by Mrs. Anna Nichols

     Many times our students just have no idea how to use their visual art skills to make money. They are told various things such as, "You are wasting your time if you think you will be able to make a living as an artist," or, "Choose a more responsible career!" The past few weeks I have heard several of these comments. Recently, I ran into a colleague who told me she had been discouraged by her family from pursuing a visual art career and for 20 years was unhappy. She finally went back to school, got her degree, and is now (happily) teaching high school art. Just last week at our middle school art show a parent of a very talented student told me that, "Art isn't a "real" career choice," and that she had never done anything with her own artistic ability. 
     So, when I had my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students fill out their "End of the Year Art Class Survey," I asked them all; "What have you been told about art by your community? Have you been encouraged to create? Do your parents buy you art supplies? Or, do your friends and family discourage you from being an artist because they think it isn't a 'real' career?" The results of my survey are at the bottom of this post - read on!
      My friend, Mr. Chris Screws, is making major strides toward eradicating these attitudes toward art by creating a Visual FX course for his high school students. He started out as a middle school art teacher and I will never forget how incredible his students' sculptures were.  He taught me a thing or two about teaching art to middle school kids, too!  This man just has a gift for teaching and creating sculpture, and now he is creating an original course for his high school students so they can gain experience with visual effects for the entertainment industry. He had the idea, presented it to his administration, they approved it, and now he is raising money to start the class for the school year of 2014-2015. Mr. Screws told me about a website, donorschoose.org where teachers can advertise their project ideas and raise money:
      Chris says, "My students are very interested in pursuing practical careers in the Visual Arts like special effects make-up, prop making and costume fabrication. This new VFX class will help them work towards their desired careers...This project will give my students experiences that will not only enhance their problem solving skills, but prepare them for desired future careers. We live in a city where VFX, and Art in general, is NOT seen as a realistic career goal. In a situation like ours, we must create opportunities for ourselves. My students are incredibly talented; they just need a chance to prove it. Help my students fulfill their dreams."  He also told me in an email, "Donor’s Choose recommends you try to get your project under or right around $400, or just break it into parts.  The $400 mark seems to be the sweet spot. If you have not used Donorschoose.org before, PLEASE give it a shot.  This recent VFX project makes 3 DC projects that have been fully funded.  I’ve only had one out of four projects not meet the goal.  The website is super easy to use.  They walk you through the entire process and even give you tips to be successful.  If you have any questions about the process, please let me know!" 
     Another one of my art teacher friends, Mrs. Shelly Bailey, is also working toward changing attitudes toward art by offering community art classes to both adults and children. Amazingly, after serving hundreds of elementary students all day in a Jefferson County public school, she goes to her business, The Helena School of Art, and works to serve her community! I recently attended one of her art workshops and was dually blessed with training in a new medium (encaustic) and refreshed with conversation among other art teachers. It was at this workshop that I spoke with the colleague whose family had so discouraged her from pursuing an art career. (The blue husky is the mascot for Shelly's business, and her motto is: "Like a box of crayons we create in packs.")
     In the book, Best Practices, Today's Standards for Teaching & Learning in America's Schools, by Steven Zemelman, Harvey Daniels, and Arthur Hyde, the authors state that,
     The arts have long led a marginal existence in American schools....The arts are marginalized in the wider culture as well, so their limited role in public schools merely parallels the lack of esteem the arts are accorded in American society. Our country offers mild and inconstant support for the arts....We are simply a country that is ambivalent about the arts; we show a mild reverence for certified fine art, but don't put much importance on everyday art making by our citizens, young or old....But then, the unstable place of art in our culture is not so unusual. Art and artists have always been independent and somehow apart. Although throughout history and across diverse cultures some art has always been harnessed to glorify the existing culture, many artists have been critics, renegades, and reformers. These artists both preserve traditions and transgress them - holding up various kinds of mirrors to society, culture, and art itself. Often, they paint quite unpretty pictures. One job of such artists is to redirect the path of a culture, not to revere it. So while we grieve the undersupport of the arts in our educational system, we would never want its reformist power to be tamed or muted by its incorporation into public education. We want to bring art to children in its full-strength formulas: robust, powerful, idiosyncratic, critical, and more than a little bit dangerous."

