Does Art Make Kids More Socially Intelligent? Interview with Artist-in-Residence, Kaaren Pixton


chools are in crisis, we know this. Just as we know that arts are the most frequently cut. And we’ve mourned this as a personal loss for students. We understand that kids thrive when given opportunities to develop and express themselves creatively.



Kaaren Pixton, artist-in-residence, working with Prune Hill Elementary school children on their community mural.


"Fish Conversation," created by Portland metro area school children, working with artist-in-resident, Kaaren Pixton

“Fish Conversation,” created by Prune Hill Elementary school children, working with artist-in-residence, Kaaren Pixton


We know as well that there are broader personal benefits to participating in the arts: opportunities to forge novel connections between diverse ideas; persistence in staying with a task even in the face of challenge; learning from one’s mistakes; and becoming deeper critical thinkers.

But art education as a means to increase social intelligence? To address interpersonal problems? Art as a way to reduce bullying, teasing, cliquey behaviors and jealousies?

Absolutely, says Liane Brouillette, of the University of California, Irvine. Brouillette interviewed teachers who had participated in an artist-in-residence program that brought professional artists into their inner-city classrooms for one hour per week.

What she found:[quote]Activities such as dramatic play or dancing in unison provide a venue for learning collaboration and cooperation.”[/quote]

The acting exercises in particular, notes Brouillette, “provided for discussion of emotions, bullying and friendship — sensitive topics that were difficult to address elsewhere in the curriculum without students feeling embarrassment or defensiveness.”

Certainly it makes sense that participating in a school play would offer students a chance to build social skills and emotional expressiveness and sensitivity. But do kids reap the same benefits when working together in a less verbal, more contemplative medium?

What happens when kids collaborate on a mural?


Artist-in-resident, Kaaren Pixton, with "World Playground: Candy Lane"

Artist-in-residence, Kaaren Pixton, with “World Playground,” Candy Lane school


Kaaren Pixton profile pic

Kaaren Pixton

Ceramicist and visual artist, Kaaren Pixton has worked in children’s art education for nearly twenty years, including twice at the Portland metro school two of my own children attended.

Her special skill for creating community art experiences first caught my attention when I was a city librarian looking for that perfect artist to help coordinate a community art installation for our newly remodeled library.

I had been enchanted for years by the tiles schoolchildren had designed, under Pixton’s guidance, for the front of the local Willamette Primary school in West Linn, Oregon: Would she be willing to head-up a similar project, but this time open it up to the entire community?


Collaborative mosaic created by combining individual tiles designed by Willamette Primary school children. West Linn, Oregon

Collaborative mosaic created by combining individual tiles designed by Willamette Primary school children, Oregon



Each autobiographic tile depicts the child who created it enjoying a favorite activity.


Lucky for our town, Pixton agreed, and soon, grandparents, young couples and even very young children, including my own three-year-old son, were working side-by-side to hand-sculpt fantastical ceramic heads, sea creatures and mythological animals of their own design for a series of whimsical totem poles.

Before the project, very few of the participants saw themselves as particularly artistic. Fewer still, knew one another.


Community-built ceramic totem poles, West Linn Public Library, Oregon 600x800

Community-built ceramic totem poles, West Linn Public Library, Oregon

By the end, we had a family.

Last year, Kaaren was invited to return as an artist-in-residence to Willamette Primary, the same school where she had helped the children create the tiles that had first captured my attention.

This time, the project was a collaborative mural, created Eric Carle-style, with the children first painting pieces of Tyvek paper, then fashioning from them animals and other shapes that represented their life and community.

Kaaren Pixton: “The theme was, ‘This is our place, let’s take care of it. This is our time, let’s make the most of it.’ And that was broad enough to allow every class in this very large school to choose something to create that reflected who they were and what they cared about. So they could all be a part of this. They created houses, cars, the river, fish; it was all of this stuff that was part of their lives in the community.”


Willamette Primary school mural

Willamette Primary school mural


Just as she had when we’d created the totem poles for the library, Pixton again made a point of enlisting all members of the school community to add to the mural, from the principal to the school secretaries.

Every step of the process centered around the goal of inclusion.

Kaaren Pixton: “The classified workers, the support staff, they all wanted to be involved. So they made a tree that was all their own. Some parents and other volunteers helped with the background. There’s always room for anyone who wants to participate.”


Tree Mural at Willamette Primary 600x902

Tree created by the classified staff of Willamette Primary, 2011


And, of course, the children themselves.

[quote]There are so many things children can say with a work of art. And with a public installation, they can continue to say it, in many different ways over time.”[/quote]

While the new school children and Pixton were working on the Eric Carle mural, kids who a decade prior had worked on the first mural of tiles and now were college students, dropped by to see both their old piece and what the new batch of kids were working on.

Meanwhile, the school children working on the new installation, which included a replica of the front of their school, made sure to include images of the previous tile installation done by the first group of students.

Kaaren Pixton: “This was entirely their own idea. They wanted to include the work by the previous group of kids. It was really sweet.”



Willamette Primary mural of their town, including a replica of their own school, with the front decorated by representations of the tiles previous school children had created. Children reflecting children reflecting children.


