Armchair Studio


Some people make art daily in their lives. They are not necessarily art teachers or professional artists, but they make everything around their lives more beautiful by just living. A little illustration on the outside of a box you get in the mail, vignettes around their home, the way a table is set or food is served, and the list goes on. Several years ago, a dear friend and mentor, Lynda Letey passed away. When I went to her home in Phoenix after the service, I was especially touched by a little table next to her favorite armchair. Nestled on the small table, was a perfect basket filled with colored pencils and brushes, and beside the basket and her Bible was a sketchbook. I thought back to all the lovely notes I had received from her that included her illustrations which have always been treasures to me.

We tell our students that in order to improve their art, they need to make art and keep visual journals outside of the time they spend in the art classroom. But how many of us practice this as well? “Use it or lose it,” is a mantra that also applies to art educators. I know that unless I have an upcoming exhibit or a teaching workshop, I am spending little time in my studio upstairs and more time in my favorite chair watching British mysteries on Netflix with my family. So, I decided to set up a portable studio next to my chair, so that I will practice what I preach to my students.


I keep an assortment of supplies accessible, such as my Windsor Newton Travel Palette, a small jar of water, an inspirational magazine, an assortment of brushes, markers, drawing pens, colored pencils, drawing supplies, a set of watercolor cards and envelopes, a small pad of watercolor postcards and my sketchbook. I use images that I have taken on my cell phone for references, work from a small still life, or I just paint designs. Sometimes, I keep these small studies to send as cards to friends and family or to frame and give as gifts. One Christmas, I hand painted 350 Holiday cards and at our open house, I let everyone select a card-size painting as a parting gift. 


I am finding that the convenience and accessibility of these supplies inspires me to build a healthy habit of making art every day. And every day, I am reclaiming a personal love for making art. This enthusiasm cannot help but trickle into my teaching. Sometimes I will share with students what I am painting from this little nook. Hopefully my practice will inspire them as well to make art daily in their lives. 


The Power of Staples

 Richard Lou addressing art teachers at the West TN Art Ed Spring Conference. Photo by Melody Weintraub

Richard Lou addressing art teachers at the West TN Art Ed Spring Conference. Photo by Melody Weintraub

"Art That Builds Community," was the theme of our West Tennessee Art Ed Spring Conference yesterday at The University of Memphis (UM). Our Keynote address was given by Richard Lou, UM Art Department Chair. He started his talk by first commending the group for choosing to teach art. He then shared the impact that those who taught him about art made on his early life. Next he took us on a visual journey through a project he was part of in the early 90's, "The Borders Sutures Project, " where he and a team of artists traveled the boundaries between Mexico and The United States placing large iron staples in the earth between the borders to make a statement about healing. I was emotionally impacted to see the power of art to communicate a message so passionately and peacefully. It impacted me on multiple levels.

 "Ceramic Cherub," glazed by Ruth Hryhorchuk (circa 1968). Photo by Melody Weintraub.

"Ceramic Cherub," glazed by Ruth Hryhorchuk (circa 1968). Photo by Melody Weintraub.

The healing aspect of the project reminded me of the ways that I have witnessed art being used therapeutically as people I know have faced adversity. I recalled how my sweet mother took a ceramics class in the late 60's as she went through cancer treatment. I thought of the oil painting class my mother-in-law and I attended when her daughter passed away. I think of countless individuals who took my community watercolor classes to "escape" life changes. I think of how art has been my healing balm time and time again. Even my children's book, "The Little Bluebird," began as a personal memorial gift for my dear friend after the loss of her young son. Some of the most powerful and memorable art in the world was created out of a need to make sense of life.


 "Broken," by 8th Grade student. Photo by Melody Weintraub. 

"Broken," by 8th Grade student. Photo by Melody Weintraub. 

