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Judy Spooner Viewpoint: Cottage Grove art teacher offers important lesson

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If we didn't need art or music in our lives, then we wouldn't want to listen to oldies while we pump gas or check out YouTube.

Art in schools is fundamental, not just something that comes in third to reading and math.

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This month, just after celebrating Youth Art Month in March, elementary schools are getting ready for spring music concerts and student art is posted in commons areas and on hallway walls.

Last week, art teacher Yileng Vang was putting up student artwork on windows at Cottage Grove Elementary School. When the sun is shining, he said, the drawings look like stained glass.

In an interview later that day, I told him about my art experience in kindergarten. I drew a ship, because my dad was in the Merchant Marine Service in World War II. "I was really good at drawing port holes," I said. I remember feeling so proud when the teacher put it up on the bulletin board. But in eighth grade, my art teacher said my chalk drawing wasn't very good, so I stopped drawing.

Many people have that experience, Vang said, and not just in art. He was told by a math teacher that he couldn't be in an accelerated class because he wasn't as good as some other kids.

Vang doesn't want his students to think they can't be artists. He stresses that it's OK to make mistakes. Sometimes, mistakes lead to something else that might be better or different from what was planned, but still worthwhile.

Unless it's theoretical math, there is only one answer to a math problem, he said. In art, there are many possibilities because it trains abstract thinking.

Case in point was an art assignment some of his students did last week. They started with an eye in the middle of the paper and set out to draw outlines of imaginary flowers, all with a blue marker that couldn't be erased.

The next day, the children could change their drawings, but had to integrate the outlines they made the first day into the finished product.

He showed me five or six drawings and I was impressed with the range of creativity that included blending colors, a technique they had learned in a previous lesson. One child put a baseball hat on the flower with one eye. He made the bill turn up. If it were flat, it wouldn't have looked like a hat. He's gaining a sense of perspective.

"You can't go wrong," Vang said. "Art isn't perfect."

I thought about the most beautiful piece of Ojibway beadwork I ever saw. I forgot to breathe when I looked at it. I do beadwork so I knew what to look for. Some of the beads were not lined up perfectly, but it didn't matter.

You can lose your soul, Vang said, if the goal is perfection. Something illusive will be missing.

Vang started teaching art at the school when it was instituted five years ago. Before kids had art classes, understanding forms, techniques, perspectives and how colors complement each other, was out of reach for elementary-age kids.

"As a teacher, I'm learning, too," he said.

The best teachers are always learning, I thought to myself.

I took time to look at all the art on the walls of the school and it was all wonderful. With the children in their classrooms, I had the art museum all to myself.

If your child learns to love music or appreciate art, you can thank an art teacher.

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Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600
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