The view was spectacular as we made our way over Caterpillar Hill and onto Deer Isle for a visit with Russ Cox at Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School. IRW Site Coordinator Morgan Witham and art teacher Hilary Tobin welcomed and set us up in the art room for the day where workshops were held for grades 1-4. Shouting out a “good morning” greeting and getting a quiet and kind of tired response, Russ asked, “Do you all have part-time jobs or something?” That got them warmed up and ready.
Russ shared his favorite childhood books including “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” both of which received cries of recognition. “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel” was perhaps a bit too old for these youngsters, though it was Russ’s favorite. They soon learned that he has an affinity for monsters and machines and any combination of the two.
Russ shared that he tries to draw every day and a second-grade student chimed in, “It’s good for you!” He shared his sketchbooks and pages that are all one animal and how that provides good practice and allows characters to emerge for him. “Can you draw a unicorn?” someone asked. He found one in a sketchbook. “Ahhhh” and “Ooooh” were the responses. “Everyone can draw” he told them, “it’s just practice.”
Russ’s easy manner generates a lot of back and forth. He loves responding to questions and, not only did these kids come prepared with them, they were quick on their feet with generating new ones. “Did you have any friends that draw?” “Why did you want to write a book?” “How old is your son?” (When he answered 33, a kid shouted out, “The son that’s 33 is catching up to you,” which garnered much laughter from Russ.) He happily answered as many questions as possible but then it was time to get drawing.
Getting them warmed up “Just like stretching for sports,” he had them draw circles. “Don’t even think about it, just fill the page.” The idea was to make that page as dark as possible. Then he threw them a curveball by giving them erasers and telling them to draw with them. Keeping them on their toes he asked them to draw a bird. Once complete they had to switch their pencil to the other hand and draw that same bird. Though there were many mutterings of, “I can’t,” we were all pleasantly surprised by how close some came to their original drawings.
Once he had them warmed up and thinking quickly, it was time for a group draw. After starting a drawing on poster paper, each kid had a 10-second turn to add to the drawing. Becoming a quick moving and excited assembly line these kids caught on fast adding on to what came before them. Bending sideways from their lineup they would try to catch a glimpse of what was happening and were giggling excitedly as the drawing progressed.
With first graders, the energy reached maximum levels as these kids were bursting with excitement. He didn’t ask these kids about part time jobs as they were wide awake and full of enthusiastic questions. “Did you make a robot?” “Do you like your job?” Since silliness was the order of the day and one of Russ’ new projects includes making faces, he had them make the silliest face they could. “Can you hold that all day?” he asked. A few tried. We made time to visit the first grade classroom to see the lego rockets they had built in preparation for the day. Very cool.
Second grade was much mellower but still full of good questions and comments; “How did you write a funny book?” “We’ve already read this book. It’s so much fun!” But they hadn’t done the “Faraway Friends” method of the countdown yet and so Russ led them through the echo version. “10,10,10,10,10,10,10, 9,9,9,9,9,9,9,8,8,8,8,8,8,8…..And then this question showing a particular eye for detail, “Did you mean to make the eyes over there to show there is a friend moving in?” And, when he showed some of his art, one kid reacted, “You’ve got to be kidding me! That’s the most creative thing I’ve ever seen!”
After the warm up exercises he had these kids fold their paper in half and told them to draw anything they wanted. “Best day ever!” exclaimed one young man. And with the group timed draw, some of the kids worked together to get the name of their class on the poster showing some real team spirit.
To round out the day we met with the PK-K kids (at least those who weren’t napping!) in the library for a read aloud. Mrs. Witham got them warmed up by reading some clever and interactive picture books from her collection. And Russ came prepared to follow with his handy dandy paper bag helmet. This final countdown took us to Jupiter and beyond!