Of kids, creating and community
July 6, 2012

 Iris's unicorn - note the 'cutie mark' on the flank.

At Peter Green Hall Children’s Centre, the roles of art teacher and artist are not exclusive to the folks with the university degrees.

In one of the classrooms, four-year-old Iris holds court on a tiny table, teaching her friends to draw a unicorn—her specialty. With her tongue out in concentration, she draws a line that becomes the back and head of the unicorn. She adds four long shapes underneath for legs, a swoosh of mane and a long flowing tail. And the horn, of course.

“I did it wrong,” says her friend, surveying the shaky lines she drew for the back and the head.

“No, you didn’t,” says Iris, leaning over and joining up the lines with her green pencil crayon. “It’s just a different unicorn.”

“When you’re done, you can put in the ‘cutie marks,’” she adds, pointing out the curlicue on her unicorn’s flank. “That’s just a bit of decoration to make the unicorn look nicer.”

Once Iris is done with her lesson, Evan—not one for unicorns—says he’d like to show how he makes jets and immediately begins to fold pieces of paper. He’s so fast that a pile of jets quickly rises up on the table.

From Toronto, Justin West (BFA 2011) readily admits that he learns just as much from the preschoolers in his classroom as they do from him. A childcare worker at the centre, Justin completed his degree at NSCAD—not to mention his graduation exhibition—with the support and involvement of the children at the centre.

“Everything I did, I shared with the children,” says Justin, who worked at the centre while studying at NSCAD and continues to work there. While at NSCAD, he had the children sit in on critiques, tour his studio and take in exhibition openings.

“The kids made me be more critical of my own work. They are incredibly honest and sophisticated when it comes to line, texture and colour. I learn so much from them.”

Art activities are integral to the daycare centre, which is located in Peter Green Hall, a university residence for students with families. Barb Bigelow, executive director of the children’s centre, explains that when she started to work at the centre 29 years ago, art activities consisted of coloring pictures or stencils. Now it’s much different, with a curriculum based on children’s needs and curiosity. Classrooms are well stocked with materials for busy fingers, including play dough, popsicle sticks, rocks, blocks, paper, pencil crayons and paints.

“We started on this journey to change things,” she explains. “Now we have what we call an emergent curriculum—it’s really about listening to their words and observing carefully. Teachers become co-learners with the children.”

The daycare centre is celebrating its 45th anniversary in 2012, and at a recent event held at the World Trade and Convention Centre, the children’s art took centre stage. Stories and photos on different themes were put on display on vinyl panels, and each classroom contributed a group artwork.

The exhibition was curated by Justin and Katie LeFevre, a NSCAD student who has been volunteering at the centre since April and getting course credit at the same time (Community Service Learning, ARTS 3250).

In organizing the exhibition, Katie says she had to let go of her assumptions of what an art exhibition is supposed to be and listen to what the children wanted. “It’s all about empowering children’s voices,” says Katie, who is also working on a picture book with the children.

From Nanaimo, B.C., Katie already has two undergraduate degrees—a Bachelor of Science (environmental science) and a BA (philosophy) from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. She came to NSCAD for a Visual Arts Certificate, and her experience has been so positive that she’s been convinced to stay and finish a BFA.

“My life didn’t make sense until I came to NSCAD,” says Katie. “In Craig Leonard’s Art Now class, I was exposed to community art, and art as it relates to everyday life. I first saw the light in Craig’s class and I keep following it. I am completely happy.”

Justin West with an art project the children at Peter Green Hall started and continue to add to on an ongoing basis. Called "Zombie World," the project inspired Justin's own graduation exhibition at the Anna Leonowens Gallery.