by Kim Smith
Three years ago, I spent a year as an artist-in-residence in a Montessori classroom of three- to six-year-olds. I was really surprised the first time I walked into the space, expecting a chaotic, messy room, run amok with screaming kids—much as I remember my own preschool experience. Instead, it was a quiet and peaceful place. The children were deeply engaged in their lessons—either sitting at small tables or on rugs—and the teacher spent more time observing than speaking. Their classroom was thoughtfully ordered with shelves of simple and beautiful learning materials that I found absolutely stunning. These materials were like little minimalist sculptures—reduced forms, devoid of extraneous color or pizazz.
During my time at the preschool, I made art alongside the children and I set up environments for them to make art. The latter is actually a very challenging idea—one which I spent six years in art school trying to figure out. How do you create the limits necessary in order to yield the greatest freedom of expression? In some of my first attempts at this, I would naively bring in paints of every color of the rainbow along with all the brushes I could find. I suppose I thought that was helpful for the kids, providing numerous options for unlimited exploration. But the result was a pile of muddy paint, most of which was all over the table, floor, and their clothes; all the colors smeared into horrible brown blobs as I frantically tried to reign in the chaos I had created.
The head of school, a wise woman with few words rarely above a whisper, said to me, “Paint with only water first.”
And for me, this was at the core of a key lesson about the Montessori Method: scaffold by isolating the most basic steps that comprise a more complex skill.
In art school, I had this painting teacher who would make us paint horizontal lines with sumi ink for three hours at a time. Just lines, only in black ink, over and over, until the room was covered in sheets of striped paper. What was the value of this? Paintings of black lines, while beautiful in their own right, were not the ultimate goal. We did this for both the process of creating it, and for the future work that it would yield.
I think of this exercise in a couple different ways. First, we were learning how to control a painted line, which is a difficult thing to do, requires a lot of experience, and is relevant no matter what kind of painter you are. But the other part of this, the part that reminds me of Montessori, is the act of creating a thoughtful and meditative experience that allows one to concentrate and engage completely in a single activity. I think the space of mental clarity that this activity creates and the focus that it builds is relevant, no matter what you love to do.
It’s challenging amidst the process to see the value of this kind of work—work that is not about creating the masterpiece, but rather creating the person capable of making the masterpiece.
But children don’t really think about all this; they just dive right in.
So, in the Montessori classroom, I had the children start by painting lines of water onto flat stones. After we painted with water on rocks for a week or so, the teacher suggested I give the children one color of paint. So, the following week, I gave each of them a tiny dab of white paint, one brush, and a sheet of dark blue paper.
Their paintings were beautiful. The constraints allowed for pure, sincere expression. This allowed them to do what children do best—create without inhibition. Remember, it wasn’t their first time using a paintbrush. They had pushed their limits with the water and stones, learned the delicate control of moving a brush, and then experienced the freedom of using the paint.