     I serve as a middle school art teacher in a primarily blue collar community that is considered a suburb of the city of Birmingham; Mr. Screws serves a high school in a different part of the metro-Birmingham area, but also primarily blue collar. Poverty levels at my school are at about 60%. I have always had the sense that my school community places much more value on sports, cheer-leading, and beauty pageants, but definitely not art. For 10 years I have struggled to build the art program, and I was very pleasantly surprised that most of my students have been taught to view art in a positive light, although many are still told that it is a great hobby, not a career: 
     Most of the positive comments went something like, "You can express yourself and be creative." The sense that I got after reading all their papers was that most of my students felt good about art in general and had been encouraged to create, but a few had suffered some peer persecution and a tiny minority were strongly discouraged by their families from participating in art.

Out of 98 middle school students who answered the question, "What has your community told you about art?"  
 79 comments were positive, 
 only 19 were negative!
(30 students did not answer the question at all or did not finish their survey)

Here is what my students have been told by their community, starting with the less than positive comments (the minority) and ending with (the majority) of comments that were very positive: (spelling/grammatical errors have been left intact to give the reader a better sense of the students' personalities)
plaster-gauze sculpture with found objects by 8th grader Caitlin
  • I have been told that "Art is good to pursue but a low profit." 8th grader who is very artistic
  •  "My parents say that I need to focus on acadimics but its okay to do art." 7th grader
  • "I was always told that it was a waste of time. And there is no point of doing it. Cause it is something that will never help me in life. but i find it cool cause i can do what i want i can draw what i feel and think." 6th grader who loves art
  • "My family tells me not to worry about art. Just worry about my grades." 6th grader
  • "It never appealed to them - they just never understood."                              6th grader who loves art
  • "My friends tell me art is full of weird kids and is boring. My parents say art is good if you have talent. I say art is full of different people but all of them are good people. If you like it - do it." written by a very artistic 8th grader/football player who chose to take art all 3 years of middle school
  • "Art is confusing...why have art when you have a camera...no use for art because we don't ever have money to get art supplies." 7th grader who is constantly in trouble in all his classes
  • "Art is not a career" 7th grader
  • "Most of my family isn't really supportive." 8th grader who is extremely artistic and who would like to pursue a career in visual art
  • "My family supplies me with the needed materials but they don't want it for a career." 8th grader who has won many art awards and prizes as well as has been accepted to the visual art magnet school for Jefferson County - she chose to take art all 3 years of middle school
  • plaster-gauze sculpture "Limbo Dancer" by Violet
  • I have been told that "It won't get me no where in life and a 'waste of time'." 8th grader, Violet, who has been repeatedly recognized for her talent and was also accepted to the visual art magnet school - to the left is one of her sculptures from 7th grade
  • "I don't think my grandmother will let her (my sister) be an artist. She'll probably push us to be doctors or something." 8th grader  
  • "My family dont buy me nothin and they say I shouldnt do art." 7th grader who loves art
  • "That art is a good career to live on you can get big money!!" 7th grader who is very artistic
  • "What I learned about art is it is very important in the world. and I learned that if you want to make art do it so you can show people how good you are. And art is every where in the world its on walls and the floor everywhere. They also bot me art supplys." 6th grader
  •  "I've been told that art is a good way (to) show your style and to show who you are." 6th grader
  • "I've been taught about African Art and my mom loves art." 6th grader
  • "When i was younger i really didn't like art but i do know and my parents encourage me to make more art paint draw and color. And i been told that art is all around us and to keep drawing more." 6th grader
  • "Ive been told that art is fun and if someone likes it they should try to make a living if thats what they want to do." 7th grader
  • "I've been told by my mother that artists make lots of money, and if that's what I want I should persue my dreams." 7th grader who is very artistic
  • "That certain art is expencive like artist who died They like my work." 7th grader
  • "I've been told by my grandparents that I draw really good and should keep taking art and be an artist." 8th grader
  • "I have been told to become an artist." 8th grader
  • "Art is a way that a person can excape to his or her mind and express themselves without caring who likes it who loves it or who cares. Its the best thing ever." 8th grader
  • "My parents tell me that if Im good at it keep it up and I would make it somewhere big in my life." 8th grader who has won various awards for her artistic creations
  • "I've always been told that art is a way to express yourself. Its a way to escape & go to another place in your mind & just be creative. Creativity is key!!! Also that an imagination can get you far in life." 8th grader who was accepted to the art academy along with her older sister
Serving students as an art teacher in Alabama, what have you noticed about community attitudes toward art?      
What can we do to teach our students that, yes, art is a "real" career? 
(I added a page to my teacher website about careers in art and I plan to do some lessons next year that will facilitate learning in this area as well, besides just talking to the kids ALL the time about how they can make money with their art! Here is a great webpage about careers in art! )

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