Why teach the arts? This is the fourth of several articles that look at the intrinsic reasons art is a critical part of how and what a student learns at school. In the first article, I noted that typical reasons for taking arts – that it is a benefit to other subjects and improves test scores – and suggested that was pretty weak, if not insulting. If you are an arts teacher, you shouldn’t have to justify your discipline on the basis of what it will do for test scores in LA and Math! No, the Arts are much more important than that! Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teacher’s College Press, 2007)—takes a different approach. It articulates 8 Habits of Mind that it contends the arts do teach, and teach extraordinarily well: develop craft, engage and persist, stretch and explore, envision, reflect, express, and observe.

So the first three articles dealt with Taking a Leap, Engage and Persist, and Develop Craft.

In this article, we will look at Envision: Thinking in Images i.e. imagining and generating “images of possibilities in the mind”. (p. 60). This seems to describe what happens in the gap between observing and giving “form to what she sees”. This gap includes skills such as making the imagination visible, improvising from what is to what could be, innovating a variety of options from one, and moving from the inner eye to the visible product.

This idea of the inner and the outer, the imagination and the concrete, seems to be a universal finding. Michelangelo Buonarotti wrote in one of his sonnets:

“The greatest artist does not have any concept
Which a single piece of marble does not itself contain
Within its excess, though only
A hand that obeys the intellect can discover it.”

Again, he said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. In a similar vein, George Bernard Shaw said: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will”. Beth Balliro, one of the teachers observed in Studio Thinking, asks students constantly to Observe and then Envision e.g. layer colors “so you can still see the value shining through”, or “I want you to think about how you can tell a story with your landscape … you will have in mind a place and not use characters to show it … think more deeply about your character”.

An important part of this skill is for the student to be able to operate independently, be able to develop ideas and conceptualizations from the student’s own envisioning rather than following a paint-by-numbers kind of process. Another teacher in Studio Thinking, Jason Green, puts it this way: “What I don’t want to do is give them the recipe for making art because there is no real recipe. I want to give them the tools so they can be innovators and come up with their own problems and their own solutions and their own questions”. This flows in and out of the skill described in a previous article about the ability to Develop Craft – there, the student wanted mastery over the ‘rules’ so they had the ability to break them and move beyond. There is yellow and there is red. But how many oranges are there?

This process of envisioning is as prevalent in business as it is in the art studio. Many business success stories are the outcome of someone ‘seeing’ the potential in what might otherwise have just been thrown away. Roy Plunkett, for example, was experimenting with Freon gases and accidentally left some material out overnight that, instead of throwing away, he examined and turned into Teflon that made billions for Dupont. 22 year old Robert Chesebrough was down an oil well when he noticed a gel-like substance that the oil workers would use to heal cuts and burns. They called it rod wax. He took it home to test and developed what we now know as Vaseline. Clearly, the art process of Observe and Envision is useful in many arenas of human endeavor.

Envisioning is a key element of successful athletics. It is said that some Olympic swimmers lie beside the pool imagining the race for as long as they practice. Shadow fencing uses the same technique. “Much like real fencing, you get the best return from shadow fencing if you go into it with a more nuanced mental approach rather than pure repetition and introspection. This is where the shadow comes into play. In this case, you are competing against your imagination. Who is your opponent? What are they trying to do to hit you? Are they trying to draw out your attack? Are they trying to set up an attack of their own? Are they over extending themselves? Are they accidentally leaving you a small opening? How patient are they being?” Psychology Today even published an article showing how children could use visualization to improve performance and be like “Olympic athletes”. Mary Whipple, three-time Olympic medalist in rowing is another example of the power of visualization: “we’re preparing for that perfect race and I’ve been visualizing multiple times every time I go for a run, every time I’m in the boat…”

Once again, the power of the visual arts to teach a mental habit, to dig deep into a child’s mind and heart in order to find something special, that power is very strong. One of the points of this set of articles is to situate the visual arts as a serious academic discipline in a way rarely allowed in school where one credit gets you to graduation, one class a week gets you through elementary school, an elective gets you through middle school. And its power is, at least in part, because of the emphasis on Developing Craft at the same time or before Envisioning. This is not a process without content but, rather, one with deep knowledge and understanding to inform the imagination, to inspire what could be, and to move the future.