Connecting students with art through tactile learning

Touching art
Denali Blackwell and Aaron Callos gently touch the surface of a painting on an adjustable easel set up last month in the lobby at Sterling Elementary School. The easel, donated by John Clare, allows educators to display artwork at students’ height. Students are encouraged to touch the work and to work through lesson plans set up at a table next to the art.

The thick brush strokes, vivid blues and greens, stand up on the canvas, turning its surface into a tactile landscape just as interesting to the fingertips as it is to the eyes. 


At least, that’s what administrators at Sterling Elementary School in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District say of a new art project that has been sitting in the lobby of the school with no barrier between the painting and the curious fingers of students. 

“To see the kids actually touching the artwork when they realized they were allowed to touch it and feel it — it was amazing to watch how much time the children would spend with the paintbrush in their hands, pretending to paint that image,” said Sterling Elementary School Principal Christine Ermold. 


“It really seemed to spark an excitement and joy and enthusiasm for art that is sometimes difficult to come by in that spontaneous moment.”

The painting, one of two now being rotated into the project, sits on an easel built by John Clare, a district vision specialist. 

Clare bought the original painting, a river scene complete with riverboat and kids fishing barefoot, at Bishop’s Attic in Kenai in the spring. 

“I thought, I’m going to buy this thing and I’m going to put it in a school,” he said. “It’s cheap enough, I’m going hang it so that kids can touch it and feel what brush strokes and stretched canvas feel like. I love art and painting and it has bothered me that ... original art is hard to come by. Kids aren’t exposed to it at home and we never have it in the schools.”

Clare said his work with blind people played a large role in the structure of the activity at Sterling. 

“Blind kids, if they’re really blind ... like they can’t see anything, they struggle with concepts that you and I take for granted,” he said. “If I talk about a sports car we know what a sports car looks like. We’ve got a mental concept of what a sports car looks like, a blind kid knows that race cars go fast, but they don’t know — they have no concept of what it looks like.”

So, Clare fills in conceptual gaps with experience and tactile sensation. 

“We learn a lot through touch. Heck, we’d be in a world of hurt if we couldn’t touch everything we saw, but art is always ‘don’t touch it.’ Even sculpture, we get scolded if we touch that,” he said. “We miss out on that tactile experience and it has an impact on how we learn and perceive the world.”

Clare said when he set the painting up, the effect was almost immediate. 

“A class walked by ... they were supposed to walk in one line and be quiet, but the second they saw it they stopped and their jaws dropped and they were hypnotized,” he said. “A few minutes later a little girl walked by, she was headed to the office, and she saw that painting and she veered off to it and stood there for three or four minutes and just stared at it. I thought ‘man that’s just what I wanted.’ That’s what I wanted to see.”

A small can of paintbrushes, a pitcher of water, and a piece of construction paper sit on a table near the painting. 

Students can use dry brushes to imitate strokes on the painting itself, or they can use wet brushes on the construction paper to see how their brush strokes affect the surface. 

Ermold said the lack of structure with the activity has drawn people to the painting to touch the canvas as they wait to pick up their students. 

Community members have also been inspired to expose students to their own art. 

“We’re getting all of these other offers of willingness to lend art so kids can experience other pieces up close,” Ermold said. “It makes beautiful visual art more accessible, more real to them. It just opens doors.”

This semester, she has added a painting of her own to the project, one she found in her parent’s attic. 

Her contribution, an impressionist’s nature scene, has drawn different reactions from student’s who remember Clare’s piece. 

“One of my kids, when she walked by it, she stopped and said ‘I could do that.’ She saw the detail of the steamboat in the other picture and it intimidated her,” Ermold said. “Kids oftentimes get disappointed in art when they can’t create something exactly like what they see in their heads. In that way, this particular piece of art has been a good inspiration to kids because, you know, here’s a beautiful image that isn’t as precise, they can imitate it.”

The two paintings are headed for Seward Elementary School next, and a principal there will add a third painting to the set. 

Ermold said she was excited to see the collection grow and potentially travel throughout the district. 

“We really emphasize the philosophy that art is all around us,” Ermold said. “I feel passionately that when students can recognize that art is all around them — that art is an incorporated piece of their live, in every facet of their every day living — they learn to appreciate life more.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at


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