Artistic flexibility filling a youthful need

Local artists found Shape and Sound Arts Academy

Marquette artists Ben Pawlowski, left, and Patrick Booth have started the Shape and Sound Arts Academy. The virtual program features art and music curricula for kids age 9-14. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

MARQUETTE — Given the creative nature of art, educating youngsters in the field can take on a non-traditional bent as well.

Two Marquette artists, Patrick Booth and Ben Pawlowski, have started the Shape and Sound Arts Academy, a visual and musical arts program designed for students ages 9-14.

The program is designed to be accessed virtually by any student anywhere.

“It came out of identifying a need in the community,” Pawlowski said.

As with many projects, the COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for trying new ways of teaching.

“It was something we started to talk about, even during the spring, just when a lot of stuff was shutting down, and just thinking about where things might go in the future,” Pawlowski said.

They acknowledged everyone is “in a weird situation right now,” he said.

So, the result was the Shape and Sound Arts Academy.

Its main points are:

≤ curriculum, instruction and resources designed and implemented by professional artists and experienced educators;

≤ individualized curriculum, feedback and support for each student;

≤ a flexible structure to meet a wide variety of needs;

≤ opportunities to connect with other students, teachers and artists near and far; and

≤ imagination and creativity infused into all programming aspects.

Realizing that students are educated in a variety of ways now, either virtually, in person or a hybrid of both, the two wanted to build a self-paced program with different paths.

“There is a lot of choice with the way that students engage in the program,” Pawlowski said.

He called it a “flipped classroom” in which students research and learn vocabulary through program resources. Online meetings then reflect on what they’re doing.

“The activities and lessons that we built do reflect what we see as challenges that professionals in our artistic fields encounter,” said Pawlowski, who noted that for visual arts, for example, students can start as an illustrator, designer or mixed-media artist. After completing an art project, they can move on to Level II.

Flexibility can be a bonus.

“I have often been forced to grade a certain way that really doesn’t make sense for the way I teach art, and in this program, we’re not really using grades,” Pawlowski said. “There’s lots of feedback. They have to regularly show their progress, week after week.”

That feedback, he stressed, can include pointing the students in the direction of artists they should check out, or perhaps suggesting they read an article or watch a particular video.

“We’re just really focusing on how we can help them be the artist that they want to be, not necessarily fit some cookie-cutter mold,” Pawlowski said.

Booth said the fee is set up on a sliding scale, with families asked to pay between $25 and $100 a month. That gives students access to the program, which includes an art curriculum and a sound curriculum.

The “sound side,” Booth said, involves tiers that focus on improvisation, composition, and performance and musicianship.

“In public school, they are taught the basics of reading music first, and a few years in, they get to be in middle school jazz band, and that’s the first time they get to try improvisation, which is like ‘making up on the spot,’ right?” Booth said. “They’ve already built a musical vocabulary in their brain, and it’s already a little bit more difficult for them to do some sort of improvising at that stage.”

What the Shape and Sound Arts Academy does, he said, is start students from an improvising standpoint, which means they’re already starting to make choices at the earliest stages of musical development.

“It’s a little bit more personable,” Booth said.

An individual experience

Pawlowski said each student’s experience is going to be geared toward what that youngster wants to do.

“They’re choosing their path, and they’re deciding when they’re finished with a project to some degree,” Pawlowski said. “There are certain things we want to see from assignments before they move on to another thing, but there’s no really specific due dates.”

The academy provides one-page collections of ideas and challenges about once a month.

The first issue, for example, features the activity “Collaborative Creatures” in which a sheet of paper is folded into three or more sections. One person draws the head of any kind of creature in the top section, leaving lines to show where the neck ends. The paper is folded back to hide the head. The next persons draws a creature in the middle section, with that part again folded back. The first person or someone new can draw the bottom.

Unfolding the paper will reveal the “collaborative masterpiece.” The activity may involve spaceships, buildings and other items.

Pawlowski said he blends art history and classical art into the curriculum, but he also keeps lessons contemporary.

“I think it’s vital for students to understand what are artists doing now in the world and how are they functioning and responding to things, and how are they surviving?” Pawlowski said. “How do they have a career?”

One point he wants to get across is: Not every artist wants to get work in a museum.

“Sometimes it’s just a graphic designer working for a local firm, and that’s cool and those people are really happy and do great stuff,” Pawlowski said.

Eventually he’d like to take students to place such as the DeVos Art Museum on the Northern Michigan University campus.

“That’s a lot easier to do when I have direct communication with the students and the parents,” Pawlowski said. “It’s a smaller population. I don’t have to make it fit in with the schedule with the rest of the school. I can just do it.”

For more information on the academy, visit www.shapeandsoundarts.com or Instagram @shapeandsoundarts, or email shapeandsoundarts@gmail.com.


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