CRMS: art in education |

CRMS: art in education

Bob Ward
Special to the Post Independent

No doubt about it: Colorado Rocky Mountain School is serious about the arts.

At a time when many public schools are being forced to roll back arts programs, CRMS enthusiastically embraces everything from the 3,000-year-old trade of blacksmithing to the 21st-century wonders of digital photography. The “learning by doing” that occurs in the arts empowers students in fun and compelling ways, separate and apart from book learning.

Of the nine classroom buildings on campus, six are devoted wholly or partially to visual, manual or performing arts, some of them for one specific discipline.

In 2011, the school built a brand new music building to support faculty member George Weber in his wide-ranging efforts to promote student playing, singing, recording, mixing and more. Students in Weber’s songwriting interim course not only write and play their own music, but they walk away with their own recording, which can become either a nifty souvenir or part of a college application. And those willing to invest more time in the music program reap additional rewards.

“I think these kids learn to be self-confident, self-reliant and self-motivated,” Weber said. “They get some pretty darn good music skills by the time they graduate.”

Just a few steps away from the music building, the Mountain Forge recently received a roughly $40,000 facelift, an affirmation of support for the only on-campus iron forge in the U.S.

Walk into the Forge during a class, and you’ll hear the cacophonous music of hammer and anvil; students can be seen grinding metal on a stone wheel, slicing sheet metal with a torch or shaping yellow-hot iron with tongs and hammer. It’s quite a sight, and an educational experience that’s utterly outside the typical classroom box.

The last few years have also seen improvements totaling nearly $54,000 at the Adobe arts building, the glassblowing studio and the Jewelry Hogan.

The fruits of these dedicated studio spaces are visible across the campus, from the decorative blown-glass flowers at the school entrance to the iron coat hooks in the hallways and the handmade glassware in the Bar Fork. Some of these utilitarian objects are created in art classes while others are produced in work crews. This means that, while the school is teaching these crafts as part of the academic program, the crafts also directly support the institution on a practical level by providing everyday implements for people to use. In other words, the arts are woven into the school’s culture and daily life.

“Virtually every student at CRMS attends some kind of art class,” Weber said. “It’s an important, fundamental strength of the school.”

Anyone with a painting on their wall or a bracelet on their wrist will attest to the intrinsic value of the arts, but they also teach skills that aren’t necessarily conveyed in traditional classrooms. Think of the patience and attention to detail required of the silversmith, or the public-speaking skills inherent in the theater.

“In silversmithing, you can get to the very end of a piece and in 2-3 seconds you can have a catastrophe and melt it,” said teacher Lynn Pulford. “I think it teaches perseverance — you’re going to make mistakes, everything is not easily obtained.”

“We all have to step up in front of people at some point in our lives,” said theater teacher Jeff Schlepp. “Having a theatrical background of any kind gives you a solid base in order to stand up in front of people with confidence.”

Math and science, too, are woven into the arts curriculum. Glassblowing teacher David Powers likes to note the chemistry of the metals that give glass its various colors.

“I don’t spend a lot of time talking about chemistry,” Powers said, “but I can talk about chemistry enough so that maybe when kids are in chemistry, they go, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Or consider the blacksmith who wants to create a circular piece of forged iron. What length of metal does he start with, Powers asked.

“That kid has a hands-on experience with what 2πr means,” he said. “It gives them power to manifest things in the world.”

Carbondale holds other advantages for the arts faculty. The town’s considerable population of artists is a resource for teachers, and institutions such as the Carbondale Council for the Arts and Humanities (CCAH) and the Carbondale Clay Center provide both venues for students to show their work and professional artists to come and work with students. Schlepp says the community always shows up in force for CRMS theater productions as well.

CRMS students have matriculated to strong art schools, including the Rhode Island School of Design, California Institute of the Arts, Berklee College of Music, and Cooper Union, among others. But even students who don’t choose the arts as their primary means of income will almost certainly have opened their minds as a result of CRMS artistic instruction.

The CRMS arts program is spilling over with rich opportunities for hungry students. Observant CRMS parents and kids will have noticed the words of blacksmith Francis Whitaker that appear outside the Mountain Forge: “Life is short, art is long… Get going.”

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