Sunny Squares in Three Oaks

On a sunny Wednesday in October, MB’s historic art studio busily hums with the sound of conversation and snipping scissors. Sarah Barnum, lower school art teacher, is introducing students to the concept of Notan squares, which explore the intersection of dark and light, of positive and negative space.

These fifth-graders tackled this foundational concept in fourth grade; now their practice is being pushed even further. “I want them to think about the space between things,” Sarah says, an appropriate idea for students who are on that transition line between lower and middle schools.  

Sarah starts class sharing a few examples of what can be created with a piece of white paper, a black square, a few sharp tools – and imagination. A variety of shapes and stories emerge from the squares on the table, through a process of drawing simple designs on a square black box, cutting out shapes, and then gluing new pieces in place. Naveen ambitiously attempts to cut out his name. The artistic output occasionally evokes the times of year: one student makes a spooky face, another a wall of slime. Some students keep their designs in a tight grid on the paper; others go wildly beyond the original parameters of their starting boxes. A few students consider their results and decide to create more than one, moving on to try their hand at a more complex design.

Sarah circles the class, observing, pointing out, answering questions. If students finish early, they can draw in their sketch journals, joining in the annual #inktober art challenge underway in the lower and middle schools.

Fifth grade artists are challenged to master creative techniques, constructively criticize their own efforts, and work with classmates in a cooperative, respectful atmosphere. Art classes follow the studio model, with a brief period of instruction followed by individual or group work. The Naton project exposes students to early discussions of graphic design and the fundamentals of composition. As these students move through the fifth grade curriculum and onto middle school, they’ll find an extensive menu of fine arts opportunities available to them.

Meanwhile, through the open door, sun streams in, letting the beautiful fall day come inside.