Picture Perfect Covers

Picture Perfect Covers

This past season, I taught a creative writing class for tweens and teens that took inspiration from art history.

I described many of those classes, activities, and inspirations on this blog. The result of all that hard work by the students was that they each were given the opportunity to make their own book. That included not only producing all the words for the book, but any illustrations and artwork—including the front covers.

Here are the final covers that the students came up with. They did the artwork and I helped them with the design and typography.















The books are professionally printed with perfect-bound spines. Yes, I’m biased, but I think they turned out pretty well!

In which we take a field trip to the art gallery


I’m now knee-deep in my series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History. We’ve made it through the Medieval Ages, explored the Renaissance, and finished off Mannerism just before the start of Spring Break.

One thing that has kept coming up is that very few of my students have visited an actual art gallery. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit many in my time, including heavyweights such as the National Gallery in London, the Uffizi in Florence, The Louvre and Orsay in Paris, and the Chicago Art Institute. Well, we don’t have the budget to whisk my students off to of those vibrant centers of art and culture, but I decided we could arrange a trip to the local Vancouver Art Gallery.

In comparison to some of the galleries I mentioned above, the Vancouver Art Gallery is small and humble. They have plans to move to a new location that will enable them to massively expand their offerings, but for now, what we have is the current location in the former provincial court house. Personally, I love the building and its old-school architecture.


So, I suggested the extracurricular trip to my program coordinator and she offered it to the parents of my students. Many of them (and their siblings) decided to sign up and then I was suddenly faced with the quandary of how to make the experience a successful one.

First off, I thought I could use the small footprint of the Vancouver Art Gallery to my advantage. It would allow me to introduce my students to the art gallery experience without overwhelming them.

So, good—I could contain the experience, and not worry about losing anyone in a cavernous gallery. But the more pressing problem I dwelled upon had to do with technology. Most of my students can barely go three minutes without checking their phones. To me, that type of addled behavior is not conducive to immersing oneself in art.

So, my first instinct was to ban their devices. Then, after some contemplation, I decided to take the exact opposite approach and structure the visit in such a way to allow them to embrace technology—specifically social media.

Most of my students are heavy Instagram users. They even set up a group tag for the class on their own, without my prompting. So, I decided to leverage this and came up with a series of hashtags. I then asked the students to try and find shots to fill these categories as they went through the gallery. These hashtags ranged from sentiments such as #mademefeellikesinging to simple gut reactions such as #wow.

Of course, I provided the students with a few other guidelines, too: Don’t rush, or if you feel the need to rush, don’t pester others to keep up with you. Go at your own pace. And, besides your phone, bring a notebook and a pen so you can make some notes or do some writing if you feel so inclined.


Now that all is said and done, I feel the trip was ultimately a success. I was able to interact with my students in an environment outside of the classroom and engage in some interesting conversations about the different art we experienced. The gallery featured some traditional West Coast Salish art, some modern installation pieces and, of course, what it is best known for—the beautiful dreamlike canvases of Emily Carr. (Incidentally, that’s the part of the gallery I hunkered down in and did some of my own writing.) There was something for everyone.

The hashtag experiment worked pretty well. It gave the students something to chew on, and a bit of a quest. Many of them did in fact post their pictures on Instagram with the hashtags and, of course, my wife Marcie and I made sure to play along, too.

Most of all, it was joyous to see kids making some connections and finding inspiration. After all, what more could you want from a field trip?




The Unexpected Mummy: combining creative writing with art history


I’m continuing to lead a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

We started with prehistoric cave art and moved on to ancient Egyptian art. The students built miniature mummies out of clay. Then, after letting them dry for a week, they “embalmed” them with plaster and decorated them with paint and jewels.




These props inspired the students to write short stories about characters who die unexpectedly and go through the mummification process. The hitch was that they had to write the story from the first person point of view, which meant describing what it feels like to die and enter the Egyptian afterlife.

Here are the final version of their props. In addition to many human mummies, we ended up with a falcon and a couple of cats. Some students chose to do mummies with luxurious decoration, while others took a more humble approach. It all depended on the character situation in the individual story.














The Prehistoric Painter


I’m currently teaching a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

I’ve delivered this program several times before, but it continues to evolve. This time around, I was given more weeks than usual to deliver workshop series, so I ended up adding some units. Despite this, I still feel like we are zooming through history and hardly doing anything justice.

