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With Spring finally here, it’s time to think about how we can get our students (and ourselves) outside to make art. Andrea Slusarski, art teacher and adventurer, is her to chat about her love for the outdoors. Listen as they talk about how being outdoors can make you more creative (5:30), strategies for getting kids outside of the classroom (10:30), and recommendations for making art for yourself (14:15). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
I’m not sure what the weather’s like where you are, but it is starting to get nice in Omaha where I am. It’s time to get outside and time to start getting our kids outside, because I think everybody’s feeling the itch. It’s that time when kids are getting restless, and let’s be honest, teachers are restless too. Honestly, the best thing that we can do to combat that is to get our kids outdoors.
Today, I’m going to be talking to someone who is absolutely crazy about the outdoors, Ms. Andrea Slusarski. Now you probably remember her. She’s been on the podcast before to talk about sketchbooks and color theory and working as an artist, and now that my cohost Andrew has abandoned me, I’m hope that Andrea can be a little bit more of a regular guest.
But for today, we’re going to be talking about getting outside with our kids and also getting outside for ourselves, and all of the benefits that it can bring. I hope Andrea’s passion for the subject comes through loud and clear, and I hope it inspires you to get outdoors and get working yourself.
Before we start the interview, I also want to tell you about something really cool that’s going on with me. I’m teaching a studio painting course for the first time, and it has been so much fun. We have done tempera techniques. We’ve done color theory, including videos from Andrea Slusarski, by the way. We’re going to be moving on to acrylic techniques next week, and what I love about the course is that it allows you to get some new ideas for the classroom, but also spend time creating your own work in the studio. It strikes just the right balance for teachers who are worried about their own teaching and improving that, but also teachers who want to make their own work, which is something that we’re going to be talking about in the podcast today, so I think that fits really well with all the topics that we’re going to cover today.
Now, there are new courses for Studio Painting starting on April 1st, May 1st, and June 1st. You can learn more about the course and sign up at the artofed.com/courses. Andrea is waiting to come on, so let’s jump into the interview now and start talking about getting outdoors. Andrea Slusarski is with me now. Slu, how are you?
Andrea: Hi, Tim. I’m happy to be back on the podcast. It’s Friday that we’re recording, so that’s also really cool.
Tim: Yes, yes, always exciting, always exciting. So we’re here to talk all about something that I know you love, something I know you’re passionate about: working in the great outdoors.
Tim: I love the excitement.
Andrea: Yeah, I’m so stoked, it’s exciting. Yeah, go for it.
Tim: All right. First question is an easy one. Why do you love the outdoors?
Andrea: Well, I think I already alluded to this, and first off, just kind of say thank you for creating this episode to do with me. It’s literally fusing all of my loves. It’s adventure and outdoors, it’s learning, it’s teaching, it’s art, and I’m beyond excited. I’m sorry I’m not sorry in advance if I get very nerdy and get really excited.
Tim: That’s okay, we love that, we love that. So yeah, dive in.
Andrea: The question to answer what you just asked me is why do I love the outdoors? My first immediate thought was that I can’t even imagine having a day in my life that I don’t or I haven’t loved the outdoors. Being outside adventuring through nature, it’s who I am, it’s what I feel, and it’s how I live my life. But I guess to relate that into some tangible feelings towards the outdoors and why I love them is I love trees. I feel very attached to them. I love the snow and the perma-smile that I get during a powder day. I’m a huge snowboarder, so thankfully it’s Friday because that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow.
Andrea: Yeah. I love hiking with my friends and my family and the conversations that you have. It’s around the trail, around a campfire. The outdoors is a place to escape the busyness, and it’s a great place to remind us why to slow down and appreciate the parts of our lives that really bring us meaning. I told you I was going to get deep and nerdy, Tim, and I haven’t even gotten into the brain studies and the benefits the outdoors has on your learning and your well-being and your mental state, so the love for the outdoors is just getting started.
Tim: Nice. Well, it’s a good thing I have another half dozen questions for you.
