Of Cowboys and Kestrals : Keeping up the spirit of Johnston
Perhaps it was the quote from Charlie Russel(a “cowboy artist) on his reasons for painting the vanishing Old West, ”You might lose a sweetheart but you will never forget her”. This was to describe a series of classes for children on “cowboy art”, and it was fun to present the mysteries of smoke signals, the gold rush, infinite possibilities and the freedom of exploring on horseback unknown territories. Several of my old classmates from Johnston responded to this post, but it brought out the humanitarian in Bion Howard. Perhaps it is the “cowboy “ in him- who could ever forget the stories in the dorms of adventures on the trail accompanied by the guitar and songs of Stan Richardson. Even today, Bion embraces that energy- blazing trains with his motorcycle .
Last month, I taught a series of classes that was sponsored by Bion in the Waukegan elementary schools on birds(through the Visiting Artist Program). Experiential in every way, we brought in a scruffy lot of taxidermied birds lent by Volo Bog: a kestral, woodcock, duck, cardinal, finch and a pheasant.
“Are those real? Are they alive?” They stimulated curiosity. I challenged the kids to use their intuitive knowledge- betting them that each kid in the class could name a different kind of bird- and sure enough they did. I also said “bet you Ican just draw a c couple of shapes and you can guess what bird this is- and yes! A circle over an oval becomes an owl, an “s” line is either a swan or a flamingo, a swooping “v” is of course an eagle- - -(all those years of gesture drawing come to mind. Use your eyes not what you think, observe) and from there we went into observation- the keen eyes, sharp beak and claws of the kestral makes him a bird of prey, the rounded beaks and webbed feet surely belong to a water bird, and we guessed from just observation what the finch and cardinal ate and where they live. . .
Half the kids in the class watch “animal Planet” after school, and we all observed all the birds we were seeing and hearing – the hint of the spring to come.
This kind of interdisciplinary art/nature class reaches children in so many ways, even those who are not academically savvy. Observation, relating to the environment, learning drawing skills from gesture (this is key with 4th and 5th graders who developmentally often lose confidence in art skills because of the ability or inability
to draw well realistically. It is important to emphasize the spirit, and the gesture-- -as a background for which to build). It is also an opportunity to reinforce the importance of preserving the natural world around us, because if we failto protect it, it may disappear.
The kids and I thank you Bion for your support, and because of this opportunity we have inspired other opportunities to come.