Art at Hawthorne Valley

by Sushannah Laurange

This article appears in Hawthorne Valley’s 2021 Annual Impact Report: the 50th Anniversary Edition. Click here to view the full publication.

“…School, agricultural enterprise, and workshops, both artistic and practical, are to form one organic whole; so that neither is the school merely situated on a farm, nor is the agricultural enterprise, gardens and farm, only outwardly connected with the school, nor are the artistic activities merely a separate entity. For by flowing into both the educational and agricultural parts of the organism, the arts complete the circulation of the life of the whole.” – Karl Ege, “The Rudolf Steiner Farm School” 1972

When many people think of “art,” an image forms in their heads of paintings hanging on a gallery wall, or perhaps a theatrical performance they once saw, or maybe a memory of drawings made in elementary school. Art as artifact. In our American culture, the arts are not always held in high esteem in people’s minds–some might consider it more a hobby or an elitist activity, something to be dropped from schools when budget cuts are needed.

At Hawthorne Valley, “art” is not something we simply tacked onto our mission, or an a la carte item to be cut from the menu of education. Art and the creative process are an essential part of our work, giving expression to the feeling realm of our lives and work together, and making the space for colleagues, students, campers, and visitors to connect on a deeper level. Since our founding in 1972, Hawthorne Valley has sought to live out the vision that co-founder Karl Ege set forth, echoing Rudolf Steiner’s own philosophy of threefold human being to integrate the arts in all that we do.

Over the years, Hawthorne Valley has served as the home of arts initiatives, including Free Columbia, The Magical Puppet Tree, and the new Lightforms Art Center, but far more often, the arts interweave within our daily work and built environment. Murals dot the campus, the gardens—carefully cultivated by Gary Ocean, former Director of Campus Services–bring beauty to the whole campus in the height of summer, summer campers participate in natural, land-based crafts, and fine and theatrical arts are integrated into the yearly experience of students at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School.

Left: Flight by Martina Angela Muller sits in a garden near the crosswalk between the Farm Store and School; above: Ceramic birds created by students from the Urban Assembly School in Brooklyn adorn the Milking Barn.

Like many Waldorf schools, Hawthorne Valley’s curriculum focusses on educating the thinking, feeling, and willing of each individual child. This is often expressed as learning through the head, heart, and hands. The arts are incorporated into Main Lessons through chalkboard drawings to illustrate subjects and the artistic exercise of each student creating their own Main Lesson book to demonstrate their learning. Our educators don’t expect students to become the next Michelangelo, but rather through artistic practice, students open up their senses and are able to think more creatively.

Sara Parrilli has taught at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School for eight years. An alumni of Green Meadow Waldorf School in Spring Valley, NY, she completed her Waldorf teacher education at Hawthorne Valley’s Alkion Center for Adult Education and also took workshops with Free Columbia. In her role as Art Teacher at HVS, Sara has worked with all grades in some capacity in that time.

As students move through the grades, Sara uses art to complement their learning in a way that meets students at their developmental stage of life. From working out of the soul mood gesture of colors with children in early grades, to helping high school students explore their sense of individuality, Sara has seen the way students have grown over time through artistic exercises and the way art has helped students grow in their understanding of a topic.

“You can take any topic, especially challenging topics, and transform it through artistic work, and usually something new is revealed in the process,” she says. “Whether it’s climate crisis or working with endangered species or any complex topic that’s a part of our lives right now. These are things you can’t pick up and put in your pocket, but you can carry it differently when you’re working with it artistically. It helps bring in new pictures of how to work and hold something.”

Study of Man No. 3 by Sara Parrilli

Watercolor painting by Sara Parrilli entitled “Study of Man No. 3”

Martina Angela Muller, co-director of Lightforms Art Center and co-director of the Alkion Center, has taught art for over 30 years. She served as an art teacher at Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School for many years, in addition to offering classes and workshops for adults. She adds that the integration of art into lessons on the sciences, literature, and math helps deepen a student’s understanding, making the subject more than just memorization of facts. For example, if a class on animal studies is learning about elephants, she might lead students through an artistic exercise to draw an elephant, bringing in aspects of science from the color and shape of an elephant, to the feeling of and characteristics of an elephant’s natural surroundings.

“There are so many different aspects coming together,” she says. “Science informs the artistic process, and then the artistic process in turn makes it so that the children would probably never forget a lot of facts about the elephant.”

