Teacher Blogs

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

November 16, 2017

When was the last time you told a teenager to "Go, PLAY"? I have a 3-year old son and I tell him to "Go, PLAY" everyday. He eagerly hops out of his chair and runs into the other room to gather his toy cars and blocks. It is a natural action for him. Without a moment of hesitation, it is a fun and an exciting way to spend time. His imagination comes alive and suddenly, we are in a world surrounded by robots, spaceships, and ice cream!

This summer I read Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith's book, Most Likely to Succeed. Although there were many inspiring moments throughout the text, what struck me the most was their discussion about how educators can create genuine impactful moments in students' lives through exploration and experimentation. I challenged myself this year to plan my curriculum with this approach. I am aware that my students may not have career aspirations to be the next Tony Smith, Yayoi Kusama, or Kehinde Wiley. However, I will take the time I have with them to try to create lasting impressions of visual creativity.

Since September, I have found myself saying to my students:

  • I'm not sure, what do you think?
  • Well, have you tried it yet? Why not?
  • It's up to you. You are the artist and you have to stand by it.
  • Think about the entire composition. What do you want the viewer to see? How do you want us to feel?
  • Try it out. See what it can do. Go, PLAY!

Fast forward to the end of the first trimester. I teach Ceramics (trimester-long) and Studio Art (year-long). Each day I have the opportunity to work with teenagers in grades 9-12, provide a variety of materials, and work with individuals with a range in interest, experience, and skill. I have witnessed frustration on the pottery wheel, seen surfaces painted over and over and over again, and a final project that was cut in half! I believe that with this new focus, I have given students the safe place to search for their passion and produce works of art that they are proud of. Some of my students possess a different and new level of self-confidence outside of the typical academic and athletic setting. It has been an eventful start to the school year and I look forward to the adventures ahead.

Colby Accardi '21

Hannah Baltimore '20

Hannah Hoverman '21

Brian Tan '21


Lily Arrowood '21

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

June 23, 2017

I was away this spring for three months for maternity leave. During the last week of May, I returned for final project critiques in my classes. It was exciting to see how my year-long students in Visual Arts II had progressed without my influence. The final unit is a true testament of student dedication and an understanding of aesthetics. The students began the assignment by researching a contemporary artist. They could choose any artist in the last 100 years to serve as an inspiration. Every young artist should be able to identify, learn about and understand their predecessors! From concept to completion, the students were forced to make many decisions. Through the use of trial and error, they chose the material, size, and subject matter for the final piece. This product became evidence of the skills they have developed this school year, and a few students' work was particularly impressive. The common thread throughout these students is that they each tried something that was outside of their comfort zone; all challenged themselves and rose to the occasion.

Rohit, a 10th grade student, connected his interest in painting with his interest in athletics. The first few days of the unit coincided with the NBA playoffs. The Washington Wizards were performing well and he was inspired by the performance of John Wall. Earlier in the year he had already completed a traditional portrait assignment and this time he chose to be more unconventional. Rohit depicted Wall in geometric shapes, consisting entirely of triangles. He experimented with mixing colors and formulated ways to mix different values in order to create a sense of volume. Rohit found this approach difficult yet rewarding. Art takes time, patience, and lots of practice - just like the great John Wall.

Charlotte, a 9th grade student, visited the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC during the exhibition, "Wonder." She was especially impressed by the large installation by artist Gabriel Dawe and used her experience with that intricate and vibrant work as a jumping-off point for a small scale sculpture. Although the sculpture she created could not be 18-25 feet high like Dawe's, she took a similar concept and found ways to explore the relationship of color, tension and space. Charlotte recycled a broken wood stool, spools of thread and glue. Each string was carefully placed to create a unique shape and pattern. Through her design, this work of art has many interesting points of view and each were very carefully considered.

