For Lisa Houck, art class is not a luxury, a place for down time, or a perk of an enriched curriculum; for Lisa Houck, art class is a vital part of the educational experience. “What I’ve come to understand in teaching art to all ages, from children to folks in elder hostel programs, is that art is essential. It is an essential part of our education. It is essential to our development, unique in the confidence it brings from building up skills with results you can see”.
“Very honestly when I started teaching at DCD, I knew I loved art, and I knew I wanted to bring it to the children here. What I didn’t know was how important it is to the whole learning experience, what a core piece of education it is to learn how to fix things when they don’t come out right the first time, to learn to push on, to learn to go get advice from teachers and peers, to not walk away.”
For Lisa, these are key elements of learning, unique to art.
“It’s all about engaging materials, about seeing how things are made. It generates a certain kind of confidence, a confidence quite different than the confidence that comes from solving a math problem.”
It’s this kind of engagement Lisa sees as key to breaking down the sometimes gendered perceptions of art. “Some boys will come in a little more reticent, a little less engaged, thinking art isn’t for them. So, instead of presenting art as expressing feelings, as is often done, what I do is tell them that art is simply hard work that needs to get done. Saying that makes it a project pretty much everyone can engage in.
The physical part appeals to them. Boys like to get up and move around. Art gives them that opportunity. I try to present my classes with large, ambitious projects that move from beginning to finish. I often try to complicate the projects as we move ahead. When I do that, no matter who it is, I can see their interest and confidence growing through the class. When they’re finished, I see the sense of accomplishment, the sense of ownership, and the pride reflected in their faces.”
Lisa offers her “ten-hour drawing” assignment as an example of this type of engagement. “The students pick something they want to draw and the one rule is they can’t say they’re finished. For ten weeks then, they work in class on improving what they’ve done. Each class they reengage their work and study how they can improve it. Over the weeks they watch it get better and better.”
Engagement and collaboration have been essential elements in Lisa Houck’s career as an artist. Her own mosaic work has received wide critical acclaim as has her work in establishing collaborative projects with local communities. Her work with the United South End Settlements in an after-school program resulted in a large public installation of a magical mosaic landscape populated with birds designed by the students she taught (see sidebar on page 10).
At DCD, Lisa undertook a similar project for the Thrive Campaign. “It involved making four hundred plates. It was wonderful. At DCD, whenever a project like this comes up, everyone gets behind it, gets involved, and cooperates in any way they can to make it happen. We had everyone at DCD make a plate—faculty, staff, kitchen workers, students, groundskeepers—everyone made a plate.”
“The logistics were incredible. Early on we figured we could only fire seven or eight plates in the kiln at a time. We had everyone coming down, popping in to help with glazing and firing the plates. It was wonderful to see the ownership spreading, the whole community involved. For me, it meant the opportunity to meet every student in the school.”
When it came to the design of the new Lower School, Lisa’s talents were again recruited. “The architect designing the new building had the idea of child tiles (see examples on bottom of page 10). The first idea was for the tiles to be in bathrooms. They’d be self-portraits. Each student in the school would make one or two tiles in black and white. We chose different techniques for different age groups and different ideas or prompts for different groups-—the whole face or the body—so that when we put them all together we’d have a variety. We gave the students a range of materials—sponges, sticks, stamps, and crayons. Some sketched with pencil. We had only a short time—thirty-minute classes—to complete the tiles. Then, in the end, someone asked, ‘Why don’t we get some of them into the hallways?’ Others pointed out the possible awkwardness of having boys’ tiles in the girls’ bathrooms and vice versa. So we adjusted our plans as we went along. It was a really collaborative effort.”
Asked about her experience as an artist and teacher at DCD, she extols DCD as an ideal home. “I just look at the respect given and the project time set aside every day for art. We are integrating art into the work of the day. These classes could be a place where children are just taking a break, and we could have lots of behavior issues, but that just doesn’t happen here.”
Lisa cites her set design class as an example. “It used to be just for students who opted out of the play. Now it’s something you can opt in to, and so I’ll get a mix of Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Graders working together on the Eighth Grade play, for example. It’s a great experience for them. We’re doing very big paintings, there’s lots of activity, lots of physical work using big pots of paint and large brushes. Again, it involves problem solving. We work together on the large pieces. Students make suggestions. One year a child brought up the idea of perspective, so we designed a hallway.
“The sets get better and better each year, and children look back at what they did before and what they’re doing now and get a real sense of accomplishment. There’s a sense of pride when we see the play and the audience responds to the sets. It completes the whole process.”
Asked what interests her most in teaching Lisa says, “I’m particularly interested in any student who feels reticent. I like just getting down to work with them, engaging them, watching as they get involved, begin asking questions, and become more ambitious. It’s something you see all around you here.”
Lisa is grateful for the opportunities and experiences she’s had at DCD. “I’ve felt very appreciated. I think the school has given me the chance to do some school-wide projects that have been truly community building. Arts are valued here.”
As for budding artists and their future after DCD, Lisa thinks there might be a few, and a few art teachers, as well, she hopes. “I had an amazing teacher at thirteen who made me want to be an artist. I only hope I may someday have that same impact on a child.”
Published in the Summer 2013 issue of the DCD Bulletin.