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Patty Palmer of Deep Space Sparkle on teaching art

by Jean Van't Hul
November 22, 2011

DeepSpaceSparkle_1Patty Palmer of Deep Space Sparkle teaches art to 400 elementary school kids in Goleta, California. I imagine we could all learn a thing (or five) from her about art and children!

***Note: Readers will have a chance to win two of Patty's art lesson plan e-booklets at the end of this interview.***

JEAN:  Would you tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to art and teaching?

PATTY:  Teaching art was a bit of a surprise for me.


My background was in fashion design but when I had my first child, I left the design world behind and stayed at home to raise my baby. Two more children came and I loved being a mom. When my children were in elementary school, I volunteered in the classroom teaching art. By the time my youngest was in Kindergarten, I decided that volunteering was not enough anymore. I wanted to earn money. But I had no desire to jump back into fashion design, so I was at a bit of a loss as to what I was qualified for. Luckily, I was connected with the PTA and the school district (yes, I was a PTA President!) so when a position popped up for an art specialist, I knew I had found my job. I started working only 9 hours a week but it was a perfect fit for me then.

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JEAN:  I’d love to hear how you balance teaching specific art skills with exercises or projects that emphasize creativity and imagination?

PATTY:  Elementary school kids are ripe with imagination and creativity. You really don’t have to do anything special to unlock it but you do need to provide a starting point. Many people assume that if you give a child specific instructions then you are stifling their creativity. I don’t think that’s true. The surest way to get a group of kids to lose interest is to hand a child a piece of paper and say, “draw a tree”. Most kids aren’t that excited to sit and draw a tree—I know I wouldn’t be—but if you give that tree some context, say “draw a tree with patterns”, then all of a sudden you have the children some wildly creative options.

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JEAN:  What do you do when faced with a child who lacks self confidence in his artistic ability? Or a student who is easily frustrated?

PATTY:  A frustrated child is rather rare in my art classes. Sometimes the frustrated child has other issues that make him more sensitive to instruction or even a physical presence, but I work with the classroom teacher to know what those boundaries are for that particular child. Overall, if I sense a child becoming frustrated, usually there is a specific reason for it: they have higher expectations for themselves, they don’t think they are artistic, they made a mistake and don’t know how to fix it, or the person next to them is bugging them. Whatever it is, I try to make the child see past the problem and view the art project as an experiment. Mostly I just ask questions until they can solve the problem themselves.

For the child who doesn’t think they are an artist, I feel its my job to change that opinion. I teach with these kids in mind and vary my subjects and techniques to make sure that one of my projects will resonate with that child.

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JEAN:  Do you and your students have any favorite art activities that you return to again and again?

PATTY:  Our ceramic unit is an absolute favorite. The kids are super excited when they see the hunks of clay in the art room. They can't wait to turn it into something. It’s the best medium for kids. For the teacher, the ceramic unit is by far the most time-consuming and there is never enough money in your contract to cover your time, but I wouldn’t dream of cutting it short. Way too fun. Just talking about it makes me excited!

JEAN:  How about your own family? How has being an art teacher affected how you approached or encouraged art making in your home, especially when your children were younger?

PATTY:  Here’s the thing; some children are more “artistic” than others. That’s a fact. I have 3 kids and only one is truly artistic. She has been ever since she could walk. I exposed all my children to art in various ways when they were really young but only my youngest gravitated towards the visual arts. My oldest son loves music and loves to write and my middle son likes rules, boundaries and all things linear, which doesn’t exactly scream artist. But they all have been exposed to art and have formed their own opinions (which, thankfully, are constantly changing).

Regardless of the children, I do art for me and my children see that.

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JEAN:  Do you think art exposure and art instruction is valuable even for those who are not "artistic?" And if so, why?

Patty:  Great question! Absolutely.  Exposing children to art during the formative school years reinforces that art is a necessary component to life, just like math, science, music and reading.  I teach in a low income school district and many of my students will experience art for the first time in my class. If you are reading this interview you already know art is important but many parents don’t have the interest/time/means. It’s a huge honor for me to introduce these children to art, many of whom have no idea what their artistic capacity will be. Some love art but don’t have the opportunity to develop their interest at home and others live in a home that places little emphasis on art. That’s all okay because as parents, it’s very hard to expose our kids to everything. Having art in school, in an art room where it’s okay to get messy, ensures that all kids have equal opportunity.

JEAN:  Anything else you would like to add?

PATTY:  Parents always ask me how they can enrich their child’s artistic interest. I tell them to make sure the child has someplace to draw, a few supplies and a free schedule. The best way to ignite imagination is boredom. Turn off the TV and leave your child alone. When I was young, I loved books. Not just reading them but illustrating the pictures in the books. I loved to copy, trace and dream. I did that for hours. Actually, I still do. Try not to judge how your child views art or goes about making art. It’s theirs to do with it what they will. Parents sometimes need to step back and allow them to create in whichever way suits them.

This only works for school-aged children so if you have anyone younger, don’t worry about advancing their art interest just yet. With little ones (3 and 4’s), it’s really important that art just be about exploration. Unfortunately this translates into one big mess!

JEAN: Thanks so much, Patty!

 I encourage you to explore Patty’s site, Deep Space Sparkle, which is a great resource for art teachers and those wishing to share art with their children. Read her 8 Tips for Teaching Art to Children or check out all her art lessons by grade, subject, or technique! There are some good ones under Art and Literature that I'd like to try with Maia soon!

***Art Lesson Plan Giveaway***

ArtlessonplansReaders who leave a comment by Friday, November 25th at 12 midnight Eastern Standard Time will be entered into a random drawing for two of Patty’s art lesson plan e-booklets. Your choice of which two!

The random number generator picked 88 so congratulations go to Amanda for winning the set of Patty's art lesson plan e-booklets!

Thanks Patty, for your inspiration in the art room. You have a beautiful way of engaging all the students and I have learnt so much from you through your amazing website!

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