The Michelangelo Project

Love, magic and art each have their place in the classroom


There is a love and a magic that takes place between my almost 500 preschool art students and myself. When I come into the classroom of a Head Start school, the little children radiate love for me and I return the love.

I feel blessed.

Onto the middle of a low table I place a large mound of wood scraps that have been donated by such sources as guitar makers and picture framers, and that have then been manicured in my studio to fit tiny hands. I call five students to our table and give each of them an armature. I write the student’s name on the bottom, give the student a small squeeze bottle of Weldbond glue, and we begin.

“Everybody watch Diego and me. We are going to make wood sculptures this morning!” I put a bit of glue on a piece of wood chosen from the mound, place it on the armature and say, “Put it on, Diego, put it on! OK, let’s put a piece on the other side.” We do that. Then I’ll say, “OK, Diego, now you choose one. This one? Walnut, very nice. Where do you want it to go? There? Very good. You have a good sense of composition! Here is your glue, and you can use anything on the table to make your sculpture.” I’ll go on to the next student. Soon, I’ll have all five of them making assemblages.

As they work, I continually walk around the table helping. I keep a wet cloth with me to keep the glue off the table and off their little hands. They hold up a hand and say, “Ooh, sticky.” I’ll place a tiny, brown, soft hand in my big, white, old, scarred one and wipe off the offending glue. Every time I do this, I am overcome with the sweetness of it, the love and the trusting of it.

Some children work fast, some are minimalists, some are baroque. Some spend most of the hour at the table. All are individual, all have great talent to be nurtured. Some are troubled, some are very happy, some chatter to me in English and some have no English at all, but we all speak the language of sculpture.

The children’s small sculptures are quite substantial, and are usually, if the gluing technique I teach is absorbed by their young minds, not fragile. After a day of drying, their creations are taken home where they are valued. Teachers making home visits will report that a child’s 3-D works and reliefs are displayed all over the house. When students complete a sculptured work, I always thank them for their hard work and tell each child, “What a fine artist you are!”

Nurturing self-esteem, talent, the art impulse in humanity, as well as fine motor skills and spatial relationships is very important for four- and five-year-old people. They are just beginning to make their way in the world, and this kind of nurturing increases their personal depths. Creativity is a most human form of behavior. Children—and adults for that matter—shrivel without having a chance of expressing it.

Art is a very cerebral business. It is all about making judgments and decisions. Every brush stroke, every placement, is a decision. My little students get to see their decisions and judgment calls manifest before their eyes. Seeing one’s thoughts take shape imparts courage and self-confidence that can enrich a lifetime of decision-making and judgment calls.

All art is self-portrait; living is an art form. All our lives, in our work and the way we choose to live, we create a self-portrait.

Sculpture is about form, about shape. A sculpture is a three-dimensional object that can stand alone or be hung on a wall. Abstract sculpture, which is what I teach and share with the Head Start children, doesn’t represent anything. Its strength is in itself. Thinking in the abstract is wonderful mental calisthenics.

When I first began teaching this project seven years ago, I asked the teachers if there was a Spanish word for “sculpture.” The closest they could get was a word for “statue.” That not really being what we do, I continued to use the word “sculpture,” and now the students and the teachers use the word and understand the concept. This is a unique experience for all of us.

Tomorrow, I will spend the afternoon in my studio cutting down frame corners for small hands and making armature components that I will glue together for the next group of tiny, fabulous artists. For every hour in the classroom, I prep three hours.

To show appreciation and to encourage donations, I’ve made up a form thanking each business by name and giving Head Start’s nonprofit tax number for those businesses that wish to take their donations off their taxes. And so we are all happy.

Charles Churchill is a Sonoma County artist.

Sonoma County Library