Then my thoughts turn to the staples from "The Sutures Project," and how staples hold things together to keep them from falling apart, as Richard said, "So that the healing can begin." I teach middle school, so I have always seen my role as an educator more as a directional guide as students face the crossroads of life. However, after hearing Richard's talk and seeing the staples, I see that as art educators, we are also the staples. The art classroom can be that place that is the constant for these students, the stability through the instability of life. The safe place where students can reflect and express their emotional responses to the situations they face. Art class can be the constant until the healing can begin. As a teacher in a religious school, I can remind students of their faith that transcends any temporal issue. Or as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently penned, "Faith is taking the first step when you don't see the whole staircase." But all art teachers can remind students of the power of art to express, to heal and  to make a difference in a world that at times seems like it is falling apart. Perhaps the best way to remind them is to model this in our own lives and to never underestimate the power of staples. 



As we approach the last couple of months of the school year, my 8th Grade Honors Art students are working on a grid drawing of an assortment of candy. This project began as a photo project which began as a composition project. Since I love to weave "choice" into my lessons whenever possible, I asked students for a list of candy I should buy for this lesson. They complied. Imagine that! After I supplied all of the delectable delights Walgreens had to offer, students were instructed to choose an odd number and variety of candy, and to position the candy in a random fashion on a piece of white paper. Next students were to take a cropped photo of this assemblage. I spoke briefly to them about camera angles and lighting and showed them how to enhance the lighting on their iPhones. They then printed their photos out and, using a grid transparency, they made another copy of the photos. They could skip the last step, if they used a GRID App to take the photo in the first place. Next students lightly drew a one-inch grid on the surface of a 15 x 20-inch piece of illustration board. 

Since this wasn't the first time these students had done a grid drawing, I gave them a few tips and told them if they needed to review, they could revisit my YouTube Channel's Lesson on Drawing Using a Grid which is posted at the end of this entry. They began with a line drawing which I periodically checked for accuracy. Some of them are now at the point where they will begin shading the drawing this week, referring to the gradient scale they made back in the Fall.

After students finish shading, they will add watercolor and colored pencil to complete this realistic drawing. Yes, they will add these right on top of the graphite.

I have been working on this project along with the students; drawing and painting a little ahead, so that I can better guide them with this lesson. It also seems to be inspirational for them to see my painting develop. However, they are all working at a different pace. And this project is a perfect example of how students approach learning differently.

Some of the students who are naturally talented at sketching, or who sketch a lot, seem to veer away from the grid and use a little “artistic license” when it comes to using the photo reference. Others move slower constantly having to find their place on the grid, while still others who meticulously follow the grid are pleasantly surprised at how well their drawings are coming together. 

As a teacher, I want my students to know my expectations, but I do not want to “standardize” their outcomes. I want them to learn from this project, I want them to stretch their talents and skills, but most of all, I want them to have a positive learning experience. I know that not all of their drawings will be at the same skill level. But it is my hope that each child will find something learned from this lesson that will help them with the next, or cause them to look a little closer at a work of art in a gallery, or notice how the Friday night lights effect the Tootsie Pop they buy at the ballgame. 

Writing on Wednesdays

 Students writing about Roy Lichtenstein's, "M-Maybe" (1965) Photo by Melody Weintraub

Students writing about Roy Lichtenstein's, "M-Maybe" (1965) Photo by Melody Weintraub

There is a new "tradition" with artists in my Middle School Art Classes. It is known as "Writing on Wednesdays." They know that on Wednesdays they have the green light to bring their laptops to explore a new painting specifically chosen for it's era or style. Sixth Grade (since I only have them for 9 weeks) is exploring the Impressionist Period. Since I have Seventh and Eighth Grade Students every day all year, Seventh Grade is working it's way through Post-Impressionism through Pop-Art and Eighth Grade is looking at Pop-Art through Contemporary Art. The writing formats vary from a formal critique (A.K.A. Art Investigation) to prompts in which students might write a letter to a friend describing a painting, write a short story based on a painting, or even write Haiku based on experiencing a painting using their five senses. If students are in the middle of an art process mid week and unable to pause, we might choose to have Writing on Wednesdays on...a Friday or Monday. Last Wednesday, I was not prepared for what transpired during my Sixth Grade Art Class! I put students in Investigating Teams. Using a handout which I created, students were to observe the "evidence" of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party and collect their data. What ensued was a very passionate argument regarding the content of the painting. It was wonderful. I tried hard not to smile too much. I don't think I'll ever have to remind them again who painted it or what it looks like. As students were leaving one student turned to me and said, "I love Writing on Wednesdays, Mrs. Weintraub! It's so much fun!" What's fun for me  is seeing these future Artists, Lawyers, Teachers, and Doctors connecting to Art in a whole new way. So, one day, maybe 20 years from now, when they are walking through the Art Institute of Chicago they just might take a second look at certain Renoir.

