Give these four SKB instructors two weeks, and they will teach kids with raw talent how to paint or sculpt.
That’s the bottom line from the 2013 Western Art Academy, a 30-year-old program that utilizes SKB artists to teach Texas teens about the fundamentals of art. The academy is funded and sponsored by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, with materials supplied by the Jack Richeson Co.
SKBers Cathy Ferrell, Wanda Mumm, John Phelps, and Terry Stanley spent a month in arid Kerrville, Texas, acting as instructors at Schreiner University. A second session was taught by Nancy Foureman and Christine Knapp to a new batch of kids sponsored by the San Antonio Livestock Exhibition. In the first section, the students were split into two groups. One group learned painting while the other group learned sculpture, then the groups switched their focus for the second two weeks of the four-week program. Mumm, the organizing force behind the SKB instructors, says that only four of the teen-agers had painted or sculpted before coming to the Western Art Academy.
“These kids came in gifted; they were chosen,” she pointed out. Added Phelps, “At 15 years old, these kids are light years away from where we were at their age.” Rejoined Mumm, “If I could have had this experience at their age I would have sold my sister to get it.”
Mumm and the five other instructors collaborated on a handbook for the academy, which was distributed to all the students. It included examples, exercises, and fundamental rules of painting and sculpture. In the sculpture portion of the program, the students learned to make a relief, a maquette, and a final sculpture out of oil-based clay. In the painting segment, students were asked to draw something so the instructors could assess their skill level, then they moved through a progression of exercises to teach them how to see the world as an artist, see the colors and forms of objects, mix paint, compose, and create a final piece from a photo reference the students themselves snapped. First the students painted simple forms such as cones, boxes, and eggs. Then they tackled cloud studies, trees, a full landscape, eyes and other body parts of humans and/or animals, a figure or a portrait, and then the final piece. An examination of the various pieces showed rapid progress in the students’ development.
On the final day of painting and sculpting, representatives from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo toured the painting and sculpting classrooms and observed the students as they worked. Jackie Walne, the chairperson of the rodeo’s School Art Committee, walked from student to student, saying the best and most appropriate line one could pose: “So, tell me about your sculpture…” Walne says the 30-year-old program always impresses the committee, and she appreciates what the students are contributing to the academy. “It’s a really good experience for them to grow–it’s the first time away from home for most of them, and they are giving up most of their summer to do this,” said Walne. “Every year I am astonished by the skills you see just four weeks later.”
The students ranged in age from recent 8th graders to teen-agers entering senior year of high school. They earned scholarships to the $250,000 program by entering 2-D or 3-D pieces in art competitions sponsored by the rodeo. Finalists in the competitions were eligible to apply for a spot at the Western Art Academy. In the months following the academy, the students will create a piece of art to be sold at a rodeo event in March, with proceeds going to the rodeo’s art education program and to college scholarships.
Texas teens have benefited from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s largesse for decades, but Schreiner University pulled SKB instructors into the program in an effort to “strengthen the academics” of the academy. “Working with SKB instructors, the students now have more solid skills, a stronger foundation,” said David Smith, dean of the School of Professional Studies and a graphic arts professor at Schreiner. “This group will leave with stronger skills than any in the past, skills they will be able to use for years and years.” Smith attributed the high success of the SKB teachers to the camaraderie of the team. The four instructors of the first session had widely different personalities and divergent skills, yet they worked together well, giving the students a wider breadth of experience and a smooth-running routine.
The SKBers worked long days and some nights, with only Sundays off. An occasional margarita or glass of wine cleared their heads. Rare outings to Whattaburger or Dairy Queen were relished. And on graduation day, as the students received their certificates and transcripts, tears flowed. “There was so much love and good feeling in the air,” commented Ferrell. There was also an air of confidence and accomplishment. Not all of the academy graduates will pursue careers in art. If more than half do, it would be notable. But all will benefit from learning about what goes into making art, and they will likely go on to enjoy museums, become art collectors, and possibly pursue art as a hobby.
“It was hard because it was four weeks of art, all the time,” said Emily Dickinson, one of the Academy students. “I learned the whole entire sculpting process–I had never done that before, and I’m going to apply it right away. I’m flying to Oregon after this to work for three weeks with my grandfather, who is a sculptor. I had never worked with sculpting clay, so I was excited that my piece turned out so well.”
Many of the students were used to working with colored pencils and creating tightly rendered pieces. Their first serious experience with a paintbrush–and the input of Stanley and Mumm–burst open their preconceptions of 2-D art. “I learned that I can’t get as detailed as usual, that you don’t have to make it detailed to make it look good,” said Ben Fogel. “I went from meticulous to quick, and learned what makes a painting appealing.” And Ben, like nearly every other student we talked with, mentioned the concept of atmospheric perspective when asked what they’d learned. The idea that objects in the background are generally cooler, of lighter value, and are less distinct than items in the foreground was a revelation for the kids. Mumm said it made a big impact on the students because all the students made atmospheric color charts on the first day. She modified atmospheric color charts that she had seen to simplify the concept a bit. “It’s hard to see atmospheric perspective in your mind, but when you make a chart, it makes a lot of sense,” said Mumm. The students immediately noticed the convincing depth atmospheric gave their paintings.
In the sculpture studio, Violet Gonzalez said she learned about composition, the value of a bold brushstroke instead of detailed marks, and yes, atmospheric perspective. She also approached her sculpture of a longhorn cow with its calf in a thorough fashion, first sculpting the animals’ skeleton, then their musculature, then finally adding the skin to them. In addition to this amazing anatomy lesson, Gonzalez also learned from Phelps and Ferrell the value of having an origin story for a sculpture. Her story for the longhorn sculpture was as deep as Texas history itself.
“The important thing is to pass it on,” said Phelps. He was talking about the students sharing their new knowledge with their peers, or down the road, as teachers instructing similarly talented young artists. But clearly he was also speaking about why he was in Kerrville in 106 degree heat, eating cafeteria food and sleeping on dorm beds for a month of his summer. Phelps, Stanley, Mumm, and Ferrell were passing along the art knowledge they’ve gained in their more than 80 years of experience. The impressed patrons who attended the sale, and the more confident young artists who answered their questions, suggested that the SKB instructors had succeeded well beyond expectations. Ω