Rothko on Teaching Art

Mark Rothko was an art teacher too

He taught art for over 20 years at the Brooklyn Jewish Center to kindergarteners through 8th graders— his students didnt think of him as an avant-garde superstar, he was just “Rothkie".

I recommend you read this article on artsy, How to teach art to kids, the source of information for this post. I'll summarize it briefly here, and consider how this relates to our role in teaching IB Art.

Rothko wrote passionately about children's art education, a subject he cared deeply about.

He published an essay on the topic “New Training for Future Artists and Art Lovers” in 1934, which he hoped to follow up with a book. Though he never completed the book, he left behind 49 sheets of notes, known as “The Scribble Book,” from which these 5 lessons are extracted.

Rothko's advice to teachers

Lesson #1: Show your students that art is a universal form of expression, as elemental as speaking or singing

Rothko taught that everyone can make art—even those without innate talent or professional training. According to the painter, art is an essential part of the human experience. And just as kids can quickly pick up stories or songs, they can easily turn their observations and imaginings into art. He also believed that taking away a child’s access to artmaking could be as harmful as stunting their ability to learn language!!! ( why is art education being taken off many school curricumums?)

The IB take: Everyone can make art not only the super talented- IB art allows for the less gifted students to succeed in developing critical thinking and self reflection while producing a body of work. Technical skill is only one of the assessed criteria.

Lesson #2: Beware of suppressing a child’s creativity with academic training

As Rothko saw it, a child’s expressiveness is fragile. When art teachers assign projects with strict parameters or emphasize technical perfection, this natural creativity can quickly turn to conformity. “The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic,” Rothko explains. “We start with color.”

To protect his students’ creative freedom, Rothko followed a simple teaching method. When children entered his art room, all of their working materials—from brushes to clay—were already set up, ready for them to select and employ in free-form creations. No assignments needed.

The IB take:  this is a tricky one in an academic setting such as the IBDP; IB art does not necessarily require drawing skills, and students are free to follow and develop their own interests, working with design, color, abstract forms etc. However we do ask that they support and justify their work with a rationale, contextualize their work in the CS, and and analyze and reflect on their own process in the PP. This is good training in critical thinking, but not always an approach that favours natural creativity- free from the shadow of assessment.

Lesson #3: Stage exhibitions of your students’ works to encourage their self-confidence

“But he…made you feel that you were really producing something important, something good."

The IB take: We do stage an exhibition and the experience definitely contributes to the students confidence in their work and in themselves as budding artists.

Lesson #4: Introduce art history with modern art (not the Old Masters)

exposure to modern art can help boost children’s confidence and creativity, it shouldn’t interfere with the development of a unique style. Rothko discouraged his students from mimicking museum works as well as his own painting practice.

The IB take: This is an important one to pay attention to ...by all means expose students to artists, be inspired and influenced by, yes, but students should not try to mimick another artist. Derivative work is not exciting ;(.

It should also be noted that Rothko is teaching much younger children, hence the emphasis on modern not old masters, which might feel  less relevant the younger set but I think exposure to the old masters is essential for older students.

Lesson #5: Work to cultivate creative thinkers, not professional artists

great art teachers can help students become more self-aware, empathetic, and collaborative—and this generates better citizens in the long run, Rothko believed.

The IB take: Hooray! This is the real goal of art education, of education in general, and totally in line with the IB learner profle!

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