JUNEAU — We typically think of encouraging kids to draw as a way to stimulate their inner artists. Kathy Hocker also sees it as a great way to stimulate their inner scientists.
Younger students at Gastineau Community School recently learned through working with Hocker, a scientific illustrator, that there is a rich area of overlap between art and science, two disciplines that are often viewed as unrelated.
One point where they converge is in the importance of careful observation.
“In a sense — and this sounds kind of strange — this almost isn’t art,” Hocker said in reference to her work in the classroom. “It’s real. It’s observation. But it’s the foundation for good art.”
Even abstract artists like Picasso were fabulous draftsmen who knew very well the importance of an accurate drawing, Hocker said.
“I personally feel that even in good abstract art there’s some element of truth in there. There’s something true that you’re connecting to. You may not recognize it on the surface, but it’s resonating because there’s something true in it.”
Getting to a true-to-life image — which can involve moving past preconceived ideas and symbolic representations of what the natural world looks like — is one of the challenges of presenting scientific illustration to kids, Hocker said.
In Jenny Lund’s second grade classroom at Gastineau recently, Hocker modeled an approach to dealing with preconceived ideas about shape and form. As she sketched a demonstration drawing of that day’s subject, a taxidermy duck borrowed from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, she asked the students for advice.
Prior to beginning the drawing, Hocker sat quietly with the students and talked about the taxidermy duck, fielding curious questions from the excited yet polite young crowd.
The taxidermy duck is only one of many models Hocker likes to use in the classroom. Other subjects the students have been focusing on include feathers, bones and blueberry stems.
After an initial discussion about the subject, Hocker usually sketches in front of the students, hoping to anticipate any difficulties they may encounter, and then sets them up to make their own sketches, based on what they see in front of them.
To help make a clear distinction between scientific illustration and more interpretive art projects, she has the kids keep a science notebook specifically reserved for science illustrations. The notebook is filled with true-to-life sketches as well as notes and questions the young artists come up with while drawing — questions that may prompt further study.
Hocker said though the kids’ drawings are often amazing, she tries to keep the focus more on what is learned through the process.
“To me, science drawing is about what you learn while you’re drawing, what you notice while you’re drawing,” she said. “We end up with lovely drawings ... but a lot of it is all about, ‘Oh my gosh, I never noticed that it has sharp teeth,’ or ‘Wow, that duck has a big white spot behind its eyes. I never would have noticed that if I hadn’t been drawing.”’
Hocker, formerly a naturalist with Discovery Southeast, received a degree in scientific illustration from the University of California at Santa Cruz (the program has since moved to California State University at Monterey Bay). Through the Artists in the Schools program she’s traveled all around the state teaching kids the basics of her art, including to Seldovia, Bethel and villages in the Lower Kuskokwim school district.
Hocker’s residency at Gastineau was three weeks; her last day was Friday. Next she’ll head to Gustavus.
The Artists in the Schools Program is managed by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and the Rasmuson Foundation. Through the program, visual and performing artists take residencies in schools throughout the district and the state. Schools can select artists for residencies from a statewide roster of artists who have been trained to teach in the classroom.
“It’s a really good opportunity for artists,” Hocker said.
Gastineau first-grade teacher and Artists in the Schools liaison Luann McVey said the program is also a great opportunity for the schools — not just for the students but for the teachers, who can pick up new skills and figure out new ways to integrate art into their lesson plans.
“It’s so great for us in the schools to have real artists in the schools that we can watch while they’re doing their work and learn different aspects of different art forms from them. The kids can and we can too,” McVey said.
Hocker led a workshop for teachers as part of her residency, which primarily focused on “getting teachers excited about drawing.”
McVey said the school was also very interested in the idea of the science notebooks, where students can record their observations in writing and through drawings. The notebooks promote the idea of integrated learning, she said, combining science, art, language and writing in a way that kids respond to.
“The more integrated we can be, the better it is for the kids,” McVey said. “It makes so much more sense to kids when they can tie their own experience into the content.”
McVey plans to use science notebooks for the next unit she will be teaching in her class, on live animals.
Gastineau doesn’t have a regular art teacher, but roving Elementary Art Specialists Nancy Lehnhart and Mimi Walker Medenica come to the school throughout the year. Lehnhart and Medenica, who were recently awarded with a Mayor’s Award for the Arts for their work in the schools, work with all the schools in the district to provide instruction and premade kits for teachers to use throughout the year.
The Artists in the Schools program provides schools with a more in-depth look at a particular art form through the work of one particular artist, who usually spends several weeks at the school.
Hocker said she adjusts her lessons plans to accommodate the teachers’ curricula when she can and keeps the state standards in mind.
“I try to make it dovetail with the Alaska standards for art and science, particularly science inquiry,” she said. “The standards that teach you that being a good scientist is being a careful observer, and keeping records of what you see.”
In addition to teaching in all the kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms at Gastineau, Hocker set up a studio in a common area of the school so kids could come by and watch her work.
Like all engaging teachers, Hocker’s success is likely due in part to her clear enthusiasm for her work. Her first words to Lund’s second graders last Thursday made it clear that scientific illustration is more than a profession -- it’s a passion.
“I love drawing animals. It’s one of my favorite things to do,” Hocker began, as the kids sat quietly around her.
Hocker said as kid she loved to draw — particularly from observation — but also had strong interest in science. She could never decide which field to pursue and wasn’t sure how they could be combined.
While in college, she happened to walk into a room where a woman was doing a science drawing of a beetle — prompting something of an “ah ha” moment for Hocker.
“I didn’t really realize (scientific illustration) was an option,” she said.
Hocker, who also keeps up several freelance writing jobs and is currently working on illustrating a kids’ book, said the rewards of teaching kids are many and varied.
“I love when I’m walking around the room and suddenly the noise level goes down, and I didn’t have to ask for that to happen, it just sort of naturally goes down because they’re starting to focus in and they’re excited about what they’re observing.”
“I love it when kids come up to me and say, ‘Look what I noticed!”’
“I love it when you get to watch kids have those moments of discovery.”