Andrea: Yeah, bring them on.
Tim: I know just from talking to you, how far back we go, you feel like we have just this improvement with our attitude and our thinking and our creativity when we’re able to spend time outdoors. I guess translating that a little bit, how does being outside influence your own art-making?
Andrea: I literally have the biggest smile on my face just thinking about the outdoors, so thank you. It’s been like a long day, and I’m smiling and I’m just thinking about the trees. My mind, it’s so much clearer after I’ve spent time outdoors, so for sure, that time spent away from my computer, being around more trees, it makes me a better teacher, it makes me a better artist, and just a general human being. Besides the outdoors being my primary source of inspiration in my studio art practice, the outdoors has really helped me connect back to my art-making, because let’s face it, teaching, it’s a ton of work, and in those first few years of getting started in my career and learning new schools and classrooms, I was no longer devoting the time to my practice like I was used to in art school. It was easy then. You had classes and projects that kept you motivated and moving forward.
But eventually that longing for my own art-making became too loud to not listen to, and I really didn’t want to give up my weekends that I spent in the outdoors, so I started bringing my paints and my sketchbooks with me on my adventures, and that really helped kickstart my studio practice and really helped me connect back to artist me and teacher me, and calmer, ready to take on the world me, and that’s what the outdoors really helps, too.
Tim: Yeah, I like that. I really like those connections that you talk about there, and how you can balance your different passions and your different loves. I also want to talk about how this maybe can translate into the classroom. So if we can talk about getting kids outdoors, what kind of activities do you like to do with your students when you can get them outside? Do those fit in with what you’re already teaching in your curriculum?
Andrea: I just personally feel that all kids should be spending more time outside.
Andrea: Yeah, we’ve lost it. They’re inside, and I wish I could just kick them outside of my classroom and be like, “Go play in some mud for a little bit,” but maybe that’s not good for my curriculum. Not to really overload you on the why being outside is great for their learning and their behavior and for us, their creativity, you name it, I would recommend reading The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. It’s fantastic, and it talks about your brain and your mental states with the outdoors.
To bring that back into how I get kids outdoors or how I incorporate this in my classroom, if it’s a nice day out and it fits with the lesson, then I make it a special thing to do on a Wednesday, you know, like we’re going to do this, like we can. Logistically, my classroom is very nice for outdoor convenience-sake. I have a garage door to my classroom that I’ll open up on warm days, and we can walk to the practice soccer field right from my classroom door.
In terms of curriculum, I do however, plan my lessons that allude to more time outdoors to happen during the springtime, because students and Miss Slu, we’re all itching to be outside, so I’ll do like my graffiti stencil projects, my landscape units for when that weather starts to get nicer. I also like to cause a little anarchy, and having chalk for a nice sunny day, like if your class is working really hard and they’re on track, I like being able to celebrate them with some outdoor fun, which is really nice too.
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s really cool, and I guess my perspective is always like if it’s a nice day outside, I just ask myself could we be doing this same way while we are sitting outside? You know, if we’re just working in sketchbooks for the day, or just drawing with graphite, why not go outside? I don’t know, like you said, you just see so much of an uplift with a kid’s mood and kid’s behavior. They love it so much just because they don’t get that opportunity. So I’m just saying like logistics, like I just mentioned, very few of us have schools that are close to these great outdoor spaces, and so if I can ask you, how do you get kids outdoors safely? How do you have success with it? Can you talk about materials you’re using? How you keep things in order when you’re taking 25 or 30 kids outside of your classroom?
Andrea: Yeah, yeah, yeah, 25, that sounds like a dream, Tim. I’ll pretend that next time. First, my school is definitely urban, and while we do have a nice practice field out behind our school, we are surrounded by homes and apartment buildings, so if you’re imagining we’re all staring at the mountains and everything’s beautiful, I’m really sorry to disappoint you, but it’s not. For those of you guys who are listening, Denver is a really beautiful city, but if the Aspen School District in Colorado needs an art teacher, I’m your girl.
