Teaching Art in a Garden Oasis

The angle of a petal . . . the shape chewed into a leaf by an insect . . . a mosaic of sunflowers drenched in gold, red, and burgundy hues. These are the types of natural features that veteran artist and teacher Lynn Rizzotto uses to inspire students to closely observe their world, learn the elements of art, and find their unique creative voices.

Lynn's enticing home garden in eastern Massachusetts is the centerpiece of her Children's Creativity Workshops ? after-school, weekend, and summer art classes for youngsters ages 5 to 14. Committed to nurturing a lifelong interest in art, Lynn gives her budding artists guidance and tools to make their own creative decisions and to relish the process at least as much as the product. As her garden grows, so do her students' abilities to observe details, think flexibly, and solve problems. And with that, confidence and self-esteem readily flourish.

Impressed with Lynn's passion for children, art, and gardens, and her penchant for engaging youngsters' hearts, hands, and minds in the creative process, we conducted the following interview. We hope her teaching strategies and advice inspire you as they did our Kidsgardening staff. Read on.

KG: Why do you find a garden oasis to be a good context for teaching art?

Lynn: A garden is a relaxing and calming environment for children. Besides supplying the basic elements of art, it is a place where they can slow down, reflect, and get in touch with themselves. As they hear bees and birds or feel the sun, their bodies relax in ways that make them more receptive. They can really concentrate around nature. That's important, because before kids (or adults) can draw ? they have to learn to see ? to take things apart with their minds.

On Teaching Kids to "See"

KG: Tell me more about your concept of teaching kids to see. How do you approach that in the garden?

Lynn: When I've studied art, I've always been reminded, "Don't draw what you know, draw what you see!" It's too easy for students to work from memory or what they think something looks like. But once they've really looked closely ? and have some basic art knowledge ? there's more substance to their work.

Sometimes we walk around without sketch books or paints and just talk about what we see. Things are constantly in flux in a garden. It's exciting to teach in that environment because what we experience can change in a moment. The basic elements may be the same, but the way we see them changes. The way the wind blows . . . a toad's visit . . . I use all of these things. Some days we might just look at the shape or pattern an insect chewed in a leaf. They make connections to the rhythms of nature and its unpredictability. Over time, there are bigger transformations. So as we journey, we always talk about changes. Students get excited by new discoveries. When the easels and paints come out, they can't wait to capture what they've found.

KG: Do you use specific strategies or exercises to get students to look at things from different perspectives?

Lynn: Yes. In fact, I designed parts of the garden with this type of exercise in mind. Here's one example: I created a section of spring flowers with lupines in the center and a semi-circle of chives around the outside. Each child, little magnifying glass in hand, gets down on hands and knees to focus on just one little chive bud. We then look at nearby buds in different stages of opening. When we back up a bit more, we can see the lupines and, in the distance, a field of yellow buttercups ? a wave of different colors, heights, and textures. In another area, I intersperse blue cornflowers (bachelor's buttons) with masses of red poppies, which I use to teach a lesson on cool and warm colors.

Teaching Basic Elements of Art

KG: How do you use garden components to help your students grasp core art concepts, such as line, form, and color?

Lynn: Before pencils or paints touch paper, we build a common vocabulary through observations and exercises. We start with line and shape. I might set up a kind of treasure hunt by having the children stand in different spots in the garden and find particular shapes ? hearts or triangles. Next, I ask them to describe the differences between items they've found. For instance, the triangles might have scalloped or smooth edges or lines that are straight, curved, or wiggly. I have them look for and describe vein patterns. Once they've looked closely, students interpret what they've seen by doing sketches.

Each week I build on what they've explored and introduce new elements. I might have the children find and describe all different kinds of greens in the garden. They discover that some are pale, some have blue in them, and others seem to contain purple. Then we ask, "How many different kinds of greens can we paint?" Some days we look at textures and the directions of texture. Other times we notice how the weather changes things. If it's been windy or rainy, we notice how flowers respond. Do they all droop the same way? What shapes do raindrops make on leaves?

I find that the more we explore and inquire about basic elements, the stronger the art is that results. For instance, a student who has noticed and examined the bristly leaf of a coneflower is more likely to think about how to represent that texture in a clay project.

KG: What about well-known artists? Do you ever use the garden as a context for learning about different artists or styles?

Lynn: I have a class for older students called The Artist in the Garden. I show examples of garden-inspired art, such as Georgia O'Keefe's poppies or Van Gogh's sunflowers, and have the kids create something using a particular artist's style. For instance, after we explore Monet's works and his style of applying paint in dabs (pointillism), students might try capturing a field of purple violets using that technique. Looking at accomplished artists also helps students realize that creating art is a continuum that never has to stop. They learn that our life experiences will give us even more to bring to our art.

Life Lessons in the Art Garden

KG: How does your style of teaching support children's personal growth?

Lynn: It's important to me that students begin to develop their own points of view ? to let their voices be heard ? and realize that there is not just one way to solve a problem or reach an answer. So I encourage children to arrange elements in different ways to create different versions. We then value and consider everyone's work. Within this supportive setting, they begin to feel freer to share how they feel. They realize that there are no wrong answers when dealing with art ? that things are not black and white. These are also important life lessons.

