Art in Action Volunteer Spotlight: Margaret Sena
Margaret Sena is currently the Assistant Dean and Associate Director of El Centro Chicano y Latino. She helped rewrite several lessons to make them more relevant and volunteered her time to educate students on the history behind the art lessons. As a class coordinator, she works to ensure that Art in Action is representing a diverse range of artists, as well as encouraging students to think about why particular figures have been excluded. In her own words: “Representation in curricula really does matter.”
We honor Margaret’s commitment to Art in Action’s mission and thank her for all the work and effort she has put into our cause. She keeps us mindful and open-minded, and we are so grateful to have her on our team.
1) How did you first get involved with AiA, and how have you remained involved over the years?
I became involved about six years ago and was excited to expose my son’s second grade class to historical methods. Having earned a Ph.D. in European history and having taught in university settings, I was eager to help elementary school students think about AiA masterpieces as artifacts or sources from a particular time or place. But I also discovered that AiA could be an excellent way to teach about art and artists whose work had been historically marginalized within traditional art history curricula.
As a docent, I also try to educate myself as I prepare to teach lessons outside of my training in European history. This is important not only to make up for the areas where I know less, but also so I can teach about artists like Faith Ringgold, Ruth Osawa, or Diego Rivera with the same seriousness as Vincent Van Gogh, for example. I have drawn upon the excellent guidelines for teaching the history of Native American communities available from the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center. These were especially useful in teaching the lesson on Cheyenne shield art or the fantastic lesson on the Haida artist, Bill Reid. I’ve now taught many lessons as a docent and have served as the class coordinator for the past six years. I love that, along with exposing the students to a wide array of artists, artistic traditions, and art history from around the world, I’ve learned a lot along the way myself.
2) Why do you think arts education is important for kids?
Arts education contributes to a balanced curriculum. Educating students in a wide range of disciplines and subjects allows us to teach to the interests of the widest number of students. More importantly, a broad education that includes the arts allows students to become better thinkers in whatever discipline or subject that most interests them. We can become better scientists and mathematicians when we can communicate that information well in written form or visually, or when we learn the history of these disciplines. We can become better artists when we understand how mathematical principles are expressed in the natural world or in what we see.
3) How do you think having art as a child impacted your life?
I always loved drawing and art, and my mom always made sure we had a good supply of markers, crayons, and paper around for art at home. When I was about 10, someone gave me an art set for a birthday present. The set had watercolors, tempera paints, oil pastels, charcoal, and a booklet that showed how to paint landscapes. I loved that set and spent lots of time drawing and painting landscapes and portraits with the supplies and made homemade cards. I was fortunate to be able to explore being creative on my own. The practice of art can be so relaxing and restorative.
4) Do you create art yourself? What is your current project, medium or inspiration?
In my adult life, only when I’m prepping for a lesson, sadly. One thing I love about this program is that it allows me to carve out time to practice and learn about whatever medium I’m teaching. I’ve loved learning about specific techniques in watercolor painting, for example, and improving my general skills with paint, pastel, and even line drawing. I can’t emphasize enough how personally enjoyable I’ve found it to learn and practice these skills as I prepare for lessons.
5) What is your most memorable/favorite volunteering experience with AiA?
This year brought new challenges as we moved to online education. In the class where I was the coordinator and a docent, we had three lessons remaining for the year when we went online. I hated the idea of losing our art curriculum, so I spoke to the teacher about it. She was so supportive, and sent me resources about how to create a document camera from my cell phone. This allowed me to talk to the students and then switch to filming my paper to show the students what I was drawing.
I taught two lessons this way for my daughter’s fourth grade class: Georgia O’Keeffe and Wayne Thiebaud. In both cases, the students amazed me and I had a great time teaching. I had to make a few more demo projects to show because we didn’t have access to our school and because I was trying to show students how they could use whatever supplies they had at home for the project. So I spent a few hours making art as I prepped for the lessons. I remember telling my colleagues at work how prepping to teach the lesson on Georgia O’Keeffe was the most relaxing and enjoyable thing I had done that week. For the next meeting with this group, I offered to lead them in the lesson. We did this and it was so much fun to watch my work colleagues have just as much fun drawing flowers as the fourth-graders had. They also created some really beautiful pieces. Aside from all of its intellectual value, it was a reminder to me of the therapeutic value of art.
6) Anything else to add about AiA, your experiences with art, the value of art, etc?
I really love volunteering with this organization. I occasionally reach out to the staff to ask questions or to provide feedback on how we can improve, change, or make the curricula more inclusive. The staff at AiA has been so responsive and open to new ideas. And when I reflect on these interactions, I think we are really lucky to have that kind of leadership at AiA. Not every organization is like this. As we are seeing right now in our country, not everyone embraces change that easily. There is lots of work to do to ensure that art history curricula are more inclusive, especially in the case of historically marginalized artists of color and female artists. But if any organization can work to improve on this, it’s AiA. And it’s our job as docents to work to make that happen too.
Art in Action has provided accessible arts education to 86,000 students in over 30 states nationwide and we’re still expanding. However, there are 4 million kids without accessible visual art lessons. Join us in our mission to bring arts education worldwide!