Tim: I love it.
Andrea: Yeah, so I’m ready. In terms like I don’t think you need to overthink the outdoors, I think just being outdoors is going to help your students enough, and stuff just like me laughing and the walking around and telling them to use their imagination, like it’s our class, that’s what we do here, and we giggle about it. But in terms of handling materials and making that work, for drawings and definitely watercolor painting, I have a bunch of recycled lunchroom trays.
Andrea: Yeah, which is a weird thing that someone asked me if I wanted one like the second year of my teaching career, and I said yes, so thank God, like 300 of them. I have 300 lunch trays, so students can tape their papers onto. That helps with papers flying all over the place. Then I just tell students to limit it. You don’t need everything. You can take a pencil, one brush, keep it simple.
We’ll venture out and I’ll tell students to grab a spot in a general area, and I’ll walk to the groups of students, answer their questions, or join in with some drawing, and if you have a good hold on your classroom management, your students are going to see this as a fun opportunity and they’re going to appreciate it, so I would encourage teachers not to get so nervous about taking students outside or think that they need to over plan it. I think just the experience is what’s going to help your students, and being able to just keep it simple, go outside, especially if it fits in your lesson for the day, that’s going to give you a ton of benefit without all that much extra work.
Tim: Yeah, for sure, and I think just speaking to the classroom management side of things, we always tell people to be proactive with that, so just before you go out, just tell your kids hey, this is something special, this is something fun that we’re going to do. If you guys handle it well, we’ll continue to do it. If you can’t handle it, we won’t do it anymore.
Tim: Just talk through your expectations, and that’s going to take care of things most of the time. I don’t think that needs to be something that limits you, something that keeps you from getting outside.
Andrea: Yeah, I think if you’re feeling nervous about going outside or it’s going to be chaos out there, it’s art class, so embrace that chaos. Like you said, those expectations are … kids are going to be thankful. They’ve been inside all day.
Tim: Yeah, yeah, and like you said, just behavior, mood, just an automatic uptick, and yeah, it’s wonderful. Let’s talk personal recommendations. If somebody’s just thinking about hey, this sounds great, I want to get outside, if they haven’t done that a lot, if they haven’t been outdoors a lot or haven’t been outdoors specifically to make art, where would you start? What would you recommend people do?
Andrea: Okay, so my first, the first thing that pops into my head is I would start by committing to yourself that you’re going to go do something for fun. Who cares what that art looks like or how “outdoorsy” … I’m doing my air quotes … you feel like you should be, because a bad day outside is better than a good day inside, in my book. In the busyness that we can feel in our careers and our lives, being able to create for creativity’s sake is really soothing, so I think you don’t need to have those high expectations, but more just the experience when you’re outside and you’re creating art.
If you’re new to the outdoors, start within the boundaries of your comfort zone, because whether that’s the length of hike or duration outside, you name it, being outdoors means being safe too. I’m a very good camp counselor; you’ll have to put that in there. I am like such the safety person in my hiking group. My boyfriend will be like, “Oh, we can keep going.” I’m like, “I don’t know, that cloud looks scary,” and he’ll be like, “Oh no, we’re fine.” I’m like, “Ranger Rick says … ” And I’m like, “Well, the guide book … ” I’m a very good rule follower of the outdoors.
Then with the more experience, those boundaries start to widen, especially if you’re new to the outdoors. I would start with a sketchbook, a pencil, a pen, and whatever you like to use for color. There’s markers, color pencils, or any medium of choice. Water colors are my medium for outdoor adventure, and I keep all my stuff in a freebie canvas bag I got at NAEA a couple years ago, and my sketchbook in a plastic baggie to protect it in my backpack. Lastly, don’t forget to pack enough water and snacks, because you can’t go on an adventure without snacks.
Tim: That is the best part of the adventure.
Andrea: Yeah, I pack a bag of gummy bears in all of my backpacks and bribe myself with those gummy bears.
