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"She Knew I Would Be A Famous Artist" 

"My first-grade schoolteacher. She was very important to me because at the end of the first grade in Mooresville, Indiana -- which of course was John Dillinger's hometown, and I went to the same school that John Dillinger went to -- my teacher kept a couple of my drawings, saying that she wanted them because she knew that one day I would be a famous artist. And that's what happened." - Robert Indiana in a Sept. 2013 interview with Artspace

click to enlarge BLOUIN ARTINFO
  • Blouin ARTINFO

From Picasso to Puccini, researchers consistently link arts education to academic performance and the development of work-ready skills including critical thinking, collaboration, and motivation. Still, advocates for arts education work hard, in the age of standardized tests and competitive funding programs, to keep a bit of music, visual art and performance in the curriculum - to mixed results. Locally, we find examples in the autobiography of a famous artist and the programs of local nonprofits of how arts education isn't just a support to other goals, but a goal in and of itself.

For Indiana, who signed those first grade drawings with his original name "Bobby Clark," that teacher's encouragement was formative.

"That was quite a spur," he states in an interview with Blouin ARTINFO. "I couldn't disappoint her."

  • Indianapolis Art Center

He revisited her 40 years later. And she asked him to sign his pieces again, this time with his new name. Today, the images, depictions of domestic life with his mother and grandparents, can be found in his home and studio in Vinalhaven, Maine.

That encouragement is reflected in local art-focused programs, from Big Car's efforts in the far eastside to the art outreach programs of the Indianapolis Art Center. It's not always an easy task, especially when many young people might feel intimidated by the word "art" or uncomfortable with seeing themselves as artists.

"You're asking them to get personal, and to make something that never existed before, essentially to invent something, and then helping them see that they themselves are reflected in that creation," says Michelle Winkelman, Director of Outreach at the Indianapolis Art Center.

As much as there can be barriers to helping young people see themselves as artists, providing support and encouragement can be helpful. Many teachers use artwork as a launching point. Interestingly, kids' sculptures, drawings and paintings inspired by Robert Indiana's work can be found - readily - in schools and online. Ultimately, whether it is inviting children to depict their home lives, as little Bobby Clark did in the 1930s, or using masterpieces as creative sparks, art instructors have to engage young learners.

"You need to find the personal connection, the buy-in, or as one of our instructors calls it, 'the hook' - the really interesting thing that is going to make the kids go, 'Whoa!,'" says Winkelman.

After all, the next Robert Indiana could be in any classroom in the Circle City, just waiting for the support or "spur" to launch his art career.

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About The Author

Kirsten Eamon-Shine

Kirsten Eamon-Shine

Kirsten has written for a number of online outlets, a handful of nonprofits and a mighty little food truck. She was raised by a writer-photographer-editor and an engineer, both lovers of museums and books. In her spare time, she dances to vinyl records with her husband, son and two cats.

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