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My First Summer Art Camp

'Oreo Talk' and Other Kid's Adventures

“Do you have any children?”

I hear that question more often than any other when meeting new people.

“Yes, a four-footed feline born in 1996.” I retort tongue-in-cheek.

“Wow, you’re free!” I hear back in ten different ways or through other subliminal cues.

And I smile.

This is the life I chose — married life without children (for now, anyway). Not having children of my own makes me love being around other people’s children for SHORT periods of time, especially when it involves having creative fun.

A couple of months ago I was in the company of an older woman and her grandson. She asked me that famous question, and when I said “no”, she exclaimed, “Then you know how to talk to them!” Meaning, because I was not a parent, I treated children without that parental filter and related to them on a different level. I liked that.

What dreams are made of

One of my creative dreams is to work with kids in an art-creativity capacity. I don't necessarily want to become an elementary school art teacher, but would like to experience a similar role in a not so 9-to-3 kind of way.

To test this dream of mine, I decided to do some volunteer work as a teacher's assistant in a week-long art camp for pre-teens. The group consisted of about a dozen 11- and 12-year-olds, with scheduled projects of clay, drawing, painting, and sculpture.

As I write this, it’s been exactly one week since the first day of art camp, and I’m sitting here reviewing the events of week in my mind. There are so many aspects to the experience to relate back that I’m not sure where to begin. I’ll tell you what. I’ll summarize the class activities and then give my observations.

Art Camp Day 1: Clay Mask Making

Our first project was clay mask making. We watched a short demo video on the process and then got hands-on with the clay. The mask-making process goes like this:

  1. Work a ¼” slab of clay over a plastic “face” template to form an interesting mask base.

  2. Allow the masks to air dry several days before firing in the kiln. Afterwards, decorate the masks with paints, raffia strands, beads, and other embellishments.

The mask making plan was to have the kids create the masks on Monday, allow them to dry for a few days before firing, and then paint them on Friday. What really happened was due to time constraints, the masks didn’t get fired until the weekend, and the kids were asked to come back the following week to decorate them.

Observations: The first day is always the hardest. As the kids arrived to the class, some knew each other and some didn’t. Everyone was pretty shy and quiet, especially during the introductions. They livened up a bit when we got hands-on with the project, but they barely spoke as a group.

The first day was most challenging for me as well. We all had name tags on to help us learn each other’s names, and I was tickled that mine had the word “teacher” written under my name. I had a real title!

My biggest challenge was merging into each child’s personal space to help them out, gently guide, and encourage them with the mask making project. There weren’t enough face templates to go around, so some kids had to improvise with other types of molds to build their faces on. Not trying to succumb to the “unfairness” of that, I instead paid extra attention to those who were struggling, and never once heard anyone complain about the disadvantage.

By the end of the class, every child had completed their mask. And surprising to me, a few of the “no template” masks were quite innovative and just as nice as the template ones.

Art Camp Day 2: Drawing

The second day’s project was drawing. The kids were asked to bring in several favorite pictures with them posing with friends or family members. One picture would become the source for their drawing.

The lead teacher started them with some warm-up exercises, which I also participated in. She had us fold up a big piece of paper into eight squares and use lines to illustrate a variety of emotional states in each one: nervous, going with the flow, happy, mad, high energy, depressed, bliss. Next she had them do the famous “draw your shoe” exercise, and you should have seen how quickly the table was inundated with flip-flops, sandals, and running shoes. Oh, I skipped that one.

After the warm-up exercises, the kids spent the rest of the class drawing scenes from their pictures.

Observations: The kids who loved drawing quickly dove right in to this project, and the ones who didn’t were easy to spot by their apprehension. I began to mentally separate the group by age and ability, and started to form a mentoring relationship with those who kept pulling me aside to help them each time I rounded the tables.

Because drawing is my own primary “art challenge”, I knew it would be to some of the kids as well. I made it a point to dig out one of my white “Magic Rub” erasers at home and slipped it into my pocket for the class. If you know what I’m referring to, it’s an eraser that lifts pencil lines easier and cleaner than the standard ones in class (which reminded me of taffy apple caramels).

I had the opportunity to pull out my eraser after circling the group several times and getting stopped at “11-year-old corner”. Between each “teacher” one clever girl had each of us help her draw a little more on her picture each time we passed by. I was amused by her antics, but understood her frustrations completely. Some of the kids were taking this class way too seriously, and in my best humor I tried to put them at ease. The “Magic Rub” eraser became a hit at that corner and was used so much it broke into two.

Art Camp Day 3: Finish Drawing, Start Printmaking

The third day (mid-week) the kids worked on finishing their drawings and then moved onto printmaking with linoleum blocks.

