Barbara Mason was ready. In the summer of 2019, she began working in earnest on Golden Road Arts, a long-envisioned free arts education resource for teachers, parents, and students. She secured grants, solicited donations, and gained the enthusiastic partnership of the Hillsboro School district. By March of 2020, she had purchased equipment – cameras and fancy computers – and was about to film the site’s first demonstration, on printmaking in Japan, in an elementary school classroom. She went into the school on Tuesday with the her collaborator and videographer, David Leonnig (who also happens to be Mason’s brother), to plan things out – lighting, supplies, flow. They were ready to shoot on Thursday. The school shut on Wednesday. It’s still closed.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
The printmaking-in-Japan demo, like pretty much everything else in March of 2020, was cancelled. Mason, however, was undeterred. Students weren’t going to have printmaking supplies at home. They probably weren’t going to have paint or any other specialist supplies, either. So Mason started filming videos with what she knew they would have: printer paper, pencils, and crayons. Mason and Leonnig got to work, and the first demonstration video at Golden Road Arts was put up in June.
Mason didn’t come to this project unprepared. At 75, she’s been an artist, as she describes it, “for a long time.” She’s a printmaker; she’s been represented at Waterstone Gallery since 1992. She’s served on many nonprofit boards and, perhaps most relevantly, she volunteered as the art teacher for her three sons’ classrooms throughout their elementary school education. In a familiar story of volunteer mission creep, teaching in her son’s classrooms expanded into other classrooms. One year, she recalls, she taught art at 32 schools.
What really motivated Mason to undertake this particular project was a guest-lecturer stint in a teachers’ education program. A friend was an administrator in the program, and for a couple of years she invited Mason to come give an arts education lecture – one, three-hour class per cohort per year – before the teachers were sent out into their classrooms. Teaching art, Mason explains, “is a skill, and if you don’t have [teachers] with a personal interest, it’s all seeds on pictures of turkeys.”
There are plenty of arts education sites on the internet, but few that are free. They may have one free lesson but then it’s five dollars here or there and ultimately, according to Mason, it can be 75 dollars for a full package for a deliverable classroom lesson. Mason was committed to keeping her site free.
Golden Road Arts, true to Mason’s vision, is free. Users are asked to register so that the organization can keep track of who is using the site, but that’s a minor hurdle to clear given the quality of arts education and years of wisdom that Mason is offering her viewers. The site is intended for teachers to use in classrooms, but the videos are equally accessible for parents to use with children at home.
Mason says that she “starts at the beginning” by explaining lines and shapes. Several videos focus on drawing, aimed at teaching students how to draw and tricks for “putting things together to look like a dog or a cat or a dinosaur…how do you make things a little closer to real?” A recent video teaches students how to draw faces. Drawing requires blissfully few materials.
In “Primary and Secondary Colors with Barbara and Friends,” Mason gives a color wheel-based lesson that includes mixing paint colors directly on her grandsons’ hands. The tactile aspect makes it memorable. “If you’ve got paint on your hands,” Mason explains, “you’re going to remember that.”
The lessons go beyond the basics, though. “Scratchfoam printing with water soluble inks” teaches the art of intaglio printmaking using foam squares and a dull pencil. Mason counsels that if you don’t have foam squares, you can make your own out of old styrofoam takeout containers. She offers a wealth of advice: the best type of paint or ink to use, how to execute the project with a full classroom of students, how to make sure the blocks print well, how to deal with students who want to print words, even how to make sure everyone goes home with their own projects.
In many ways, Mason’s vision was “pandemic proof.” She was always planning on making videos for a website, she just thought she’d be doing the demos in the classroom. Now she does the videos alone in her studio, occasionally accompanied by her grandsons.
Mason and her team have learned a good deal along the way. Early on, they shot the videos in long sessions and edited them down. Now, they’ve dispensed with the long filmings and just do the lessons in one live “chunk.” They were spending way too much time on editing. They use orange paint instead of yellow now because they learned that the yellow paint washes out on camera.
The site itself is not yet flawless. The “log in” function often brought me back to a home page, and the way the videos are arranged was not intuitive to me. There are links to lessons by level, but it is separated out only into “Elementary” and “Middle,” and the ranges within these levels seem expansive enough to warrant being broken down further. In conversation with Mason, she spoke at length of the necessity of learning art skills in a sequential order – starting with the basics and then moving on – but the videos weren’t tagged to facilitate this. Equally helpful for teachers would be search functions based on the types of materials they have access to. I trust these minor issues will be resolved as the site continues to develop and grow.
Right now, Mason is the “star” of all of the demonstration videos, but there are plans to include other artists in the future. Yong Hong Zhong, a watercolorist who used to work with Disney Animation Studios, is slated to give a demonstration, as is the painter Michael Schlichting. The former Poet Laureate of Oregon Paulann Petersen will give a lesson to teachers on how to teach students to write poetry.
The site has a “gallery” arm, though this is still under development. Currently, there are four artists in addition to Mason listed on the “gallery” page: Cheryl Cameron, Gayle Pedemonte, Martin Conley, and Tony Furtado. Mason has plans to expand this component of the site with the intention that a percentage of the sales from the online gallery will support the organization.
Providing supplies for students is part of the vision as well. Thus far, Golden Road Arts has been able to facilitate the delivery of “36 sets of everything” for a Head Start in Hillsboro, a set of watercolor supplies for an elementary school teacher, and another large delivery of supplies for another disadvantaged school in the Hillsboro area. Golden Roads has been working with the nonprofit Dreaming Zebra Foundation to secure these supplies as well as through partnerships with Blick for general materials and with Speedball for printmaking supplies and inks.
Even as Mason claims she is “slowing down,” she is clearly just getting started. She wants students everywhere to have access to quality arts education because “students who have art in their curriculum do better in all their core subjects.” Her brother and collaborator, David Leonnig, points out that “art is a key reason that many students who are at risk stay in school; they find hope in the arts.” The duo are committed to ensuring that art is offered not only to students at wealthy schools with ample resources, but to all.
Many grant providers want potential grantees to be around for three years before they are considered “established” enough to apply for grants – they want to see that the funds go to settled and stable organizations. I’d argue that Golden Road Arts should be eligible for an acceleration of this timeline. The ability to launch with such vision, pivot, deliver quality content, and even thrive in the midst of 2020 shows remarkable aplomb and grit. I can only imagine what Mason and team will be able to do with more resources and under more hospitable circumstances.