My splatter paint is in the negative space, right?" asks Tess Everett, 7, studying her watercolor painting of an apple.
Her instructor, Ashley Veselis, assures her that it is, and the class of 8- to 10-year-olds returns to studying their paintings. They're learning how to look at art, one of the fundamental skills taught in the Junior Visual Arts class at the Shelburne Craft School.
"When you're working with kids this age, the most important thing is to help them find a way of expressing themselves," says Veselis. "The other important thing is to help them look at art and discuss it — no matter what the subject is."
With Veselis to guide the discussion, the kids talk about paint strokes, subject matter and white space. They decide that the paint strokes on one apple give it motion, while the purplish color of another makes it look a little unsavory to eat. Veselis assures them that there's no wrong interpretation. The same philosophy will apply throughout the rest of this six-week course that includes instruction in drawing, painting, collage and printmaking.
This week, the theme is charcoal drawing and painting still lifes. Veselis has given the kids five apples to paint and draw. The fruit both inspires and tempts them; they would clearly prefer to draw a half-eaten apple — or better yet, an apple core. But before they can devour their subjects, Veselis explains how to draw the apple, which is not the perfectly round sphere the brain imagines it sees.
"Start at the stem, and imagine an ant marching around the side of the apple, and pretend that's your charcoal," she says, drawing a wide, bumpy circle on the surface of the paper. "Keep your eyes on the apple, and just let your charcoal feel its way across the paper."
This experiment produces mixed results. Tess Everett and Eliza Brooks, 8, immediately start giggling over the worms they've drawn emerging from the apple. Loa Georgsdottir, 8, sits with her chin in her hands for a minute, studying her subject. At a nearby table, siblings Mason and Eula Palmer, ages 10 and 8, finish their first sketch quickly, then ask if they can free-draw.
Veselis, who also teaches Hand Building in Clay for ages 6 and up, explains that this is one of the challenges of teaching mixed visual art to a relatively young group: Attention spans are short.
"Freedom of expression is important in any form," she says, "but it's also important to get something out of each class. The best way to do that is to find projects that everyone is interested in."
The class concludes with a still life of plastic grapes, a baseball, a goblet and some plastic flowers — which the budding artists approach with varying levels of intensity. One girl paints with fierce concentration, while several of the others finish quickly and then begin eating the apples. At the end of the day, everyone goes home with a finished painting and, if Veselis has her way, a new view of something they thought they'd seen before.