The Work of Art

As creators and interpreters of art at Ellis, students cultivate interdisciplinary skills that prepare them for life beyond the classroom.
Who do you associate with the word “art”?

If you’re a maker yourself, your mind might immediately conjure an image of a sculptor with clay-stained hands, a world-famous painter, or a photographer painstakingly developing film in a darkroom. Perhaps you picture a gallery curator, a muralist, or a graphic designer. But what if you think instead of a neurosurgeon, a lawyer, or an engineer? What if you think of a person applying for a job or jotting down directions to help someone get from point A to point B?

Though some of these scenarios may seem more obviously artistic than others, the same proficiencies that are vital to creating a piece of art can and do pertain to them all. If someone is communicating a message through images; combining analytical and creative techniques to tackle a challenge; expressing themself thoughtfully and articulately; embracing and learning from each and every mistake; digging beyond the surface to uncover deeper meaning—they’re thinking like an artist.

At Ellis, starting with the very youngest learners all the way up to soon-to-be graduates, the Visual Arts program instills within students these very skills and encourages them to apply them not only in the classroom or studio but wherever their lives may take them.

Art is a Process
In a world that has come to expect instant gratification, art takes the opposite approach. In fact, one of the very first things an Ellis student learns about art is that it is a process—oftentimes, a slow and deliberate one that follows an uneven path. That’s why in Sarah Ceurvorst’s Lower School classes, she doesn’t just introduce her young artists to well-known paintings and pieces. Her pre-kindergarten students study Yayoi Kusama and observe photos of her famed “Infinity Room” installations right alongside drawings Kusama created when she was just ten years old. Not only does this give students an accessible entry point to the art conversation, but it also familiarizes them with the notion of work requiring multiple drafts and not always turning out as originally planned.

“My students learn—and love—to use the word ‘yet,’” shares Ms. Ceurvorst. “Saying ‘I can’t draw that—yet!’ leaves the option open that they could be able to do so in the future. We talk a lot about how art takes time, how mistakes are evidence of learning and growing, and how professional artists didn’t start off making great work right away. This idea of ‘yet’ is echoed in their other classrooms as well.”

Admittedly, despite their fondness for the word “yet,” the ups and downs of the creative journey can be overwhelming at a young age. When frustration inevitably occurs, Ms. Ceurvorst meets Lower School students on their level. She provides positive energy and feedback while still holding them to the high standards she knows they are capable of, gently steering them toward resilience and patience. To navigate the in-between time, when a finished piece can feel far away, students learn various coping strategies that range from breathing exercises to diving into a messy brainstorming experiment. Ms. Ceurvorst cites a project she did with the grade 3 class as a time when these techniques came in handy.

“My third grade students built an entire circus scene out of recycled objects, but it wasn’t until the very end that the girls saw it come together, which I think was useful for them to experience,” she shared. “They got frustrated at first, and sometimes as an adult I get frustrated with my own work, but that’s why we need tools to manage how we’re feeling so we can keep moving forward. The students are given multiple choices of things they can do in the studio so they have the freedom to walk away from a project and come back to it when they are ready.”

In Middle School, students are more familiar with the sometimes arduous creative process they must follow to reach their finished product, but are still grappling with the multiple steps and variations it can take to get there. Linda Tonetti Dugan, Visual Arts Department Chair and Middle School Visual Arts Teacher, encourages her students to lean into the discomfort and the gray areas—because that’s where the real magic happens.

“I always compare it to riding a bike. When my students say ‘I can’t do this,’ I remind them that they’ve already done other things that they didn’t necessarily figure out on their first try,” says Ms. Tonetti Dugan. “Did you tell yourself ‘I can’t do this’ when you were pedaling without training wheels for the first time? No, because you’d fall off. Art is a lot like that. You have to suspend your judgement and keep going. Just like on your bike, you can try again and keep going.”

For Middle School students in Ms. Tonetti Dugan’s studio, this process might look like using 64 layers of egg tempera paint (and letting each layer dry before adding a new one) while learning about medieval art, or going through multiple product designs in a collaborative project that combines the visual arts and the entrepreneurship elective, Ellis Entrepreneurs. It can also look like presenting their work to the class and asking for peer feedback for the first time. This constructive back and forth can be awkward at first, but critiques are an essential part of being an artist. Ms. Tonetti Dugan invites students to pick which specific pieces or aspects of their art they would like feedback on. That way, they’re learning how they can creatively solve challenges and being made aware of their own problem-solving methods, along with those of others. At the end of the process, the girls write about and reflect on their work, which adds a whole new dimension to their pieces.