Teaching Students to Care

 "World Peace." Photo by Melody Weintraub

"World Peace." Photo by Melody Weintraub

I've taught Middle School Art for many years. I've seen my teaching evolve from just teaching students how to make or draw things into why to make and draw things. In order to teach them "why" sometimes I must help them look at issues that they face and how those issues are connected to issues facing our world. For many of these students, this is the first time they have considered that their art could be used to communicate something that they are passionate about. I feel a responsibility to teach them the skills necessary to communicate this message. I believe that craftsmanship in art is as important as good writing and delivery is in a powerful speech. It needs to be consistent with the message and not distract from it. Showing them examples of art speaking they can see the variety of ways that other artists have communicated; Picasso's "Guernica," Ringgold's, "For The Women's House," Goya's "The Third of May 1808", for example. While exploring issues, I write down these themes on the board. This way students also learn the importance of conversation. I have seen them then begin to use this tool of collaborative exploration in constructing their own art. Sometimes they will even ask other students to help them develop ideas. I am always amazed at the results. Recently a student decided to explore the theme of "addiction," in creating his self-portrait. The result was a tonal portrait of himself chained inside a doorway but reaching to the outside where in the reflection of his glasses we see the colors of a beautiful day. One of the chains is broken. It is about gaining freedom from his addiction to video games, and wanting to play outside with his friends. What a transparent and powerful message from an 8th Grade student! But then so is the simplest of designs like the one carved on a ceramic cylinder--"World Peace." Theodore Roosevelt once said that, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Perhaps the best way we can teach students to care is by starting conversations and listening to them. 

Summer Plans?

So now that the art room is packed up and the totes full of planning books are stuffed next to your favorite chair at home, what's the plan for your summer break? Many of us have good intentions about making time to think about getting some ideas together, but then it's all too easy to flit away these balmy summer months with no plans at all..uh..and we all know how that works for us in the art classroom...NOT! It's true that we all need a "break" and there's nothing wrong with taking one. There is also nothing wrong with "scheduling" a break either, so that we maximize the time off and make the best use of these days. Or all too soon, we will look back and see they were swept away by Candy Crush, Facebook, Netflix and...nothing.

Setting Goals

Setting personal goals for the summer is a good place to start. Just make sure when you are setting them that they are reachable, or you will wind up being frustrated that you weren't able to accomplish anything. Want to paint more? Visit a museum? Volunteer at a Community Center? Write? Submit? Read? Draw? Make? Learn? Plan? Travel? Make a list. Keep it simple and reachable. What is reachable for some might not be reachable for others. Don't stress over it. We are all wired differently. Also, don't get goals confused with desires. Our desires are what should drive our goals. "Writing" is a goal. "Getting Published" is a desire. 

Setting Priorities

Now that you have made a concise list, number it in order of priorities. What is at #1? #2? #3?This will help you as you schedule your time devoted to each. Your goals do not need to have equal time. Some are more important to you, your career and your well-being than others and that's just okay.

Setting Schedules

Once you have prioritized your goals, decide how much time you will devote to each. For instance, if my #1 goal is to write, I might set aside at least one hour every morning to spend writing. Painting might be a secondary goal, but it may devote more time because of it's process, so I might set a painting goal to twice a week at 3 hours a pop. Setting these goals into your calendar helps tremendously when planning other life events of the summer. For instance, knowing that you plan to write each day from 8:00-9:00, helps you plan other events starting at 10:00. Or it might mean rising a little earlier if something else is planned.

