The older I get, the more I‘d like to give former pastimes a try that I dropped a long time ago. Like art. I remember being passionate about drawing and painting and creating sculptures when I was in elementary school. At some point, though, I remember realizing I just was not talented in that area, and I lost my interest. As a substitute teacher in a few schools, I’ve been pleased to see students provided with opportunities to explore their artistic creativity in their classrooms or in art class. I see many excited, as I was years ago, and also sadly, those who have already decided they are not artistic. I also see people like North Muskegon artist and author Lori McElrath-Eslick, working to inspire and encourage students and teach them art is not a competition, but for learning and for enjoyment. This is good!
Lori has developed “Drawing, Reading and Writing Triangle,” through which she works with students in a classroom to write a story, using sketchbooks to do so, in a process distinctively her own. She started her unique program when her illustrations for a picture book were displayed at the Muskegon Museum of Art, with sketchbooks showing the process she used to draw and illustrate. The exhibit traveled to libraries and art centers and often Lori would give a talk about her process. That sparked a request for her to develop a school arts program, which she now takes to many different grade levels in numerous schools.
According to Lori, “We work to ‘see a story’ as drawing a story [which] helps the kids to see a story from a different angle. They are able to apply creative thinking to writing, which is critical. My program supports the students’ different learning styles. I give them hands-on tools and a chance to use the same professional art supplies that I use. As a working illustrator, I’m able to bring in the current things I am illustrating and they see my process.” Lori shows students how her work gets published, in magazines such as Cricket, which features illustrated works of fiction and nonfiction, and poetry for school age children.
This type of program is especially valuable right now, when there is less time in schools for what some perceive as “extras,” like art class. “I think that many teachers are pushed to ‘teach to the test,’” Lori says. “My visits allow teachers to bring more creativity and original thought to their classrooms.”
Students in the program also gain confidence. “I seek to encourage each of the students to support their many gifts, and in this way to allow their gifts room to grow, flourish and to enhance their learning experience,” Lori says. She has seen results, including shy children sharing their views with other students or reading in front of the class, and students who initially balked at beginning writing projects, who have become so enthralled with the process, they don’t want to stop writing. Her students enjoy reading their writing to her, and, the challenge of turning art mistakes into successes. “Teachers quietly tell me some of the serendipitous moments when I brought the right item, story, or picture on the right day,” she says. Finally, studies show that students who participate in art improve their academic performance, decision-making, motor skills, language development, and imagination and creativity.
Lori has advice for those of any age who want to explore art. “Keep a sketchbook to practice; keep it on you, if possible. Also carry a pencil to get into the habit of jotting down an idea or do a drawing,” she says. “There are lots of YouTube videos of drawing and painting ‘how-to’ videos to teach you. Remember that people – artists like myself — went to art college (Kendall College of Art and Design) to be the best that we can be. I practice as much as I can.”
She says don’t be too critical. “Forgive yourself, at first. It may look different than what you imagined in your head, or was hoping that it would look a certain way. Practice does make art better, it also makes the moment better, if you realize that this is your moment of play. And it can be that for the moment, for joy.”
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area in Muskegon County, and has been an environmental and community activist for over 25 years, working to restore White Lake and aiding efforts to protect the Great Lakes. She is also an elected city council member, freelance writer, and consultant. Readers are encouraged to contact her via www.tanyacabala.com.