Art workshops with Russ Cox

IRW’s spring semester kicked off with visits by author/illustrator Russ Cox at Princeton Elementary, Woodland Elementary, and Whiting Village School. Russ’ visits were part one of a two-part program for schools participating in the “If I Built a School” program based on the book by Chris Van Dusen. Students at all three schools researched the history of their own schools, futuristic architectural designs, and used IRW’s supporting activity resources to think about what their dream school might be like. Templates were drawn and final designs were laid out on a heavyweight paper for working with gouache, the paint medium of choice for both Russ and Chris.

IRW Director of School Programs Alison Johnson and Program Assistant Lisa Herrington, hauled a bunch of art supplies from school to school where Russ led the kids techniques for painting with gouache, a thick water-based paint. Russ quizzed kids on their knowledge of the primary colors and which combinations they might need to make more colors. He demonstrated how to use different tools to get various effects including using a toothbrush, a sponge, and the handle of the paintbrush instead of the bristled end. He also told them they could actually use their fingers for a neat effect which, in some cases, resulted in some not so neat hands! Exploration was key here as they got to experiment first hand with a professional artist there to guide them.

At Princeton, there were varieties of approaches to their school visions. Third graders each chose a different room to design to eventually piece them together and make one big school. We can’t wait to return in April to see how that comes together. Other students designed schools with pools and jacuzzies and fabulous rides. There were two schools shaped like cakes, a “sundae” school, a pizza school, an outdoor school, a school with a nap room, an abandoned school, and more. One imaginative young lady even created a school in the shape of a lightbulb. Another designed a school where you have to walk three miles to get to the bathroom! Planning ahead might be in order if you attend that school.

Lisa brought along a traveling display of school items from days past. While kids were engrossed in their painting she rang the old school bell to get their attention. “Why do you think they would have rung this bell?” she asked them. She then showed them her mother’s old lunch box and asked if they thought their lunches of today would fit in the tiny box. Not many thought they would. She brought along a slate board and shared how students would have done their homework on it and brought it back to school the next day hoping their work would not get erased along the way. She had an old desk with a hole for an ink bottle and let them hold, and even try using, an ink pen. There was also a mini globe showing the world looking much different than it does on our modern version. The kids were very intrigued by these items and took turns sitting at the desk and looking at the old books.

At Woodland, Russ brought some of his work done in gouache and showed the kids to let them see what a finished piece can look like. One selection, in which he used only three colors, really had them confused as it appeared to have blue in it but didn’t. “How do you think I did that?” he asked them. They were amazed that the colors around something could actually make it look like a different color.

Russ asked the kids what the craziest element of their school design was and the answers were fantastic: a playground with a humongous pool and a wobbly spring for the giant slide and pulleys everywhere; puppies on flowers – you can pick them; a water slide and floating desks; a Lamborghini bus (four-door, mind you); virtual reality headsets as your teachers; a zoo with robot animals inside the school and a robot bus; owls for teachers because it’s a night school and many more creative ideas. Don’t you want to go to one of these schools?

Whiting Village School was our last stop and a great way to cap off part one of this program. We set up in the Whiting Town Hall so the kids would have some elbow room and we’d have space to spread out supplies. Three parents joined to help us, Robin, Kate and Kim – thanks ladies! Jack-of-all-trades and teaching principal, Scott Johnson, put on his bus driver hat and ferried kids back and forth to and from the school. Russ, Lisa and Alison even got to ride the bus to go back to the school for lunch. Russ had to duck since being so tall his head hit the ceiling, which the kids found hilarious.

Grades 1- 4 focused their designs on what a dream playground might look like. One kid had a UFO that would take you to another planet and leave you there. Another had “a giant rocket that goes up into space and then goes sideways! Mama Mia!” There was a slide with a 20-foot vertical drop. (She admitted the landing was the dangerous part.) There was a science school with genetically modified hybrids, different animals all mashed together. And a school with a tunnel under the slide which takes you deep, deep, down underground to a playground with 500 dinosaurs! Roar!

Students in grades 5-8 used perspective in their designs showing some cool rooms including a hallway with colors that slide onto the floor. There was a school with a massive aquarium that went all the way up to the ceiling, a school with jet skis in the hallways, a fantasy school with a vine that reached all around the room, and a school on the moon.

When Pk/k joined us to explore colors and try their hand at painting, one young man declared, “I really love monsters, especially one-eyed monsters.” That sentiment went straight to Russ’ heart as he adores monsters and aliens. These little ones found new ways to create texture using the sponges and toothbrushes. All of us watching were inspired by their creative process.

What a way to begin our spring semester. Thanks to all who helped to make these visits possible. We can’t wait to return in April with Chris Van Dusen.

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