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The Amazing MaryAnn Kohl

by Jean Van't Hul
November 9, 2009


MaryAnn Kohl, author and art teacher extraordinaire, has been bringing art to children for 25 years through her wonderful books (and longer as a teacher). I asked her about her most recent book, Great American Artists for Kids: Hands-On Art Experiences in the Style of the Great American Masters, and how she comes up with interesting, kid-friendly art projects.

*** Note: Readers will have a chance to win a signed copy of MaryAnn's Great American Artists for Kids at the end of this interview.***


JEAN: First, will you tell us a bit about your background teaching elementary school kids?

MARYANN: Since I was a very little girl, I have wanted to be an elementary teacher. My dream came true in 1972 when I was hired to teach kindergarten in a fabulous federal project called "Follow Through" in Ferndale, Washington with children from the Lummi Nation. The program was much like Head Start but was implemented specifically in the primary grades. Our goal was to take language-disadvantaged children who were behind in grade level and fill their lives with literacy and art and science and math, and speed them and inspire them to reach grade level by grade three. We were more than successful!


The 70's was a great time to teach: so much was left to each of us individually to discover and implement. My creativity blossomed as did my enthusiasm. I loved my little kids and gave them the best I could, trying to meet the needs of each child, taking them from where they were to where they could go. Standards and tests were not part of the 70's. Individualized teaching was the height. Open kindergarten classrooms exploded with gardens and blocks and easels and sand and water tables and healthy snacks and book corners with pillows. Primary grades were filled with individualized reading and writing. It was very exciting, and a great time to teach. 

The highlight of my teaching years was when Follow Through hired – are you ready for this?- Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle to come to our program and train us in literacy and the arts for two solid weeks. It was absolute unequivocal heaven. Much of what inspires me today came from that period of time with those magical men, Bill Martin especially. Throughout my teaching years, one thing I have found is that whenever kids are involved with art, they are quiet and happy and on task. I decided that I would try to include art in as much of my teaching as possible. From there, I have lived a life inspired by children and their art. 

Other: I have taught kindergarten, grade two for most of my years, grade one, and grade six. I've also taught college level courses in ECE like ECE Art and ECE Reading Readiness. I currently have a busy schedule of workshops around the country. I'd love to come to your town!

JEAN: I'd love it if you came to Asheville! How do I get you here?!

I love your latest book, Great American Artists for Kids! What inspired the concept?


MARYANN: Along the line I discovered that kids like to know details about the great masters of art just as they do about dinosaurs or cats or rocks or soccer players. They absorb details! The best part for the kids about the great masters is that they can "BE" masters too, trying out the styles and techniques of the various artists. Kids take art very seriously when they are learning about a great master and really get into their own expression and exploration. After the success of Discovering Great Artists, I began to notice how many great artists are from the US and decided to write a book based on a selection of these amazing artists. My secondary goal was to produce this book out in color and show many children's artworks as well as that of the famous artists. 

JEAN: Can you tell us about the process of putting together a book like this? — How you came up with the projects and how you test them with kids, etc?

MARYANN: The way I work is to begin to look through huge art books, and in this case, books about American artists. As I look at their work, I am constantly thinking "How would this style or technique work for children?" When a particular artist inspired me as "good for kids", I made a note to include that artist and continued collecting those that would work best for children.

Once I had about 200 favorites, I started sorting and choosing the ones to go in the book by these standards:

  1. Art style (try to get a variety including paint, crayon, sculpture, clay, collage, mobile, photography, etc.)
  2. Include a balance of male and female
  3. Include different nationalities — Hispanic, Native American, African American, etc.
  4. Cover movements and eras, from early America to the Present. This is a very difficult process, but exciting.

When all the sorting and choosing is done, and it is mind boggling!!, there should be a fairly equal number of projects in five chapters. Then I go back and write the projects and biographies. Next, I test the projects with real live kids. From there, I choose kids' works to go in the book, with their permission. When it's all over, I have a gigantic picnic with the kids to thank them for becoming professional illustrators! Can you spell p-r-o-u-d?

JEAN: I bet! Okay, my next question is what are your favorite activities in the book?

MARYANN: My favorite art projects from Great American Artists for Kids seem to change the more I explore them with children. One day I'm crazy about staining paper with tissue like Diebenkorn page 76, and the next day I can't get enough of making edgy reliefs with colored paper like Biederman page 60. I find that the kids are particularly inspired by anything with colored chalk, or by 3-D sculpture. They love the Chihuly "ping pong ball" gardens on page 121, and Calder wire stabiles on page 58. The all time favorite project for kids is anything with dough or clay. Yet, as soon as I said that, I was thinking how much they love setting up surreal scenes that they personally pose in wearing costumes while someone takes a picture (see Skoglund page 103).


If kids were to vote today, they would say Hooray for the Sandy Skoglund Surreal Scene on page 103. Tomorrow? I'll let you know!

JEAN: Do you have any new books in the works?

MARYANN: I publish my own books for my company Bright Ring Publishing, and I also write books for Gryphon House. Recently I turned in the final manuscript for a new book to Gryphon House called Art with Anything: 52 Weeks of Fun Using Everyday Stuff. It's very cool because the organization is 52 weeks of art, 5 days a week, using some ordinary household material like cotton balls or junk mail. The five projects each week use that one material all week long, from an easy project on Monday to a very fancy challenging project on Friday.


JEAN: You’ve been doing this your whole life — what keeps you motivated and interested?

MARYANN: I was a stay-at-home former teacher and mom when I wrote and published my first book. My kids were very little, just starting school, so it was a perfect time for me to begin my writing career. When I think of the impact of my books on the lives of individual children, I am humbled and awed. Since 1985 I have been bringing art to children, to perhaps millions of children. Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky I am.


JEAN: Anything else you’d like to add?

MARYANN: My goal is to inspire children to create with materials in their own way, to value their own creative process, indeed, often more than the finished product. I would like to see much less "craft activities" (which I call "crafties") with kids, and much more true art. What I mean by "crafties" are the artsy cutesy projects that follow a step by step direction, often have pre-cut pieces for the child to use, and end up looking much like the adult's sample. Crafties are fun now and then, but the majority of art experiences should not follow an adult sample. Certainly an adult can help the child get started, but then stay out of the way and let the child discover art in his own way. No samples to copy!!

One last thing: The best thing you can do, and the easiest, is to provide a stack of blank paper and a box of crayons on a daily basis. Though simple and ordinary, the possibilities are also endless and exciting and open to the child.

JEAN: Thank you MaryAnn! Thank you for sharing yourself with us here today and thank you (SO MUCH!) for your wonderful books that make art accessible for so many! We are the lucky ones.

JeansPics_10-2009_Pic0819 Readers who leave a comment to this interview by Friday, November 13th at 12 midnight EST will be entered into a random drawing for a signed copy of MaryAnn's book, Great American Artists for Kids: Hands-On Art Experiences in the Styles of the Great American Masters.

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