By Jenny Hall / Photographs by Brent M. Hale
Two skeletons on a white sheet—a cat and a turkey—are highlighted by clip lamps in the middle of David Dickinson’s classroom. Eight students surround the faintly macabre centerpiece with pastels, charcoal, and erasers spread out around their workstations. A bank of windows allows some natural light into the basement room, and a CD plays softly in the background. Every available wall surface is covered with sketches and watercolors. The students—mostly juniors and seniors—focus their attention between paper and bone; they’re silent, completely engrossed in capturing the shapes of the skeletons in charcoal. “Mr. D,” unobtrusive yet omnipresent in the room, moves about in the background, mixing paint and washing brushes, and stopping at regular intervals beside each student to make an observation, suggestion, or offer encouragement.
Despite the fact this is Advanced Placement Studio Art, for many in the room, this class, preceded by an introductory one, is their first—and perhaps only—brush with the visual arts in their educational careers thus far, according to Dickinson.
“A surprising number of our students come in, sadly, having had no art classes in grade school,” he says. “And they’ve grown up using computers and cell phones. They’re focused on keypads. Asking them to pick up a pencil and draw is completely foreign to many kids; it’s like a request from the dinosaur age, and they’re being asked to pick up a stick and draw in the sand. It’s that remote to them.”
But even in this technology-filled age, or perhaps because of it, the “foreignness” of art class doesn’t preclude its worth. In fact, the visual arts open multiple doors.
Head of School Margarita Curtis’ office is a short walk down the hall in the Main School Building from a large campus landscape painted by Dickinson, which hangs over the fireplace in the foyer. It features “the hills” Mr. Boyden so frequently extolled his boys to appreciate, and Curtis eyes it thoughtfully before she says, “I believe the visual arts are essential to the development of our students’ imaginations and creativity, their ability to observe closely, to analyze, synthesize, and create new options and possibilities.” She smiles and adds, “In addition to the fact they’re a wonderful creative outlet for many students.”
Experts across the field of education echo Curtis’ beliefs, including Judith Burton of Columbia University, who conducted a groundbreaking study in which she asserted that a vibrant arts program is crucial to students’ development.
“The arts enhance the process of learning,” wrote Burton. “The systems they nourish (integrated sensory, cognitive, emotional, and motor capacities) are the driving forces behind all other learning.” And many educators also extoll those non-academic, often less easily assessed benefits, such as self-esteem, motivation, aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, creativity, improved emotional expression, social harmony, and an appreciation of diversity.