As the picture drawings were completed, the kids were encouraged to color them with oil pastels. The advanced artists were also shown a “painting” technique used to blend the pastels with some kind of thinner.

Observations: I was really amazed at some of the pictures that came out of the drawing project. Even more so, I was intrigued by the “self-portrait” rendering the older kids did of themselves. Of course many criticized their work, but I was delighted at their “folk art” flavor. The color really enhanced their work, as did the blended painting effects. I would have proudly framed some of the pictures for my gallery inspirational wall. There is such honesty in children’s art.

Art Camp Day 4: Printmaking

Day four was all about traditional printmaking. The kids began by drawing a simple picture on paper, and then learned how to transfer it to a linoleum block through “carbon copy” transferring (rubbing pencil graphite on the back of their drawing and re-tracing the drawing onto the block). Next, they learned how to carefully carve their art out of the block with thin and thick lines. Finally, they took their blocks to the print area, where they spent the rest of the class making colorful prints with “washable” ink (whew!).

Observations: This was a fun hands-on project and very interesting to observe. One teacher invited me to participate in it as well, so I did a cat (see pictures).

One cool part of this project was teaching the kids the “backwards” aspect of their carvings, and demonstrating how they had to write any type or text backwards in order for it to come out right-side-up in the printing stage. As a graphic designer, this is something familiar to me from my printing press education, as printing plates are also created “backwards”. I had to help fix a few blunders on that one, but it was great watching the kids “get it”. Much of the art produced in this project was whimsical and upbeat.

This was also the day the “11-year-old” corner turned into a trio. Three girls who were all friends outside of class dominated my attention and amused me to no end. This was also the day we coined “Oreo Talk”, a phrase I came up with after noticing two of the trio exchanging whispers behind their cookie-holding hands during a break. That became our inside joke for the rest of the week.

Art Camp Day 5: Wood Sculpture

The last project was abstract wood sculpture. The kids were each given a couple of sheets of easy-to-cut wood veneer and chunks of oddly-shaped wood they could use to form a base for their sculpture. With carefully loaded (and supervised!) hot-glue-guns at their side, they spent the class building and spray-painting their own abstract sculptures.

Observations: By Friday most of the kids were completely at ease with each other and thrived on this “loose” project. Starkly contrasted with Monday’s mask making, the kids chatted and giggled, teased and played. Oh, and they uninhibitedly called out to me (“Help Chris!”) and the other teachers for assistance whenever they pleased.

The 11-year-old trio totally amused me during a “group” sculpture they decided to do before running out of time (“too many hands spoil…”). During their creative silliness, I wished I had a video camera and laughed at the thought of showing them in 15 or 20 years how much they enjoyed their collaborative efforts intermixed with glue going in all of the *wrong* places. What a priceless thing to watch. It all cleaned up well.

Near the end of the class ALL of the kids were rowdy (maybe the spray-paint fumes?) and were running and mucking about; playing tag and giving payback for the lighthearted teasing that had been building up all week.

The lead teacher settled them all down for the last few minutes of class. The kids sat around the table with their sculptures, and after a final lecture on naming and pricing their art when they’re “famous” each took turns sharing the names of their sculptures. “Disease”, “Untitled”, and “Walk the Plank” were my favorites.

End Notes

When class was over I felt that familiar “okay this is it!” welling up inside. Before I got too sentimental, one of the older girls blurted out “Are you going to be here next year, Chris?” Others quickly chimed in with “yeah, are you? Not knowing what the future holds, I replied with a grinning “We’ll see. Are YOU?” She looked at me with certainty and sarcastically said as well as any pre-teen could “Well, yeah!”

We said our goodbyes, and one by one each kid walked out the door with their final works of art. The 11-year-old “drawing antic” girl spent a good ten seconds thanking me for all the help I gave her during the week, and specifically thanked me for my “Magic Eraser.” If I didn’t know any better, I think she was really 25.

I wrapped it up with the teachers, and they both praised me for my “wonderful” interaction and humor with the kids. They confirmed what I suspected, that working with creative kids was awesome, and I thanked them for the opportunity.

On the way to my car, the 11-year-old trio was still outside with their parents. On seeing me they rushed over and reiterated how much fun they had in class.

“We’re really related!” one exclaimed as she put her arm around the other two’s shoulders in a mock hug.

“No you’re not. … Are you?” I played along.

“In friendship!” She grinned in big closed-eye toothy-ness.

I laughed and wished them a happy 4th weekend. In a sing-songy chorus they said goodbye again, and as I turned around to walk towards my car I heard one of them trail off, “You were the best teacher!” a nearby mother overhead and chuckled for me. Although I knew it wasn't really true (the other teachers were much more seasoned) I just grinned to myself and kept walking, thinking quietly yeah, I'll be back next year.

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ęChris Dunmire, www.chrisdunmire.com.