Kids creating art paying homage to other kids’ art, with those other kids watching them do it. A never-ending conversation.

Kaaren Pixton: “And you know, because it’s a permanent installation, they’re passing this everyday. And each time, they see new things in it, make new connections.”

[quote]It impacts everybody, the whole community. Everybody comes to help, and there is this amazing energy around it.”[/quote]

What’s also marvelous, says Pixton, is that the experience is so different for each child.

Was there any possessiveness? I asked. Did the children stake out their own areas or did they see the entire piece as something for all to contribute to and share?

There was room for both, says Pixton, contributions that gave children opportunity to shine individually, but also the chance to be part of community.

Kaaren Pixton: “For example, in the picnic area they made individual people, but some of them decided they wanted to put a bunch of them onto one blanket and so they created a little family.”


Willamette Primary mural, West Linn, Oregon

Willamette Primary mural, West Linn, Oregon


Kaaren Pixton: “And where they did a larger tree, they would each cut pieces and bring them up to me.”

[quote]So we were building the tree piece by piece. And every now and then, we would stop and stand around it and look at it, and there was this,… reverence.”[/quote]

Kaaren Pixton: “Whenever there was a hole, a part that still needed to be filled in, I’d enlist the kids to add extra pieces to pull it all together. Or they’d say on their own that they wanted more trees on the riverbank.”



Mural, Willamette Primary


“Scot Wavras’s class, for instance, added cars.”



Bus, created by students of Scot Wavra’s class, Willamette Primary, 2011


[quote]As you go along, new things emerged and there were always plenty of kids who wanted to do it. They filled in the gaps. And some of their contributions spread throughout the whole work, like the birds. And the garden, which they thought of as a community garden.”[/quote]

But to take on such a project, whether community-crafted totem poles or a school mural, there needs to be trust, faith in the inherent creative and intellectual abilities of children.


I had twenty-eight different classes I was working with, and you would think, “How do we find twenty-eight different things to portray?’ But trust in kids, they will always find something that they love to do.

So with the last class, I let them play with all their wonderful ideas, and then someone came up with the idea of the train that goes across the riverbank. And I thought, ‘Of course! That’s an important part of their surroundings here.’ It was a unique idea, but it absolutely brought the whole mural together.

Each kid made a different compartment. And someone made a giraffe. And that mural would not be the same without that one train-car with that giraffe, really. Look at what that does for this riverbank to have this train going by, with this giraffe head and neck sticking up. It just does something so playful.”





Willamette Primary mural, West Linn, OR

“I always want to avoid a sense of anxiety about what they make. Whether it’s children or adults. I just want them to have fun.”

Pixton says she can tell when she visits other school murals whether the artist coordinating the activity held tight or loose reins.

[quote]If an artist is nervous about doing such a large, permanent piece of work, if they’re too concerned about the outcome, they end up controlling the process. They deprive the children of the freedom they need to be artists.” [/quote]

It’s absolutely necessary, she says, that the collaborative work is done intuitively and organically, with the kids leading the way.

“The kids would bring their pieces up to us and we or they would just immediately know where to place each piece. You might think that [not having a blueprint beforehand] would be risky, but it was really…right.”

[quote]It was very fast and intuitive. Which is a good way to create. You don’t want to think too hard.”[/quote]

Even though they knew the final product was going to be permanent, they didn’t let that scare them, she said. “You could always move things around a bit while they were still wet, but the important thing was to let the flow of it emerge.”


Jellyfish mural at Prune Hill Elementary

Jellyfish mural at Prune Hill Elementary


[quote]Adults will often hesitate. So you have to find a way to sort of love them into it. Because they need this experience as much as anybody.”[/quote]

Pixton says the first thing she does when she starts a collaborative project is to begin with a teacher workshop. “Because once they’ve experienced it, they have this flame in them for the project.” And that affects the way they talk to their kids about it.

So often, in teacher workshops, someone will say, “Wow, I haven’t done anything with clay since second grade! I completely forgot how much fun it is!”

Listening to Pixton in her beautiful, Irish lilt, talk about art and spontaneity, one imagines her own childhood must have been one that cultivated artistic exploration.

One might think it was easy for her to ask others to be creative when certainly she had such skills nurtured in her since birth. This was far from the case, however.

Kaaren Pixton: “My father left when I was eight, and I didn’t see him again until I was an adult. My mother ended up sending us to a welfare boarding school. There was no art in any of my schooling.”

When she was thirteen, Kaaren passed an exam in English, “which meant you could go on to any specialized school in the county.” Pixton wanted desperately to enroll in art school. But her mother had other ideas. She insisted her daughter attend secretarial school, which she did, for four years.

Yet even then, says, Kaaren, [quote]Somehow, I knew I was an artist, though there was no one who told me this or taught me anything. There were no school supplies. Still, I would draw in the margins of my schoolwork.[/quote]

She was eventually able to take two clay classes a semester for two semesters. But by then, says Pixton, who is now the mother of seven and the grandmother of seventeen, “I was married with my first child on the way. I had terrible morning sickness, and so I had to quit college.”

