Making Art in Schools Possible

Ceramic artist Coreen Abbott demonstrates throwing a large pot at a workshop in Malta (Villa Bologna)

Ceramic artist Coreen Abbott demonstrates throwing a large pot at a workshop in Malta (Villa Bologna)

C.I.A.O. is a unique art program offered by the Museo Italo Americano and is available for all San Francisco middle schools. The name of the program is very easy to remember: Children’s Italian Art Outreach (CIAO). The program started back in 1982, when the Museo was located in North Beach, on the 3rd floor of Casa Fugazi, on Green street. C.I.A.O. originated from the creative mind of Paola Bagnatori, the present Managing Director of the Museo Italo Americano. At that time, several classes used to visit the Museo regularly. They were shown the current exhibit and then given an educational tour of North Beach which, often times, ended up with a tasty snack at an Italian bakery.  
In 1995, when the Museo was already in its present-day location at Fort Mason, the classes were invited to enjoy live musical or dramatic presentations, such as Amahl and the Night Visitor, by Giancarlo Menotti, and live performances of Commedia dell’Arte.
This program was established to help compensate for the lack of art education in San Francisco schools due to critical budget restrictions in California’s elementary and middle schools. It has been bringing Italian art and culture to students of fourth through eighth grade in the San Francisco Bay Area public and private schools.  Today, due budget limitations, the C.I.A.O. program is offered only to middle school students as Renaissance and Roman era projects complement their curriculum. C.I.A.O offers free art classes directly in schools with a teacher provided and financed by the Museo’s general fund with the contribution of the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation.
The art teacher provided by the Museo is Coreen Abbott, MFA, a ceramic artist, who has developed several projects which complement the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade curriculum, and introduces each project by putting it into historical context and stressing the importance of ancient art to our life today. 
Coreen, when and how did you start working on the C.I.A.O. program?
I met with and was hired by Paola Bagnatori, the Museo’s director, in the winter of 1996. Amazing, almost 19 years ago! I had just returned to San Francisco from living in the Italian Ceramic center, Faenza, located south of Bologna. Paola had posted their search for an instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute which was my MFA Alma Mater. I had never taught children before but Paola’s enthusiasm was fuel for optimism. Although I’ve been a working artist since 1976 my passion is Art History and especially Italian Art History. She and I brainstormed projects till I could mold them into something educational and fun for students in grades 4th through 8th.
What are the main topics you teach in your classes?
The topics include: The Ghiberti Doors and the Early Renaissance, through which the students learn how to reconstruct the second of Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors using techniques such as bas-relief and perspective; The Trajan’s Column and the Roman Empire; Art techniques of the Renaissance; Fundamentals of Portraiture, which includes the practice of the grid method which has been used for centuries to transfer and enlarge images; Unification of Italy and its 20 regions, and The Middle Ages, which sees the students working individually to collectively produce a mural reproduction of a painting of Giotto. 
How do you organize your art lessons, and what do you mainly focus on, when you are in class with your students?
I go into each classroom three times: I work on 1 1/2 hour blocks of time in 2 classrooms each day then return 2 more times.
The first class begins with a Power Point presentation on the topic for about 30- 45 minutes. The following visits begin with a review of the essential points of the art, history and project covered in the first class. We then dive into the project. Most of the projects require the students to work individually then brought together to for a collaborative final project. I’ll often give demonstrations of techniques and reminders to help students stay focused on the topic. Depending on the project, I’ll demonstrate a formal art making technique. For example, because the Ghiberti Doors highlight the beginning of the Renaissance and the use of perspective, I go into how to use One Point Perspective. The competition that Ghiberti participated in in Florence in 1401 is a wonderful vehicle to show students how composition in 2 dimensional form or bas relief can have such a significant effect on how the elements in a piece of artwork is viewed and the impact it will have on its audience. This is one of my favorite projects to teach because here in San Francisco we have one of the first castings of Ghiberti’s second set of doors on Grace Cathedral. The original are housed in Florence’s Duomo Museum and a later casting is on the East Doors of the Baptistery of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Coreen Abbott’s students at Our Lady of the Visitation School showing their Trajan’s Column and the Roman Empire project

Do you work alone or in a team?
For the past 2 years it’s always been my assistant MaryAnn Buxton and I. Her strengths are organization and engineering. We balance each other well.
Previous to MaryAnn, I had occasional partners. Looking back I don’t know how it was possible to work alone. The students get so much more from having us both there.
Finally, what are you mostly inspired by when teaching?
Probably by the students. By 7th and 8th grade they’re becoming so self-conscious that they’re more interested in technique and making things look good. The younger students have an easier time leaving the constraints of trying to fit in. It’s a joy going to a school that has recognized the need to facilitate creativity and tactile learning rather than only academics and testing. One aspect of art I like to stress in the classroom is that art is not magic or only an activity for certain people born with the natural ability to draw; just as any athlete or musician may have a predisposition for hand eye coordination it still requires training with an instructor and lots of practice. Beyond learning art techniques I want to facilitate creativity. Some view art classes as play time but there is much more to making and understanding art. A good teacher can encourage creativity and invention which are valuable abilities no matter what fields a student chooses in their various life pursuits.

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