Designing an arts education

When Chelsea Middle School students step into Jill Tolbert’s art classroom, they might pick up paintbrushes and pencils to form their creative masterpieces.

There’s just as good a chance, however, that those works of art will be created using a digital camera and a few clicks of a mouse.

“I teach them graphic design because that’s what I know,” Tolbert said. “I believe these kids need both. You can’t draw on a computer until you can draw with a pencil.”

Before coming to CMS last year, Tolbert taught community college courses in graphic design for 10 years. That experience gave her a broader perspective and taught her to appreciate her middle school students, she said.

“I had a lot of people come to me when I taught community college-these were these kids’ parents-and their kids knew more about computers than they did,” Tolbert said. “Middle school is hard. It’s the most challenging, but it’s the most rewarding.”

Besides graphic design, Tolbert teaches digital photography, sculpting, drawing, painting and making 3-D art. The school also has two kilns to fire students’ pottery.

Her students learn the basics of art in sixth- and seventh-grade, and then those that choose to take an advanced art elective in eighth-grade move to more advanced art techniques.

Eighth-grader Ashley Lott said she chose to take the elective because she’s always enjoyed creating art pieces. While making digital art is fun, she much prefers more traditional art methods.

“I like making stuff with clay and drawing. I’d like to use a pottery wheel,” she said. “I like what we’re doing now, making the (3-D) cubes. We get to choose what we want to draw.”

Students like Lott are easy to like because they’re already enthusiastic about art, Tolbert said. However, it’s the students that haven’t tapped into their creative side that fuel her fire.

“They’re the ones who are the challenge, and it’s fun to try to get a smile on their faces,” she said. “Part of the reason I love middle school is because you can still change their minds. By high school, they’re set in stone.”

CMS principal Bill Harper said once students understand the basics of art, they can use different media to create whatever they want.

“What we want to do is give them the opportunity to use digital art to expand their art skills,” he said.

The CMS art classroom was renovated last year, and donations made the graphic design lessons possible.

Tolbert said learning about the available technology is essential for her students to be able to function well in society.

“Whether or not they want to do this as a career, they need to know how to do it. That’s the world we live in,” she said.

However, a creative career isn’t so far-fetched in today’s world.

“There are so many art-based careers out there. It’s not just painting or drawing anymore. I want them to understand that,” Tolbert said.