For parents and educators concerned about the dearth of art in an under-funded school system, Learning to See is one way to reintegrate it into the curriculum. The art education program, run by Focus on the Masters, takes the local art experience into the classroom, teaching students about color, composition, sculpture, drawing and more, using the work of Ventura County artists to demonstrate concepts. Hands-on projects, inspired by contemporary artists from the area, are designed to make art accessible for students and give them a new way of looking at creativity, as both consumers and creators.

“We really try to emphasize students using their eyes, looking at what they’re doing,” explains Aimee French, Learning to See’s youth outreach program coordinator.

Learning to See grew out of a county program, Artist in the Classroom, which Donna Granata taught in the early 1990s. She brought the educational model to Focus on the Masters when she founded the art appreciation and documentation nonprofit in 1994. French became program coordinator in 2011. Over an eight-week course, or “residency,” French spends an hour each week focusing on one artist and his or her technique or materials. Students explore mixed media and symbolism while they learn about Bob Privitt, attempt contour line drawings inspired by wildlife artist Lindsay Scott or make their own pigments à la textile artist Michael Rohde. Chemistry, history, biology, literature and even music might be incorporated into a lesson as well.


Photo by: Aimee French
Young Nadala at Pointsettia Elementary
feels good about her drawing. Well done!

Individuals featured are culled from FOTM’s extensive list of documented artists, and a short PowerPoint presentation includes biographical information, influences and images of their work.  “We talk about the artists that live and work in Ventura County,” says French. “We talk about their observational skills, and also the experiences that made them an artist.” Many featured artists come from impoverished backgrounds, or experienced hardships that inspired and informed their work. French finds that sharing this kind of information can be empowering for students. “Many of my students have had rough times in their lives,” she says. “And some of these are the same stories we’ve told about our artists. They are people just like you and me. This great artist could be you one day!”

Nurturing a young Picasso or O’Keeffe might be one benefit of Learning to See, but French is quick to point out that cultivating talent isn’t the point of the program. Its emphasis is creative and critical thinking skills and decision-making; artistic aptitude is not a requirement. “It’s more about process than product,” she explains. “My goal is to help them see things in a way that they had never seen them before, to keep their minds open to possibilities.”

A standard Learning to See lesson plan is geared toward fourth- and fifth-graders, but can be customized to fit the needs of any age group (including grownups: a series of adult evening courses are planned starting Sept. 18). Eight weeks of art education are not free, but the price is meant to be affordable. The cost for a school or youth center to bring the program in is $450, which includes all teaching materials, art supplies and instruction. According to French, many schools hold a fund raising campaign or use PTA/PTO funds, although individuals and families have also “gifted” a Learning to See residency to schools. Schools that have taken advantage of Learning to See’s program have found it a valuable addition to a curriculum starved of the arts. But most importantly, its students have been able to explore and appreciate art in their own unique ways.

“I try to really instill that confidence,” French says, “to help them find and express their own voice. I love to see the surprises! And that’s a gift to me.” 

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