Jane Atkinson didn’t study art in school but she’s taught it for the past 20 years.
It was during those two decades when she picked up most of her art education — through the eyes of the 3-to-5-year-olds in her classroom.
“I believe that’s when my love of art came out is when teaching it to my students,” she said. “I’m learning with them.
“You’re never too old to learn.”
Or too young, she said.
That’s why Atkinson, a pre-k 4 teacher at St. Francis de Sales in Beckley, spends two to three months each school year making sure her young charges know and recognize some of the biggest names in art history.
“It’s very important exposing them to the great masters,” she said. “Otherwise, we lose that part of art.”
During the months Atkinson focuses on the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Keene, Rembrandt, Monet, Andy Warhol, Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci, her students learn background information about the artists.
“They know Claude Monet lived in a pink house and had eight children and grew flowers so he could paint them,” she said.
Students learn about their styles, so they have a basic understanding of impressionism and even pointillism.
“They learn about George Seurat and his (painting) ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,’” she said. “To hear a 4- or-5-year-old say that and to know that painting gives me chills.
But Atkinson recognizes that one of the best ways to teach a 4-or-5-year-old is hands-on.
Rather than just learning about van Gogh, Atkinson teaches her students about his style, puts brushes in their hands and allows them to recreate their versions of his famous “Starry Night” and three of his other famous paintings.
Over the past several months, her students have listened and learned and then spent time in front of an easel doing their best recreations of 12 “master artists” in all.
“It’s important that they show their own creativity and learn about these people,” Atkinson said.
And she helped the students get creative, using a projector to demonstrate shadows on the wall in the style of Rembrandt.
“We had them hold their hands up like they were praying and we took pictures (of each one),” she said. “It’s just beautiful, children’s praying hands.”
They took photos of the children in masks to help recreate famous Andy Warhol pieces, which Atkinson said they titled “Covid-19.”
And the students had license to sling a little paint during the Jackson Pollack lesson.
“That’s always a lot of fun,” she said, adding she always saves the socks the kids wear on that day.
The culmination of the art lesson was on full display recently inside the main hall at St. Francis de Sales Church. Every re-creation – including the students’ original masterpieces, an original painting and sculpture – were featured as part of an art show.
The annual show doubles as a fundraiser for the pre-K program, as family members are invited in to view and then select items they wish to have framed for $10 a piece.
Atkinson said 150 pieces of art were purchased at this year’s show, which remained on display from April 16 through April 23.
“In the past it’s usually just a one-night deal,” she said, explaining the art usually comes down after the family viewing. “But this year, the principal decided it was too beautiful to tear down so quickly.
“It was quite an honor.”
Even if their parents didn’t select it for framing, students take home all of the artwork they create during the masters unit, tucked safely inside a special paint-splattered portfolio made during the Jackson Pollack lesson.
Atkinson said the art unit is one of her favorite things to teach each year.
The best part, she said, is watching the students fall in love with art and grow within themselves.
“To see them at that art show, so proud of their work and showing it off to the world, is special,” she said. “They have so much confidence. The look on their faces is pure joy.”