The Scholastic Art Awards. Fantastic, right? Well, in my case this week, yes and no. I attended the state awards ceremony this past weekend, and I came to the realization that I’ve been there before. Many times before. Because so much of the work is the same as it was in 2013. And 2012, and 2011, and 2010 . . .
The first year I attended the show, it was full of wonder and inspiration, and I filled my camera with photos of ideas I could use. I try to remember that feeling when I become critical, because I know how exciting the experience of the show is for my students. It does get tiring, however, when walking through the halls and looking at the art, it’s almost like taking roll:
School A does the Chuck Close squares portraits on canvas, and the close-up drawings of eyes in charcoal.
School B does the pastel drawings that zoom in on vintage/classic cars and focuses on the reflections and highlights.
School C does the large graphite portraits of girls laughing while having perfectly windblown hair.
School D does the three-dimensional lidded vessels supported with an organic tripod.
The teachers submit these projects year after year after year. I’m kind of over seeing the same projects at every art show in which these schools participate. When I can tell you the school and the teacher without just by seeing the work from across the room, that should tell you something. It’s one thing to be successful with the work you help students create, and another to base your curriculum solely around what art awards you can win.
Instead, I’m more of a fan of School E–those students create some wonderful things–consistently new and different, and that’s where my respect goes. That’s where I want work from my school to be: consistently excellent, but consistently new and different. Kids like being successful when the awards shows roll around–it’s fun, it’s rewarding–but NEVER should it be the driving force behind what and how we teach. We’re not in it to win awards. We’re in it to develop artists who can think and create and stand out and are original; I’m afraid those concepts are being lost on students in the product-dependent curricula.
So why do we still do this show? Because our work is good enough. Because of the look on my kids’ faces when they find out they win state-level awards, and the even better look on their faces if they’ve done enough to win a national award. Because parents appreciate the recognition that comes to their kids, and that appreciation turns into support for your art program. And the support of parents is something you can never have enough of. Truthfully, also, I really enjoy having a handful of these hanging on the wall:
I don’t feel as though I (or my art program) need the validation that may come with a little framed award, but I definitely don’t discount it–it represents the fact that my kids have the ability to create excellent work. And most importantly, when kids ask about what’s hanging on my wall, it opens the door to conversations about standards and expectations with their art and shows them what is possible in this art room.
It may sound like I want it both ways; I want to win awards, but I don’t want to focus on winning awards. To that argument, I would say you’re correct, but I would counter with this: I want my STUDENTS’ work to win the awards. Their creations, their ideas, their creativity, and their skill. Students should be awarded for their own artistic endeavors, not for copying a photograph I gave them permission to use. When they’re thinking, creating, and succeeding of their own volition, and being recognized for doing so, that’s when I am proudest as a teacher.