Saturday, April 2, 2011

Coloring Outside the Lines

My daughters' artwork

There is vitality, a life force, energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action -- and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost.  -- Martha Graham

Last week, while preparing for this month's G.R.A.C.E. Art in the Schools topic -- women artists -- I came across a children's library book and, as Oprah would say, an A-ha Moment. Willow, written by Denise Brennan-Nelson and Rosemarie Brennan, and illustrated by Cyd Moore, compelled me to sit down in the stacks and read it cover to cover. Twice. And then, to think for awhile.

Willow tells the story of an unflappable young girl who routinely gets in trouble in art class. Her art teacher, the rigid Ms. Hawthorn, is a fan of green trees with straight trunks and red apples. Willow prefers pink trees with blue apples. "That's what I saw when I closed my eyes," she tells Ms. Hawthorn, who scoffs at her work, even when Willow shows her similar examples in her book of famous artists. Just before winter vacation, Willow is the only one to give Ms. Hawthorn a present. Ms. Hawthorn opens the box to find Willow's beloved art book. This gets the better of her and, "For the first time in her life, Miss Hawthorn doodled." Something unlocks inside her, and she finally lets go, allowing her creativity to shine through. After the break, Ms. Hawthorn's students return to find the art room bathed in color, and their teacher a changed woman, inviting them to add their contributions to a mural that stretches across the walls.

Awhile back, a fellow artist friend and I had signed up to take a mixed-media collage class. Since we were the only two who had signed up, and my younger daughter was only an infant at the time, the instructor agreed to hold the class at my house. She seemed friendly enough on the phone. In fact, she reminded me of Paula Deen, the bubbly Mama Bear of Food Network who would reach through the t.v. and give you a hug if she could. However, it soon became apparent that we were on opposite sides of the same different libraries, even. 

I had wanted to incorporate a heart in my composition. "Are you making a valentine for your husband?" the instructor asked. "Because that's the only time they should be used. Hearts are for Valentine's Day." Apparently she'd never picked up a copy of Cloth Paper Scissors Magazine

"Hearts are subjective," I respectfully disagreed. "I think they could stand for a lot more than just Valentine's Day." Actually, I had been thinking of doing a piece for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day, which I was participating in that year, but never got the chance to explain because she snapped, "Are you teaching this class, or am I?"

For her piece, my friend had chosen to incorporate words with special meaning. But the instructor shot that down too, saying -- with authority -- that only comical language should be used in compositions. "I prefer an air of mystery to my work," she said with authority. As I watched her adhere a section of tissue paper marked with the Chico's logo to her composition, I wondered whether to bring in a fast food wrapper the following week and paste the "Put Burger Here" section in the middle of my composition.   

This instructor never asked us about our opinions on art. But over the next hour, I came to learn an awful lot about her, most of which I didn't want to know, and the rest, which I didn't particularly care for: She looked down on our middle-class neighborhood. Her husband, an executive, liked to pamper himself with daily spa visits. And she hated the DIY paint job in my dining room so much that she had to "restrain [herself.]" She also revealed that she was mentally ill. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm not dangerous." Then she spilled her ginormous cup of Starbucks frappuccino all over my table and expected me to clean it up. So much for self restraint. At that moment, I pondered two mysteries of the universe: why I cannot get through a morning, afternoon, or evening without something spilling somewhere in this house, and why I seem to be a magnet for the mentally imbalanced. 

She left half an hour early, and also left her trash behind in my driveway. Two days later, she sent us an email stating that she chose not to work with either of us. She didn't feel like she could work with me, she wrote, because I seemed to be set on doing it my way regardless. And she didn't want to waste her time arguing with someone who was unteachable.

I wish I could send her a copy of Willow. Stay classy, Susan!


Fast forward a few years.

"So how many of you are afraid to start, afraid of that blank page, that blank canvas?" I asked the class of seventh grade art students. Most hands went up. "Many professional artists struggle with that too," I said. "It can be an uphill battle." I offered them a solution. "Spill something, anything, on it and see where it takes you." 

Meanwhile, whenever I go into a first-grade class, they can hardly wait for me to give the instructions before diving, headfirst, into the project. These are the kids who LIVE creative alchemy because they ARE creative energy. It's so inspiring to see all their different takes on any given project.

Environmental sculptures made by first graders

So what happens to them? We teach them to color in the lines, follow the rules, don't speak out of turn. We teach them what is real, what is normal, what is fact. And surely, there's nothing wrong with that. But there has to be room for pink trees and blue apples. For hearts and words of emotion. For divergent views.  Children learn a lot, but they forget just as much.

From the time my older daughter learned to write her initials, she liked to inscribe them on most anything -- including the walls and the furniture. We've had many talks about this, after which I'd make her erase them. On occasion, I still find her initials in the most unexpected places. But when I do, sometimes I leave them. 

So we both remember.

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