Public Art with Children: Think of the Sandbox
by Ginny Sykes


Community in School

The “community”, for whom the art is being made and to whom it is presumably speaking, is a living organism made of individuals who are brought together by one or several commonalities. When working with children, community is often identified as neighborhood, school, community center, or cultural or religious organization. In the case of schools, more often than not the site at which this work happens, the community is diverse. Students and teachers often come from many neighborhoods, from many different backgrounds, ethnicities, length of stay in the United States, and so on. 

Within the last decade or so, questions of identity and diversity have been at the forefront of contemporary community art. This is a subject around which “the community” also organizes itself, either consciously or unconsciously.  Having some understanding of and working with these dynamics has been part of the community arts movement’s ability to make significant and interesting public work that goes beyond decoration.

Murals and art projects that take up the above considerations and work with them in meaningful ways engage in a profound process that allows community residents, children, and artist to express themselves and present issues of identity and cultural uniqueness and commonalities.

An Elementary Ideology: Their World, Their Voices Engaging
the Larger Community

By virtue of the age and schedules of the participants, much of work with children happens during the school day within a school location. Some projects happen during or are supplemented by after school programs. Some are the result of extensive partnerships between artists, schools, and other organizations, such as private or business giving, local grant programs, or state agency funding. Community organizations can be an excellent source for ideas, locations of projects, and additional funding as well as for liaison activity between local and state partners.

When artists are brought in from outside the school system to work within a school, they often have an advantage of seeing things with a fresh eye. They may be able to improvise and be inventive in ways that are outside the conventional and expected. Where growth and change are at the center of classroom activity, projects can evolve in unexpected and exciting new directions.

Artists in the community arts movement include many partners in their collaborative efforts. Often the school is the touchstone, but equally as often outside agencies recognize the effectiveness of arts as catalyst for youth empowerment and change. These partnerships have the added benefit of helping to shift the focus in art from the mythology of the isolated genius, slaving away in the studio, and producing images for consumption by others, to a collective process that enables the community to participate, produce, and see its own reflection in its created images. When this is taught and experienced in the early grades, it does not negate individual artistic visions and productions, but creates a reciprocal and dialogic space for explorations of communal and personal meaning.

One of the fundamental aspects of the community mural movement has been to give voice to participants who are creating the artwork, so that their ideas, hopes, and dreams make up the subject of the finished art. A second principle of community art is to place it in the community to which it is speaking.

Those who are creating and those to whom the art is addressed are often members of the same group.  Teaching mural design to young students can simultaneously serve functions of learning and empowerment. Students can learn fundamental principles of design and color while being provided an opportunity to voice their ideas. In the current U.S. cultural environment, which does not provide much space nor honor youth directed inquiry or statement in the public realm, the formulation of the ideas and aspirations of youth through artistic images can educate and enlighten the broader community while reinforcing the importance of young people as important members of the community.

Often the community can see through the eyes of the young artists and learn to better understand their needs and desires. These experiences can lead to further collaboration on new initiatives. Finally, all of those engaged in the process are likely to return to the site to bring friends, family, and later perhaps their own children. The site of the artwork thus becomes a reference for community history and new formations of community.

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Children are Expert and Natural Collaborators.

I would like to use the analogy of the sandbox as a descriptive metaphor for the intersection of children, creativity, and the community in process. Just as in sandbox play things are made and unmade, a deeply constructed beauty can arise out of a cyclical process of making and reshaping images.

Imagine the sandbox and children in it. Watch them play in your mind’s eye. Ego identified and self referential, they imitate, borrow, and interact with each other in an unselfconscious yet aware manner. Still free, their play flows in effortless direction in and out of the community of the sandbox, according to each one’s most direct and primary process. Children observe and borrow from each other in imitative and derivative play. What is unhelpful, they mostly ignore or destroy, but this destruction is usually followed by rapid recovery and integration of the previous experiment into a new play experience.

The sandbox is an organic system in which ideas are exchanged and the landscape is always changing. Children are free to explore without fear. Experience teaches that things will happen with a degree of predictability, yet new experiences are sure to unfold.