Tim: That’s nice.
Andrea: That I can hike this because there’s gummy bears at the end of this.
Tim: Yeah, when I ran my marathon a year and a half ago, I had just like a giant pocketful of gummy bears, and they were like the best incentive ever.
Andrea: They’re the best. It’s like I’m going to have a gummy bear Yahtzee, like what a day. I don’t know what it is.
Tim: They’re just spectacular, but we’re off the rails, talking about gummy bears.
Andrea: Yes, let’s go back, let’s go back, yeah.
Tim: Let me ask you, just last question, I guess. For people who are experienced with being outdoors, with getting outside, just some advice on how would you challenge yourself? What can you do to get more out of your outdoors experience?
Andrea: That’s a really good question. I would challenge you to start being more consistent in your sketch booking if you’re already experienced getting outdoors, and these sketchbooks, they can be drawings, written memories, pictures, objects found along the way. This will help you connect even more with your time spent outdoors, and it only helps fuel your creativity. If you’re already drawing, already adventuring a ton, that’s freaking awesome, I’m preaching to the choir. But an exercise I’ve been doing more frequently, and you can thank the skizees in traffic, is working on my sketchbook drawings in the car or after I’ve spent the time outdoors, because let’s face it, not everyone I go hiking with wants to sit with me for two hours while I paint. I don’t know why. You guys aren’t having fun?
Tim: You need to get some better friends, obviously.
Andrea: Yeah, but from that, I’ve been trying to focus more on my observing, so my sketches I create in the car after are all based on images I’m pulling from my memory or from my imagination about my experience I just had in the outdoors. It’s a very interesting challenge, especially because I rely on being on location to draw or to paint, or I rely on pictures or photos that I’ve taken myself to help with the majority of my artworks, but making myself be more of an observer and experience it more has been really helpful in just my own art-making.
Tim: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I don’t know, I think that’s something good for people to think about, and a good challenge that I think that they can take on. We are about out of time, so I think we can go ahead and wrap it up here. I know you’ve written a bunch of articles on your website that dive into these topics a little bit more, so can you just tell everybody where they can find those?
Andrea: Yeah, and hopefully you can link them because my name’s a little hard to spell, but my portfolio website is Andrea-sulsarski-art.com. You can follow me on Instagram at Drawing from Nature. Feel free to shoot me an email, Instagram message, comment on a painting, comment on a drawing. I love hearing from art teachers especially, and I really want to help art teachers find some good peace in the outdoors or their own art-making, because that only makes us better art teachers.
Tim: Yeah, for sure, for sure.
Andrea: And that’s important for our students, that we take that time for our own creating and our own sanity, so that we can be there for them.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, great advice and a great way to end it. Thank you again for joining me. Go get yourself some gummy bears, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Andrea: Yeah! Have an awesome day, Tim. Thank you.
Tim: You too. Talk to you later, bye.
Andrea: Bye bye.
Tim: Alright, a big thank you to Andrea for coming on. I love her advice, both for people who are just starting to get outdoors, and for people who have been doing it for awhile. And I think most importantly with today’s episode, there are some great ideas in that talk for getting your kids outside. It doesn’t have to be some special project. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular. In fact, you know what? Let’s turn this into a challenge. The next day it lines up for you, I want you to get at least one of your classes outdoors to work. All you need is a nice day, some nice weather, and a project that travels. If you’re throwing on the wheel or doing batik or something crazy like that, hey, it’s obviously not going to work out to get outside, but if you’re drawing or you’re painting with water color in the next couple of weeks, and you have some sun and not too much wind and some good temperatures, get out there. You’re going to love it, your kids are going to love it, and you will all appreciate the benefits.
Art Ed Radio was produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember, you can sign up for our email list at artedradio.com. Find all kinds of awesome content, great show notes, including links to everything that Andrea talked about today, and you can listen to all our old episodes. So make sure that you check that out sometime this week. Thank you for listening, and we will talk to you next week.