Troubled Teens and The Fine Art of Choice

There Are Few Things That Excite Kids Here at Montana Academy More Than The Creative Process.

And while it’s not surprising to see students’ eyes light up in my visual arts classroom day after day, I occasionally reflect on the intriguing “why”s behind that gladsome glint. It’s a remarkable look and space and energy that I hope to never take for granted. (Believe it or not, the scales of administrative minutia slither their way into art rooms as well as cubicles.)

Troubled Teens, Art And Choice

Everyone feels a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment when turning raw and unrefined materials into something valuable or beautiful—be it a garden, tower, or train set—but it’s the choice behind the chattel that, in my view, reveals the reason why (key word: “choice”). For struggling teens at a therapeutic boarding school, nearly uninhibited choice seems at times an elusive, precious, and rare commodity. It’s really not (an easily proven truth), but to the young students that find themselves in situations like this one, it really does feel that way. Indeed, based on poor past choices, they have been placed in an environment where many significant life decisions have been put on hold, so they can learn to strengthen their ability to choose wisely, in a narrower and safer environment. 

So, what does this have to do with art?

Student copy of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Trumpet”

Art Provides The Opportunity To Exercise Choice And Voice

Whether students are painting in the abstract, molding clay on the potter’s wheel, sketching and drawing from life, or mimicking favorite masterworks, art provides an opportunity for kids to exercise independent choice—and voice—in a way that reinvigorates their latent sense of primal, unfettered freedom. Unlike their physical body, family, or vehicles, clay and canvas are easily replaceable (as are the paint and brushes). I hasten to add that each and every youth is guided in caring properly for these purchased resources, but such simple, earthy surfaces and mediums thankfully allow for nearly unlimited experimentation, expression, failure, and re-dos. It’s a beautiful thing—and for them, a breath of fresh air.

One student’s experiment with different glazes on a clay volcano

Symbiotic Collaboration Between Teacher and Student

On the other hand, there are people in the world like me (unfortunately for some, sometimes), who insist—absolutely insist—that there be a place for everything, and everything in its place: a process and principle for everything, and order in each space. In truth, structure and rigidity do hold our world together, and my art room is kept clean more often than not. However, I am sometimes uncomfortably reminded that an art program (including its lesson plans and curricula) needs to be a flexible one, allowing for a measure of symbiotic collaboration between teacher and student.

The art room, as well as the lessons planned within it, absolutely must to be allowed to get messy at times both figuratively and literally. Otherwise, the very joy students feel when they enter my room to finally choose something fun and refreshing is restricted and suddenly stale. I know this to be true from personal experience. I’ve learned the hard way at previous schools that an art teacher can get their students to produce neat and tidy, cookie-cutter projects while at the same time sucking the very life out of their artistic passion. Watching that dichotomy unfold, realizing what I’d inadvertently done, frankly shocked me into reform!

So now I’m more open to student suggestions, without letting them rule or dictate the classroom, which I still ultimately command. My role is not that of a tyrant, however, but a trusted guide taking each student on a very fluid journey through the limitless expanse of the art universe.

A student’s experimental Jackson Polluck pot (“Pot-lluck”) and student-suggested Polluck sweatshirts

Insistent Uniqueness

Below are a few examples of recent student work, along with a few captions offering a glimpse into the fruits of the artistic approach I’ve described. Each class consistently covers key principles or mediums; however, each one is insistently unique and one-of-a-kind, as a result of my response to the preferences, skills, and chemistry of each specialized brood of human beings. Each project shown below was only officially “assigned” after students voiced their preferences and made informed choices, following some initial guidance and instruction:

Album Art: This group of 3 students worked in acrylic and colored pencil to design their own unique music album covers,
based on preliminary sketches and color studies.
Clay Emotion: This student had turned out several nice pots on his own, then upon joining an advanced class combined his knowledge of design from a previous course, with on-the-fly research into the psychology of color, in order to transform each pot into a representation of some particular human emotion.
Caricatures: This inexperienced student chose public figures and celebrities to cleverly spotlight each of them, then learned watercolor on the fly in order to accentuate each portrait.
Creative Color Wheels: Rather than learn color theory through the rote copying of a circular pie chart (the customary approach), students picked something a color wheel could creatively fit into – then mixed complementary colors to creative neutrals in the background.
Montana Michelangelo: This ambitious art history student, who could’ve stuck to books and slides, decided to mimic a portion of the Sistine Chapel in order to better learn about the Renaissance (yes, it was taped to a portion of the art room ceiling, and no, he had not tried to match colors in acrylic paint before).
A Car’s Seasons: This student engaged in a lively class brainstorm session to arrive at this unique concept of a car typifying each of the four seasons, complete with color schemes and perspective techniques – all of which was learned in the same term with almost no prior art experience.

The Master in the Making

Students’ time at Montana Academy is precious. Every moment matters, and while the purpose of each moment – to develop character, intelligence, and maturity – remains the same, my art class provides a special element of variety to the way these qualities are developed. Here, as elsewhere on campus such as sports, music, service, and activities, students enjoy an elevated sphere of freedom in which they are allowed to struggle and fail, so that in time they can then choose to struggle again —and overcome. Is this not the very equation for growth? Indeed, the fine art of choice was never so much about the mere masterpiece—but the master in the making.