What happens when this model of play is at the foundation of the making of public art at the elementary school level? What would happen if the artist as educator, as shaper and shifter of public space, as interlocutor, as visionary cultural worker, and as shaman, operated effectively and meaningfully within the sandbox paradigm? What if the artist approached the making of public art like the child approaches the sandbox? What kind of art might the children respond with, given the chance to express their primary selves?

A Sense of Play: The “What If” Factor in the Design Process

So how does an artist use the processes of sand play to shape the work of designing and making of a mural in paint, mosaic, or clay? A recent project for a new mural over one of the main entrances to the Ravenswood Elementary School in Chicago yields interesting insights and results.

Before the artist’s arrival, the students worked with their classroom teacher to research the initial concept—nature and the impact of humans on nature. The drawings produced were divided into three areas: animal, plant and human, with subcategories depicting beauty, problems, and solutions. The initial drawings were done on standard 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper and were fairly uniform in scale. The children used very little color in the work. My sense was that they had intellectualized the project and while the resulting drawings were earnest, I had very little emotional response to the drawings.

I wanted the children to have a kinesthetic understanding of the scale of the mural and what the images would literally feel like at the larger size. I was hoping for something new and as yet unknown before I further transformed and transferred the original set of drawings. I also hoped for a more radical approach than simply rearranging the drawings on my own into an aesthetically pleasing composition. I wanted the fifth graders to make more connections between their ideas and images and, most importantly, to have a group process that would shape and synthesize the final design in a collaborative manner. I decided to plan more drawing time.

Rolling out a huge sheet of paper, the children worked in groups on either side of a long table. Vine charcoal with its qualities of speed and openness, its ability to rub out, erase, redraw, and shade all within a few strokes, made it the perfect choice for the experiment. I asked the fifth grade children to rethink what they had drawn and to draw on a huge scale.

They were to have awareness of their neighbor’s work, overlap each other when necessary, and to use their entire bodies to draw. I engaged them on the level of conscious curiosity—to play—like in the sandbox, without concern for outcome or product. I stressed that during this phase any critical thoughts were to “wait outside the door” of the workspace, until we were finished. When using this powerful visualization technique, negative thoughts rarely reappear! The results were dramatically different from the first drawings and there was an exciting palpable change in the energy of the group.

After the second section of fifth graders had repeated this exercise, the classroom art teacher suggested we cut out the images they had drawn and tape them to the first mural sized sheet. In this way, the students interacted with the first group even though they did not work at the same time. The students began making decisions about how things should be grouped together. Suddenly clusters of animals, fish, flowers and birds appeared in the picture, in natural, playful and unexpected ways. The students were able to see similarities between their own and others’ ideas. They felt invested in the process and in its exciting pictorial possibilities. Even the sounds in the classroom rose and fell rhythmically like creatures in the rainforest. I was intuitively excited by what was emerging. I recognize this feeling state as the understanding that things are happening, we can’t foresee the outcome, and that I’m okay with that.

It is as important for the artist to be fluid in the development of ideas for interaction with the children, as it is for children to be inventive in developing new imagery. This process creates a synergy between the teaching artist and the students. The teaching artist embraces the same process, feelings, and uncertainty as the children, while gently shaping and suggesting ideas in the “What if we try this?” modality.

This deepens the shared nature of the mural making, allowing the artist more authenticity when it comes time to synthesize the work into a final design. It is also very pleasurable! The multitude of images created by over forty students must be condensed; however the children and the artist together have done much of the preparatory work for this synthesis.

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Shaping and Synthesizing Collaboratively

Beginning with collaborative drawing experiments with the students, the creation of the final drawing is not an arbitrary choosing of the artist’s favorites, but comes out a deep respect for the students’ research, tapping into what is collectively most resonant. This is not to say that individual or smaller groups of children will not create some new imagery that is uniquely exciting, but that these ideas can be joined with other ideas in a synergistic process.

In the final design phase I introduced formal organizational strategies and taught why they are important in planning public art. These strategies may include mapping color, value contrast, how to play with rhythm, repetition, and variation in line, shape and form. Students are asked to identify these principles in what they have already done. Sophisticated concepts such as finding a “flow through line” can be taught by training them notice how their own eyes move across the surface of an artwork. Honing students’ observational skills is important practical work that also carries spiritual, emotional, and analytical meaning.