Ironically, it was having a houseful of children that kick-started Pixton’s professional career as an artist.

After teaching herself hand-building techniques and experimenting with drawing sketches, Kaaren decided to paint a mural in the family’s children’s room. From there, others asked for her to paint their nurseries as well.

Summers with her children, meanwhile, became full-blown art camps, with Kaaren and the kids tackling a new project each day. “Oh, we had fun!” she said.

“I had started playing with what I could make out of clay, things like piggy banks, and then I had my own kids and I wanted to share all this with them. So we experimented together: we made mermaids and cups with faces, we did baking and made sock puppets. Then we made a puppet theater…”

From there, she started offering after school classes to any kids who wanted to sign-up.

Then one day, Pixton received a special call: a request to do a school mural with the local children.

Says Pixton:


The thing about murals is that not every artist likes working on something that big. It scares them to death. But for me, that’s exciting. I guess I’m just sort of fearless about it, which is a nice little gift.

I’ve often thought about how deprived I was as a child of something my soul so desperately needed. What a gift it is now to be spending my life giving back to children that they so deeply need.”




Riley Rasmussen, Three Rivers Charter School, West Linn, Oregon. Each student made a clay replica of their family on a couch. In this photo: Riley is glazing his creation. Photo courtesy of Kaaren Pixton, artist-in-residence for the project.


In her dream of dreams, what would be the artist’s ultimate vision?

[quote]Oh, I would love to work with teachers throughout the day, so that all teachers and all kids would be so versed in the arts that it just becomes a part of their everyday culture. Another language they could draw from. Oh, I would love that!”[/quote]

The final story Kaaren shares with me is about a boy of nine or ten. When working with kids in a special education class, Kaaren was warned beforehand not to expect much participation from this particular student, who, she was informed, rarely spoke and kept to himself, off in the corner. Nevertheless, Pixton remained undeterred, and invited the child to join the class as they made dragons.


So he made a dragon, and afterwards, he was so effusive! Oh, he loved his dragon! He told us about its family, what it liked to eat, all these things about it. And nobody tried to stop him. He just kept talking, and it was wonderful. Before this, he just never talked, but when he made that piece of art, something happened to him, and his heart got involved. And he just couldn’t stop talking about it. He discovered how it felt to make something that never before existed.”[/quote]

Further Notes:

Kaaren Pixton was born in Dublin and raised in Ireland and England. Her work has resulted in over 100 permanent murals and art installations in Portland area schools and public sites –  art imagined, planned, created and executed primarily by the students themselves. She also teaches workshops to educators in many area schools and through Marylhurst University, Portland State, and Lewis & Clark. Kaaren works with a variety of media depending on the vision for the project, including clay, painted paper collage, mosaic, fused glass, and other mixed media.

She has six children’s board books released by Workman Publishing, including: Mama and Baby! (Indestructibles), Indestructibles: Jungle, Rumble!, Indestructibles Creep! Crawl!, Flutter! Fly! (Indestructibles), Indestructibles Wiggle! March!, and Indestructibles: Plip-Plop, Pond! Kaaren will soon publish a new book that she is both writing and illustrating.

Kaaren is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, Young Audiences of Portland and SW Washington, and was the recipient of a 2003 Sunburst Award.

To learn more about Kaaren Pixton or to contact the artist, please visit:

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My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. Lynn York on February 18, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Great article. We have to be as creative in fighting for these kinds of programs as we do in operating them these days. Here’s what we’re doing in NC: This is a program that places arts at the core of the curriculum, as the organizing principle. This is a growing program –here in NC and in other states. It is administered by some amazingly creative people at the state Arts Council and the Dept. of Public Instruction, but there is also outside funding–a great partnership. The evaluations of this program say that it moves learning forward, not just in the arts but across the whole curriculum.

  2. Sylvia Freeman on February 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Great article. I taught art to students K-6 at one point in my life and found that it opened doors to students who weren’t used to doing well at anything except making art. It gave them a chance to interact with other kids who were considered more ‘intelligent’ that the teachers usually favored. I love the idea in this article that there was room for individual expressions as well as community art that everyone could be collectively proud of.

  3. Claire walsh on February 19, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Fantastic work guys!! The artwork is amazing!! I’m really impressed by the quality and I think that sculpture would look very well in my garden…it’s really important to let children get the chance to experiment and explore through art. Not everyone fits into the educational system well and sometimes getting the chance to do something different highlights abilities that may have otherwise been overlooked. I think working as a team on a project helps promote social skills and helps improve confidence in children. Brilliant work!

  4. Michelle Johnson on February 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Got to work with Kaaren at Willamette Primary last year. What a wonderful experience. Michelle Johnson –Willamette Primary parent.

  5. betsy bensen on February 20, 2013 at 7:50 am

    I also was lucky enough to have worked with Kaaren as a parent volunteer on a primary school mosaic project. Watching Kaaren work with the kids was inspiring! Her steady, calm, and and caring approach, her ability to leave the creative bits of the work in the hands of the children, gave them the confidence to do great work. The sense of community that was created, and the pride these kids felt upon completion of the mural, was the true benefit of the project. The beautiful mural just keeps reminding us of that.

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