Studio work has so much of this, in so many forms.

There is poetic languages and memories made and found that offer new possibilities through creating,  however, behind it all is intent.

For my Kindergarten students working on planning, designing and sewing/constructing a costume, the intent is to develop skills and ability to sew/construct with independence. They are each making a Collection Pouch.

This is a really hard thing to do. One has to: sew on the “wrong side”, create a seam, stay along an edge, travel in one direction, avoid pins that hold it all together, not sew the pocket together. Many jokes and dramatic exclamations were a part of lightly getting pricked by the needle or pins. Deep concentration plus a sense of humor was needed for this part of the project. “Ouch, I got hurt again!” “OOOOOOOHHHH NOOOOOOOOOO! I am pricked!” “When you sew you get hurt, there is blood and it spurts!! and then it hurts and the you blurt and murt!” Lots of laughter, repeat, laughter, repeat…

Intentionally, children are seated knee to knee on the floor. Pins and needles fall easily and children need to share their mistakes and strategies in sewing the pouches in a communal way.  I am also seated knee to knee to provoke  the habit of mind of “engaging and persisting” as opposed to allowing frustration to happen to the extent of shut down. I can see who gets it and can ask them to support a friend when necessary.

When you teach someone else how do do something, the act becomes much more intentional. I observe and listen as helping children begin helping another.

“Like THIS!” when that doesn’t work, they become more specific.  “So, you have to poke the needle down and then flip it over, SEE?” (Carrington)

As expected, this project was new and hard for everyone. It was time consuming. Stitches sometimes had to be pulled out. There wasn’t any freetime with this part of the project and everyone worked at different speeds and abilities. This project  is not only intentionally planned to prepare them for their costume, but  also to develop “grit.”

What is “grit?”

Although this field of study is only a few years old, it’s already made important progress toward identifying the mental traits that allow some people to accomplish their goals, while others struggle and quit. Grit, it turns out, is an essential (and often overlooked) component of success. “I’d bet that there isn’t a single highly successful person who hasn’t depended on grit,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit. “Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.”

From the article, The Truth about Grit by Jonah Lehrer

From sewing seams came turning the pouch right side out. While this may seem intuitive for an adult, it was a stretch for the kids. The studio has a bad word that is not allowed…”can’t.” So when I started hearing a lot of I can’ts, I gave the kids replacement statements again.

This is tricky. 

This is frustrating.

I’m confused.

I need help.

This is part of the intentional work in the studio. Working through the hard parts, engaging, persisting, developing grit.

I was surprised to learn that measuring the strap to fit the body and sewing on the strap would be so challenging. (This is my first time doing work like this with the children.)

Many of the children struggled with: holding the pouch open side up, holding the strap where they wanted to have it pinned, sewing the strap on the wrong side, sewing the strap to the pouch with out closing the pocket.

It was often hard to scaffold the children through this part instead of doing it for them. Many times when children asked for help I asked them questions like, “If I pin the pouch the way you are holding it, how will you put your collection inside?” If they were unable to figure out to rotate the pouch so the opening was on top, I would ask them to look at a friend’s. If that didn’t help, I asked the friend to help.

Intentionally setting up problem solving and collaborative support means the adult not “fixing” the problem.

There was a slight break in challenging work, when they got to draw whatever image they wanted on the from of their collection pouch. But first, it had to be flipped right side out again.

Ahhhh, the sweet sensation of seeing the fruits of their labors.

“My mom is taking stiching class, and I can do it!”

“Don’t tell our parents, we want to surprise them!”

“Is it mine? Can I take it home?”

The Collection Pouches are not done yet. I want the children to learn how to attach  materials to their sewn pouch. Certainly they will need to know how to do this for the costume construction.

The third part of the collection pouch is sewing on beautiful and interesting stuff that has holes (or making holes in stuff to sew on) as well as gluing on.

Once again there is a lot of mechanical, spatial, and technical hurdles to overcome. The pouch is now right side out. The needle starts from the inside of the pouch and can only go through the front. This is a lot of  managing of materials. Sewing incorporates a lot of mathematical thinking too.

However, this part  allows for personal expression, so engagement was even higher. Only one group has started this phase of the project as of this post. The strategies and gusto with which they approached this challenge was far more independent and self-assured then their first interaction with the project.

Stephen’s Collection Pouch

Luke’s Collection Pouch

As children progressively move through this third stage of the project, they see what their peers have done. I usually see that the children in the later groups look at the first pouches and then build upon their models-changing and morphing possibilities.

In these three sessions I have seen a huge development in mathematical and spatial thinking. Huge gains have been made in persisting through the hard parts. Grit is being developed. My questions are:

Will grit transfer to the costume making-which will be hard in a different way?

Will grit transfer to classroom challenges in diverse domains such as writing?

Can you lose the development of grit if you are not in an environment where it is an intentional value?

My hope, is that the moment of perseverance transformed into invention, creation or discovery is too powerful to disappear, in any  situation. It is why I continue to read, research and develop strategies with the children. I’m a believer in grit.

Where, when, how and why did you develop your grit? Who do you attribute to supporting you develop this trait?

(Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

Here is the entire article:  The Truth About Grit, By Jonah Lehrner 

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


“Seeing is like dreaming, and even like falling in love.