For our first project, we explored the very first recorded art that we know of: cave paintings. After viewing images and videos of some of the famous sites from around the world, I introduced a project in which the students could create cave-painting style images on rocks. Afterwards, they were assigned to write a short story about a character who is the first member of a society to paint on a cave wall.

Doing the activity helped them put their minds in the right framework. One of the interesting things about this course has been trying to put everything into context for the young students. For example, they simply weren’t aware that prehistoric and ancient artists (not to mention Medieval ones) had a limited color palette available to them.

Here are some photos of our project in progress . . .








Snakes, crocodiles, and cats — mummified!

This fall, one of the classes I’m teaching for CWC is called “Picture Perfect,” a program in which the kids take inspiration from art history and write a series of pieces.

Our first project is to explore ancient Egypt and make mummies. Long ago, I was in Egypt and explored many temples and ancient sites up and down the Nile, so this period of history is quite dear to me. I was able to tell the students a lot of personal stories about my time in Egypt.


While I was in Egypt, I saw countless mummies: cats, crocs . . . you name it. So, as a fun inspiration for our first story in the class, we’re building mummies.

We started by making the clay figures and then let them dry for a week. Next, we began “embalming” them.

cwchl2015_mummies00  cwchl2015_mummies01 cwchl2015_mummies02

This time, we tried something new: adding spices as part of the embalming process.


I kind of like how it leaves some of them looking a little weathered.

cwchl2015_mummies03 cwchl2015_mummies04 cwchl2015_mummies05 cwchl2015_mummies06 cwchl2015_mummies07 cwchl2015_mummies08 cwchl2015_mummies09

Next week, we’ll add some adornments by adding some metallic paint.

For now, the students are working on stories that tell how their characters came to an end (in most cases, an untimely one) and then entered the Egyptian afterlife. They also are working with some Egyptian hieroglyphics to create cartouches for their characters. (A cartouche is a particular shape in Egyptian symbology that signifies the name of a pharaoh.)


Picture Perfect in Korea

I’ve just wrapped up a creative writing camp in Korea with my teaching partner and fellow author Kallie George. I didn’t have a chance to do any blogging during our hectic schedule, but now I can post some of the photos from our week.

We packaged our Picture Perfect theme that we’ve been teaching in Canada and brought it to this camp. The whole idea is to inspire kids in their creative writing with art history.

Day 1 began with a brainstorming exercise in which our students contemplated what art meant to them.


We had a mascot for this camp—Pablo the raccoon. Just like Kallie and I, he needed lots of coffee too!


On the first day we also began our projects to design and build mummies. I was really impressed with the results. I’ve led this activity a few times and, finally, someone built me a crocodile!




One of our other activities involved designing miniature portraits.


One of my favourite activities was when we took a cue from Surrealism and thought about dreams. Students designed their own dream bottles and then wrote a story about them.




We also led a writing activity in which the students crafted a hand-written letter to their favourite authors. I think the students enjoyed our approach of embossing the envelopes with wax and a seal impression.


We also ran a Picture Perfect Tournament, in which the students had to engage in a variety of activities.We had stations for word scramble, Pictionary, and mix-and-match, but my favourite stations were the ones below, starting with “Feats of Architecture.” Here, the contestants had to try and build the tallest card castle possible.


In this station, the participants were blindfolded and had to try and pin the smile on Mona Lisa.


In this station the students had to draw portraits of myself, Kallie, and our mascot, Pablo the raccoon.


We wrapped up today with each student presenting a monologue in which he or she imagined being an apprentice, model, or inspiration for a famous artist. This was quite entertaining! Some of the points of view adopted included Mona Lisa, a mummy, and a Campbell’s soup can!

Now, it’s time for one final meeting, and then we get our rest and prepare for the long flight home!

Polyester Pollock

As part of my Picture Perfect workshop (a creative writing class that takes inspiration from art history), I had my students make their own Jackson Pollock-inspired T-shirts. It was a lot of fun to see the students set themselves free and express their creativity on their shirts. We have a final presentation coming up, so these shirts will serve as their costumes!

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Jackson Pollock T-shirt.

Writing with impressionism

Student impressionist paintingAs part of my “Picture Perfect” class that I’m teaching this term, I recently rolled out an interesting activity to help my students understand the creative process.

