Kelly McFazden and I went to university together twenty years ago and through the magic of the internet have re-connected through Facebook. She teaches art at the Singapore American School and recently posted the inspiring experience of one of her students. Chelsea is 13. She’s a normal teenager. She’s also a quadriplegic. She is also an artist, using her “wheels” to paint, as well as brushes attached to the chair. It’s a shining example of the power of the arts and that the expression of the arts has no boundaries. I asked Kelly if she would share Chelsea’s experience.
1. Talk about how you got from Canada to teaching art at the Singapore American School.
This is actually, my third teaching job overseas. I graduated from Queens University from a program called Artists In Community Education. Queens is host to an international job fair and I was hired by the American International School in Egypt straight out of school. I taught Art, Photography and Drama. After four years I moved on to a school in Manila and in 2003 I made the move to Singapore. This is my ninth year teaching elementary art here.
2. What level of students do you see and what it’s like to explore art with them?
Right now I teach kindergarten to grade 5. Creating art with the kids is really inspiring. I often find they come up with ideas that are better than mine. The young kids haven’t learned to be afraid of trying new things, so they aren’t afraid to fail and because of that they don’t fail. For the older kids in grade four and five they are learning to express themselves and finding their artistic voice.
3. Talk about Chelsea and your experience with her. She seems to have had an intense journey for such a young girl.
Chelsea was one of my students when she was in grade four and five. She missed a lot of school in grade four because she was in the hospital for months. That was the first year she was in a wheelchair. Up through the end of grade three she could still walk. There wasn’t a lot that she could physically do in my class so we talked a lot and bonded over American Idol. (We rarely agree about who should win.) She is a bright, normal kid who has found herself in a very un-normal circumstance. Even on my most exhausting, difficult day, I think of Chelsea and get over any self-pity pretty darn fast. As one of her other teachers said, “Once you get to know Chelsea, you are a changed person.” Like any teacher, to have a student who is passionate about learning is always a joy and with Chelsea that is doubly true.
4.Chelsea’s wheelie art is a wonderful example of how art has no boundaries. It’s a fallacy to say only certain people can create. What are your feelings on why we create and the purpose of art?
I think there are as many reasons people create, as there are people who create art. For me it is a way to process all the things that go on in the day. Getting out the paint for me is almost as good as a day at the spa. For so many of my students, creating art gives them a voice they didn’t know they had. For me art is a means of relaxation and expression. It is about experimenting. The creating is more important than the final product. I am guessing that it is a little like people who like to run, (I am really guessing here since I can’t imagine actually loving to run.) When you are in that zone, and your mind is on nothing else except the road in front of you, there is a sense of bliss that runners get. For me the canvas and the paints are like that. I find that bliss in the creation of a painting, not necessarily in the finished project. That could explain all the unfinished canvases I have in my studio. Is it art? I don’t know, but for me it is happiness. I love Scott Adams’ quote. ‘Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.’ Every now and then I am happy to keep one.
5. Talk about the process of how Chelsea’s art came to be “” was it her idea? Yours? Have you had students create like this before? How do you use music?
Every year we have a big art show at school and every student from kindergarten to grade five has a piece of work in the exhibition. When Chelsea was in grade five I needed to find a way for her to create a piece of art for the show. I decided to put some canvas on the floor and tape some paintbrushes to her chair. There isn’t a kid in that class that will forget that day. The piece of art she made was beautiful, but what was more important was the smile on her face. She was so excited to be able to have a piece of work alongside her classmates. She was getting to actively participate in the creation of something. She hadn’t been able to do that since grade three. As Chelsea headed off into middle school, I told her that if she ever wanted to paint again just to let me know. Now in grade eight, I still see her in the halls at school. One day she asked if we could paint again. I jumped at the chance to see that same smile on her face again. So we started getting together on Wednesdays after school and painting.
Chelsea loves music! Yesterday, when she came to paint she knew exactly what music she wanted to listen to as she painted. For her the painting is like dancing. Yesterday’s piece was all about music and rhythm. She wanted to listen to We’ve Got the Beat and Can’t Stop the Beat. We cut out some music notes out of tag board and laid them down under the canvas, so they left a subtle imprint in the painting. She came in yesterday with a definite plan, she picks the colours and tells us where to put them and then she starts to ‘dance’ on the canvas. You can check out her latest work.
6. On Chelsea’s blog, she quotes you – ‘if it’s not messy, it’s not art.’ Talk about that quote.
I always say that to my students. Of course she left out the next part ‘as long as you clean up any mess you make’. Art, at least for me, is often messy. That is half the fun. Who doesn’t like to get their hands dirty? Actually, I have lots of kids who never get the opportunity to get dirty. They are afraid to make a mess. I actually had one student tell me that he would get in trouble if he made something out of clay because his parents told him he wasn’t allowed to play in the dirt.
I love watching kids discover what happens when they start mixing paint. It might turn out to look like mud or they might invent a colour they are sure no one has ever seen before. They even love watching the water they wash their brush in change colour. It is magic to them.
Thank you for sharing Kelly!