Amber, another 10 grader, explored a new method of making art in the style of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat was a street artist who made a tremendous impact on art in American history with his raw and non-traditional ways of self-expression. She created seven individual pieces on cardboard with acrylic paint and chalk pastels. Amber assembled them onto a wall in order to create a large composition. She was unsure of the optimal direction or placement of each piece, so many variations were considered before the final composition was fixed. This work of art was a result of great experimentation and self-exploration. During her creative process, she shared that she was unconsciously drawing and writing, similar to visual journaling. Once the composition was complete, Amber realized that each aspect of it was somewhat of an abstract self-portrait. She had originally planned to dismantle and recycle the pieces after the work was graded. But, after she showed her parents a photograph of the project, they encouraged her to bring the entire work of art home. The final work was evidence of her growth and development as a young artist and they would find a place to install the 70-inch drawing!

I am so proud of the work that my students have accomplished this year. They were able to discover a little more about themselves as artists and pursue an idea from beginning to end. Art is a learning process. During final critiques, I posed a series of questions to the students to force them to consider why they made the decisions they made. It is incredibly important for all young artists to understand that the artist has control. There is a fine line between good art and great art. I wish all of my students luck in the future and I encourage each of them to stay curious and resilient during any creative process!

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

February 21, 2017

Coding is not typically considered a traditional art form. In fact, many still debate its place in the world of fine art.

You may have witnessed that more and more art galleries and art museums are exhibiting interactive digital art - which entirely relies on...computers! Think back to your latest visit to the National Gallery of Art. The artwork along the moving walkway between the East and the West buildings is a permanent light installation by artist, Leo Villareal. The work consists of 41,000 computer programmed LED lights. Each light is designed and choreographed by the artist to provide a visual, site-specific, interactive experience!

During the last two months, Visual Arts II students have been exploring an application called Processing. Mr. Stanford, from our Upper School Technology and Engineering department, and I have partnered to share this incredible tool. It all began in September with a simple conversation we had about how to incorporate elements of art (line, shape, color) and principles of design (balance, contrast, emphasis) in his technology courses. Soon we realized I could add a digital art component in one of our Visual Arts II units to address the use of contemporary media.

We combined my visual language for design and composition with his expertise in the software to educate our students with a basic knowledge of of coding. Processing allows beginners to code in the context of visual art. For over 15 years, Processing has had tens of thousands of students, artists and designers from all aspects of the arts use the application. Rather than simply learn how to "draw" and "paint" a composition through code, our students learned how to incorporate interactive components such as webcams and facial recognition in their projects. There have been many challenging moments but all together, the results have been impressive AND exciting!

We recently had a "pop-up" exhibition in the dining room to share our projects with MS and US staff and students. Other students were amazed at the art their friends have been making on their computers during art class!

Now that we are finished with the unit, I have asked students to reflect on their experience:

TOP 5 Challenges with Processing

5. Time consuming
4. Every line of the code has to be exact
3. A lot of trial and error
2. Getting it to look professional
1. CODING!

TOP 10 BEST things about Processing

10. Making things move by themselves
9. Process of designing it
8. Customizable to our ideas
7. Finishing a project!
6. Understanding how Snapchat filters work
5. Feeling capable of making something complex on the computer
4. Webcam and facial recognition capabilities
3. Interactive options for the viewer
2. Infinite options for...anything!
1. The achievement you feel once you are done and it's exactly what you wanted

See all of the student art created for this unit.

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

November 22, 2016

Ceramics is clay. Clay is dirt. Dirt is dirty. Some students LOVE it and others barely want to touch it.

Since Ceramics is an elective, students choose to get their hands dirty and work with clay for a trimester. Each student creates five ceramic pieces: pinch pot, coil vessel, slab construction, pottery wheel and a final project. In one trimester, students walk away with new knowledge, a review of skills (typically learned in lower school) and a greater appreciation of...DIRT!

