In an era of standardized tests, does art have a place in the classroom?


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"Standardized tests do not measure creativity. It is creativity that will drive the future."

That assertion by art teacher Christina Parker neatly summarizes arguments being made in favor of keeping the arts in schools as some programs face cuts -- even elimination -- by cash-strapped school districts working on budgets at this time of year.

Ms. Parker, who teaches in Elizabeth Forward School District, is among 23 local public school teachers whose work appears in the exhibition, "Significant and Sublime: The Critical Role of Art Teachers in Public Education" at Panza Gallery in Millvale.

The show was the idea of Rachel Klipa, a Spanish teacher in the West Mifflin Area School District who is working on a master's degree in art history at Carlow University. She began thinking about curriculum decisions two years ago, she said, when Gov. Tom Corbett's original budget cuts were announced. "We were not losing arts in my district, but we were losing some electives," she said.

With the state education budget facing another round of scrutiny, Ms. Klipa decided to organize an exhibition to "get across how important these programs are and the value these teachers add," she said.

"I think that eduction right now is in a funny place. Children are learning in these time frames, nine-week periods. They have this notion that they master something because they've taken a class and passed. It takes a whole lifetime to learn something and to become an expert," Ms. Klipa said.

"Art is a good way to teach problem-solving. You come up with an idea and see it through. In the real world, that's what you have to do and how you become successful."

She put out a call for artists to anyone teaching visual arts in public schools in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The exhibition was juried by Ms. Klipa, Pittsburgh artist and educator William DeBernardi, and gallery owner and artist Mark Panza. They selected 23 works from 45 submissions.

"As public school budgets dwindle and high-stakes testing takes precedence, debate ensues as to the necessity of certain school programs over others," the jurors wrote in their combined statement. "However, one question that remains absent in these discussions is: How do human beings truly learn? ... Subjects such as art remain untested and therefore undervalued. ... These artist-educators have taught their students problem-solving skills, to experiment, and to be unafraid of self-expressing, all through creating art."

"It's a wonderful, cohesive show," said Mr. Panza, even as it is diverse in media and subject matter. The show includes a three-dimensional light box work as well as painting, printmaking, photography and collage.

The exhibiting artists were asked what constitutes a quality education, what role does art play in that and what case may be made for the importance of art in public schools in an age of standardized testing.

Ms. Parker's answer typified the responses, which posited that education is not an either/or program but the driver of a well-rounded, balanced individual having multiple skills that enable the person to pursue a rewarding life.

"Research has shown that what students learn in the arts may help them to master other subjects, such as reading, math or social studies," said Monica McElwain of Shaler Area School District.

"Flexibility, experimentation, open-mindedness, collaboration and failure ... are inherent to a quality education and [are] practiced daily in the art room," said Craig Pisaneschi of Chartiers Valley School District.

Some respondents aligned with great minds of the past to make their points.

William Pfahl of the Pittsburgh Public Schools quoted Leonardo da Vinci: "Art is the queen of all sciences."

Lauren Clark of Freeport Area School District cited Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Expanded labels on the artwork provide insight into the teachers' processes and teaching methods.

"I wanted people to understand what artists do," Ms. Klipa said. "Not the absent-minded coffee shop types or the Jackson Pollock image. They're really thinking, really observing the world. I want people to know how long it took to complete this one piece."

Mary Mastren-Williams of Chartiers Valley has a linocut, "Still Life with Pitcher and Maracas," in the exhibit. To create the piece, she first photographed several objects, which she sketched, carved into linoleum and handprinted.

Erin Sloane of Mars Area School District assigned herself a challenge, to represent in a painting her sentiments about her first year of her marriage and to incorporate an element of quilt patterning. She achieved her goal with the oil painting, "The First Year."

Jennifer Braund Sell's graphite, "Joan of Arc," shows the saint as simultaneously strong and beautiful. The North Allegheny School District teacher teaches her students to create lifelike portraits by dividing the image into grids that break the project into more approachable portions.

Blackhawk School District teacher Ashley Biega, a West Virginia native, mounted photographs of a landscape and a river within a light box for "Frack," which was inspired by the abandoned coal mining towns of her home state and which questions the possible effects of Marcellus Shale fracking. Through such projects, she addresses subjects as varied as history, ecology and anthropology.

Students benefit when teachers share their personal work, Ms. Klipa noted.

David Boyles of Shaler Area School District, who demonstrated paint application techniques and color theory while painting the oil, "Hammer in Blue," told Ms. Klipa that working alongside students often encourages them to push their comfort zones.

Lydia Mack of Greater Latrobe School District began the acrylic, "People of New Guinea: Ghost Men" in class as a demonstration. She continued after school so that students could watch and ask questions.

"I think it's cool and brave of them to put themselves out there in front of their kids," Ms. Klipa said of the teachers. "Students appreciate teachers who walk the walk and talk the talk."

The exhibition continues through June 11 at 115 Sedgwick St., Millvale. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Admission is free. Most artworks are for sale. Prices range from $50 to $3,000. Information: 412-821-0959 or www.panzagallery.com.

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Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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