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Every year, Gallery 360 hosts an exhibition of artwork from the R.J. Call Children’s Center, giving kids a professional artistic platform. The exhibition shows children that their hard work can be appreciated by an audience, and that it is ultimately worthy of respect. 


A theme for all mediums and all ages

Selected by the teachers, Shape in Art is this year’s theme. It’s intentionally broad, allowing for exploration across various media and skill levels.

At first the topic was an entry point into the basic building blocks of art. “We have really young kids this year,” said teacher and Center Assistant Director Lisa Holden, “So we started with making lines, which turned into curvy lines and zigzag lines, which turned into shapes. The theme organically started to happen as we were introducing the concept of art.”

Students at the Center range from 3 to 5 years old—each age is wildly different in terms of development and skill level—and so each project needs to be accessible to everyone in some way. 

“The younger kids could do easier, basic projects,” Holden said, “and we could delve deeper with some of the older kids. So you’ll see that in a lot of the projects: some are really intricate and use a lot of little pieces, and some are bigger and more basic. But we incorporated all the different skills and abilities, which is something that this topic really enabled us to do.” 



Learning through imitation

For the Children’s Center, creative projects are a hands-on way to learn about different art styles. Most of the children’s projects were inspired by famous artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Stanley Bermudez, Paul Klee, and Stanley Whitney. The kids studied the way each artist used shape in their work: from Yayoi Kusama’s iconic circles to the abstract compositions of Paul Klee. 

Thoughtfully curated by the teachers, these artists unlocked the wonders of art history for young learners.

“When we started the show way, way back,” said Children’s Center Director Lee Ann Burdick,  “it was mostly just Monet and Degas.”

“But we had to figure out how to bring more artists into the classrooms other than these artists that are very typical. So how are we going to bring in some culturally relevant artists into the classroom? This year, the teachers did a lot of research on different artists and the kind of work  they do around shape.”

For one project, students studied the work of Paul Klee, a German artist who was associated   with expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. The kids felt that his piece, Castle and Sun, looked like a cityscape, and they created their own abstract city inspired by it. 

Teachers also took kids to the Museum of Fine Arts—just down the street from Northeastern—to look for shapes in the art on view there. The kids were inspired by the quilts on view there, and even created one of their own. 

By the end of the year, students could quickly recognize the styles of these artists, even referencing them in conversation. 

“That’s everything,” Burdick said. “The kids walk around saying, ‘that looks like Reggie Laurent.’ Or ‘that looks like Yayoi Kusama.’ And they’re right!


New tools, new skills

Power tools might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of children’s art, but these young artists are capable of surprising things.

“There was one year that Grace had them using a drill,” Holden said. “Kids can use tools with supervision, and not just baby tools.”

Beyond the new tools, the kids got creative by repurposing standard materials in unexpected ways. “One of the other teachers did an amazing project using tape,” Holden said. “So the tape is the art. 

In another project, kids used tape to learn about the concept of negative space. They took the tape off at the end, and the shapes were left behind where the tape was removed. It’s a completely different way to think about using tape.

“I think that people don’t understand that children can learn these things and can create art,” Burdick said. But kids are endlessly imaginative and can pick up abstract concepts fairly quickly. 

It’s all about good facilitation. “The teacher isn’t going to tell them what to do.” Burdick said. “Instead, she wants them to really think about what’s happening. What kind of questions can we ask them to help trigger what they know? And then how do they represent that on paper?”

“Agency is something that I’m always thinking about,” Burdick said. “It’s a way for them to be free in the process. And that process is really important for us.”


Kids create curriculum 

At the Children’s Center, “Art is every day,” Burdick said, “But it’s really open-ended with the use of materials.” 

Activities range from mark-making and drawing at the writing center, to building things out with Play-Doh in the craft room. In every activity, kids are given a lot of agency and creative freedom to work on projects that are interesting to them. 

One of the projects on view at Gallery 360 is called Shapes in the City. And teachers didn’t even assign it. The idea originally came from the students. 

“We walk to the playground every day,” Holden said, “and on their daily walks, they started pointing out all the different shapes they had been finding. So this project kind of came organically from the kids starting to see all these shapes in nature and out in the world. We decided to turn it into a photography exhibit and let the kids photograph all the things that they had already been seeing.”

For the entire academic year, kids have been studying and identifying different shapes. So “they had a lot of knowledge of shape before they even left the building,” Burdick said. 

The kids would go to the playground and take pictures of what they saw. “Then they came back,” Burdick said, “and they would tell me where they took the picture and the shapes that they found. They were able to remember what they did, and there’s power in that. They know where the shapes are, and they know what they’re doing, and they were able to take the pictures themselves. So it’s their idea, their work.”

It’s a learning process for teachers, too. One time, a teacher expressed frustration that the project wasn’t turning out as expected. But part of teaching, Burdick said, is that “we have to let go of what we think the outcome might be. Art is a process, and I think that when we become very vested in the outcome, then it doesn’t leave the door open for what could be.”

“I think that the more open we are with the process, then the more open kids can be to be free to explore.”

In that process of exploration, kids can even teach each other. “One kid just didn’t know how to make it,” Burdick said. “But another kid said, ‘It’s easy. I’ll show you how.’ So a teacher wasn’t even involved in that process. But here’s a kid, feeling a little anxious, saying ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and his friend helped him.”


A professional artistic platform

The best part of it all? Seeing the kids feel confident in their artistic abilities when the show goes up.

“Once the lights get put on, that’s a magical moment for us,” Holden said. “It looks so different in that professional space.”

“All of these kids now refer to themselves as artists. And as they’re seeing the art in the museum, they know that their art is going to be treated and respected in the same way. It’s going to be viewed in a gallery. And that’s really meaningful to the kids.”

“I was amazed at what they came up with,” Burdick said. “It amazes me every year.”