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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

Students partner to create stunning portraits

by Nancy Knickerbocker

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist, once we grow up.

— Pablo Picasso

These wise words grace the first page of Portraits of Our Culture, a new art book created by Vancouver students from Grades 1 through 12. No doubt Picasso would applaud wholeheartedly if he could see the free creative spirit that leaps off of every page.

The book both delights the eye and warms the heart, as the reader comes to see that the creative collaboration was as much about building friendships as making art. Certainly it’s been a labour of love for art teacher Malcolm McTaggart, along with many colleagues and supportive parents. The fourth in a series of books produced by Vancouver art teachers and students, this one portrays how young artists see themselves in an ever-changing world.

Art teachers at 32 different schools helped secondary students mentor elementary students on a variety of collaborative projects around the theme "portraits of our culture." The students painted their portraits on everything from paper to stone, ceramic tile, and found objects. They did wool felting, photography, sculpture, and multi-media. Whatever the medium, the children enthusiastically depicted their diverse cultures in brilliant colour.

"When [the portraits] are done they will be great. I just know it!" said Hannah Ker, a Grade 1 student at Kitchener.

"The Grade 1 students were full of imagination and not afraid to put their ideas down," observed Kevin Chan, a Grade 12 at Ker’s partner school, Prince of Wales.

Clearly, the students gained confidence through shared creativity and new friendships. "One of the goals was to create a real variety of art forms, and to create relationships so that younger students would have a feeling of belonging when they go on to high school," said McTaggart.

A tiled bench created by students of Van Horne Elementary in the courtyard of Eric Hamber Secondary is just one of the very successful projects in the book. It began with students’ researching the indigenous fauna and flora of our province and then choosing images to paint onto bisque tiles. The students sketched, painted, glazed, and fired their tiles, then set them into place, grouted and sealed the bench. The result is a cheerful patchwork of B.C. images–orca, loon, seal, deer, dogwood, bluejay, and cherry blossom.

The project has been so successful that two other feeder schools plan to involve their students in tiling additional benches at Hamber. The bench created a concrete link between younger students and their future high school. An elementary student wrote to the secondary art teacher:

"Please help me, Amanda, to tell Vicky hello and see if she still remembers me. Please inform her that my friend Sarah and me still have Vicky in our mind and will never forget her. Please tell her that. This is very important. Tell her I wrote a lot of special things about her in my journal."

"Tell the high school students that painting tiles with them has been most enjoyable for me and I am looking even more forward to becoming a student at Eric Hamber," another student wrote.

Laura Super, a Grade 12 student, wrote: "It was interesting to see what my Grade 1 buddy thought about. I think this project is one that bridges the gap between elementary and secondary schools. Co-operative art projects like this one should take place because both older and younger students benefit from it."

Facing funding cutbacks and escalating accountability measures, art teachers are working even harder to maintain their programs. Certainly this book is a wonderful reminder of how crucial the arts are to students and to society at large.

McTaggart is quick to credit others who collaborated on the project. Dr. Valerie Overgaard, associate superintendent, championed the book from the start. Usher Hammer, a retired teacher, has been instrumental in the book projects since 1990. Similarly, David Friesen and his nephew Curwin, owners of the Friesen family yearbook print shop, have kindly agreed to print the book at cost. Alison Prendergast, another retired art teacher, created a CD of the book. Lana Hill did liaison with the Pendulum Gallery in the Hong Kong Bank building, while Ana Dispirito and Alex Baillie organized the exhibition.

It was a great experience for students, parents, and teachers alike to show their portraits at such a great venue right downtown, McTaggart said.

Many who read the book are clearly moved and impressed by it. Chris Kelly, superintendent of Vancouver schools, wrote:

"The images in this collection are powerful in so many ways; as compelling statements of cultural experience and perspective; as evidence of the remarkable creativity and insight of these young artists; as testimony to the quality of learning, performance, and achievement in our schools; as signals as well as symbols of the life and times of our community and society."

Portraits of our Culture is available for $35 from the Vancouver School Board’s District Learning Services, 1595 West Broadway, Vancouver, BC V6J 1Z8, by phone at 604-713-5206, or via e-mail at portraitsofourculture@hotmail.com.

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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