My students also develop the confidence to try different things because I reinforce that what they're doing is worth doing. When someone asks, "Is this good?" I never answer, because that is too limiting. I encourage them to talk about what they did and didn't like, which is sometimes a more valuable lesson than if they "got it" the first time around. They become more process than product oriented. I reinforce that there's no such thing as a mistake when dealing with creativity. They learn to be kind to themselves and patient as they explore and experiment. This surely overlaps other things in their lives.

KG: Are there other important life skills or lessons that seem to flourish in your garden?

Lynn: My students are always asking "Why?" and "How?" I encourage them to ask these questions and I model that curiosity myself. Over time, they develop into confident learners who are not afraid to routinely inquire and to rework and mold an idea. As they get close to the garden and see how much I enjoy it and like working in it, they also begin to value what's important about being on the Earth and taking care of it ? making a little place more beautiful. It's big ? developing an ethic of taking care of where they'll be.

We also consider the concept of change and cycles in relation to both plants and people. One day we talked about the sunflowers bending over at end of day, noticing that they didn't look as fresh and vibrant at that point or at the end of their cycles. This prompted a discussion of how to find beauty in all the stages. I shared some of Van Gogh's sunflower art that depicts flowers that have gone to seed and we talked about their resemblance to elders who are sometimes bent over. We considered the value and beauty of those flowers that give back to birds and to us over their lives, and we compared them to the wisdom we get from older people.

Planting with Art Lessons in Mind

KG: When you design areas of your garden in preparation for art classes, what kinds of plants and elements do you incorporate?

Lynn: Because I have children who have been with me for some time and others who haven't been here before, I make sure to mix perennials and annuals so there's always something new. A lot of kids have never seen root veggies pulled up, so I make sure to have some radishes or other root crops. We dust one off and talk about the root type and shape, noticing how it joins with the leaf. I also plant a lot of herbs, such as basil and mint, so children can experience the sensation of touching, smelling, and tasting.

I also always look for different heights and color combinations. For instance, to teach contrast I make sure to have something light against something dark, a reddish leaf next to green leaves, or different types of greens close together. As I mentioned before, I try to plant something that is good to look at close up and something higher behind that so students can step back and take in more.

KG: Can you share an example of a specific plant that you find engages your young artists?

Lynn: Morning glories offer many lessons and are easy to grow. Because they are fully opened by 9:00 each morning and nearly closed by 11:00, a child can observe this mini-miracle during a class. We also watch over time as the vines start to climb up a pole, hook on, and delicately spiral around. (The twining tendrils on sweet peas are also wonderful to observe.) I have students use pencils to draw closeups of the vine in their sketch books, looking from different angles and showing how it hooks on to the pole, what a flower looks like before it opens, and the shape inside the open flower. (I don't tell students there's a star inside. If they draw it, I know they've really looked!) Another week, we might do paintings of the whole trellis. Students' observational skills get fine-tuned through these exercises. They really look for changes in growth.

Featured Project: Pressed Leaf and Flower Collages

NGA: Do you have a garden-inspired project to share that uses media other than pencils and paints?

Lynn: One thing fun to do is pressed leaf and flower collages. I gather and press a variety of leaves and flowers year-round, including those with unusual features, such as leaves that have been skeletonized by insects. I try to gather things that hold their color well, such as buttercups; lilies of the valley; and leaves of violets, oxalis (wood sorrel), and nasturtium. The class then builds pictures with the leaves and flowers, taking something they know and using them in new and creative ways. For instance, a clover leaf might become a hat for an elf or a bride might wear queen Anne's lace for a veil. Crazy critters with leafy torsos emerge as students plan, tackle problems, and use elements out of context to make unique compositions. It's very empowering. (Look What I Did With a Leaf, by Morteza E. Sohi, provides some great examples.)

I also like doing basic leaf prints because they allow students to see the magnificent designs nature makes. You want to find leaves that have strong vein patterns and aren't hairy, such as violets or rose of Sharon. I have students spread tempera (poster) paints on the side of the leaf with prominent veins, and than put a piece of newsprint on top. I find that low-quality paper, such as newsprint or copy paper, are the most interesting. As they press down, the students can feel the vein patterns through the paper. By the time they get to the third print, there is less paint on the leaf, so it better reveals nature's design.

Cultivating Success

KG: Do you have any parting advice for classroom teachers who are not art specialists but want to integrate more art education in the garden and schoolyard?

Lynn: Set it up so every child can have success. If you have a child who's hesitant to make a mark on paper, set it up so he or she can trace something instead. Or allow them to touch and describe something. Remember, there's not one way to do a piece of work. When children have a chance to make personal, creative statements about how they feel, it nourishes and validates their place in the world. They build self-esteem and begin to find their own voices.

To learn more about Lynn's work and teaching philosophy, enter her delightful Web site ? childrenscreativity.com ? and click on Children's Creativity Workshops.You'll also find beautiful photos of student work in the site's Young Artists' Galley.

Photography by Rick Rizzotto, Lynn's husband and fellow artist. (All photos are copyright protected.)

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