Artfully ARThur

Arthur character, George with artist Kevin Sampson in a gallery exhibition of Sampson’s sculptures. Courtesy of PBS Kids

In my previous post, I wrote about the newly released hit television series, Abbott Elementary‘s use of comedy to highlight the experiences and humanity of educators, while raising awareness about real-life issues within schools throughout the United States (see: It’s Artfully Elementary).

Another show with a strong pedagogical framework and uplifting messages about teaching and learning, is the animated children’s program, Arthur. I remember watching Arthur way back in my kindergarten and first grade days, and I am not surprised that it is still being produced. It clearly has a longstanding history of both educating and entertaining kids, which is largely due to its presentation of well rounded and progressive themes in a differentiated and developmentally appropriate manner. The show has frequently addressed gender, sexuality and accessibility. A study regarding how diversity is integrated within the plot of an episode, and how these topics were understood by characters and explained for viewers, showed that “differences in gender, sexuality, and accessibility were both normalized and celebrated” (Dawson and Hitchborn, 2020). In addition to socially engaged issues, Arthur is replete with educational content to foster interest in disciplines such as the arts, literacy, math, social studies and life skills.

Arthur represents the perspectives of diverse identities through its cast of anthropomorphic characters and guest stars. One guest star is Kevin Blythe Sampson, a self-taught artist who uses found materials to create vessels and sculptures. In his appearance in Arthur, Sampson helps George, one of the main characters, find his own artistic voice by learning to carefully observe quotidian objects and environments. Through a lesson on materials-based explorations, Sampson shows George how he can repurpose discarded items to create works of art that embody profound personal messages.

The episode is titled “George Scraps His Sculpture,” and has an overarching message of finding inspiration through the artmaking process and the environment, rather than from already produced art objects. Initially, George, who is creating a sculpture for an art fair, experiences a creative block. He attempts to create work in the style of iconic pieces of art like Rodin’s The Thinker. However, all his efforts are in vain. That is until he meets Sampson who helps him understand that insightful works of art have significant meaning to both the artist and the viewer. After spending time at the recycling facility, which included a lesson from Sampson in aesthetics and conceptual meaning, George created a masterpiece, which he called Friendship Train. The sculpture was made using bits and pieces of trash he collected from his friends.

Instead of copying a renowned work of art like The Thinker, George made his own innovative artwork by thinking outside the box and channeling his sense of self and compassionate perspective on life.

George and the audience learns that there is no single model for making a good work of art, or a formulaic method to being an artist. The real value of artistic engagement comes from utilizing studio habits of mind like being able to deeply observe the world around us; question the potential to turn any object into a creative medium; make connections between materials and processes and the prior knowledge of ourselves and others; and create meaning that is both personally and collectively significant.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Grace Dawson & Ashley Hitchborn, “Diversity Through Representation of Characters with Differing Gender Roles, Sexuality and Accessibility in Arthur,” Plymouth State University, 2020.

Kuperinsky, Amy. “N.J. artist gets animated on ‘Arthur,’ brings local students along for the ride,”, 2 March 2021.

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