By Ruby Love
Everyone is an artist – you have to be put in a place where you can access those capabilities. If people could find themselves in a position to unlock this, they would be so much more fulfilled…it’s instant confirmation that you’re skilled in something really amazing.”
I sat down with our cover artist, Waldorf teacher Molly Mackinnon,* from Prairie Moon Waldorf School in Lawrence, Kansas, to talk about the evolution of her chalk drawing style, the use of art in Waldorf education, and learning to let go of your work.
First off, when did you start at Prairie Moon, and did you do chalk drawings before?
I didn’t do any chalk drawings before, and I started in the fall of 2012. All of the chalk drawings of Norse Myths, Tepees or Longhouses, and caves…those were all during that first year.
What’s the Waldorf philosophy around chalk drawing?
The underlying principle is that the way that we set up the aesthetics of our classroom should come as directly from the creative source as possible, so, for example a typical public school classroom might have motivational posters, or times table posters, or manufactured things that are given out for free by who knows who, but the teacher has nothing to do with creating those things. So, in our classrooms we want to have completely natural things. For example, it’s very typical for [Waldorf] classrooms to have a nature table, which changes through the seasons, so there might be fall leaves, and maybe a squash, and some acorns, things like that. Or maybe a nature table based on the main lesson that you’re teaching. When I was teaching about Kansas or local geography, I had a bison skull and some driftwood from the Kansas River, and old stone tools and some prairie grass and things like that. So, what you have on your walls is also to becoming direct from a creative space that a teacher creates. Chalk drawings are there in lieu of posters, or charts, or maps, or anything.
How much room do you have to experiment, to do whatever drawing…
We have total creative freedom, but essentially it should have something to do with the grade that you’re in. I would never make a physics drawing for third grade, you know. But in my first classroom there were a bunch of chalk boards, so I felt compelled to do something on all of them, so sometimes I would have a poem… Every month I would change out a portion of my chalk board…[using the Douglas County Almanac] to talk about what moon it was, in the Osage counting system, so maybe it was the Baby Bear Moon, and I’d do a little chalk drawing of that. I had a whole lot of leeway on what I wanted to bring into pictures…but it was always applicable to the main lesson or the year that I was in. [Waldorf teachers move up with their class, so they teach a different grade each school year.]
But then also, I have to say, I was always very influenced by wherever we went on summer vacation. The year that we went into the southwest, which was two years ago, I put these Anasazi drawings of animals like birds and the hare and different things, and I put them in the colors of the four directions, according to the Navajo, and I just kept them there all year almost like corner markers of the room.
Tell me about the evolution of your chalk drawing style, did you learn it from Waldorf people, or did you experiment on your own?
We had two separate chalk drawing seminars…it was like a one day workshop and then it happened again maybe a year later, so I was able to learn some techniques through that, but it’s mostly self-taught. I find chalk to be one of the most forgiving artistic materials that I’ve ever worked with. Especially when I learned to make the drawings from the inside out, mostly, because then you are not committed to the outer line. If I’m making a planet, I’m going to draw it from the middle outward and if my circle is wonky, I can keep correcting it until it is what I want, rather than drawing a perfect circle and then having to mess with that. But that being said, even in chalk you can smear everything. So, at first, I was a big smearer…I was smear woman! I was constantly having aching fingers because I was making these huge chalk drawings and smearing everything, cause I want it to look smooth, I don’t want it to have gritty look to it, I wanted it to look like a real rich picture. Over time, I just sort of discovered things.
But, you know, I made a lot of mistakes, like I got ahold of Nana’s chalk pastels—I was always looking for rich and beautiful and varied color, with subtle differences in greens and blues and things like that. I was like, oh my god here’s this incredible palette that I can use! Well, I made Goethe’s color wheel on one of my chalk boards one year, and it was the most incredible thing, because I could choose his exact colors and then blend them to his exact blends that were in between a primary and secondary color! Um…well, that’s still on that chalk board, two years later. Haha! It will not wash off, it’s like stained on…so that chalkboard eventually had to be sanded down and repainted. I did that again on another chalk board that I still use…I erased what I had on there the other day, which was this anatomy chalk drawing, and lo and behold, this Mayan warrior pops up out of the chalk drawing. He’s still there!
