From Dance to Literature, Art for Art's Sake

Never underestimate the miracle of art

Lately I have been obsessed with two things:  the vagaries of the Seattle School District’s math curriculum and cat pee.

These perturbations have kept me awake at night and have consumed many of my daylight hours.

So it was a relief a few weeks ago to be reminded that art has the power to transcend almost anything and what it can’t transcend, it can soothe.

On Thursday, at Adams Elementary in Ballard, where my younger daughter Maya is in fourth grade, the entire school spent the afternoon doing “art for art’s sake.”  Art is already woven into the curriculum at Adams, where a math lesson might include making Alexander Calderesque mobiles, and history studies can feature theatrical re-enactments of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.  Despite this daily arts-integrated curriculum, the staff decided that the kids needed to experience art on its own terms.  They got to choose from approximately 30 different offerings, ranging from shrinky dinks to digital photography, and spent the afternoon happily making art, just for the heck of it.

On Friday, I accompanied Maya’s fourth-grade class to Meany Hall to see a retrospective performance of the Martha Graham dance troupe.  I’d forgotten, or maybe I never actually knew, that Graham created dances to express her controversial political and artistic beliefs.  She was the living embodiment of the quote “well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Saturday afternoon I sat in my living room eating pumpkin bread with eight middle school -aged girls and their mothers for the kick-off meeting of our Mother-Daughter book group.  This group has been meeting since the girls were in first grade.  Members have come and gone, but the intent has remained the same:  to use books as a departure point to freely explore ideas.

As newly-minted sixth-graders, the girls’ lives have assumed some of the trappings that will prepare them for adulthood.  They use planners to keep track of assignments.  They check the Source to keep track of their grades.   Some of them say their interest in reading has waned because they are required to keep reading logs, documenting pages read, duration of reading session, whether they finished the book or abandoned it, whether they read alone or with someone, at home or at school.  Though the idea, which comes from the popular Reader’s Workshop curriculum, helps kids choose and connect with challenging reading material, sometimes the means get in the way of the desired result.   “Whenever I had an extra five or ten minutes, I would read,” one girl told me.  “Now I don’t bother, because I figure it’s going to take me several minutes to fill out the log, so I won’t get much actual reading time.”

 In my view, to paraphrase Brooke Shields in the Calvin Klein jeans commercials of the ‘80s, nothing should get between you and your book, or any other form of art for that matter.  Art, music and literature can get you through almost anything, including the turbulence of adolescence, the responsibilities of adulthood, the frustrations of being part of a large, underfunded school system and the stubborn stench of cat pee. Stella Adler, who taught Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro about acting, put it in drama queen terms:  “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

A year ago, although I didn’t know it, I embarked on one of the most difficult journeys of my life.  Last November, I traveled to Florida to help my ailing mother through surgery.   Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Lacuna, helped me through the sleepless nights of uncertainty and worry that followed.  Two months later, I returned to Florida to bring my mother, now diagnosed with late-stage cancer, to Seattle, where she would eventually die.  On the plane sitting next to her, I was absorbed by The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.

My mother gently and apologetically tapped my arm, in need of assistance.   I reluctantly put down my book and returned to our shared harsh reality.

“I’m sorry,” she laughed.  “I know how it feels to be lost in a good book.

I’d like to thank my mother and Martha Graham for giving me the resolve to fight for my beliefs and clean up the messes currently in my life (perhaps I’ll even interpret my cat’s urinary antics as a form of feline performance art).  I’d like to thank artists of every stripe, for reminding us that there is more than one way to look at the world. Thank you Seattle arts organizations, for bringing us Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Picasso, Nora Ephron and a host of other offerings.  Thank you corporate sponsors, for underwriting these events, so that students and others may experience them.

And most importantly, thank you teachers, for recognizing that experiencing art for art’s sake is an essential component of a well-rounded education.  As a teacher friend remarked, art is the great equalizer.   

As Picasso said, every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

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