Creating Skills For Life: Art, Confidence and the Power of Early Learning
Originally published by Kern County Family Magazine and written by: Callie Collins
Jennifer Gardiner, artist, illustrator, and author, has a way of making projects come to life. And, in so doing, she has changed the lives of local children in ways both visible and yet to be seen.
Artists sometimes stand in the shadows of their own work, which could literally be the case for Gardiner, who is known for making large-scale pieces for Vacation Bible Schools, art upon request, and art for art’s sake. Her most recent project, a four-foot-by-four-foot commissioned portrait of a dog, brought her a measure of joy, but there is a quiet kind of humility in the way she describes her art, a quality that underscores the earnestness of it all.
Only an artist close to their projects and truly capable could create a 16-foot tall parakeet with a sense of its existence being an everyday occurrence – especially considering the project wasn’t something she chose to keep forever despite all the effort that went into its creation. Art is an integral part of life at her studio, Jennifer’s Designs.
Gardiner is a small business owner who has known other titles, too. While she and her husband operate a family farm about 20 minutes outside of Bakersfield, the California native’s creativity has fueled her personal and professional life, with projects large and small. One particular talent, however, stands out less neatly described by her many professional titles: a thoughtful approach to children characterizes the work she chooses to pursue with them. “Teacher” is a title she has known through private sessions, along with “artist in residence” through working with nearby schools.
While art itself is clearly fulfilling to Gardiner, it is matched by the joy of seeing children learn.
“You never know how you can influence someone’s life,” said Gardiner as she reflected over a lifetime of being involved with art and young artists. “I am passionate about working with children. That’s where my heart lies. Ages 4 to 14 are absolutely magical.”
Welcoming children back to her studio space in 2021 is what Gardiner looks forward to, whether through neighborhood classes or longer sessions this summer. Camp offerings cover work in a variety of media, including watercolors, chalk, block printing, pottery, sculpting, and seasonal themes. A spectrum approach exposes learners of all ages to hands-on opportunities, most of which may be totally unfamiliar.
The newness of it all adds to the experience, along with fun on the farm. A typical summer session could also feature a hayride and visits to see chickens, cows, and horses. The in-person experience and chance to interact in a new setting will be a welcome change for students after the current pandemic subsides.
“Pastures surround the art studio on our family’s farmland. It’s inviting. The farm is nestled in the countryside and I feel blessed every day,” said Gardiner, whose studio came about on the property as an alternative to the huge spaces she was having to rent to house massive projects. Items like a lifesize Jeep, jungle scenes, and other creations from sculpture to papier-mâché were better suited to a space originally intended as one of three RV storage bays on the farm. While the space no longer houses vehicles, it does continue to greet Gardiner and her guests, students of all ages.
Positive correlations between outdoor play, art, and future problem-solving skills continue to emerge in child development. Gardiner has seen first-hand the pivotal role early exposure to art can play.
“All I know is what art has done for me and what I’ve seen it do for others. Art allows for problem-solving. I observe that all the time. When kids get off track, it happens right in front of you. The paint has spilled. The child has messed up. What they were afraid could happen has happened. Now what?” said Gardiner. “Well, I always encourage them to work that mess into art, and it often becomes the best part. So what does that do for a child? They figure things out and learn not to quit. They learn how to work with the situation when things don’t go their way and how new plans can be better than the original plan. With young ones, using too much glue is extremely common. What they learn there, very quickly, is that a little bit goes a long way.”
According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), supporting creativity in early learning connects critical thinking, math skills, spatial reasoning, and even language arts. Fine and gross motor skills that help children control their bodies and develop the skills they’ll use for, say, handwriting and more precise fingerwork come together in art class.
“I also see confidence when kids are working on a project and they make it come together despite some difficulties,” said Gardiner. “The area I wish parents would focus on more as they go to teach their children is simple shapes. Kids can learn the simple shapes and everything has simple shapes when you train your eye, which can help later with math and proportion. You learn balance, measurements, and how to take a design off a piece of typing paper and blow it up to fill a big space like a church sanctuary. We used to have to do all that the old-fashioned way and, although technology can help us, just knowing the basics helps.”
Gardiner cites skills she learned in junior high mechanical drawing as critical to her career. Despite having learned them in seventh or eighth grade, she considers them essential to her ability to make a living as an artist. Bakersfield College art teacher Chalita B. Robinson helped teach her drawing, sculpting, and calligraphy.
“I can personally speak to the confidence art gives a person. I would look at other girls’ handwriting and think ‘Oh, she has such cute writing and I don’t.’ That was handwriting insecurity. I took a calligraphy class and that calligraphy allowed me to have a fun side to me,” Gardiner explained, who is grateful for the professional instruction she received but also for the example she saw from a young age of her mother’s creativity.
“My mother, Jeannette Townsend, was the most creative person in my life,” said Gardiner. “I know why I do what I do. It’s because of what I experienced with a mother who could do anything. We grew up in Oildale and my mother could take on any project. She would make cabinets, she would sew, and she was just fearless.”
That confidence has recently been important for Gardiner as well.
“I was happy to donate my time and give it all to the Lord for 18 years,” she says of her role in designing and creating master projects for Valley Baptist Church. Children who studied with her or helped closely on projects have carried forward many of the skills imparted. Among them, Gardiner is still in touch with a set of twins who continue to lead projects now as adults, one of whom owns her own art studio. “It was time to pass the baton.
A different stage of creating began for Gardiner through the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
“I had always wanted to publish a book, but I didn’t think it was going to happen. I thought I could do the art, but I didn’t know about the story,” she said. “It all came together. Even though I’m a granny, at 66, I’m suddenly also an author.”
“A Trip Around the Pond” was published by Westwood Books Publishing in May. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com but also through local retailers like Kern County Museum and Redhouse Beef.
The book has also brought fulfillment for Gardiner. Knowing that skills taught will continue to inspire the next generation of artists is what motivates her to continue creating. Not unlike her art, those abilities, large and small, will resurface through children’s lives.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I also want to give the opportunity,” she said.
Find out more about upcoming classes at www.jennifergardinerbooks.com/.