Multiple Meanings in a Mural

Supporting and honoring the children’s voices is balanced with the creation of legible, symbolic content. However, this content emerges from the collective experience. For the Ravenswood Elementary School mosaic, the images were drawn from all the subject topics discussed in the first classes. In the mosaic, the symbols are unified by a circular and spiraling composition that represents the continuity and interrelatedness of maintaining an ecological stance in the world. The face of a dreaming child paired with a geometric circle to represent science and technology suggest the roles of human intuition and reason in our future relations with nature.

Dreaming Nature’s Story, ceramic mosaic, was created by Ginny Sykes with
7th and 8th graders in 2003.

The spiraling circles came directly out of the children’s charcoal drawings. They also reflect the architectural decoration on the building, and repeat the circular shaped walkway in front of the entrance. Repetition of circular forms suggests symbolic content. The overlapping forms suggest interlocking and overlapping meanings. They also suggest the possibility of dual meaning—that a symbol may mean one thing related to the image on its left, another to the image on its right.

It is ideal when beginning a design process, even with a broad theme such as ecology or the neighborhood, that students are free to express any part of their experience through their initial idea sketches, words, or stories. I am always interested in what children notice about a subject. For example, demonstrating the relationship between human action and its impact on the environment presents complex and contradictory lessons in the form of both challenges and opportunities. Parallels can be drawn about the ways in which actions and behaviors have an impact on the ecology of a classroom.

The Ravenswood mosaic included images that raise questions about ecology and our role in it without resorting to dogmatic or prescriptive content. For example, an image of a dreaming boy juxtaposed with scenes from nature offer multiple interpretations such as  “What is the human dream of nature and our place in it? Who gets to dream the dream and why?” 

By making the animals, plants, and human in relatively the same scale to each other, control and dominance was subverted and rethought. By using overlapping images, the idea of interconnectivity is visually represented. Positive and negative aspects of these complex relationships are repositioned for critical examination. The children are engaged in a process of thought and production that is part problem solving and part creating awareness, both of which need collaborative cooperation to thrive. This way of thinking and working has practical applications in many situations.

Another example of creating multiple meanings in a mural occurred during the third year of a three-year project at Stockton Elementary School. Originally three panels were planned for the third and final year of the project. Through a grant from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Chicago, four additional vertical panels were added to the mural’s design. Scroll-like in feel, they provided an opportunity to teach traditional Japanese design.

Students, along with classroom teachers, office, maintenance, lunchroom and security staff, were invited to make tiles for the mural, also an ecology and nature theme. Natural elements portrayed seasonal cycles and multiple habitats. The ecology of nature was compared to the ecology of the Stockton School community, stressing that just as all of natures’ creatures contribute to the big ecological system, only through the efforts of all of the participating tile makers was another big mosaic possible.

Technical Aspects of Mosaics with Children

No public art project can be created without sound technical knowledge and some mastery of craft. Important lessons in social consciousness can be learned by the elementary student when the work of the mosaic, such as sorting tiles, laying out colors, cleaning, and tile cutting, is presented as all being equally important. A buddy system can be used for most tasks. A keen eye to the moods and rhythms of individual children will allow the artist to find a place for a child who is not feeling particularly creative that day and would actually enjoy engaging in repetitive practical tasks.

With younger children plan for a rougher, looser design and have all materials pre cut. You will need more supervision and smaller class size. I try to get double periods that allow for the natural rhythms of children, rather than rushing them to get set up, productive, and cleaned up in a standard forty minute elementary school period.

Working alongside students during production provides a chance to see what they are getting from the project and what kinds of problems they might be having. Engaging them through asking questions empowers the children to figure out answers for themselves. Students are encouraged to invent new ways of working in addition to the ones I teach them. They will naturally discover new variations of tile work or have a fresh solution to a problem when encouraged to do so. Verbalizing what the children are accomplishing each step of the way reinforces the process nature of extended projects and encourages daily progress and focus.

The work space should be clean and well lit. The rules for using goggles and for handling tools such as scissors, X-acto knives, and tile nippers must be clearly explained and strictly enforced. It is my experience that fourth graders are generally the youngest age that can use tile nippers effectively. (For more information on the technical aspects of making mosaics, see the chapter Community Mosaics: Techniques on this website.)