Once students reach the Upper School, even more emphasis is placed on iteration and feedback, as well as the investigative work involved in the initial stages of an art endeavor. In Belle Moldovan’s digital design classes, she sometimes refers to her students’ portfolios as research papers to show that art can have the same gravitas as other scholarly disciplines. She teaches her classes to view the feedback process as a form of editing and to realize that critiquing a piece of art should be about assessing, not evaluating.

“Evaluating is saying whether or not something was done well,” explains Ms. Moldovan. “I want my students to go beyond that. To assess a piece is to offer ways to improve something, to measure to what extent a piece met certain goals.”

At the end of each of her digital studio classes, students lay out their work and share their thoughts—what’s bothering them about their piece, what’s something they could use help with, etc. In return, their peers offer suggestions, for a moment turning a solo project into a collaborative undertaking. More often than not, the student whose piece is being discussed hits the jackpot, with new ideas being voiced that the student perhaps would not have thought of, but were exactly what they needed.

“I never doubt the success of the critiquing process,” says Ms. Moldovan. “Why do a piece of art if it’s not going to be analyzed or thought about so deeply? Students have private relationships with their art. When they write reflections about their electronic portfolios, I want them to tell me something that I wouldn’t have any idea about, that I wouldn’t have seen just by looking. To read a student describe how creating their work changed them or how a process helped them—that tells me I’m doing something right as a teacher.”

Through trial and error, setbacks and “aha!” moments, students learn that art requires them to slow down, to think outside the box, and to reflect. As they’re introduced to new techniques and materials, there’s less focus on the exceptionality of their art and more on the skills they’re building during the process. Did they take the easy way out? How are they solving problems? It’s up to the students to answer these questions through their work, taking their time and confidently keeping in mind that they can always make more.

Art Explores Identities
A common misconception of the iteration process is that the goal is perfection; that eventually, after much practice, a student will produce a final, flawless piece of work. But if you ask any Ellis clay student, past or present, what they learned in Ceil Sturdevant’s clay studio, one phrase you’re sure to hear repeatedly is “wabi-sabi.” A Japanese philosophy and aesthetic principle, wabi-sabi promotes finding beauty in imperfection and serves as the mantra for Ms. Sturdevant's clay classes.

“If there’s an imperfection in your piece of art, it shows a uniqueness and it proves it wasn’t made by a machine” says Ms. Sturdevant. “Today, women especially are pushed to think they must be perfect or that their work must be perfect. In wabi-sabi, the end goal isn’t to have a piece be perfect, but for it to be meaningful. Its value comes from the time, craft, and significance that its creator put into it.”

One example of wabi-sabi in action is Ellis’ annual clay-firing celebration, Raku. The beloved Upper School tradition dates back over 30 years and has brought multiple generations of Ellis girls together to fire their handmade clay pieces in the Raku kiln. Its name translating to “happiness in the accident,” raku is a firing method known for unpredictable results; a piece placed into the kiln might look completely different when it is taken out. Ms. Sturdevant explains that it’s all a part of the bonding experience Raku creates. The older students know to expect the little imperfections their art pieces will have when they’re removed from the fire, but for the younger girls it is a valuable lesson in acceptance through which their peers help guide them. Ms. Sturdevant hopes that students take what they learn at Raku and through the practice of wabi-sabi and extend it beyond art.

“When you apply wabi-sabi to yourself, you realize that your own imperfections, your unique identity and what makes you different from someone else, are what make you special,” she says. “Art comes from the heart; it has to be something that’s important to the creator. I watch students use art to connect with their identities and determine what’s important to them.”

The self-exploration that Ms. Sturdevant describes is evident throughout the spectrum of visual arts classes. At each division level, students are encouraged in developmentally appropriate ways to use art as an outlet for finding their voices, identifying their passions, and learning more about who they are and how they relate to others. One example of this is a collaborative collage made by students in second grade that was all about how an individual can be more than one thing—a student, a daughter, an artist, a friend. The girls created one large image about their shared Ellis community out of smaller images that spoke to their individuality and what makes each of them unique, eventually presenting their piece and speaking about their time working together during a Lower School assembly. Another example is the wide range of art materials students are exposed to in the Middle School—from clay to painting to drawing to using Adobe Creative Cloud software—so they can see that there are many different artistic platforms for self-expression.

As students mature their art does as well; their works become more personal and tackle issues such as the environment, politics, self-acceptance, race, and gender. Middle and Upper School Visual Arts Teacher Tim Israel says he strives to leave room in every project for students to incorporate topics that are important to them, or, especially for older students, whatever it is they feel they need to explore or express through their work.

“The Visual Arts building is a really unique hub at Ellis where girls can come to reorganize their thoughts, decompress, or work through things that they might not be able to elsewhere,” he shares. “It’s both calming and invigorating, both routine and inspiring, and it gives them space in their day to process who they are and how they feel about the world around them in unique ways. Every time they enter our classrooms, they may be exploring a part of themselves that wasn’t even there when they woke up that morning. The self-discovery that happens is just tremendous.”