 

In addition to the visual arts, performance arts play an integral role throughout Waldorf Education, bridging the gap between the heart and hands. From the earliest years, students experience storytelling through puppetry, helping these young children to form images that help them connect with the deeper themes of a tale. As children progress through the grades, they become the storytellers through class plays that incorporate all the students in the class to bring the performance to life. Some act. Some help with set design. All walk away with a sense of accomplishment in their individual and group success in staging the play. Together, the students create and experience beauty through the process, but they also undergo a strengthening of will as they grow in this art form. Many high school students at Hawthorne Valley have also attributed the dramatic work with building their self-confidence and public speaking abilities.

Equally important to this balance of beauty and will is the role of music. In early childhood programs, teachers sing as they guide the children through tasks, circle time, and transitions from one activity to the next. At HVS, this foundation is built upon in first and second grades with flutes and recorders, leading to the start of the formal music program in third grade.

Alison Eldrege, HVS Music Program Director, is a trained orchestral violinist and violist. She has been trained in the Suzuki method and Waldorf music education. She has taught music for many years, and joined HVS in September 2021.

“[Rudolf] Steiner placed a high importance on music as an art form because he said music was the closest to the spiritual world,” Alison says. “Because children are closest to the spiritual world, they are best met in spirit through music.”

The repetition of songs in the early years, coupled with fine motor skill development from finger knitting and beeswax modeling, help children to be ready in 3rd grade to begin learning stringed instruments. They continue strings instruction through 5th grade. In middle and high school, the students form orchestras, bands, and choirs. Students are also encouraged to practice their instruments daily and to take private music lessons as they are able.

For Alison, it’s difficult to quantify the impact music lessons have on students, but she says she regularly sees students leave class much more relaxed than when they entered.

“There’s something very social about music making as a group, creating harmony with your friends,” she says. “And the daily practice is also a way of getting to know yourself and to problem solve. Learning an instrument is an act of will, and helps students strengthen their will forces as they are creating beauty.”

The symbiotic relationship of art informing knowledge of self and the world and that knowledge in turn shaping art is something Hawthorne Valley hopes permeates all aspects of our programs and work life. In addition to the Waldorf school and programs for children, which all integrate artistic experiences, Hawthorne Valley has hosted many artistic workshops over the years. Today, the Alkion Center hosts annual art intensives open to the public.

But the artistic is never meant to remain in the realm of academia and programs. At Hawthorne Valley, we seek to also recognize and honor the artistry in our everyday work: in the rhythms and balance of the farm as they rotate crops and pastures and work with sentient beings; in the skill and attention that our artisan food producers give to their craft; in the mastery of the educator who leads a class through the grades or shepherds students through their high school years.

As Sara says, “The arts are also about bringing attention to something…and when you bring your attention to something, you’re bringing yourself and your presence to it. With this attention to detail, [we] also re-enliven or awaken our senses in a different way, and it makes us more sensitive to the finer details in life.”

Much of our work doesn’t automatically invoke a sense of art, but similar to artistic practice, these vocations each require the same attention and creative thinking to use the knowledge in front of us—whether that be sensing the needs of a student or facing the challenges of growing food in a changing climate—to adapt and grow in our understanding and practice.

Coworkers at Hawthorne Valley are also encouraged to express themselves artistically as a community experience. For many years, the Farm Store café gallery reserved space for employees throughout the organization to display their work. During a small renovation in 2014, store management chose to incorporate chalkboards into the store décor, not only connecting with the chalkboard drawing culture of Waldorf education but also giving staff members opportunities to bring artistic work into their daily tasks—and enhancing customers’ experience of the store with beautiful, unique signage that changes throughout the seasons.

Over the last decade, current and former colleagues have felt led to add murals or sculpture installations throughout our campus to tell a story, or to simply bring color and beauty to an otherwise unattractive space. We are so thankful for the talented individuals who dedicated their time and attention to these works that we now enjoy on a daily basis. This integration of beauty in our built environment serves as a reminder of our shared humanity. While each of us has our own preference for style and medium, the arts invite us to share an experience, to nourish our feeling realm, and to renew our connections with each other and the world around us.

Over her career as a Waldorf art teacher and practicing artist, Martina has witnessed the transformative power of the arts many times. Reflecting on that, she says. “I feel very, very, very strongly about what observation can actually do to heal relationships of humans to the earth and the plant and animal life, and also amongst each other; and [the positive impact of] the withholding of judgment that comes from the deep appreciation of what you see in front of you.”

This high view stands as the ideal for the arts at Hawthorne Valley as we mark this 50th anniversary, and it is our hope that the arts will continue to “complete the circulation of the life of the whole,” connecting us to our roots and providing us with renewal as we prepare to begin a new decade in our biography.