• Caitlan Read

Charcoal Art

One of my goals as an educator this year has been to bring more opportunities for creating visual art into our program. The forest provides a rich tapestry of colour, texture, sensation and movement, as well as interesting colours, endless tiny details as well as a satisfying order. All this lends itself naturally to developing our aesthetic sense. On the other hand, forest school presents some challenges for making art too - paper gets wet, glue and paint never dry, rainy weather makes working with our hands difficult, plus how the heck are we going to carry all this art back to our meeting spot while still having hands free for the challenging ups and downs of the canyon!? This year I was inspired by one of our previous teachers, Candice, to try working with charcoal in the forest. It's a natural material, the gathering of which presents an exciting opportunity for searching and connecting with the forest. With some sturdy paper in hand and a fortuitous cluster of rain-free days, the children in our classes delighted in the thrill of using found forest gifts to make art.

We first tried it with the three-year-olds. They were thrilled at the adventure of approaching the "lightening tree" where we collected the charcoal, and brought it back to our playspot to try out on white card stock. We talked about how the charcoal got there and wondered about whether children had encountered this material before - perhaps in a fire pit on a camping trip.

When first trying it out, some children noticed the different colours actually present in the material; rich browns and deep blacks, as well as soft greys and feathery mixtures of brown and black. They also seemed to delight in the sensory experience of the charcoal; some enjoyed the gritty, greasy texture of the material more than others.

One of the things I love about bringing visual art projects into the program is the opportunity for children to easily engage in an absorbing, creative, and quiet activity, either by themselves or in the company of their peers. Opportunities for quiet solo reflection do abound in the forest environment, but having something to focus upon, and to hold in one's hands can certainly act as a springboard for deeper consideration of the materials and elements in our hands.

One of the most inspiring aspects of our collaborative relationships as educators is how we have the opportunity to take each others' ideas and deepen or expand them in ways the we ourselves may never have considered. My dear colleague and friend Andrea did this when she brought an enormous sheet of paper to class and spread it out over one of the picnic tables at our meeting spot. Children then could work collaboratively or parallel while they tried out different pieces of the charcoal, each of which had its own unique qualities.

Our Tuesday morning group recently has been very interested in eagles. In acknowledgement of this, Andrea told a story about the wingspan of eagles, and measured and drew it out on a large sheet of paper on the ground. She then invited each child to lay their arms out on the draw-out wingspan, imagining what it would be like to have wings spreading out 6 feet or more! The children seemed to really enjoy this experiment, and I wondered about what they were thinking as they lay their arms out on this enormous drawing. We occasionally see and more often hear eagles flying through the forest in Lynn Canyon. We can often hear them "singing" in their curiously delicate and spine-tingling way. Their call always cuts through whatever else is happening in the moment, asking to look up, to marvel and appreciate their beauty and power.

The expression on each child's face is as unique and fascinating as they themselves are, reflecting the diversity of ways that children approached and experienced this activity. Some are intensely serious, seeming to focus sternly on the task of holding their arms as powerfully as an eagle's wings. Others have goofy or sweet expressions on their faces, perhaps delighting in the pretend, or of feeling embodied as an eagle. I had to wonder!

I feel grateful to be able to access and utilize this fascinating material, and the opportunities in holds for reflection on the natural history of the forest and the transformation of materials through fire and natural change.


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