From STEM to STEAM: Why Art Is Not An “Extra”

Let me start by sharing three snapshots of artists at work.

One: When 25-year-old Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt his David, he chose to use an enormous block of marble that had been discarded by another artist years before. The marble had a blemish and had been left to languish.  But Michelangelo had a vision of what this raw material could become.

Two: Picasso – who frequently used a bull as the subject of his artwork — once found sculpting materials from an unlikely source: an old bicycle. Here’s what he said about his choice:

Out of handle bars and a bicycle seat I made a bull’s head, which everybody recognized as a bull’s head. A metamorphosis was completed. And now I would like to see another one, in the opposite direction. Suppose my bull’s head is thrown on the scrap heap. Perhaps a fellow will come along and say: ‘Why there’s something I could use for the handle bars of my bicycle.’

Three: When our drama teacher, Ms. Anna Carlson, is in the throes of putting together one of her middle school musical theater masterpieces, it’s easy to wonder how everything will come together by opening night. How will 80+ students find their place and voice on stage and backstage at just the right moments? But Mrs. Carlson is a visionary and an experienced artist. Each year, she looks at a throng of eager students and sees a masterpiece in the making. (On that note, mark your calendars now for our production of Mulan, November 6-8).

These are images that come to mind when I try to articulate why arts are so essential to a Trinity Valley School education.

In too many schools, arts are often the first programs on the chopping block when schools face budgetary concerns. But art is not an “extra” if we want to fully educate students.  We all know that STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) are in high demand in today’s workplace. But increasingly that acronym is being changed to STEAM — “A” for Arts. This shift recognizes the vital role of the arts in preparing tomorrow’s designers and problems solvers. Art helps us see beauty and potential in unexpected places. In art, music, and drama classes, students develop the confidence and skill to apply their vision and voice in creative ways.  As Mrs. Carlson notes, “No other discipline transforms the soul like the arts.”

Our esteemed choral director, Mr. Alan Buratto, describes how his music classes teach four vital skills. First, students learn technique, including “the habit of grasping and taking ownership of technical concepts.” Second, they develop “a fearless, inquisitive curiosity that leads to more inquiry, more enjoyment, and maybe a greater depth of understanding.” Third, they gain grit to help them “hang in there for the long haul; in middle school, pitch and ear-training is the challenge, but that helps train the brain for future work with patterns and complexity.” Fourth, music supports sentience; in other words, “music allows students to deal with things they sense, but don’t know how to put a finger on — things like mood, color, polish, and craft.”

Mr. Buratto’s reflections make me think about my school experience. When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time hanging out in the art room. One day, I pointed to this Matisse painting on the art room wall:


“I don’t like it,” I said, dismissively.

“You don’t understand it,” replied my art teacher.

She said it without condemnation, but with a confidence that made me pause and take another look. Even today, when I my gut-reaction is to say that I don’t like something, I hear my art teacher’s voice in my head and say to myself, “Perhaps I just don’t understand it yet.”

Ms. Ashley Owen, our wonderful fifth and sixth grade music teacher puts it this way, “Fine arts are not ‘ornamental’ they are ‘fundamental!’ The arts teach both self-discipline and the ability to work with a team. Employers don’t just need someone who scores well on a test — they need people who have an aesthetic sensibility and who know how to ‘play well with others.'”

The world needs artists. It needs people who can see potential – potential in others, potential in ideas, potential in problems that others have deemed unsolvable. Picasso saw a bull in a bicycle. Michelangelo saw David in discarded marble. What treasures will our students see in unlikely places? Whatever they envision, they will need the skills they learn from the arts to turn that vision into something more.  As Mrs. Carlson notes, “The creative process involves a balance of analysis, imaginative ideas, and critical evaluation. It requires a drive to action and the implementation of ideas. We must do more than simply imagine new things, we must work to make them concrete realities.”

P.S. I wonder if Picasso could have imagined that his bulls would be used to teach trainees at Apple fundamental lessons in design. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s