Art students get the lead (pencil) out

Art teacher Todd Marrone with self-portraits his eighth-grade students have created at Welsh Valley Middle School, Narberth. Students made grid scales on a photograph of themselves and on paper, and over time filled in the grid with pencil, box by painstaking box.


Paints are plentiful in Todd Marrone's modern Lower Merion classroom. Brushes? Pastels? Markers? Heavy, creamy paper? Available in abundance.

Unlike some art teachers, who struggle for resources to keep bare-bones programs afloat, Marrone and his colleagues at Welsh Valley Middle School in Narberth are lucky.

"The supplies are fabulous," said Marrone, a Starburst-tossing, game-playing, enthusiastic teacher whose frenetic energy sometimes outstrips his students'.

But Marrone, who has been teaching art in Lower Merion for a decade, wanted his eighth-grade students to embark on an ambitious project, something that challenged their perceptions, made them think of art and of themselves in a different way.

Using only No. 2 pencils, the students spent two months working on large self-portraits. They drew in a quiet room with the only classroom noise the soft hum of jazz music. The key component, though, Marrone said, was the most basic of art supplies.

"It's not traditionally considered an art material, but it was especially important to me because this is the same exact material that they're being forced to use to fill out bubbles for Scantron answer sheets and standardized testing," Marrone said.

The results of Marrone's making his students think outside the bubble are arresting: hallways full of young teenage faces drawn carefully in black and white, grouped together tightly on the wall - students smiling, mugging, looking straight ahead, looking pensive.

The process began late last year, when Marrone set students up by a window and snapped a photo of each.

"Some of them looked very confident, some of them not so secure with themselves," Marrone said. "Certain kids had braces and didn't want to show their teeth."

Next, the students made grid scales on 20-by-14-inch paper and on their photograph and began their self-portraits - box by painstaking box, focusing not on the picture itself but on the contents of each box.

There were plenty of protests that they weren't artists, Marrone said, and that the project required too much concentration, and that the subjects couldn't bear looking at themselves for two months.

But gradually, they came around - like Ella Cohen, 13.

"We didn't think we could do it, but we did it," Ella said with more than a little pride, pointing to the portrait she drew of herself, smiling slightly, dark hair loose around her face. "At first, I didn't like it, but now, it's OK."

Kristen Weigel, 14, agreed.

"I've never worked on anything this intense," Kristen said.

Evan Opall, 13, deemed the project both eye-opening and "cool."

"You didn't think it was going to turn out to look like you, but it did," he said.

Watching his students journey through that process was very satisfying, said Marrone, 32, himself an artist, with an edgy tattoo crawling up his arm and his classroom decorated, in part, with his own bold pop art pieces.

At first, he said, students had a tough time drawing themselves - "certainly there are plenty of identity issues for young adults."

But "it stopped being them at a certain point, and it started being a collection of values and shades. It almost helped them to get past any issues, conceptually or metaphorically. The subject ceased to exist and the components that made up the image became more important."

Poses and line quality told him much about his students.

"It's like handwriting analysis, but beyond that. Certainly you can tell a lot by the pose that they chose, and how hard they press, if they're willing to make really dark marks," Marrone said. "We talked a lot about embracing their own style."

And they drew parallels to and inspiration from contemporary American artist Chuck Close, who struggles with learning disabilities and since 1988 has been a quadriplegic, producing his large photorealistic portraits using a paintbrush held in his teeth.

Betsy Hurtado, 14, who loves to draw, found the project a welcome challenge - something quite different from what she typically confronts in her art classes.

Pencils "are harder because they smudge really easily, and we're not allowed to smudge them with our fingers because the grease affects the drawing. So to have to make the whole scale of light to dark with just a pencil is pretty difficult," Betsy said.

And then there was self-examination.

"You see a lot of your flaws," Betsy said. "I noticed different things - like when I smile, one of my eyes is more shut than the other."

Overall, though, Betsy was wowed by the experience.

"I thought it was a good project," she said. "I learned a lot."

That's all Marrone needs to hear.

"I didn't have to encourage them to do it - they really wanted to finish. Every one of them is wildly successful," he said.



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