+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Alison Harbaugh
Children enrolled at Preschool for the Arts at St. Anne’s (PASA) show how art is done. Throughout the school year, in a bright space, the children prepare for an annual art show, which this year was held on April 27. Parents and guardians don’t see the created art pieces that are featured until the show. Art teacher Leslie Dougherty, who has taught at the school for two decades and is now in her second year of presiding over the art program, always keeps the work until it’s time for the big reveal. For the two weeks leading up to the show, parents are asked to drop their children at the door to keep the surprise. During the show, the school’s white interior walls are covered with bulletin board paper to create galleries that showcase the work of the two-year-olds (the twos), three-year-olds (the threes), and four-year-olds (the fours). The produced artwork varies between these age ranges, during which so much development and dexterity occurs. The twos display pieces imagined through tiny fingers, the fours demonstrate their prowess with fine instruments used to draw and paint, and the threes demonstrate work straddling both developmental stages.
“Leslie does a great job of setting the bar high—and students reach for it,” says Amy Hoffman, PASA’s director. Various galleries are set up throughout the school, with individual galleries dedicated to one study from the school year. Every child has about 10 pieces from their various artist and concept studies that are displayed. Families receive a program listing where to find their child’s work inside the show. The show’s mission is to help children take pride in their work and gain confidence in the work that they’re doing. The children are exploring all facets of art, including color, shapes, the artists behind artworks, and learning to see art in different ways, whether it be street art, a classic painted by Monet, or a piece by a local artist. They learn to see that art is all around them. Annapolis street art was the subject of their first lesson for the 2022–2023 school year. Dougherty devised a scavenger hunt for families to drive around and locate works scattered about the city, including a myriad of murals and the city’s iconic larger-than-life chicken sculptures perched along sidewalks. Many students are ferried past them on their commute to school, and Dougherty gave them the tools to notice them. “She started that unit, and we all put on new glasses,” says Hoffman. “The students got very involved, sharing what they saw. Street art appeals to children because there’s something enticing about artwork where it’s unexpected or ‘shouldn’t be.’ It makes it more fun, the surprise of it, very large and ‘wow.’”
Dougherty provided a map showing street names for the Annapolis Arts District. However, because this was a scavenger hunt, no x marked the spot, and students and their families had to search. The scavenger hunt was eye-opening for many parents. “Most people had no idea about how much art there is in Annapolis,” says Dougherty. Almost every child passes the Equal Justice Mural Project on the way to school. This mural, featuring two late US Supreme Court justices—Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall—was included on the list, but then Dougherty had to consider how she would answer the question she was sure her students would ask: “What is a judge?” She explained that judges help us decide what’s right and what’s wrong. One of the children replied, “Like a red choice and a green choice,” a behavior-management tool that they have employed that helps them learn what a good behavioral choice is versus a poor one. This anchoring of new concepts to their existing foundation of knowledge is evidence that, through art, they’re learning a range of skills, concepts, and ideas. It all begins in the classroom. Students attend one art class each week. However, the duration of class depends on the age group. The fours enjoy a full hour of learning and creativity, the threes have a 45-minute block, and the twos receive 30 minutes of class—appropriate to their developing attention spans. All students receive the same thematic content, but the presentation may differ, often with a focus on different pieces of art and levels of complexity. Every student, however, receives the same featured artist’s story, as Dougherty’s philosophy is that artists are the most interesting people and have the best stories to tell. “Children love stories that show them a wider world, that show them more possibilities about what they can do and who they can be,” says Dougherty.
As part of her lessons, Dougherty writes an email to the parents and gives them the overall story and details of the artists’ lives, along with the related language lessons, so the families get an art education, too. “Teaching art fills a hole in early childhood education. Young kids are open and ready to soak up the words and information, play with new materials, and develop their own thoughts and opinions,” she says. “Art is everywhere. We do kids a disservice if we don’t give them the right language to have a relationship with it.” On a brisk March day, into the art classroom file the fours—a blur of dinosaur-graphic sweatshirts, sequins, even a tiara. The students seat themselves on cheery orange plastic mats that have been arranged on the floor. All eyes focus front. Seated on a small chair, Dougherty leans down to their visual level rather than looming over them. This day, they learn about Wayne Thiebaud, an artist who lived to be 101 and died in 2021. Students are engaged, allowed to ask questions and make observations. When they provide a correct answer, Dougherty tells them, “Kiss your brain.”
“I like to show childhood photos of artists and highlight the best parts of their stories because that’s the stuff children hold onto. It sticks—they go home and share the story,” she says. As she takes them through a child-appropriate story of Thiebaud’s life, she tapes up various enlarged pictures: the artist as a child, the artist engaged in favorite hobbies, the artist’s artwork. A hand shoots up from the group: “What’s a hobby?” Dougherty provides an explanation, and later—while engaged in making art themselves—students make the connections and share what their hobbies are: “Art’s my hobby, and sports!” “They don’t even know they’re learning other things, such as fine motor skills, shapes, color, science,” says Hoffman. “They’re readying themselves for kindergarten.” This day’s lesson ends with hands-on work at three preschool-sized tables. One is set up to demonstrate shadows (“Lights out!”), which the children take turns tracing. Another table holds Play-Doh® and supplies, including molds, rolling pins, cookie cutters, and plastic pizza wheels. The third table has drawings of cupcakes that the students made the previous week, thematically tied to Thiebaud’s work, and are now ready for paint to be applied. Within these four walls—this is where art starts. █