Art Communicates Visually
Analyzing Italian Baroque paintings from the 1600s alongside a Chanel ad torn from yesterday’s Vogue is all in a day’s work for Sara Sturdevant’s Arts in Society students. The similarities between the two may not be obvious at first glance, but after a few minutes of class discussion, the connections become unmissable, both pieces vying to tell stories of desire and elicit visceral reactions. By learning what cultural factors define the art of certain time periods and how specific symbols or characteristics can hold meaning, the students are strengthening their visual literacy muscles.

Across campus, a group of pre-k students in paint-covered smocks sway to the sound of classical strings as they swirl watercolors and chat animatedly amongst themselves. As part of their lesson on abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, the girls are listening to music as they work and painting how they feel. “You can paint happy or sad—you can paint anything!” exclaims one student. Another chimes in, pointing to a dark spot on her painted paper. “That’s where the song gets mad.” Though still a long way from art history analyses, these students are already discovering how ideas and emotions can be conveyed through illustration, as well as how they can tell stories through their own work.

Little by little, as students advance through the visual arts curricula, they gain the power to read pictures just as confidently as they can the written word—an expertise that has never been more valuable.

In today’s society, where just the flip of a television switch or the swipe of an iPhone screen can summon a bombardment of images, it’s important to be able to decipher them. How is that advertisement trying to make you feel? What message is that Instagram photo conveying about standards of beauty, and do you agree with it? Ms. Sturdevant doesn’t want Ellis students to be passive intakers of this information; instead, rather than just looking, she wants them to be able to see.

“There’s a universality to visual communication that humans need,” says Ms. Sturdevant. “It’s where words tend to be inadequate. What’s important to me is that students understand art as part of larger social movements and as a way of delivering information visually. I want them to be able to thoughtfully articulate what they think a piece can tell them about a culture at a given time or about the person who made it. Any time I can find a connection between tools that artists have used in the past and what is part of our visual culture today, I try to make a comparison in my classes. The more you’re able to ‘see’ about an image by looking at it, the more you’re able to draw lines between disciplines, the more you can bring to your reading of an image or situation.”

Ms. Moldovan points out that another important facet of visual communication is being able to recognize and utilize proper design practices. This knowledge enables students to not only better interpret content created by others, but to embed messages and meaning into content of their own.

“We have never had more visual information thrown at us every waking second of the day,” says Ms. Moldovan. “With the competitive nature of everything we experience through social media, billboards, etc., it gives you an edge to know what good design is, because good design rises above the ordinary or mundane. You might get the grant over someone else because your presentation is better designed. You might get a job because your resume presents your skills more clearly. In this age of data-driven madness, there is power in being able to send a visual message in a way that will attract immediate attention.”

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and the adage holds more and more truth for Ellis girls as they use their burgeoning brains to decode and uncover the messages in what they see. There’s value in knowing that an image is never just an image, that everything from the tools used to create it to the overall finished piece is a deliberate choice by its creator, and Ellis visual arts classes empower students to use visual communication strategies to their own advantage in their work as well. Though the girls learn and practice this expertise in the classroom and studio, those are certainly not the only places they will make use of it.

Art is Everywhere
In the real world, there are no classes and no boundaries placed between different disciplines. You have one toolkit of knowledge, composed of everything you have ever learned, that you can pull from and apply to any given scenario. If you’ve taken visual arts classes at Ellis, that toolkit will include not only tenacity, mindfulness, keen observational techniques, and an eye for good application of design principles, but the ability to see how they all connect and can be fused together to solve any problem, whether it pertains to art or not.

Ellis’ visual arts classes ask students to dig deep, to explore their thoughts, emotions, and personal identities, to acknowledge what’s important to them. Diploma in hand, they might start a new adventure that has seemingly little to do with art; however, the catalyst to pursue that path may have come from a question they were posed with in the studio or a project that especially inspired them. The same epiphanies, talents, or expertise that can make someone a better artist can make someone a better chef, chemist, director—you name it.

Woven into every grade level at Ellis, the visual arts program serves as a roadmap of multi-dimensional, interdisciplinary skills that leads students from pre-kindergarten to senior year, then out to start their young adult lives. The mindfulness and patience they gain by embracing art’s iterative process is the same perseverance they’ll call on when they’re writing the fifth draft of their doctoral thesis, or putting the finishing touches on an architectural model that looks nothing like their original proposal, but better suits their client’s needs. The personal anecdotes and deep emotions students pour into their artistic pursuits now lay courageous roots that later empower them to blossom into adults who are comfortable in their skin and can articulate their beliefs with gumption. Equipped with the universal language and skills of art, Ellis students are well-suited to become better professionals, leaders, and people tomorrow.