A typical schedule for a Ceramics student:

  1. Sketch ideas for a pinch pot creation
  2. Build something using the pinch pot technique
  3. Finish and let it dry
  4. Sketch ideas for a coil vessel
  5. Build something using the coil hand building technique
  6. Finish and let it dry
  7. Ceramics are fired in the kiln
  8. Paint the pinch pot creation
  9. Repeat steps 1-3 for two additional projects
  10. Take a break from hand building and "throw" on the pottery wheel
  11. Repeat step 6-8 for three additional projects

Students work on electric pottery wheels: imagine a spinning metal plate with clay in the middle that is supposed to magically be shaped into a bowl. Some students felt immediately comfortable and within an hour of working on the wheel, they instantly convinced two pounds of clay to move to the center of the wheel, symmetrically and balanced. Other students were frustrated. They struggled for days and threatened to give up. The students overcame these challenges eventually by anchoring their arms, using their whole body (instead of just their hands), and practicing, practicing, practicing.

I love teaching Ceramics because it's a combination of creativity, freedom and lack of control. Clay has a mind of its own and will tell you what it needs or how it feels. If the clay is dry, it will crack. If the clay is too wet, it will not hold shape. Students must communicate with and care for their projects like a living and breathing thing. At the end of each class, the projects must be covered with damp towels and wrapped in a plastic bag to prevent the clay from drying. If this does not occur, the clay hardens and is difficult to work with. Ceramics students learn to take care of their work and listen to what it needs.

I had a sophomore student tell me at the beginning of the trimester that she was not going to do well in Ceramics. She said with complete frustration, "Mrs. Shih-Kahn, you don't understand, my work has to be perfect." Ten weeks later when her final project was drying, the work partially collapsed and broke. She looked at me with a smile and said, "Oh well, I guess I'll just have to put it back together after I paint it." Ceramics has a way of teaching students how to communicate and at times, discover new solutions. Who knew the power of dirt?

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

September 29, 2016

Visual Arts II students are a great mix of 9-12th grade students with a variety of skills and techniques—but all have the same investment in a year-long art course. To start the year, they were given a 20-minute challenge: make something "artistic" with the materials provided.

Since we each define artistic very differently, and since each person has a unique brain, imagination and ability to create, it was an enlightening way to begin the year. One project is not better than another because of the material and the approach. This type of activity gives students an opportunity to be experimental and playful, encouraging them to have fun with art and remind them about individual creativity and imagination.

This challenge also helps transition into our first unit, sculptural books. We started with old sets of encyclopedias that the Upper School librarian was deaccessioning last year. As an artist and an art teacher, I could not ignore the potential in the books as a medium for a large project. So, students began deconstructing and altering those retired encyclopedias using basic art supplies, such as markers, magazines, glue, straws, scissors and a few other items.

Each student chose one and based their idea on the content of a book—either an encyclopedia or another book they may have chosen. For example, one might build a three-dimensional depiction of the Pac-Man game board carved into and built from a book about pop culture in America in the 1980s. This unit allows students to develop concept drawings, sculpt, carve and build. There are numerous inventive ideas that are just now beginning to come to life.

With this assignment, the students were challenged to think, make and then share. Throughout the year the students will participate in peer critiques and provide constructive comments or questions for their classmates. They must begin to practice using visual language to communicate what they think and WHY they think it.

Look for my next post to see some of the finished products!

By Alice Shih-Kahn, Upper School Art

September 2016

As much as I love working with young children in the arts, there's nothing like teaching an Upper School student. Teenagers have a different perspective on art, positive or negative, and there's always a discussion to be had. Art is all around us and at times we find ourselves overlooking it. You can see it in the design of a logo, the shape of a large bowl and the phone that you carry around ALL day long! Not everything is good, but it's worth looking, thinking and analyzing. Perhaps you think, "I could have done that," but the thing is, you didn't and you haven't...but you can try!

I am excited to begin my second year at Bullis. Last year I taught in the Upper School (Into to Art, Visual Arts II, Advanced Studio Art, Ceramics, Art History, Sculpture), led Open Studio and co-sponsored the National Art Honor Society. I only had a chance to meet some students. I look forward to meeting many more! Summer is the perfect time to recover from the marathon of the school year, and now it's time to begin again.

Welcome back!

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