Tall and self-confident, Elizabeth Willett looks more like a model than like an elementary school art teacher. As she walks down the sunny hall toward the art studio, as her classroom at Fort Worth's Alice Carlson Elementary School is known, her black pleated skirt brushes her ankles. A line of children traveling the opposite direction all notice Willett, look up at her face, and brighten. A few reach out to touch her hand or pat her as she walks by. She smiles and bends down to their level, a habit acquired over 14 years of teaching art for the Fort Worth Independent School District.
Cynthia Riddle is as different from Willett on the outside as she is like her on the inside. Riddle is a 20-year veteran art teacher at another elementary school, North Hi Mount, just blocks from Fort Worth's cultural district and within walking distance of four museums. She looks more Bohemian than Willett, and favors denim, lots of silver jewelry, and a casual chic. Her art classroom is smaller than Willett's, but the upbeat energy is the same. Riddle's students have made dream-catchers this week, weaving colored yarn in and out of paper disks into replicas of the Native American art form.
Willett and Riddle are two of a small group of art faculty members to serve as leaders in an innovative reprogramming of elementary education funded by the Getty Education Institute for the Arts and the Annenberg Foundation. Along with their school principals, an art administrator, museum educators, and a local university brain trust, these teachers have been quietly setting kids on fire for learning by exposing them to art.
But the project lately has been troubled by questions of censorship. The school district recently canceled visits to two Modern Art Museum exhibitions because of complaints from some parents and uneasiness from some teachers that at least some modern art is not suitable for young eyes. That's an ironic twist for a program that uses art to teach children how to think for themselves.
This is Willett's first year at Alice Carlson. She spent the last 13 years at Oakhurst Elementary, one of the four Fort Worth schools chosen in a national pilot program called "Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge," a five-year, $15 million effort to reform education through art. "This approach combines four basic disciplines -- art-making, art history, art criticism, and aesthetics -- into a holistic learning experience," says Pam Stephens, mentor and project coordinator for the North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, which coordinates the Getty/Annenberg program locally. "We're still in the process of measuring as we begin the second half of our fourth year in a five-year program," Stephens says. "My own gut reaction is, we're getting positive results."
Willett says using art to teach math or social studies or language arts is better than teaching students to memorize facts alone. "I really think in art you're teaching a kid how to think," she says. "You're teaching them how to look at a problem, dissect a problem, and come up with a solution that really works."
Stephens says community resources like Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum, Modern Art Museum, and Sid W. Richardson Collection are important adjuncts to classroom work. "When these kids go to the Amon Carter Museum, for instance, they look like they own it," she says. "I have witnessed these kids in front of works of art taking over from the docents. These interpretation skills then relate to better test-taking skills and better writing skills."
Willett can attest to the better test-taking part. Oakhurst was one of 14 schools nationwide in the program that serve at-risk students and was the only low-performing school of the Fort Worth four. "We got off the low-performing list in one year, which was a monumental task," Willett says. "It was a dramatic difference, maybe 40 points higher (on the TAAS test). It wasn't all because of art, but I know art had quite a bit to do with it."
Museum educators have thrown open their doors to Fort Worth teachers for training; to students for repeat-visit programs that serve both as reward and reinforcement for classroom learning; and to hands-on art-making, art-criticism, and art-interpretation sessions with local artists. And they've done most of it at their own expense, because this kind of grassroots involvement in the community, they believe, is their ultimate mission.
It was last fall's acclaimed retrospective of exemplary British artist Francis Bacon's work at the Modern that led to complaints that school officials had engaged in censorship. Some teachers confessed to being uncomfortable with wall text in the exhibition that referenced homosexuality. Some disliked the number of nudes on display, although Bacon tends to fudge in the area of genital detail, seeming to prefer smudged and blurred suggestions of private parts. Bacon's work is dark and surreal and reflects a degree of personal torment on the part of the artist, but any true appreciation for its adult subtleties seems far-fetched for a fifth-grader to fathom.
"Bacon caused his own controversy from the grave, you know, here," says Terri Thornton, curator of education at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. "The nightmarish quality was the criticism." She says the museum offered a poorly attended preview of the exhibition for Fort Worth teachers as a precursor to their student tours, which she believes could have done a lot to stop the ensuing hysteria.
One teacher says she got the call that her students' trip was canceled two hours before the buses were set to roll out. "It came in the form of an edict," says the teacher, who requested anonymity. "There was some discomfort, so the district said it was easier if we just didn't go." Most everyone contacted for this story says, on and off the record, that rumors greatly exaggerating any offensive content spread through the school district.
"People responded to what they heard or what they read instead of going and seeing for themselves," Thornton says. "This is the real problem. If there is any challenge for education, it is setting up circumstances where people will be able to and will choose to give art the time it requires. I'm not sure that the people who make decisions in the district really understand what the ramifications of what they're doing are."
