To Joan Vaupen, a soft-spoken art instructor, teaching elementary school is not simply a matter of handing out supplies and asking students to create.
Vaupen began a recent lesson for a group of sixth-graders at Santa Monica's Roosevelt Elementary School with a brief history about the use of symbols in writings from ancient Egypt and the West African civilization of Dahomey.
She showed slides and displayed examples, then challenged her students: "I want each student to draw a picture that would illustrate what you do best," she said.
The students responded with enthusiasm.
Gabrielle Tuite, 12, drew a telephone. "I like to talk a lot," she said.
Nicole Johnson, 11, drew a book. "I like to write. Someday I hope to write a book," she said.
There were pictures of golf clubs, video games, soccer balls and more.
Vaupen said the symbols would be put together to make a larger picture that would depict the classroom's personality.
The lesson has many purposes, she said. "It teaches students something about history and it helps build up their self-esteem."
Building student self-esteem through the arts is one of the teaching techniques that brought state and national recognition to the roving art specialist for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
The California Art Education Assn. selected her in October as the outstanding elementary art teacher in the state, while the National Art Education Assn. has named her outstanding elementary art instructor in the Pacific region, representing the Western states and Hawaii. That award will be presented to her in April in Boston.
In addition to teaching up to 20 art classes a week at the district's 15 schools, Vaupen has made a name for herself by organizing student art competitions, writing books on how to teach art and helping to organize opposition to state budget cuts in the arts.
This spring, she will teach the district's art teachers new methods. Last summer, she represented the district in a series of lectures held by the Getty Summer Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts.
Vaupen, a Seattle native who began teaching in the Santa Monica-Malibu district in 1959, said art helps students "understand, relate and experience images."
'A Different Language'
"Students are bombarded with images," she said. "They need ways of interpreting them, of bringing them out so that they understand life. Art in many ways is a different language. It is what children need to prepare them to read and understand the world around them.
"Kids understand rock music, but they also need to understand other forms of music or, for example, the role of calligraphy in Moslem art or aspects of the Renaissance. We judge a culture by its art."
Vaupen and Beverly Hills art instructor Joan Allemond, the president of the California Art Education Assn., have organized an art exhibit each spring for pupils from Beverly Hills, Santa Monica-Malibu and Culver City schools.
"The children get to see what other students their age are doing, and that is important," Vaupen said.
Allemond said Vaupen "is a very diligent worker who has given up an unbelievable about of her time to help students learn the arts."
In recent years, however, teaching art has become difficult because most schools, under pressure to balance their budgets, have cut back on art programs.
"Every year since the passage of Proposition 13, art programs continue to be threatened," Vaupen said. "Each year we drop a few more programs, scrap a few more courses, especially as districts place more requirements (in math and sciences) on students."
Santa Monica, she said, has been very supportive of the arts, but like many other districts throughout the state it has been forced to cut back in supplies and personnel.
From 1981 to 1984, Vaupen served as chairman of a coalition of groups that fought proposed budget cuts for the visual and performing arts. Vaupen was credited with encouraging the arts coalition to hire a lobbyist in 1983. "I felt that teachers who teach full time can't follow the day-to-day activities in the Legislature," she said.
"Her understanding of legislation needed in the fine arts is very necessary for the survival of the arts," said Larry Oviatt, president of the Southern California chapter of the art education association.
Still, it is in the classroom where Vaupen says she receives the most satisfaction.
"She has a way of seeing potential talent in children, even the very little ones, and bringing that talent to life," said Peggy Lyons, a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu school board.
Vaupen contends that "children should be allowed to experiment, make a mess when experimenting with drawing and painting at home. They should be encouraged, never criticized or made fun of, because it is through art that they are able to express some of their deepest feelings."
At the age of 4, Vaupen said, she first exhibited an interest in art, drawing pictures of people, animals and landscapes. Often, she said, her experiments created a mess. "My parents permitted it," she said. "My bedroom was always too cold so they let me draw on the kitchen table. I was fortunate to have their support."