Reading, writing ... and raku Local students make eloquent case for arts education


BRATTLEBORO -- Numerous studies have made the case for arts in schools, providing evidence for the close link between arts education and the things we want from students -- academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement.

Those studies have shown links between arts education and gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, verbal development, motivation, concentration, confidence, teamwork and independence.

The National Urban Alliance also points out that arts education can level the playing field between children of different economic backgrounds.

And advocacy for arts education is not just the province of crunchy liberal thinkers. As governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee chaired the Education Commission of the States and advocated for arts education in schools.

But important as they are, statistics and studies are dry. March is a good time to see direct evidence of the importance of arts education in our area, thanks to the Arts Council of Windham County, which has declared it Student Arts Month. Artwork from high school students countywide, in public and independent schools, is on exhibit all month at Vermont Artisan Designs (106 Main St.) and the Brattleboro Boys and Girls Club and In-Sight Photography on Flat Street.

There, viewers will find powerful evidence of the creativity, expressiveness, talent and profound thinking the area’s young people are capable of.

The works speak volumes, but even more articulate are the students themselves. Like the foursome gathered Tuesday around pottery wheels in Liz DeNiord’s classroom at Brattleboro Union High School.

"I think it’s silly to imagine a world without art. It’s one of the unique things that we’ve done: To create this whole concept of art," said Henry Mizrahi, a senior at BUHS, whose ceramic teapot won honorable mention honors from the Student Arts Month judges.

"An art class is one of the few places where I can really express myself," said Dean Knowles Maravell, a sophomore at BUHS. "I don’t know

The essential humanity of art was something the students kept coming back to. Art is us, we are art, and art classes have value, even if you’re not planning to pursue a calling as an artist.

None of the students at BUHS could say for sure they would choose visual arts as a career, although a couple said related fields like design and architecture were in the mix.

They all said art has value beyond vocational training.

"I think it teaches creative expression no matter what you choose to do with it," said Nenah Fitch, a senior at BUHS, whose ceramic work is on exhibit at Vermont Artisan Designs.

"Art is about innovation, and the world is about innovation," added Stella Silverman, a BUHS senior whose work is also featured at Vermont Artisan Designs. "I call ceramics the most human of all my classes. It’s transformed from this primarily functional act to marrying art with it."

While most of the high school art students will do other things for a living, occasionally exposure to art does result in life-changing revelations.

"I’ve found a calling, so to speak," said Miles Brautigam, a junior at The Putney School, whose work with teacher Naomi Lindenfeld has kindled a deep passion for ceramics. "I just basically felt like when I had free time, the studio was the place I wanted to be. My dad used to be a potter and taught at The Putney School. I remember thinking it was really cool that me made the bowls I was eating cereal out of."

Now, Brautigam is making those bowls and other things and devoting himself to other techniques and styles, like raku, for which he won Student Arts Month Honorable Mention.

Art has taken hold of Putney School senior Maddy Parrasch, who grew up surrounded by art -- her dad owns an art gallery -- but who had never considered it her calling. Now, she’s at least considering it and selected her college, Skidmore, based not only on its strong academics but on its strong ceramics program.

"It’s a real outlet for me. It’s time that I can be productive and still be relaxed," said Parrasch. "Even kids who say they’re not artists, they end up enjoying the arts here. I think art is really important."

While mastering the various techniques of throwing pots, handbuilding, glazing and firing, the students have also practiced essential skills which translate to any endeavor -- problem-solving, improvisation, an appreciation of process, a willingness to learn and grow and accept the bumps that go along with it.

"I’ve learned to accept things that are imperfect," said Fitch. "I’m not as critical of myself."

"It has influenced the way I think, in general, the way I go about certain things," said Mizrahi. "You look at things differently. I think it’s just so cool to look at stuff now."

Indeed, art reveals how things are made, the process behind the products in our world, and in some cases, changes the way young people value "stuff" in the world.

Brautigam said he’s much more likely to shop on Etsy (the web-based arts marketplace) than on Amazon.

"A lot of times you take an object for granted and not really be aware of where it came from," he said. "I noticed myself thinking about things from other aspects."

Art has brought out the entrepreneurial skills in Parrasch. During Putney School’s Harvest Festival last fall, she and other students sold their pots. They used the proceeds to fund a wood-firing workshop they will be taking with Matthew Tell.

Parrasch and Brautigam also got a chance to help Putney School’s new kiln during Project Week, so they’ve really had a chance to experience all aspects of ceramics.

Art has also brought them closer to their teachers, the students said.

"I think it’s so respectful ... reciprocal respect," said Fitch.

"It’s almost more like a partnership," added Mizrahi.

The teachers, too, get a lot out of it. Lindenfeld and DeNiord are both working artists, whose work, they say, benefits from their time as teachers.

"Teaching clarifies what I do on my own," said DeNiord, a painter and potter. "Just being an artist alone is enriched by the teaching part. ... It’s like having a conversation about art all the time."

"It’s always stimulating, always challenging," added Lindenfeld, a ceramics artist. "I’m amazed at what the students make. It keeps me going. ... It’s very creatively alive to teach."

Little wonder, then, that the Arts Council of Windham County, whose mission is to strengthen the environment for artists and arts organizations, has championed Student Arts Month for 34 years.

For many of those years, Marie Procter led the effort. Though she’s throttled back in recent years, she remains a tireless advocate of student arts education.

"It’s important to me because I feel that young artists need encouragement and recognition for their work ... that recognition in their creativity can help them become better students and better human beings," said Procter. "The joy of life comes from being able to express oneself creatively."

The Arts Council of Windham County celebrates in March student creativity in all art forms, not just the visual arts. Music, theater, dance, literature ... you name it, it’s being created, and Procter enjoys it all.

"It’s really heartwarming to see how these students come forth with so many great ideas. I am constantly amazed and impressed and joyful by the ways in which it keeps coming out," she said. "It’s thrilling to see the endless ways we can create. There’s no limit to what we can do."

The 34th annual Student Arts Month High School Art Show continues on view through March at Vermont Artisan Designs, the Boys and Girls Club and In-Sight Photography. An awards ceremony will be held on Friday, March 28, at 7 p.m., at the Boys and Girls Club.

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