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Why kids need art

click to enlarge Painting by Shawn Griggs.
  • Painting by Shawn Griggs.

Ask people and most will agree adolescence is an especially intense time. Feelings overwhelm; desire consumes; fear paralyzes; triumph burns pure and sweet. Even through the most slothful of teens, a mysterious energy triggers the transformation from child to adult. This metamorphosis demands so much. The world looms, full of complexity, danger and dreams, yet the time to prepare to enter it is short. Perhaps at no other time is art so important. Art, after all, teaches so much. Elliot Eisner, emeritus professor of Art and Education at Stanford University, listed some of art's grander lessons in his book The Arts and the Creation of Mind.

My favorite: "The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor number exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition."

Art increases our ability to respond effectively to shifting conditions, to explore beyond what is easily seen, to find ways to express what words cannot. Are those not desirable talents, ones especially important to hone during a time when who we are might be reconstructed almost daily? When we're learning the historical depths and necessary future highs of humankind? When our own emotions leave us inarticulate, yet desperate to say what needs to be said?

Yet, historically, when budget troubles loom, the first school programs cut include art, music and theater. Any high school student can tell you the purpose of education: "To get good grades so you can go to a good college so you can get a good job so you can make money." In a time of vast unemployment, to dismiss the importance of securing "a good job" would be irresponsible, but yet, isn't education supposed to be something more? Isn't it also supposed to be about enlightening the next generation to the wonders of ourselves and our world? Teaching not just job skills, but proficiency in what it means to be human?

Why do we take away these outlets at a time when kids need them the most? Just when they might most be struggling to find a voice, their constructive options are removed. Just when a teen is floundering to figure out who he really is, we deny him ways in which to safely explore. Even to those already sketching, painting, playing, acting, designing, composing or engaged in any of the myriad creative acts, without an arts program in school, lacking such classes as part of a regular education, we are saying, "Art does not matter."

But art, whether through paintings, sculptures, words or simply a pleasing sense of design, is the way in which we humans transcend simple biology and inform the world with our own sense of beauty and importance.

Thankfully we live in a community that celebrates this, one in which high school programs cement art into the daily lives of students, one in which hordes of teenagers turn out for Arts Alive! -- not that they're necessarily going around perusing the art, but they are absorbing the fact that art is a cause for celebration. Yay!

Arcata Arts Institute is a school-within-a-school at Arcata High. Students attend the regular high school, but have advanced arts and English classes at the end of the day, plus take a variety of workshops taught by accomplished local artists including Joyce Jonté and Donovan Clark. Last week, AAI offered Open Studios. Students and a few instructors presented photos, sculptures and other forms of creative expression that together served as a solid presentation of talent. Who'd have ever thought wandering high school halls would feel so joyful? But it did. I purchased note cards from Treyce Meredith, vegan cookies from Naomi McNeil, a detailed drawing of an armadillo from Ruby Rudnick and also a zillion magnets from Alex Torquemada in support of the Humboldt Bay Rowing Association's junior crew. Tio Escarda, Erick Jackson and Julio Lopez jammed outside the classroom, mixing guitars, violin and some fine singing to provide a soundtrack for my first foray into 2009 Christmas shopping -- an event marked not by fighting crowds at the mall, but by supporting an effort to provide multiple paths to our children as they figure out who they are, who they want to become and how to bring the world they've created into the one waiting for them.

The world waiting for them at last Saturday night's Arts Alive! was populated by people thronging Old Town's gazebo plaza, weaving through giant telescopes that revealed Jupiter and his moons to eager stargazers -- to see such a wonder in December in Humboldt? What a lovely example of art and science joining together. The entire AA! scene rocketed to a new high Saturday night. The December version of the monthly event typically demands attendance and 2009 proved that tradition remained strong. Couples availed themselves of the holiday-decorated horse-drawn carriage, friends and families wandered in and out of endless storefronts and galleries; folks came from as far away as Arcata to revel in the festivities. This rejoicing, inspired by art and the rewards we find within it, is what we need to ensure our children can carry forth.

Sometimes the generational mantle is shared more directly. Over on 318 Fifth St., in what was Wachovia and is now Wells Fargo Advisors, cousins Shawn Griggs and Floyd Bettiga shared wall space. Bettiga is so well known locally that one of the Morris Graves Museum of Art galleries is named for him. His oils brim with color and texture -- the sunsets over Humboldt Bay make a particularly dramatic impact. Color likewise dominates Griggs' work, but where Bettiga paints suggestions of scenes that turn sharp in the mind of the viewer, Griggs' makes use of bold outlines, specific objects, then inflates them into more than the observer would have otherwise imagined. The central figures in his paintings, however, are skeletons, whose black-and-white selves would never be construed as dead -- not only are they surrounded by color so intense it nearly vibrates off the wall, but the skeletons themselves are infused with bliss. We living should be so lucky.

Disclosure: Jennifer Savage is the proud parent of an Arcata Arts Institute student.

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Jennifer Savage

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