Anna Nuttall wears many hats around Portsmouth, but her work always circles back to the kids who keep her on her toes as an art teacher at Portsmouth Middle School. We asked her to tell us more about what she’s teaching and learning from them, and about the role of creativity in everyday life.
Splash! Youth Art Month exhibit has filled the Portsmouth Library, floor to ceiling, for the past month. The lobby pops with all sizes of colors, shapes and textures that hit the viewer like a wave, an exuberant cacophony of voices and stories. Upon closer inspection, each artwork feels uniquely personal. While sharing coffee and conversation at our office with exhibit co-producer Anna Nuttall, she reminds us that all art—whether at Portsmouth Library or the Louvre or the side of a public parking garage— is about discovering this vitality of expression.
“Drawing is actually the easy part. Drawing is the skill set. You learn how to read, write, walk. It was hard. You fell. You got better. Same thing with art. That’s drawing,” she says.
In the art classroom, she explains, she’s not teaching kids “how to draw a bunny,” but rather how to think about drawing a bunny and talk with each other about this business of drawing bunnies. What makes bunnies, or whatever else, fun to draw and interesting for the viewer is the conversation that arises in the process.
“That’s when you start getting dynamic art. It takes a little longer to stew and piece together. Art is a way of thinking, it’s a way of looking, it’s a way of investigating. That’s something we try to talk about a lot, even with the school department,” Anna says. “Art looks cool, but it’s really about the learning behind it. The conversations the kids have are so rich, and that process is what stays with them, regardless of what shows up in the finished product.”
Before they pick up pen or brush, Anna requires her students to talk about each project, what it brings to mind, and ask each other questions. Her goals are to introduce problem solving, and to help each student find a connection to their work that will help them persevere through obstacles and setbacks. She want this approach to stick with them after they leave her classroom.
Brian says he sees how this creative process rings true for the creative side of our work. It’s not always easy to allow time for it in the thick of deadlines, but it’s necessary to get the results we want. We bring our own perspectives to the drawing table, but are informed by conversations with each other, the client, and the community that will be using the space. When we’re open, ideas infiltrate from everywhere.
“That’s what I tell my students all the time,” Anna says. “I’m going to learn something today, you’re going to learn something today. You’re not going to expect what you learn today. That level playing field—everyone has something to contribute, everyone has different skill sets, everyone brings different experiences to the table—that’s the best part of life.”
Anna’s classroom creative formula starts with helping students figure out their “why.” To stop and notice, and participate with openness and wonder and creativity, we first have to care. The project, or idea, has to be personally relevant to us. The “why” is going to be different for each student, and each project.
“I swear, that’s the hardest part of my job, crafting just the right questions and making it seem casual and seamless. But if you ask the right questions, and have zero fear and no desire to filter their answers, that’s when teaching and learning gets good,” she says.
This time-taking can be at odds with the pressures of everyday life. Questioning often takes a back seat to knowing. Alyssa recalls hearing Krista Tippett, host of public radio’s “On Being,” talk at The Music Hall about the certainty we bring to public conversation these days—“Everyone knows what they think, and what they think you think.” In terms of learning and moving things forward, Tippett said she hears the most openness and wonder and creativity coming from the scientists she interviews these days, partly because it’s the nature of their profession to always be asking questions.
In fact, throughout this conversation, we kept returning to the parallels between creativity and science—partly because it’s a passion of Anna’s, and partly because, we realize, there’s a similar process. In both fields, results arrive only after a sequence of investigation, discovery, experimentation, synthesis, and, when we’re lucky, invention
It’s counterintuitive to say that creativity is a formula, but it’s true that the most successful projects in our work, and our community, follow these steps. “I really do think of art as a way to do something,” Anna says. “We’ve had art since the dawn of time, right? It’s been a form of communication since people have been hulking around. We’ve been making noise, we’ve been making visual representations of things. So art has never not been part of a culture, no matter what that culture’s going through. …in the end, I don’t want you to make art because you’re going to become an artist, necessarily. I want you to take those skills and that way of thinking and that way of processing and approaching a problem, and apply it to whatever you’re fired up about.”
More ideas that percolated through our conversation:
● The relationship of the Arts to STEAM education
● Leo Lionni’s book Little Blue and Little Yellow, first published in 1959
● Contemporary programs at 3S Artspace Gallery
● Connections between art and science to be found at Seacoast Science Center
● The architecture of classroom spaces, similar to our conversation with John Shea
And note that Anna has an exhibit coming at PMAC - the opening is April 19!