Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Wind to Their Wings

When I was a young girl, back in the days of white picket fences, smocked dresses and pigtails with grosgrain ribbon bows, I had an aunt who was an art teacher, a very partisan and loving aunt who told me what a talented artist I was. In fact, I had good eye/hand coordination and lots of art materials my family gave me for gifts. As a teenager I took lots of art classes and was taught to paint in oils. I learned to produce (bad) landscapes in the School of Seven genre, and finally realized I was an averagely skilled amateur.

I think my experience, outside of the enthusiastic aunt, was pretty typical of how children are encouraged to learn the visual arts. A cursory scan of painting and sculpture from any age and culture will show 'schools', types or 'genres', ways of interpreting the world that are passed from teacher to student and are the accepted conventions of that place and time. As examples, the stylized silhouettes of classic Egyptian painting and the incredibly realistic male nude statues of classical Greece come immediately to mind. Technique and style are refined over generations of artists, reach an apex and sometimes decline into over ornamentation and bad copying, but are recognizably a type.

It is my speculation that this has been so because of a need in the human psyche to represent what is seen and to preserve what is pleasing, to make a record, to speak, so to speak, visually. People crave portraits, illustration of stories, colour and line to decorate their lives. And up until not very long ago, art was the only way to have these things. So children learned the conventions of their society and internalized them and followed them as adults.

Then came the camera and the artist's world changed. A photograph was not only a more accurate record or illustration, but also a less expensive, more accessible form of record or decoration. 'A picture is worth a thousand words', right? And photography, since its inception, has become more and more accessible. Most of us can now take photos and even videos of events as they happen by pulling our mobile phones out of our pockets. Our artists are free to fly, to speak in many 'languages', not just in the conventions of the time. And people who are drawn to the visual arts find themselves in a world of infinite possibilities, both with the conventional tools of pen and brush and the digital manipulation of photographic images.

So, where does that leave our children? How do we teach them now? What do we teach them? I have watched with fascination the evolution of my granddaughter’s expression with penand colour. She is a 'daycare' kid and a lot of her after-school time, because she loves it, has been spent drawing. Even as a tiny girl, her work reflected what she saw the older children doing, exhibited excellent eye/hand coordination, was controlled and precise. From a very tiny girl she followed the conventions.

A friend of mine from grade school, a fine and sensitive artist, has a grandson who is just learning the joys of art. She posted a painting he had done the other day and I was enthralled. It is unconventional, sophisticated and lovely. And the product of the mind of a kindergarten aged child who has the ability to see and translate to paper what he sees. My friend told me that he pointed out to her 'everything that was wrong with it'. She did not say what that was. I hope it was not a lack of conventional technique that worried him. I hope he can keep his own vision intact. And I know that she will support him in doing so.

So, back to my 'what to teach them' question. I think most of us need what both I and my grandkid have had - access to good materials and time to use them. And to be taught technique and appreciation. For some, the few with the seeing eye, I think that what we need to teach them is that the 'conventions', are not necessary for them. That it is good to try, better to fly.

Some of us are kites, others free, soaring birds. And both are good.