Discovering Their Voices: Why Art Education Matters for Our Scholars

In my classroom, Jermiyah needs to draw outer space. Erin needs to play with wispy values and delicate lines as she studies landscapes and crystals. DeAnna needs to make dots and more dots. Dayja needs to make shapes. Charolette, Samaya, and Khaniyah need to draw everything in sight. DaSean needs to convert life into cartoon expressions.

Art is usually the first thing cut in any program when funding is short. However, because of the impact it has had on my development, I believe art in schools is essential and should be accessible to all ages. This is what drew me to Smilow Collegiate. While every scholar may not choose to be an artist as a career or even keep creating art as lifelong habit, I have come to believe that art teaches our scholars invaluable lessons and skills, and most importantly, helps them discover who they are as human beings.

Art starts with observation, investigation, and awareness. Skills like learning to observe, respond intuitively, process emotionally, and communicate can be beneficial universally for all scholars as we prepare them for college and beyond. By connecting with art, scholars discover more about themselves through open, purposeful exploration and observation. No two scholars will connect the same way with a subject in art just like no two people will connect the same way. Art is about us understanding what makes us tick and getting to know the world around us by studying it visually. Like all relationships, these studies change us and help us to understand ourselves and develop a unique voice. Much of school teaches scholars about the world or others’ lives, thoughts, and discoveries. However, art requires us to be honest and get to know ourselves, as individuals. It requires a rigorous investigation and tenacity. Art is a way to filter our own unique experiences and world-views. Scholars will be drawn to marks, forms, themes, and colors that I’ll never see the way they do. My goal is for them to embrace that.

At Smilow Collegiate, we are not training scholars to do craft projects or one-off formulas, instead, they are being taught to use art as a process of discovery as they discover their own voice, and that is reimagining education in the South.

I also choose to teach at Smilow Collegiate because of the growth mindset and my own principal’s connection with art. Mr. Stanley is not a working artist, but something within him connects with art, which is why he was so determined to find someone to find an art department for his scholars. He has allowed me to immerse scholars in a process and mindset that I had to search and wait for years to find for myself. This is allowing scholars to grasp truths about art and life at a young age that will either help them developmentally as they mature, or possibly free them to be the artist they are meant to be. Modifying something that usually is only taught at a collegiate level, down to something attainable for elementary school, without losing the truth, and foundations of art is almost unheard of. At Smilow Collegiate, we are not training scholars to do craft projects or one-off formulas, instead, they are being taught to use art as a process of discovery as they discover their own voice, and that is reimagining education in the South.

Mr. Stanley recently told me Khaniyah has made major growth academically because of the confidence she has gained in art. Many of my scholars are finding, what I had to wait until college to find to give me a reason to create. They don’t have to fear that they aren’t enough like I did for so many years, because they believe in the power of growth. They aren’t forcing themselves to only make realistic copies of things, they are allowing their work to be a tool for which they encounter the world. They aren’t trying to fit in a box but instead, making something completely of their own.

Victoria Sewell is the art teacher at Smilow Collegiate, our elementary campus in Jackson.