The focus of the program is to find inspiration for creative writing through a study of art history. During our unit on Impressionism, I asked my students (ranging in age from 9-13) to choose a personal photograph and then produce a painting in the style of Impressionism. I was surprised to see that they found this difficult. Many of them love Impressionist art, but their instinct and desire was to paint realistically. I kept asking them to break free from this constraint and to stop painting what they saw, but what they felt.

Student impressionist paintingThis caused a lot of frustration and more than one student completely painted over the canvases they had just spent a long time labouring over. Personally, I loved witnessing this. It reminded me of the writing process, of ripping a page out of notebook and throwing it away (unfortunately, hitting the “delete” button on a keyboard these days isn’t quite as satisfying). The point is this: Just because you spend a long time on something doesn’t mean you should keep it. For younger students, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Mostly, I find they assume that you achieve success in writing by spending an allotted amount of time on a piece. But, of course, when it comes to art—whether it be writing, painting, acting (you name it)—this isn’t true. There is not magical equation of time for achieving artistic greatness.

As an illustrator, I’ve completely scrapped drawings and done them over from scratch. As a writer, I’ve written entire scenes, chapters, and sections of a book that must be deleted because, even after all those hours of work, they just don’t flow with the overall narrative. I’ve learned to detach myself from the time part of the equation. I just worry about making sure I’m satisfied with the end result. (Though, I suppose, I’m never completely satisfied—but that is a subject best pondered later, at another time).

The other interesting aspect of this painting activity is that it allowed my students to write an interesting story in which a character is described in the act of painting. Having the experience of painting themselves, my students could describe the act with more truthful description and emotion.

And, of course, the paintings turned out well too, as you can see below.

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Student impressionist painting

Enter the dragon’s den

Actually, if you’re expecting this post to be about a new mythical scene in Kendra Kandlestar and the Search for Arazeen, then you’re wrong! My title of this post refers to last week’s class in my “Picture Perfect” workshop, which focuses on creative writing assignments connected to art history.

Last week, my students took inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci and started designing their own inventions. Many of them were rather fantastical, others intensely practical (one of my favourite inventions was the prototype of a trap that was designed to capture the raccoons that are ever so determined to break into my house).

After the inventions were designed and built, we pretended we were on the TV Show, Dragon’s Den, in which would-be entrepreneurs try to sell their ideas to investors. In this case, the investor was ME!

Last step The students began writing short stories connected to their creations.

Here are some photos from the workshop.


The diagrams below are for a taste changer. Don’t like broccoli? Then this machine will solve all your woes!



Here’s a prototype of the taste changer, mid construction.



This photo shows the raccoon catcher in the background and an automatic dressing machine in the foreground.



How about a magic cookie jar that provides any type of cookie?



This student didn’t quite complete the prototype for her very intricately designed clockwork heart.



Here’s a photo of the completed automatic dressing machine prototype.



And, last but not least, every kid’s dream—a homework machine!


Student mummies . . . just in time for Halloween!

The last two weeks, I’ve been teaching my mummy unit in “Picture Perfect,” the art history class I’m teaching for elementary students. In an earlier post I showed my somewhat-successful attempt at making my own Unger mummy. Well, after my practice run, I was able to lead my students more expertly. Their results have been excellent!

The first stage for them was to take my brainstorming sheet and begin designing their mummy, as you can see in the below snapshots.

Mummy design

Mummy design.

The next stage was the sculpting. Some students chose human-based mummies, while others chose cats. We even had one “ginger” mummy and a robot mummy (well, after all, we are a creative group!).

Mummy sculpting.

We had to wait a whole week (to let the self-hardening clay dry) before moving to the next phase. This is the really fun part: the embalming!

Mummy sculpting.

Mummy embalming.

The plaster of Paris strips that we use dry very quickly, so in only a few minutes after completing the embalming process, the students could then paint their creations.

Mummy decorating.

Mummy decorating.

I’m not sure what the Egyptian equivalent of “Voilá” is . . . but, in any case, here you have it: the Picture Perfect mummies. Well, they’re not all completed yet . . . we had a few “accidents,” which means two of the students started over. They can finish up next week. Oh, and many of the students sculpted some treasures to go with their mummies. Pretty darn cool, if I do say so myself.

Picture Perfect mummies.