Students get abstract with Bechtler artist

Third-graders in Aimee Mills' art class at Winecoff Elementary School this month became the first in Cabarrus County Schools to experience the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art's Artists-in-Schools education program.

Longtime Charlotte artist Amy St. Aubin introduced students to realism, cubism and printmaking. St. Aubin, who works with oil paints on canvas and wood, said she teaches hundreds of kids per year through arts integration programs run by the Bechtler, the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and the McColl Center for Visual Art.

About 125 students met with St. Aubin once a week for three weeks. They learned about famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, drew real and abstract self-portraits and made prints of their artwork.

"Some of them found abstract harder than realism," said Aubin. "I used words like 'distorted' and 'exaggerated' to help get the point across. I told them, 'If it looks weird, if it looks freaky, that's great, because that's how it's supposed to look.' "

The students will celebrate what they've learned later this year by hosting their own gallery show and taking a trip to the two-year-old Charlotte museum.

In the first class, students learned about proportion to help them draw realistic portraits. Next, students created abstract dual portraits, using vivid colors, geometric shapes and patterns. The final lesson ended with students making watercolor silk-screen prints.

"It was icky, but I liked it," said Imyah Johnson, 8, of Concord.

"It was fun. I liked learning about the cool and hot colors, and it made me feel like a famous person," said Paul "PJ" Irving, 8, of Kannapolis.

Geoffrey Lineberger, 8, of Concord said he enjoyed learning about abstract art and cubism.

"It's neat because I'll do a circle for the head, then draw triangles in the middle for eyes," he said. "All you're basically drawing is shapes, and you just use them to draw a person."

Miaya Whiters, 8, of Concord said she learned how the print-making process worked.

"I didn't think it would transfer through on paper," she said. "I was surprised."

Grayson Taylor, 9, of Kannapolis said he enjoyed coloring his portrait and making the prints best. But he also learned a thing or two about Picasso and his style.

"It was cool," he said. "I like his cubism and abstract stuff. Some of his work made me feel sad, warm, disgusted and awesome."

Mills named her class Studio 407, after her room number. She starts each year by giving students a survey, which often reveals that most of them have never been to a museum.

"So for them to be able to go to the museum at the end of all this is huge," said Mills.

The partnership also introduced students to a project Mills might not otherwise have been able to afford.

"I liked being able to learn something new, and it actually was something I might not have been able to do with my children, because it's quite costly," said Mills. "For the children, I think just having someone else come in and teach, and knowing that they're a practicing artist, helps make a bigger impression on them."

Mills agreed students found the abstract drawings more challenging.

"But they made the connection between color and mood, or how one side of the portrait could represent different emotions," said Mills.

Throughout the year, students will learn about museum etiquette and how art is a gateway to learning about other subjects and cultures.

"I think through the art process, they learn how everything's connected," said Mills.

The Bechtler primarily worked with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year but has expanded to Cabarrus and Union counties this year.

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art works with three main teaching artists who can cover virtually any medium. The museum also helps schools develop lesson plans that tie to museum's permanent collection.

Privately held by the Bechtler family of Switzerland until the museum opened in January 2010, the museum's 1,400-piece collection spans more than 70 years of art history. It focuses on influential mid-20th century artists, such as Picasso and Andy Warhol. Some of the works have been in public view only since the museum opened.

"This collection was privately held until two years (ago)," said Erica Somerwitz, the museum's school and community programs manager. "It's not been seen by the public, and we're kind of rediscovering a lot of the work.

"For the kids to be able to come and look at it is great, but then for them to make sense of it in the world they're living in now makes it contemporary to them."