Setting your Mind

A wise administrator once told a group of teachers that the most important thing I can do for students is to be interested in something other than teaching. That's a hard call for me, since I am so passionate about teaching, but think about it. If we are interested in something, it ignites our energy. When we bring that energy into the classroom, it sparkles. Use the summer break to pursue an interest, even if it's #5 on your list and see how it energizes everything else. You will find more time to do the things you love and love the things you do. 

Be Present

Summertime for me is a wonderful time to spend with my family. Nothing can be more frustrating to others than to visit with someone who is hypnotized by their mobile devices. Setting goals and scheduling helps us to enjoy the real world. The world we truly live for. If we are preoccupied by thinking of "more constructive" things to be doing, we just might miss a golden moment along the journey that will not return. The Bible says, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21) No matter how ambitious, we present for those we love. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Patricia Clifford, “The work will wait while you show the child the rainbow, but the rainbow won’t wait while you finish the work.” 

Exiting Ticket, Please?

Well, it's that time of year again, when we scrape the last paint from the jars, try a new squeeze on the Elmer's, and run by Dollar Tree on our own nickel for pencils, in hopes of finding just enough to finish out the year in Art. We all know that we must begin the summer packing a little sooner than most, since we have more stuff than most that needs packing away before the summer elves arrive to wax our floors and paint our walls. So while we are dismantling our visual displays, bulletin boards and posters like every year, we hopelessly never seem to learn that what goes up in August, must come down in May. In any event, during these days of sorting and purging, packing and tossing, we don't want to forget that we are still in the business of sowing visions and building dreams in the lives of those young people who walk into our classrooms every day. True, we'd really like for them to finish that painting..shade that drawing and glaze that pinch pot..but we also have an assignment to finish well. What will we give them to stash in their backpack of memories about Art? What will our students take with them beyond the canvas and portfolio of art? What kind of "exiting ticket" will we give them in these last days of school? What can we prompt them to think about over the summer or over their journey of life? What kind of positive praise can we share with them? We truly may not have the time to write a personal message to each student, but we could give them each a word on a piece of paper that best describes them in a positive way. I researched a list of positive traits and found one at . Although there are some traits on this list of over 200 words that we should refrain from using with students, this list might help us get started in the right direction. Or maybe we could share Howard Gardner's list of multiple intelligences with the class and help students in the quest to discover their gifts Maya Angelou said it best, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How will we make them feel as they exit the art room for summer break?

Chasing That Color

 7th Grade Student working on Zinnias. Photo by Melody Weintraub

7th Grade Student working on Zinnias. Photo by Melody Weintraub

As an artist, I love mixing colors to find just the right contrast, tone or hue. Do you? I tell my students that I sometimes feel that I can almost "taste" the color I'm trying to remembering the word that is "on the tip of your tongue" or finding the seasoning that your grandmother must have used in her chicken soup. I hope that I transfer that passion for mixing colors to my students. I love to see them chasing after colors in the condiment cups I distribute. When they finally mix THE color, I love to see them "stash" it in a nook of my art room for a pot of gold. We use black to shade colors sparingly in my classroom. Unless we are going for a "grungy" effect. We do, however, return to the color wheel to see if the compliment can be added to create a darker shade first. I tell my students to look for the warmer tones..go red..make it deeper with a little blue and then go to green. They know what I mean. I also tell them to return to the reference photo and study the color..over-emphasize it. The results sometimes take my breath the beginning of this zinnia painting by a 7th Grade student. I'm not sure that he realizes the magic that he is creating, but it is inspiring this art teacher to pick up some watercolors tonight and chase a little color myself. How about you?

Popping Off the Page

 Photo of student work. Use only with permission.

Photo of student work. Use only with permission.

