The Purpose of Art Education

By Sarah Riley, Ceramics Teacher

Studio art skills teach students how to engage wholeheartedly in the art of living by challenging them to slow down enough to notice the intricacies of their world, practice patience, create, and reflect.

As I began writing about the role of art in education, I revisited my teaching philosophy statement from my application to Field five years ago, I thought about my Project Based-Learning (PBL) curriculum design over the last year, and I recalled the art education theories that I learned in undergrad and am currently studying in graduate school. I realized that it’s one thing to think about art in education from a theoretical perspective, another thing to put those ideas into practice in a classroom, and an entirely different thing to understand what a student is taking away from their experience in the studio.  

Each day, my classes begin with a mindful minute of drawing or writing to help students spend a quiet moment with themselves and prepare to engage in their creative art practice. I've been looking to make these theoretical ideas in my mind more concrete, so today, I asked my students to respond to the question, "What's the purpose of taking an art class during the school day?" Some students drew their ideas and others wrote about them. An exciting conversation sparked in one of my functional pottery classes. 

The students got out their projects and continued the conversation. Evan '23 mentioned that art projects make you practice problem-solving and that creative problem solving is a skill that can be trained and practiced over time and is essential to discovering solutions to big and complex issues in society. Sometimes a lack of confidence, or unknowing, about where to go with their work is part of the artistic process and allows students to learn how to be comfortable in the uncomfortable land of the unknown. They have to practice constantly, learn to pivot when issues arise, observe and evaluate outcomes, and implement creative solutions to determine their next steps. Later that day, Spencer '23 and Misgana '24 collaborated on their water feature sculpture. They're working together to create a figurative sculpture of a woman holding a bowl with water spilling out of it. They were moving and stretching their bodies to act out the form they hoped to create while trying to identify potential structural or balance issues before they got started on the form. I bet they'll have to continue solving structural problems once they begin sculpting the clay. 

Paul '22 said that art is important in education because the process of making art prompts introspection and that self-awareness is essential for people as they grow and change. I watch students learn to look closely at their work, ask questions of themselves and others, and evaluate progress to determine when the work has met its purpose. Laingley '24 said that art class is where she feels like Field students are represented and heard because the projects are student-led and student-driven. Over the last five years at Field, I've seen students make art about things that matter to them. They express ideas, messages, and emotions and document identities and spearhead social change through artwork. In my middle school 3D Art class, I supported Cierra '26 on her Trompe L'oeil food sculpture project, where she's creating a bowl of Pho out of clay to represent her family's culture and their tradition of enjoying that meal together. When I looked across the table, I saw Amwaj '27 experimenting with different textures on clay and figuring out how to make her slab look like Knafeh. While they're both learning technical clay skills through this project, they're also creating something that represents them and is relevant to their lives.  

Another student mentioned that they could use what they're learning in other classes and apply it to their projects in the art studio. I thought about Evan '23, who is working on creating an aqueduct that he studied in Latin class for his ceramic water feature assignment. Mira '23 also mentioned that studio is a fun part of her day, and she gets a lot of joy from her time in the space. A sense of community is established in the art room, as students work together to create art and maintain and care for the space, materials, equipment, and each other's ideas and artwork. This morning, Nicky '22 was throwing on the wheel next to Zack '23 and they kept checking in and encouraging one another – "Is this centered? No, but try this instead. Do I need to compress the rim? Will you pass the wire tool?" They were working independently, problem-solving together, and supporting one another before even needing to ask me for help, all of which leads to an authentic learning. 

Emma ‘23 shared that her art experience is teaching her how to embrace imperfection and work through inevitable chaos. She also mentioned that, to her, art is centering and described how it often brings a calm moment to her day. When I reflect and think about what I want my students to gain from engagement in the arts, centering is the first thing that comes to mind—both the pottery technique and the concept itself. Learning how to center the clay is the first and one of the hardest techniques a potter must learn. When students first put their hands on a spinning mound of clay, their hands usually shake and twist and flail. They try to squeeze and control the clay and are often frustrated as the uncentered clay makes their whole body move around the wheel. They discover that the more they try to force the clay, the less control they gain. Centering is not about strength or force; it’s about stillness. Without stillness, a pot will never be centered, the walls will never be even, and the structural integrity of the pot will never be strong. When you’re learning how to create pottery, you also have to become comfortable with failure. 

A potter can’t make a piece without first failing. Even when the technique is mastered, a pot can still crack in the kiln, the glaze firing could be too hot or too cold, or they could simply drop their pot on the ground at any point in the process. Then, they have to take a deep breath, figure out what they learned from the process, and begin again with a new perspective. An 11th grader did just that: He focused intently on throwing a large bowl for about 40 minutes. As he was working, the form got too thin and he watched it collapse into a pile as the wheel continued to spin. He took a deep breath, removed the clay, stretched his back, returned the clay to the reclaim bucket, and prepared to start again. 

Studio art skills teach students how to engage wholeheartedly in the art of living by challenging them to slow down enough to notice the intricacies of their world, practice patience, create, and reflect. When students leave Field, they head down a variety of different paths. They don’t yet know what their futures might hold. Still, they will need to solve complex problems, express themselves, build and support their community, experience failure, practice introspection, and hopefully enjoy themselves. Whether they’re throwing on the potter’s wheel, navigating a career, having difficult conversations, dismantling systems of oppression, stopping climate change, cooking a complicated recipe, or just trying to make it through a challenging day, I know Field students can apply what they've experienced in the studio to take a deep breath, reflect, and get back up to try again.