It is entangled in the passions-jealousy, violence, possessiveness, and it is soaked in affect, in pleasure and displeasure and pain.

Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis not mechanism.”

-James Elkins

This quote was brought to my attention by Rika Burnham, author of Teaching in the Art Museum, Interpretation as Experience who was one of the presenters and leaders during the week long seminar Conversations in Creativity at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington DC.

It is such a poweful statement and it has been resonating and dancing in my head. It brings to mind images of a project I did with Kindergarten children on the idea of seeing. I asked, How do we see? Do we see with more than our eyes? What does “seeing” look like? Here are some of the images from four years ago:



The thinking and emotion that is intrinsic in “seeing” is at the core of both my work with children and adults as well as my personal art making.

Robert S and Michelle M. Root-Bernstein, the authors Sparks of Genius  and  Dr. Kimberly Sheridan, one of the authors Studio Thinking:The real benefits of Visual Arts Education also led the seminar with a combination of passion and research. These two books have shaped my practice, so I was honored to have the opportunity to be a part of a small group of educators from all over the world to engage with them.

The seminar allowed me to both reflect and recharge on the Atelier or Studio environment that I facilitate.

Last Spring, when I asked a group of Pre-K students to think about, plan and create “What makes you happy?” I was inquiring into the minds of 4 year olds, however I was not only honoring their place in life as a 4 year old, but facilitating and mentoring the process of constructing their ideas into a symbol.

Here is Jasper’s Supersonic Aircraft:

Yes, this is an amazing scupltural construction, but what you don’t see, is that it took Jasper one whole hour to put holes in the bottle caps using an awl and hammer, and then he had to secure  the body of the aircraft into a vice to drill holes with a hand tool in order to attach the wheels. It took another 40 minutes to maneuver the wire through the small holes. These moments of engaging, persisting and working through frustration and often failure- to the end, are a micricosm of the process for all the children in the studio.

Weeks after Jasper completed this sculpture he informed me that he was not done. He still needed to add passengers. I honestly had no idea how he would find materials to fit in such a small area of his sculpture. But, I learned, that he has the great ability to visually make dimensional estimates. Through the proposition “What makes me happy” (a seemingly benign proposal), came great understanding of his thinking and habits of mind.

My commitment to Atelier or Studio (transdisciplinary) teaching and teaching environments was supported and challenged to grow during this amazing and in depth seminar. What a wonderful summer gift!

In addition to the seminar, I have another occurence to reflect upon.

Last night I had an experience that was complex and thought provoking. I was hired as an artist by Class Acts-Project Youth ArtReach to lead art workshops in a local detention facility for youth. This type of work is new for me. I brought clay and universal, diverse cultural & ethnic images symbolizing protection, elements, totems and human qualities. The youth were to make sculptural reliefs inspired by these images. Here are some of them:



I am planning on creating a mixed media mosaic for Class Acts, with these pieces (and more from subsequent workshops.)

Just like with Jasper’s process, this is what you didn’t see: the facility was disorganized so workshops scheduled were cut short, and/or moved to a room without a table/water access. Some staff were disengaged, creating a challenging climate. Eventually, the majority of youth were engaged.

While some participants voiced bravado or tested limits in conversation-others worked in silence. Others told stories inspired by the images. One youth told me with excitement about catching a huge toad, and going to the insect museum at The Smithsonian when he was a kid and seeing the huge hissing cockroaches. (I had scarab images.)

Another told me of his plans to have tattoos all over his body. When he shared plans to one day tattoo his eyelids with “Game” on one eye and “Over” on the other, I gently suggested he get tattoos in places he could hide them. “You really would be limited if you went on a job interview. What would you do, not blink? One day, you will be a father or a grandfather. You want to be able to think ahead and be proud of the images on your body.”

Some of the youth already had tattoos. One had several nautical stars. “What does that mean to you?” I asked. He replied,  “Reach for the stars.”

Another had an intricately drawn and shaded tattoo of a tree with entangled roots on his forarm. He told me it was The Tree of LIfe. It was beautiful.

One youth spent most of his time hiding behind a sofa, eventually emerging to sit apart-declaring he was not going to get his hands dirty. Near the end of the workshop, he stood next to me and began going through the images I had brought.

“Can I have some?” he asked.

“What for?” I replied

“I draw.” he said.

“What type of pictures are you looking for? I can give you a few, but I need the rest for the next workshop.”

“I like wings.” he said.

He found wings. I gave them to him. he said,  “Thank you.”

Poetic, bittersweet and sad. I question what an hour or 45 minutes of images and clay and me is worth in this environment? I believe in connection and relationship, and yes transformation through “seeing.”  How  do brief moments with limited connection and relationship effect (do they even effect at all) incarcerated or detained youth?

My husband, LaMar Davis of The Choice Program has done research on the Arts and incarcerated youth. “The truth is,” he told me, “you just never know what it might mean to a kid. That boy who took those (wing) drawings, it might mean a lot to him. These are kids who have nothing, and have nothing to do all day. Who knows, he might draw and create and that’s really great.”

I return to the words in the opening quote: “Ultimately, seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer. Seeing is metamorphosis not mechanism.” and leave them for you to ponder.







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