Recently I posted a photo of a 6th Grade student painting a rose. Several comments mentioned that the rose looked like it was "popping off the page." In the post, I mentioned that this is the first serious painting that this student has done. She is excellent at drawing, but has never applied paint in this way. I simply told her that painting is just like drawing..only with color. This relaxed her and she began to enjoy the process. This reminded me why I love teaching art and watching a student's love and talent for art blossom like the petals on this young, budding artist's rose. Not all students who discover the magic of art arrive with a backpack of talent. Some are searching for a way to express how they feel about the world around them. They are not as concerned with technique as they are with content. For those students, I will present a way for them to develop just enough skills to communicate their message. If their interest continues..skills will follow and so will their individualistic style. Some students come with a love for experimentation. For those students, I introduce a variety of alternative surfaces and new materials. However, sadly, it is just as easy to uproot a student's love for art by fencing that student into a place where only perfectionistic realism reigns. As art educators, we must celebrate a diversity of individualistic styles and differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of students at all levels. The art room of all places must be the oasis..the safe place..where the student can think, plan, design, express, connect, reflect and emerge into a confident, empowered young visionary.

Holding On

 Photo "Hands on the Wheel." by Melody Weintraub. Do not use without permission.

Photo "Hands on the Wheel." by Melody Weintraub. Do not use without permission.

So, the last day before Spring Break, I decided to introduce my 6th Grade Art Class to the Pottery Wheel. Yes, the class was low in numbers that day and no, it wasn't in the scope and sequence. It was however, a teachable forty minutes..not just for the students, but also for their teacher.

STARTING SMALL- I decided to start them off with a small amount of clay, knowing this was their first experience on the wheel, a larger amount might have been too much for them to handle. LIFE LESSON: Maybe we shouldn't complain if we are given less responsibilities/position than others but instead shine with what we have been given.

SIMPLE DESIGN - No, elaborate designs here and kept trimming to a minimum. Basically the goal was to learn to center the clay, see how it worked and to get over the muddy hands. LIFE LESSON: Sometimes in order to make something remarkable or experience something extraordinary, we might have to step outside of our comfort zone. 

NO PROMISES - I also told them ahead of time that I didn't promise that I would fire what they made. The goal of this activity was not the product, but to let them experience the clay. It actually relaxed them to know that their first attempt did not need to be successful. LIFE LESSON: Enjoy the moment.

DEMONSTRATION - I demonstrated the process for them beforehand. I was careful to point out the position of my hands and arms and how important it was to maintain symmetry. I am in no sense of the word, a "master" potter. However, I know enough to teach them the basics of throwing a pot on the wheel. That's why their response took me by surprise as they practically squealed with excitement seeing this ordinary art teacher turn an ordinary pot. LIFE LESSON: Never underestimate the awesomeness of what you teach.

GUIDED PRACTICE - Now it was the students' turn at the wheel and as the first three potters began centering their clay, the other students watching and waiting began cheering them on, reminding them of the procedure they had just witnessed together. And when the second group sat at the wheels, the first group coached them and then something extraordinary happened. A student who was having difficulty centering her clay was assisted by the hands of her "coach." I watched in amazement as their hands collaboratively began to control the clay. LIFE LESSON: If life ever feels out of control, hold on and never resist the help of your friends.

My People

Okay, I'm at the National Art Education Association Convention in New York right now and I am energized. I am energized by the passion these 7000 happy art educators have for teaching and for art! There are no strangers here. As my sweet mom used to say, "A stranger is a friend you haven't met yet." Well, Mom, today I am among friends. Just ask someone where the name tags are and you find yourself deep in a conversation..sharing funny stories..and it's mostly about our profession. No fish out of water here..No matter if you're from Memphis or Montreal..New York or are among friends. So many, "take aways" from this..I can't even begin to count them. I do know one thing..come Monday afternoon in the Middle School Art Room...I am ready to rock some socks off of some artists! So what's the picture of the hot fudge Sunday all about? See that cherry on top? Well, that's what this conference is to my teaching..and this is just the first day.