Growing New Mexico’s Gifted Visual Artists

As a New Mexico public school art teacher turned teacher of gifted students, I’ve long been interested in the overlap of artistic and academic talent. It was satisfying to learn of positive reviews from both professional fields of the recent ESEA reauthorization. The Every Student Succeeds Act has been praised for revisions that will benefit advanced and gifted learners in the public schools It has also been recognized for including the arts as essential, no longer peripheral, to a “well-rounded education.” This reorientation prompted me to consider again what I can do to help develop the talents of gifted visual artists on my caseload.

I’d like to know if anyone in New Mexico is currently providing artistic talent development for students with a demonstrated very superior ability in the domain of visual art. If so, what instruments are used to demonstrate exceptional talent in the visual arts and to show the need for services, and what services can be designed to meet these needs?

The Impact of Disadvantage on Potentially Eminent Visual Artists
Mona Shahid, Artist.

By Daesherri (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt there are students with high potential in the visual arts who, without support, will not be prepared to succeed in post-secondary visual arts training. Without such credentials, they are not likely achieve positions of leadership in the arts and influence the work of museums, galleries, and higher education institutions. They have great potential but may be poor, recent immigrants, or racially, culturally, or linguistically marginalized. Unlike the young artists of families with more resources and connections to invest in talent development through clubs, lessons, mentorships, and arts activities, these disadvantaged students may lack affirmation of their artistic talents while young. For college and careers in the arts, they might lack the preparedness of better resourced peers. Can New Mexico’s gifted education programs support young, high-ability visual artists who lack their own connections and resources?

How do Artistic and Intellectual Ability Differ?

Although tests and observations of intelligence, creativity, and achievement customarily yield the requisite evidence for identification, the ultimate measure of these qualities could be a creative product, which Joseph Renzulli defends as worthy of qualifying students below the top 5% of intellectual ability as measured by tests of cognitive ability. Renzulli justifies his view that creative-productive individuals are gifted:

“. . . history tells us it has been the creative and productive people of the world, the producers rather than consumers of knowledge, the reconstructionists of thought in all areas of human endeavor, who have become recognized as “truly gifted” individuals. History does not remember persons who merely scored well on IQ tests or those who learned their lessons well but did not apply their knowledge in innovative and action-oriented ways.” (p. 11)

Renzulli’s parameters for the creative-productive gifted individual are “(a) above-average, though not necessarily superior [intellectual] ability, (b) creativity, and (c) task commitment.” He cautions that, while general ability can be assessed using tests of verbal, numeric, or spatial reasoning, applicable across a variety of learning situations, specific abilities such as those relating to the domain of visual arts only can be observed in creative products. The IQ tests, he warns, may actually miss some of the prime candidates for gifted services:

“. . . vast numbers and proportions of our most productive persons are not those who scored at the 95th percentile or above on standardized tests of intelligence, nor were they necessarily straight A students who discovered early how to play the lesson-learning game. In other words, more creative-productive persons came from below the 95th percentile than above it, and if such cutoff scores are needed to determine entrance into special programs, we may be guilty of actually discriminating against persons who have the greatest potential for high levels of accomplishment.” (p. 17)

In what ways are intellectual ability and artistic ability distinct? Try to imagine human history of thought without art, and it becomes obvious they are inextricable. Visual art contributes to our understanding of the world just as other modes of intellectual inquiry.

Yet gifted artists, and especially those from disenfranchised families, are scarce in our gifted programs, primarily because the disadvantaged young gifted artist’s product is rarely seen as evidence enough of intellectual ability to substantiate qualification for gifted services. Her artwork may never be seen by the evaluators, or when seen, it may not be fairly evaluated for lack of assessment tools or dearth of experience evaluating child art. It may not seem like the kind of art most people would call “intellectual.” Few gifted specialists know what to look for that might indicate potential eminence in art. Furthermore, the quality of the sampled artwork may be underdeveloped because general education art programs rarely provide the kind of choice, challenge, complexity, and individualization imperative for developing exceptional abilities in art (Clark & Zimmerman, 2004), relegating the candidate to her own insufficient resources and social connections for extracurricular talent development.

Gifted Programs to Support Visual Art Specialization

If we could overcome these and other obstacles not yet anticipated and bring these students into our programs, what could we do for the high ability visual artists? Drawn from Renzulli’s elaboration on the concept of task commitment are the following points. I think of them as a guide to designing goals, accommodations, and services to meet the needs of talented visual artists with the long-term goal of becoming creative-productive individuals.

The talented young artist will:

  • develop persistence and endurance;
  • demonstrate hard work and dedicated practice;
  • acquire self-confidence and a belief in his or her ability to carry out important work and action related to artistic interests;
  • stay motivated to engage in visual art activities for their own sake;
  • maximize involvement with  the field of visual arts;
  • increase qualities of originality and distinctiveness in his or her creative work over time;

This seems like a framework for writing the gifted IEP. Annual progress toward these goals could be measured using creative product analysis rubrics, rating scales, self-assessments, and surveys of engagement. Now that the arts are federally recognized as integral to the purpose of schools, the time is ripe for including talented artists in our gifted programs. I fear that if we fail to reach them, we will miss out on some of their significant contributions in the future.


Catterall, James S. (2012) The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: findings from four longitudinal studies, Research Report #55 March 2012 National Endowment for the Arts

Clark, Gilbert and Zimmerman, Enid, (2004) Teaching Talented Art Students: Principles and Practices, Teacher’s College Press, New York, NY.

Renzulli, Joseph S. (1998) The Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness available online:


About Steve Heil

Steve supports gifted students of Santa Fe Public Schools and, as a qualified FTAP Evaluator, helps to implement the district's alternate identification protocol. In his previous work as an art teacher in Gallup, NM, Steve earned National Board Certification and received the Golden Apple Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010. As Publicity Chair on the board of NMAG, Steve manages this website and mailing list.

1 Comment

  1. Commenting on my own post (so dorky). More questions: How scarce are gifted visual artists in our gifted programs? Are they present at the same rate at across all grades or are they more common among younger gifted students?

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