders for any length of time.

As I looked at a recent catalog I received, an idea began to form. I have a growing interest in the work of California artist Laurel Burch. She creates stylized interpretations of mythical animals such as cats, lizards, wild dogs and birds. These animals are colorful and playful, thereby capturing attention immediately. Children, animals and color seemed like a perfect grouping. Why not have my students invent their own mythical animals using Laurel's creations for inspiration? I set to work writing a letter explaining what I had in mind and requested any available materials that would help motivate my students. Having no prior correspondence with the artist, I did not know what to expect.

Enthusiastic Responses

The response was much better than I anticipated. Her handwritten letter expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for my idea. She was so excited by the notion she suggested a contest for the most creative and well-designed animals. A winner at each of my schools would be chosen and each would receive a Laurel Burch sweatshirt. She also sent several posters and cards bearing many of her mythical animals.

When I presented the project to my fifth graders, the response was fantastic. They were motivated by the colorful cards and posters and loved the contest idea. During this first lesson, I felt that it was important for my students to know something about the artist. I wanted the project to be fun, but I also wanted to teach my students that artists can make a living doing what they love to do. I obtained an article that explained Laurel's beginnings as an artist: her artwork at local art fairs, her struggle to feed her children, the rising success of her company. The article went on to explain how the various jewelry, clothing and artwork is produced around the world after she designs it. One child asked the inevitable question, "How much money does she make?" I explained that Laurel Burch Incorporated is a multimillion dollar company and that Laurel's designs can be seen in shops around the world. They were impressed. For the next lesson, I asked the students to bring in pictures of animals.

Imagine That

Lesson two began with a discussion of the word mythical. I explained that something mythical is imaginary. Sometimes a mythical person or thing has a make-believe story behind it called a myth. We talked about shapes of tails, ears, legs and bodies. We also discussed that a mythical animal could have imaginary color and a realistic design, or it could be imaginary in both design and color. We also focused on using human eyes on animals, and the designs with which we could decorate their bodies. Each student chose an animal, and was given a 12 x 18" (30 x 46 cm) sheet of newsprint to begin a sketch. They were encouraged to draw large in these beginning sketches and again on large sheets of white paper. Most were encouraged by their first attempts because they knew mythical animals had no right or wrong tails, ears, etc. The more imaginative the better.

Painting was the focus in lesson three. After most of the students had completed a large pencil drawing of their animal, they were ready to dive into mythical colors. I had carefully selected tempera colors to resemble Laurel's bright magenta, turquoise, purple and orange among other colors. We referred to Laurel's animals again and noticed that she used gold paint, especially for outlining and detailing. Since we were just beginning our school year, we also reviewed basic painting skills.

Next, we talked about naming the animals. Most children were able to come up with names based on their own experiences with animals both real and mythical.

We discussed the idea of writing letters to Laurel to send along with the selected artwork. The most popular suggestion was to tell her about their animals. Other suggestions included telling about themselves, complimenting her on her accomplishments and asking questions about California. I interjected a few of my suggestions which included mentioning what they especially liked in her menagerie, and telling her what types of goals they had pertaining to their own talents. I was pleased at the number of children who wrote letters complete with miniature pencil sketches of their animals. Some of the classroom teachers took letter writing a step further and assigned it as a project.

Before selecting the animals for the contest, we sat back and admired the results. I asked for input from those willing to tell of their creature's origin, eating habits, place of residence and name. Out of some 128 animals came the three winners: George the Giraffe, Sam the Cockatiel and Tignoris the--?--Tignoris. Our package was put together including the three paintings, the letters and photographs of the students while they worked. With great anticipation we waited.

An Artist's Gift

The package arrived on a Friday (a great day for surprises). Opening the box, I discovered four ribbon-adorned gift boxes, one for each winner, plus one for me. A card from Laurel said that the thoughtfulness and enthusiasm of the children made her want to "jump on a plane to Indiana." When presenting the gifts to the winners, I read the card aloud to each class. The question came again and again. Will she come to visit? WHEN? Since Laurel had given me her home phone number, I decided to give it a try. I reached Laurel's secretary who knew of the children in Indiana. She promised to see what she could do. A few days later, Laurel's marketing development manager called to set things up. Laurel had never done anything quite like this with a school and was excited by the idea.

April 26th was the big day. Preparations for the visit included a display of the animal paintings, a mural from each school (our version of Laurel's Secret Jungle), and welcoming banners throughout the school. We also invited officials from the city to share in the program. The children decorated the gym and hallways. We selected three gifts for our three contest winners to present: a giant card signed by each child, a bouquet of flowers and an engraved plaque thanking Laurel for her interest in all of us.

The Day Arrives

As things fell into place that day, I became nervous and wondered what to say to this woman who owned her own successful company and traveled around the world. My fears quickly dissolved as I looked down the hallway and greeted the warm and smiling face of Laurel Burch.

When the program began, all attention focused on this magical lady dressed in bright pink. She gave us a brief history of herself up to the present. She told of her involvement in her company and in helping with fundraising for children's hospitals and earthquake relief. Telling about her artwork, Laurel explained to the children how each of her ideas begins with a simple pencil sketch, sometimes on colored tissue paper, and then progresses to a finished painting. All of her ideas come from her imagination and from her experiences while traveling. She spoke of her process of creating from start to finish, complemented by a short videotape showing her San Francisco studio. Laurel also explained that she has had a rare bone disease from the age of seven. A love of drawing and painting in combination with her ability to exercise her wonderful imagination, prompted her to become an artist. Laurel also enjoyed sharing her artwork with friends and found a sense of worth in doing so. She stressed that persistence is the key to becoming successful and told the children to "Keep doing what you love to do whether it is drawing, reading or math." During the program there were many opportunities for questions. As you can imagine, many eager hands shot up.

Laurel patiently answered anything from "How many different animals have you created?" to "Were you freaked out by the earthquake?" As our time quickly passed, Laurel had the children come up so that she could meet each one and present them with the posters. All too soon, the magical afternoon had come to an end. Laurel flew back to San Francisco, but not before receiving many goodbyes, smiles and even some hugs.

It was a project that will not be forgotten by my fifth graders. They spent a school year learning about, and finally meeting, a real working artist. They felt proud of their work. They even learned something about business and letter writing. As for me, I benefitted in many ways too. The whole project gave me a new enthusiasm as an art teacher. Seeing the excitement in my students was wonderful! I wish that every teacher could have such a great opportunity for learning come along in their careers.
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Title Annotation:art class creates mythical animals
Author:Miller, Teresa L.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Art as expression.
Next Article:Expressive human imagery in clay.

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