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EARTHWATCH

Drawing on Nature : Mona Brookes makes environmental awareness part of the lesson when she teaches art.

June 04, 1992|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ojai artist and author Mona Brookes teaches drawing. But she doesn't always point her students in the direction of a cat or a photo of a whale, because Brookes also teaches about the environment.

Sometimes she gives students an essay on the plight of animals endangered by environmental changes and asks them to illustrate it.

Brookes has for a decade been in the business of teaching kids to be "visually aware."

She has students, she says, coming back to her saying things like "Now I see things popping up in nature I never noticed before" and "I never noticed the natural condition of this place (Ojai) before."

Such remarks prompted her to shift her focus from strictly art teaching to "teaching art across the curriculum"--to use the current lingo of school management.

Rather like Stanford University's decision to make students write essays and otherwise hone their writing skills even when studying physics or economics, Brookes is busy training secondary school teachers to use art to get kids performing better in arithmetic, reading and science.

Locally, teachers from Camarillo, Fillmore, Pleasant Valley, Oak View, Oxnard, Santa Paula and Ventura have gone through her training sessions--sometimes the teachers pay their own fee. Bonnie Brewington, assistant superintendent of public instruction in Santa Paula, told me: "When we got Mona in to train our teachers we even had her speak to the parents. She brings such a sense of adventure. And this gave the science fair kids an extraordinary feeling of achievement with their save-the-rain-forest project."

Some teachers learned of Brookes' activity by reading two of her books, "Drawing With Children" and "Drawing for Older Children and Teens."

Both books emphasize nature drawing and portraiture as a means of deepening one's understanding of the natural world and the psychological makeup of the people we meet.

Certainly Brookes is not the first educator to suggest that students learn more and learn better when teachers integrate subjects.

And there are a number of art books and courses that encourage us to unlock our inner selves, to find the child within, to dig up the real me and you.

But Brookes, and her colleagues in the dozen schools around the United States who use her method, are also interested in the physical world--the environment.

In Ojai, Brookes writes an environmental column for a local newspaper.

Before it is printed, she gives copies of the column to her students to see how they would visualize the environmental issue involved.

They go out and study the matter.

"They get to really see the problem that way," Brookes says.

In one of her books, Brookes recounts the story of a student and her father who came to the studio in Ojai.

Intrigued by what was happening to his daughter's sensibilities, Ray Gottlieb decided to join the class as well.

Subsequently, as Brookes tells it, Gottlieb was gazing out at a mountain view when he remarked: "I never noticed certain things before--like perspective. The hills are layered. The trees are closer than the hills and some are in danger (diseased). Things are popping up all over I never saw before."

Gottlieb, by the way, is an optometrist.

FYI

Both "Drawing for Older Children and Teens" and "Drawing With Children" by Mona Brookes are published by Jeremy Tarcher and are available at major bookstores throughout the county. Classes for kids, adults and professional educators are taught regularly in Ventura County. Call 646-7260.

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