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The Artist’s and the Students’ Hands: An Ongoing Discussion

It is my belief that a collaborative mural or mosaic at a school should look like students worked on it. Artists shape the artistic productions of children in richly varied ways. There exists an ongoing debate or visual dialectic as to what a public art piece should look like in regard to the artist’s hand and the children’s hands.

Detail of a mosaic by Mirtes Zwierzynski with elementary school children at Healey School

Each artist must decide based on the particulars of a given project and population and on his or her own working methods, how to approach and resolve aesthetic and conceptual decisions. Looking through the Working with Youth portfolios in this section of the Community Public Art Guide, you will notice a variety of ways in which artists have approached their collaborations with children. There is no one authentic way. Like all artists, the process and style of community artists evolve and grow. For the community public artist, stylistic evolution is often linked to evolving new strategies for drawing students into the heart of the creative process.

Detail of Like a Jigsaw ceramic mosaic created by Corinne Peterson and students.

Regardless of the style, it is the duty of artist to ensure that the finished piece is technically sound. Mosaics must be installed in a way that ensures permanence and safety. Murals should be painted with light-fast paints on well-prepared surfaces so that the children and the community will not find their delight turning to disappointment if a piece quickly deteriorates after completion.

African Biography created by Bernard Williams with students at Earle Elementary School.

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Transforming Places, Transforming Lives

Here is an example of a paradigm shift for a low functioning student in the fifth grade during a two-month mosaic residency. Lack of interest characterized his behavior in all subject areas. No matter what I tried, this student was unresponsive and bored. One day on the way to school, I observed him playing soccer with drive, intensity, and clarity of purpose. He was organized, focused, and alive with his sport. It suddenly seemed so simple.

That day in class I told him that I had seen him playing and how exciting it was to see him so involved with something. I suggested he make a mosaic image of a soccer ball. He worked on it for hours. He was receptive to ideas and techniques and ultimately proud of his efforts. I recommended that his teacher use soccer to teach math and English lessons—and was received enthusiastically. He felt seen and a place was found for him within the project and beyond.

A second story involves a sixth grade boy who was having difficulty focusing and being productive during the Ravenswood mosaic project. Surface boredom masked internalized negativity and a lack of faith in his abilities. I began to give him manual labor related tasks. These seemed to relieve his anxiety and I reinforced for  him how important his work was to the project as a whole.

Toward the end of the project, one area of the mural still seemed empty and lacking balance. I asked the students for ideas. Modeling vulnerability and not knowing the answers is important in working with children. It suggests that solutions are found in the process of working together, and not just in one authoritative and always knowledgeable person’s (the artist’s) mind. Students can learn to see that the work is a series of problems to be formulated and solved.

As we were standing around the mosaic table considering how to proceed, suddenly the aforementioned boy reached out and moved some clay sections to just the right position. A seemingly small contribution, but its importance was huge! Everyone was keenly aware of the leap this student had made and how a troubled section had come alive!

Students bloom at very different rates. A mural or mosaic process with time built in for evolution, observation and evaluation allows for these variations in children. Never underestimate what children are capable of, especially late blooming turnaround students, who often make the most dramatic internal shifts and just the right contribution toward completion of a project.

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Returning to the sandbox, let’s imagine castles, pits, bridges, and moats. The children spread out across the afternoon twilight. Like a gust of wind, a young girl dashes through the play space, her footprints spraying sand, demolishing structures, altering the constellation of forms. What might our response, as parents, onlookers, or other children playing be to her act? “Are her footprints destruction or is a road emerging? Look, there is a riverbed…”

In the Ravenswood mosaic, a child had suggested the addition of animal prints to a sandy area that looked empty to him. These were the ceramic prints for which the reluctant child found the perfect arrangement at the conclusion of the project—finding the perfect placement no one else could imagine.

Play, risk, and chance create lively means for working with elementary age children. A design process that remains open and flexible can support skill-based learning that is also deeply experiential and shared. The end results are often richer and more expansive than would have been possible in a non-collaborative dynamic. While shaping an artwork’s direction is an essential part of the community artist’s work, it can be done in concert with these subtle, yet powerful forces..

Community building and the making of community history are embedded within the process and the final product of public art. The satisfactions and lessons of such a process bring young people into an experience of social engagement and personal capability. They change because they sense the impact of their efforts; this can have powerful implications for how they will live and challenge the future.

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