Even before the Bacon tours were canceled, as a result of what several school insiders claim was a single parental complaint, some school tours were canceled for a nationally acclaimed traveling exhibition called "Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century," shown jointly at the Modern and the Amon Carter Museum beginning in October 1998. The Modern got shafted again, because two or three allegedly offensive art works were housed there, while not so much as an eyebrow was raised by the art at the Amon Carter. One work at the Modern was Edgar Tolson's primitive woodcarving of Adam and Eve, depicted "doing it, doggie-style" in front of the legendary snake, according to one teacher. Another was a set of Henry Darger's watercolors of young girls. On closer observation, some of Darger's little girls sported penises, and others appeared to be undergoing terrible ordeals.
"A lot of the pieces for me were difficult because the artist was troubled and institutionalized, I think," Riddle says. "But we took our third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to see it before the district came in and said we couldn't. We had taken our entire staff for an in-service day with that whole exhibit. Our teachers had some concerns with some of the sexually explicit pieces. Once I talked to the museum staff and expressed those concerns, we were able to avoid those areas that had the explicit pieces. We did not have a single bit of trouble."
Thornton says, though, that as a rule the museum cannot segregate works of art in anticipation of the school district's -- or anyone's -- objections, or cover or otherwise isolate certain pieces in an exhibition. "Requests like that can seem perfectly reasonable to some groups, but if we began to honor those requests, you can see how neurotic the whole system would become," she says. "In addition to the fact that we absolutely have no intention of participating in any sort of censorship."
The Dallas Museum of Art's Kathy Walsh-Piper, associate museum director for public programs, takes a more flexible view. A former teacher herself, Walsh-Piper says DMA curators often work with museum educators to prevent blindsiding an unsuspecting teacher with students in tow, or the families with young children that the museum actively cultivates. "We have put up notices sometimes," she says. "We had a Luis Jimenez show that had great things for kids, so you wouldn't want to exclude families. But there were a few sexual and violent pieces as well...The exhibition curator worked with me on that show and we put the things that were more sexual or violent in one room of the gallery, with a warning sign."
Beverly Fletcher gets the credit from some sources and the blame from others for pulling the plug on Fort Worth schoolchildren's planned visits to the two Modern Art Museum exhibitions. Fletcher directs the Fort Worth school district's art-education department, but she refused to discuss her decisions for this article. Fletcher will tell you anything else you want to know about the school district's extensive arts programming, its wealth of talented art teachers, or her 24 years with the district. She's credited with serving as the impetus for the district's aggressively going after and winning four out of the six available Getty/Annenberg grants in North Texas. But she's not discussing the museum situation.
"In the arts, our children experience much that we would like to see in all education," she says with conviction, changing the subject. "They are active and involved. They have a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration. They work with purpose and energy...Their capacity to think and imagine is increased."
Fletcher is lauded by art teachers as a dedicated innovator who never rests in her quest to keep the school system's art department on the leading edge of enlightened education. But she's faulted by some sources for letting her personal beliefs get in the way of objective decision-making. "She's very religious," one longtime associate who requested anonymity says. One insider says Fletcher had personal objections and couldn't stomach the general tone of the Bacon show. "She's in a very difficult position herself," another colleague confided. "I'm not sure she is actually calling the shots when it comes to these decisions. She has to answer to the top administration, to the parents, to the art teachers, to the museum staff, and, ultimately, to the students. It's a no-win situation. I wouldn't want to be in her shoes."
Stephens believes the debate is good for art. She advocates common sense when controversy invades the classroom, or when an effective arts program appears threatened by a few squeaky wheels. Sometimes the squeaking comes from the non-art teachers who are intimidated by art in general or too busy to preview a museum exhibition.
"Each school, each classroom, and each teacher is different," Stephens says. "They have to know their own culture and what their parents want and what they'll demand." She says that teachers who expand their own education and exposure to the arts will have the best chance to help students over any rough spots. "Teachers have to feel comfortable in a museum too. It's not just thinking about the kids."
Nudity, references to alternative lifestyles, or depictions of sex can require some explanations that go beyond what a typical teacher believes is his or her responsibility. Still, other teachers wonder whether all the worry is necessary. "Kids have been giggling over tits and ass in National Geographic magazine for decades," one teacher says. "You don't see a school district throwing those magazines out of the library, do you?"
Thornton says she's not sure whether the Fort Worth schools will participate in tours of the Modern's upcoming "2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II," an exhibit designed to be an introduction to the "mysterious and compelling" work of an artist who was part of the 1950s-'60s "Beat" movement. A review committee of two teachers, one parent, and one administrator will begin reviewing upcoming museum shows before Fort Worth classes can participate.
"I think at some point there will be parents within the district that will realize that something's been taken away from their child in order to accommodate the desires of other parents," Thornton says. "I think they'll speak up and realize that censorship has been at play and they didn't really know it. So at that point something will happen. You hope it happens sooner than later."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.