Classroom of the Week | At Richmond Consolidated School, art imitates life

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RICHMOND — For Kelly Kaiser, art connects to everything.

The fifth-year art teacher at Richmond Consolidated School ties in subjects like math and history, along with old-fashioned problem solving, into her classes.

This morning, she is teaching sculpture as it relates to human proportion.

She tells her students in this sixth-grade class about Leonardo da Vinci, a Renaissance artist she calls a "genius of his time," who used his knowledge of art and applied it to the greater world, particularly with his concept of the Vitruvian man.

To giggles from the class, she explains that the classic drawing of the Vitruvian man with his arms and legs outstretched shows him naked. For that reason, she is not showing the class the picture.

But the class is working today on a project related to Leonardo's theory of the perfect human proportion, which said that the body should equal eight lengths of the head.

"Today, we're going to loosen that up a bit," she said.

She informs the students that they'll be producing quick "scribble drawings" of a wooden figurine on a stool in the middle of the room, along with life drawings of their classmate volunteers in different poses.

Then, they'll start forming their own wire sculptures of human figures, taking into account proportionality.

"Oh, no," calls out one student.

"Don't be intimidated," Kaiser replies.

It's the students' first lesson in sculpture with her this year. She starts the year with drawing, adding in different mediums so students don't get bored. Many of her students especially love painting or ceramics, she said.

She passes out pencils for the students' large sketchbooks. But she is not giving them erasers, and she refuses multiple students' requests for rulers to divide their papers into the required four quadrants.

"I'm going to take away your crutches," she said. "No erasers, no rulers. This is helping you guys get out of your own ways."

Craig Swinson nominated the class of his third-grade son, Cruz, because of Kaiser's ability to provide more and varied art programs with a limited budget. Kaiser provides innovative art programs that integrate with other subjects, he said.

Swinson recalled a time that Kaiser connected math to art with the Fibonacci sequence — a mathematical concept from which important principles of art and architecture are derived.

Kaiser also is director of the school's Creative Arts Program, which brings expanded programs in areas like dance and theater to students every Tuesday.

"It's sort of this blended philosophy of art and experience and education," Swinson said of Kaiser's program.

On Wednesday, as Kaiser passes out the pencils, she explains to the students that their drawings will only be 25-second scribbles — they don't have to draw precise lines or be perfect.

"I want you to think more about proportion than detail," she said.

She demonstrates a quick scribble drawing for the students on a small whiteboard.

"I say, my arm got a little out of control," she says, evaluating her finished scribble, done in blue dry-erase marker. "But it's OK."

Before they begin, Kaiser reminds the students that she wants to see a "constant dialogue" between them and their subject as they draw.

"You're looking up and down, up and down," she said.

After practicing drawing a wooden figurine, they're ready to draw one of their classmates, who might or might not remain as still as the figurine for the entire 25-second drawing period.

"Ethan is our Vitruvian man right now," Kaiser says as one of her students, a boy wearing gray track pants and a red sweatshirt, climbs onto the table at the front of the room.

He kneels sideways — "the thinking man," Kaiser says.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, several more students climb on the table, offering variably easier or more difficult poses.

One sits cross-legged with her hands on her legs — a difficult position to draw, but that's OK.

"We want to challenge ourselves," Kaiser reminds the students.

The final challenge for the day for Kaiser's second sixth-grade art section comes with long pieces of sharp, shiny-silver wire, which Kaiser cuts for each student using large metal shears. She guides them through shaping the wire into an upright human form, which they'll pose in different positions.

It starts with folding the wire in half and putting the fingers of one of their hands through the loop at the top, which forms the head of the figure.

Next up: the arms.

"Remember how I said the arms are about three heads long?" she asks. "I want you to measure three heads long for the arms."

At the end of the arm, students bend the wire, doubling it back up in another loop on either side. She reminds them to leave room for the shoulders.

Already, some are disappointed with their results thus far, but Kaiser helps them fix elements of proportion that seem off.

"There's always a solution," she tells one student, after informing him that he could shorten one arm to fix his proportions.

About 10 a.m., as class is winding down, Kaiser tells her students to write their name on a piece of masking tape to label the sculptures, which they'll continue working with in later classes.

As class ends, students scatter, but a few remain, including 12-year-old Olivia May.

In areas where students struggle, Kaiser is always understanding, Olivia said.

"She won't do it for us," she said of their projects. "She'll help us figure it out."

Bella Tinsley, 11, can easily recall her favorite art project with Kaiser — drawings students did of their hands, using shading to make it look like there was a hole in the middle of the hand.

"She's very helpful with our drawings," she said of Kaiser. "She tries to get everyone involved."

Kaiser sees students who run the gamut of interest in art. When things get difficult, some students' first instinct is to give up.

"My philosophy is, help them create bridges from their perceived dead end," she said. "In the classroom, we're a group. We help each other."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.


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