Sam Kelly is a Brooklyn-based artist and kindergarten educator. Recently, her class collaborated to create a beautifully bizarre book called "Mister Nobody". We couldn't resist asking Sam to share some background into the project and some thoughts on how language, art, and community can coalesce to deepen meaning for children.
One of the wonderful things about being a teaching artist is that I have a lot of freedom to try out new approaches. Since my attention span is roughly equal to that of the preschoolers I teach, this suits me well. I work hard to make sure none of us gets bored. I had never guided my students in collaborative art-making quite like this book. It was an experiment that, luckily, worked out!
I wanted to see if I could get my students to give up the urge to compete with their classmates, if only for a few afternoons, and see what kind of awesome things we could make if we worked in cooperation. How many times have I heard a child boast that he's better than another student, or that a teacher liked his work more, or that he could do something another student couldn't? My students are in preschool and kindergarten; they have their whole lives ahead of them to spend worrying about what other people think! I thought it would be refreshing to use one another's interests and abilities as community resources, rather than treating them as personal property to be fiercely guarded.
So we set up several stations with paint, crayons, scissors, glue, and paper. Students could choose which station to go to—this was a Montessori style I based on my own preschool education from so many years ago. Can't work a pair of scissors yet? No worries, Jonah loves cutting paper; he'd be happy to do it for you. Don't want to get your hands messy with paint? No problem. You're going to make a crayon rubbing on this piece of paper, and when Shanaza gets her painty little hands on it, it's going to look awesome. If you decide that painting looks like fun, I bet Davis would trade seats with you and give you a shot at the ol' watercolors. After every pass at a particular station, the paper was returned to our community bin, where it would cease to belong to any one artist, becoming instead a collaborative work in progress.
Before we knew it, we had piles and piles of beautiful painted paper; tons of little animals, each drawn by one student, then lovingly painted and cut out by others; abstract shapes and plant shapes; we even had a mermaid comprised of many tiny pieces. Maybe I imagined it, but to me the best part was the spirit of camaraderie that the students seemed to share. I heard compliments flowing freely, and students remarking favorably on additions made to "their" pieces. I saw students experimenting with the materials and teaching others their findings.
Prior to this workshop, we'd read books together and discussed how the artists made the pictures. We'd talked about characters and each student had invented a character of their own. This is a friend of the monster Casera, being monster-napped by a bird.
When it came time to write our book, we discussed how to include each of our characters in the final book. The students decided they'd each make a page showing where their characters live—hard to break out of that individualistic mindset after all! They went to work, using the paper we'd all worked on together. A few students made environments that overlapped—on Sunny the fish's page, for example, you can see a bush where Whiskers the cat lives. In this early character sketch, you can see that Whiskers and Sunny go way back.
When the students had all finished their pages, I interviewed each child about the place they'd created, getting them to talk more about the history of the characters and how they relate to the environments. This part of the process was so important for these beginning readers, because it was getting them familiar with the concept of a narrative and instilling a connection between these verbal descriptions and written stories. When you read the book, the descriptions of places and characters you'll encounter are taken straight from those interviews, and some are so delightfully odd!
In the end, I became a collaborator as well. The images my students made, and the stories they told, made my brain buzz with possibility. As I worked with these images, a larger story came to me that would incorporate the descriptions and characters given to me. I wanted to weave a narrative through these images, so I centered the story around the mysterious Mister Nobody. That character was compelling in his utter difference from the others. While nearly all the characters seemed happy and kind, Mister Nobody wore a scowl and, even his creator admitted, just seemed so mean! I found myself wondering why Mister Nobody was so unhappy, when I realized his isolation could help tell our story of collaboration and connections.
To find out what happens to Mister Nobody and see the rest of the class's beautiful work, see the whole book at Samkellyart.com!
For more behind the scenes pictures of the "Mister Nobody" project, follow Home Grown Books on Instagram. To see Sam Kelly's own work, as well as her teaching portfolio, visit her websiteSamkellyart.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Also, check out my blog about Sara Woster's Children's Book Week Event at Hiho Batik, where Sara read My Walk and Night Light (both books from her book pack) and talked about the process of making the paintings for her books. The participating kids were able to see (and touch!) Sara's original oil paintings for her books before beginning their experimental painting activity.