But I did invest in this really great chalkboard drawing book…the thing that’s really cool is someone teaches you a technique and you can immediately put it into play, and it immediately works! Usually it’s just a subtle thing, like using grey – a little light shade of grey over one half of the person’s face – like I did with that Queen Elizabeth, and it just pops the face out like you wouldn’t believe!
I work from pictures, though. You can really tell the difference when I work from a picture versus when I’m making it up on my own… Either I work from a photo or from the artist’s own work, like with da Vinci. You copy the masters – you learn by copying… I’m a fake! I’m a fraud!
Do you have a particular kind of chalk you like to use, or do you just use whatever is laying around?
Oh, my god! No! I’m such a chalk snob, like with everything else!
I know, I don’t know why I even asked that…
Waldorf schools at large order their art supplies from this one dealer…and I hate their chalk, because the chalk colors are these soft pastel-y, kind of Waldorf-y colors, and I’m much too much of a dictator for that kind of stuff. So I want really brilliant colors or I want lots of shades of colors to work with. One of the best chalks I’ve found is made by Prang, which makes really crappy crayons, but it makes really good colors of chalk. And then, there are these other chalks that are sold in kind of large bricks…they’re probably the size of a small candy bar. They practically dissolve when you’re hitting the chalkboard, all this powder just falls off of them, but they make the most amazing light layer over something…
What I just discovered the other day is that…I have these pure pigment powders that I own innumerable colors of…they’re really amazing, some of them are the same pigments that cave painters used, and I just discovered that I can make my own chalk with the pigments! So, I’m gonna do that.
Whoa! So you have the pigments, but what do you use to bind them to chalk?
You can actually get chalking, it’s called, which I guess is chalk powder, and then you add the pigment to it and then you add some kind of wax, I think…something that binds it together. I’m going to give it a try, because I can make any color I want.
How long do you normally have a chalk drawing up, and how do you deal with parting with it?
For the most part, I only have a chalk drawing up for as long as I am doing that main lesson. As I teach higher and higher grades, my main lessons last less and less time, so my chalk drawings are going up and coming down in two to three weeks as opposed to about four weeks. Basically, I’ve trained myself to think of it in the way that a Mandala is created, that you create it for a purpose, it is done with care and beauty, and then you let it go. Most of the time, I can just do that…it’s my students who are throwing themselves in front of my chalk drawings, begging me not to erase. When I did Odin, they were so upset, they did not want me to get rid of it! There are a few that I’m really loathe to erase, but that’s why I photograph them all, so I can look back and be like ‘Oh my god, I actually did that! I can’t believe it!’
Most of the time, they’re done on boards that are attached to the wall, so I can’t transfer them in any kind of way. I feel too like that letting go is a really important thing to be able to do, and if I photograph them, I feel like I still have a record of them, and the colors all there, and they’ll serve me in the future. A couple times I’ve done them on large format black construction paper, and then I end up hanging them up in the boys’ bedroom for a while, until they disintegrate… They live in people’s memory, which is really Waldorf-y actually, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Would you talk about some other mediums you work in? I feel weird representing you as a chalk artist only.
[It’s very tied in with the school year, because] when the summer comes and I have all this free time, do I do any of that? Not really. I guess it depends on the grades that I’m teaching, because tons of wet-on-wet watercolor is done in the early grades…it’s a huge part of the artistic process for children, up through sixth grade. Then it starts to be overtaken by other things such as black and white contrast drawing…shadow drawing, having things emerge out of darkness. Also, precision drawing, or projective geometry drawing, pen and ink…portrait drawing becomes a lot more involved in middle school because we talk about a lot of historical figures. It’s been a most incredible learning experience for me, learning all of these mediums.
Molly has studied anthropology, French, Arabic, Polish literature, poetry, film, culinary arts, and just about everything else. She currently teaches middle school (7th and 8th grade) at Prairie Moon. You can find more of Molly’s work on the Prairie Moon Waldorf School Facebook page. *In addition to her many talents, Molly also birthed me and raised me and answers my phone calls every week and lets me send her pictures of my dog and always says he’s cute.