One night not so long ago my husband and I took our dog, Sophie, for her nightly walk. We sauntered along a different route, one that had us meandering past all the poets and writers - Emerson, Tennyson, Coleridge, Cowper - and then down Bryant to Lowell, and that is where we saw them. Two trees lit up like fire, glowing red with hanging paper dragons and windmills skirting left and right and left again in the wind. An homage to Chinese New Year; a work of art meant to capture and delight.
At first we thought we had the Palo Alto Public Art Commission to thank for the installation. Over the years, we’ve enjoyed many of the art pieces they have selected and installed throughout Our Fair City (For a fun Saturday afternoon, consider taking a tour of Palo Alto’s public art - quite impressive actually. And no, we’ll save the Digital DNA debacle for another column). But the sudden whimsy convinced us The Flaming Trees, as we have named them, were the work of a neighbor inspired to share his or her creative spirit with our community. Perhaps they are Chinese and were celebrating the New Year. What fun!
And then it happened again.
Sophie and I were out for her nightly constitutional earlier this week and we saw The Flaming Trees were no longer on fire. They had morphed into a cool and calming green. I assumed our neighbors were paying homage to St. Patrick’s Day until I drew closer and realized the branches were festooned with cards honoring the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts.
Astonishing really, for so many reasons.
First, the sheer generosity of the effort is so fully uplifting. That someone in our community has taken the time, effort, and money, to charm us all by decorating a public space (not once, but twice) is itself worthy of commendation. But it is the elemental creativity of it that I find most inspiring.
To many, those trees that sit upon the road barriers making Bryant the biking street we have all come to appreciate are nothing more than functional foliage, visual distractions to keep cars from barreling through the blockade. That is certainly what they once were to me.
To my neighbor, they are canvases upon which to create temporal art. S/he could look at them and see what most of us couldn’t begin to imagine. In doing so, s/he has modeled for our community a different way of connecting and that is the very essence of the artist’s soul.
We’ve been reading much these days about the loss of creativity amongst our children. The headlines would have you believe this generation, trained in rote memorization and fast-laned on the Race to Nowhere, has lost that special moment between structured time and boredom where imagination lives.
My sister certainly has much to say on this subject. She’s an art professor in Italy, and a gifted artist as well (sister bragging rights here). She has seen a generation of American college students float through her courses and is convinced that as the years have gone by, the students are becoming less and less creative. Or rather, more and more challenged when it comes to innovative thinking.
“I spend half of the semester inciting them to access their deepest imaginations,” she’s complains. “Most have never even taken an art course and many don’t even know how to hold a paint brush. What’s happened to art education in America?”
Yes. What has happened to art education in America?
Most of us can agree that art education is not just desirable, but essential. In their 2010 report, the National Arts Policy Roundtable argued, “The opportunity for students to engage in the arts—through bands and choruses, dance and theater productions, exhibitions of their original art, and publications of original literary and visual work—can play a key role in tackling the graduation crisis.”
They also noted a study by cognitive neuroscientists who found a “tight correlation” between exposure to the arts and improved skills in cognition and attention for learning. Finally, they shared groundbreaking scientific research conducted by neuroscientists from seven well-regarded universities indicating, “that children motivated in the arts develop attention skills and memory retrieval that also apply to other subject areas.” In short, the arts prepare your brain for learning.
However, despite the claims to the contrary, art education is still thriving in our country. A recent report by the Department of Education found:
- In 2009–10, most of the nation’s public elementary schools offered instruction that was designated specifically for music and visual arts (94 and 83 percent, respectively). The vast majority of these did so at least once a week;
- 91 percent of public secondary schools reported that they offered music in the 2008–09 school year, 89 percent offered visual arts, 12 percent offered dance, and 45 percent offered drama/theatre.
The good news then is we aren’t necessarily depriving our children of art education, but a recent article in Edutopia argues that offering it and requiring it are different things, as is managing for quality. We can offer all the art courses we want, but if the teacher is not skilled or trained, then the value diminishes quickly.
Which brings me back to Our Fair City. You may have seen the article in the Palo Alto Weekly featuring the student artists from Gunn high school. Their instructor, Deanna Messinger, is just the kind of teacher who brings the quality our students need. Their work is exciting and concerning and reflects the challenges of growing up in this hothouse flower of a town.
And, their work is possible largely thanks to the support of Partners in Education (PiE).
As you probably know, PiE is the fundraising organization that underwrites so many of the “electives” in our students’ classrooms. In a few weeks, PiE will announce the results of their effort to raise $3.9 million for arts education and other “enrichment” programs. I am told by PiE board member, Judy Logan, who volunteers her time as VP of Marketing and Communications, that they are pleased with the outcome (although she did decline to give details).
“Through the support of our community, PiE has been able to consistently raise its contribution to the school district. This very fact shows that Palo Altans value arts education,” says Judy.
As I walk past the lighted branches of The Flaming Trees each night, I am reminded of what a blessing it is, to us, to our children, to the future, to live in a city that is filled with neighbors who support the arts and who believe in the power of creativity.