"When young people are involved with the arts, something changes in their lives."
This statement from the landmark 1999 report, Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning from the Arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities prefaced results of countless studies on the effects that the arts have on education and children's abilities to learn.
In summary, these studies showed that children who participate in the arts on a regular basis at school or outside of the school day, outperform those who do not in every performance measure - as much as 40 percent better. The arts are connected to learning processes that link the right and left brain functions. In addition, children from distressed socio-economic areas - not unlike Appalachia - benefit the most from classes in the arts.
The annual Regional High School Art Show at the Stifel Art Center offers students a venue for display. Awards include scholarships to West Virginia University and West Liberty University, cash prizes and ribbons. Brad Johnson, gallery curator, describes the work as consistently “strong” and local teachers as “dedicated.”
Over the next decade, subsequent studies supported this and examined the connections between the arts, learning and success not only as students, but as adults in the workforce. Statistics include:
However, learning starts well before high school and college. Young children draw, dance, sing and imagine as they play. Utilizing these natural tendencies can engage them in learning, improve memory and motor skills and foster social interaction.
Each person has a pre-disposition to learning in certain ways, called modalities. These include visual (sight), auditory (hearing) and kinesthetic (hands-on, touching). The arts can use all of the senses and a variety of modalities, reaching most children. Regular exposure to the arts and incorporating arts into other subjects (arts integration) allow students to learn in their natural modalities. This develops links between the artistic, aesthetic right brain and logical, analytical left brain. The reinforcement and repetition of using both sides of the brain improves memory and retention.
At St. Mary's School in St. Clairsville, Lorna Carroll teaches a program called "Drawing Children into Reading" for kindergarten through third grade. Developed by Wendy Anderson Halperin, a Michigan author and illustrator, the instruction begins with drawing straight lines and circles. Children have to follow certain steps and move into shading and perspective exercises, illustration and writing their own books. All the while they are developing fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and language and reading skills.
A wide range of stories, books and current events enhance the program and introduce children to other cultures via their subject matter. Students "draw" science and the alphabet through pictures of, for instance, bugs and butterflies. Carroll notes that this program has been effective in teaching children with Asperger syndrome.
Last year the work of five St. Mary's third graders was included in Halperin's latest book, "Peace." Her illustrations accompany quotes about peace from historical figures, but the center pages are filled with children's drawings of things that make them feel peaceful. The book gives children an example of art as a vocation and as a means of spreading a positive message.
There is a long list of benefits to child development linked to art education, all borne out through studies and research: critical thinking, problem solving, memory, social skills, self-confidence, motivation, brain coherence, persistence, discipline. The best testimonials, though, come from those who see the results every day.
Cathy Carpenter retired in 2008 after spending 30 years teaching art in public schools. "I have seen the joy in a child who never had an opportunity to create, and they see their results," she says. "Skills we learn and develop in art include skills in cooperation and group problem solving, ability to imagine what might be and to appreciate, understand and be aware of different cultural values. Amazing! These are life skills."
Carpenter, who continues to teach classes to children and adults through the Ohio River Artists group at the art gallery in Powhatan Point, thinks art is essential to being human and supports formal art programs at the elementary level.
"Creative thinking and self-expression is how my brain works. How many other children's brains work like that?" She adds, "And don't think for a minute that the medical researcher trying to find a cure for cancer is not using a skill from developing the right hemisphere of his brain through the arts. Everything manmade has been touched by an artist, from your home design, to the jewelry you wear to the toothbrush you hold. There are more opportunities than ever to make a career by using art intelligence."
Lisa Marple, art teacher at Union Local High School, says art is part of an educational package (in addition to academics and physical education) that challenges the brain, improves motor skills and calms students during "stressful teenage days" and that the students tell her they look forward to creating and interacting in her classroom.
"Art helps them express themselves positively. They notice more details and are more observant," Marple notes. "They manage their time better and become more patient. Many also develop the ability to teach others what they have learned."
At the high school level, Marple says students without access to art education could be missing important opportunities for their futures - students who may not fit in with other careers. She helps students enter regional and state art competitions, and two have won full, one-year scholarships to West Virginia University for their artwork in the past three years. Several more have consistently won awards and prizes. One of the scholarship winners became an intern for a Pittsburgh advertising agency and is going to visit China, which would not have been possible without art education. Another student learned about basket making in art class and now weaves and sells her own baskets.
West Liberty University has the most comprehensive college level art program in this region. Robert Villamagna, an accomplished artist and Assistant Professor of Art and Gallery Director of the Nutting Gallery at WLU, says that college gives art students "the tools and training to improve their skill levels, helps them find their own voice and gives them confidence needed to pursue their dream of a career in the arts."
His own interest in art began at age five when, impressed with the suits of armor after a trip to the Carnegie Museum, he began drawing them. "Art provides a way for me to communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas with others, while helping me to know more about myself. Art making is joyous and hard work at the same time."
The hard work is what some people don't expect. Art as a vocation and business takes as much or more work than any other career.
"Artists address life differently," says Villagmagna. "The ones that dig into it, that are driven to the arts, have a fire in the belly to create."
Nancy Tirone, Associate Professor of Art and University Supervisor of the Art Education program at WLU, bristles at the question of why art education is important.
"ALL education is important. Why must art education be defended through all the other disciplines? Real science and art are the same things. The inquiry is similar, exploration, discovery. They all contribute to creative thinking."
In addition, Tirone and Villamagna say, West Liberty's art program has an excellent graduation rate. Many go on to be arts educators in this area and in other places, and emphasize "it's not true that there are no jobs available."
A recent report, "Ready to Innovate," by the global business leadership group the Conference Board, states that creativity will become one of the top five most desirable skills during the next five years according to United States employers. An arts-related college degree will pave the way for careers in nearly five million American jobs in the performing arts, broadcasting, television, movies, music, recording, video games, advertising, design, publishing and tourism - worth billions of dollars in exports.
While the job outlook is positive, the education outlook is not. An informal poll of school districts in this area finds that formal art and music instruction (i.e. by an art or music teacher) is declining. Many elementary teachers have the task of getting through their daily curriculum for standardized test preparation as well as providing art instruction, and this is a national trend.
A report examining 300,000 creativity test scores discovered that "downward scores are more pronounced in younger children in America, from kindergarten through eighth grade." More disturbing, according to the report, is the "lack of nurturing of creativity in the U.S. as compared to other countries." In 2012, America's global competitiveness rating slipped for the fourth consecutive year, this time from fifth to seventh.
The President's Committee on Arts and Humanities stated "[Educators] must find ways to reach and motivate studentswho are increasingly turning to digital devices and not teachers, texts or each other for learning new ideas and expressing ideas(T)eachers and principals continue to be constrained by rigid curricula, the pressures of standardized testing and ever-increasing budget cuts."
Instead of falling victim to those constraints and an economy long-depressed from the demise of manufacturing, could the Ohio Valley make a concerted and planned effort to invest in the education and development of a creative culture, growing creative thinkers and attracting a portion of the billions of dollars that innovation can bring? Only through the joint support of schools, parents and communities at large.
The final installment will look at current and future activities, programs and projects to foster and support creative culture in the Ohio Valley.