By Patricia Obletz
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
- Albert Einstein
Virgi Driscoll is a lifelong artist who is as passionate about helping children develop creativity in arts classes as she is about drawing and painting. She not only inspired her students’ powers of observation and ability to solve problems, she taught them art history, art criticism and aesthetics. She says that art is a staple in English, European and Japanese schools. Her long list of accomplishments includes citations of excellence and other awards from the White House, national and local arts education associations, and art jurors and art critics.
Virgi Driscoll and I met at a SE Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors’ meeting in 2006, a few months before she was elected Chair of our chapter of Wisconsin’s oldest fine art society. We became friends.
Virgi’s most recent student project was the second annual, hugely successful “Visioneers Design Challenge Competition (sidebar).” This multi-talented, multitasker Wisconsin native also developed the “Visual Arts Classic” for middle and high school students in 1986. In summer, she assembled arts teachers to design long-term problems for students to solve in painting, art and jewelry classes. The VAC began in two schools; now it has over 60.
Last May, Virgi agreed to talk about why everyone needs an arts education. She said, “I grew up on a farm. We were poor, but I had crayons and was always drawing on the brown paper grocery bags that my mother ironed for me.
“I made art my teaching career and earned my degree at UW-Milwaukee, BS in Art Education, and MS in Art.
“I taught art at Greendale High School before and after my three sons arrived.
“When my children were older, I became active in Milwaukee Area Teachers of Art (MATA) and then Wisconsin Arts Education Association (WAEA). I became president of MATA for one year and then was asked to run for president of WAEA. I won and my two-year term turned into four years when the president-elect couldn’t take over.
“Ernest Boyer, director, Carnegie Institute of Learning, now deceased, wrote a book on secondary schools and how they were failing. He believed that the arts help children learn. When I invited him to speak at an WAEA conference, I said we couldn’t pay him. He came anyway.
“From there, I became president of the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, WAAE. I was urged to run for the National Art Education Association Secondary Division director. I won.
“I also chaired the State Arts Standards Committee: dance, theatre, music and visual art. They are very comprehensive yet serve as a guide for teachers to develop their own standards.
“Upon retiring from teaching, I became executive director of WAAE. From 1993 to 2000, I focused on how the arts fit into brain research. I organized conferences on this. I brought in top researchers nationally to talk to school board members, school administrators, guidance counselors, curriculum coordinators and arts teachers. It had a large impact on change in the schools at that time. Many schools and teachers introduced these concepts into their teaching.
The arts make children and adults human.
“The arts teach empathy and compassion by opening outlets for self-expression; they offer different points of view on universal life experiences and promote good emotional intelligence. Knowing how to handle your feelings during positive and negative experiences is what emotional intelligence is.
“We use our emotions when we create and, when we create, we express our feelings in a positive way.
“I worked with teachers on a research project called ‘Arts PROPEL,’ in which K-12 students take charge of their own learning. You give them a safe environment by making sure they know that they and their ideas are important, then encourage them to express themselves and take creative risks. Children can learn and take charge of their own learning at every age, whatever their abilities.
The power of the mind and self-confidence enable people to overcome adversities and do well in school, work and relationships.
“Today, too many teachers don’t experiment with different teaching methods until their students can learn what they need to know.
“Today, the arts are treated like extra credits. The focus is on math and science, perhaps because they’re job-oriented. And because life-skills results with the arts aren’t always immediate.
“The first language children have is arts-based: they play, dance, create and imagine. They imagine a world of their own. But kindergarten now is used to teach reading and computing. Since children progress at different levels, not all are ready to read at the same time.
“Kindergarten used to build on a child’s early experiences by inspiring creativity through the arts, which teach creative problem solving. By third grade, children learn that the arts aren’t valued in school, unless their teacher makes arts assignments exciting and takes them on field trips.
“One or two art classes a week just aren’t enough to awaken creative thinking. In Milwaukee, kids aren’t getting art at all. Even the Milwaukee art schools have cut way back on the arts.
“‘No Child Left Behind’ should be left behind. These tests also may not be geared to accommodate economic and cultural differences. Nor do all kids test well. Testing for it has forced teachers to focus on a narrow range of subjects, which excludes the arts. This fact alone devalues arts classes.
“Children whose parents appreciate and support the arts come to school with a stronger creative base. Many art galleries and summer park concerts are free.
“Einstein is a classic example of the creative mind. His wasn’t analytical, and he hated school. But he became very successful once he used his creativity/imagination..
“The ability to solve problems creatively is a necessity in the 21st Century. The visual and performing arts teach creativity to young children, to everyone.
Creativity is Spiritual and Everyone Can Develop It
“Stimulating and inspiring creativity from grades K through 12 teaches kids how to think their way through adversity and save themselves. Creativity is spiritual and it’s vital and possible for everyone to develop.
“Research proved that students who graduate from high school with straight A’s, but never take arts classes, haven’t developed the right side of their brain, the creative problem-solving side.
“Educators used to think that the IQ score of a child entering school was fixed. Happily, this proved false, ensuring positive outcomes for kids no longer branded by a low IQ.
“Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard School of Education, adjunct professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, says that humans have nine different intelligences, which include the arts.
“Music isn’t the only art that stimulates math and science skills. They all impact on other learning in the curriculum. There’s a good connection between science and the arts, yet they’re not connected in public schools. We do children a disservice by not offering arts classes. Since there’s no funding, communities need to advocate for school arts programs.
“Visualization helps children grasp new subjects more quickly than anything else. Unfortunately, few teachers encourage students to draw or paint to learn a subject in a different way. Visual learners need to recreate what they’re learning in order to understand it. We should be respecting visual learners; they’re the ones who will make change in the world.
Expressing feelings through the arts improves attitudes
“Our schools are missing a key ingredient in success. They wouldn’t be if children had more creative freedom daily through self-expression, which many schools don’t value. The fact children can control their feelings by expressing them through the arts makes a big difference in their attitudes.
“A retired Roosevelt School of the Arts principal felt that she could have fewer administrators to control behavior if children were engaged in the arts. Those children loved school; they could express themselves, enjoy themselves, because they were encouraged to be themselves at their own level. There were no problems with violence in her school.
“When we dance, paint, learn to play or listen to music, our brains at every age develop new neurons, which keep our minds alert and interested in life, teaching us new things.
“If children don’t learn how to balance their feelings, they can have trouble responding to adversity. For example, children involved in the arts will learn about their feelings and how to react to a bully. We need to understand ourselves to be able to keep our balance. The arts help us do this, which makes them essential.”
Virgi Driscoll was recruited to organize an art design project first conceived in 2001, but never implemented. Given that design in the 21st Century is an integral part of business, it needs more attention in schools. Virgi’s version of this project expanded a one-day event to a semester, possibly a year, connecting middle and high school art teachers and students to architects, digital photographers, animators, fashion designers, urban and rural planners, web designers, videographers - students choose from 11 different categories. The professionals challenge them to solve a commercial design problem. The professional designers donate their time for this. The first Visioneers Challenge projects were judged in April 2007 at UWM Peck School of the Arts. Student teams and individuals came together for a day, lunch included, to exchange ideas with each other, have their projects assessed and solve a new problem on site. The second one was held in April ‘08 and was very successful.
Funding for supplies and transportation to the judging day in Milwaukee is a problem for schools; grants are being written for next year. This program not only prepares students for their future, their teachers learn to think differently. Everyone involved becomes inspired, including the designers.