By Joe Thomas
“All an art school is, really, is meeting another guy, another girl, meeting somebody who sends you. And you send them and there’s some kind of electrical thing going on. Or maybe there's a teacher, or not. It just means some contact that's going to detonate you. Otherwise why do a hundred people come together in one place? You hope that something is going to detonate something in you. Otherwise what is it for? You are not going to prove something is right or uphold a proven theory.”
The above quote is from the painter and teacher Philip Guston who was speaking to a group of faculty and students in the drawing studio at the New York Studio School on January 15, 1969. Throughout my long career as a student I had the privilege of studying with many fine artists and teachers like Guston who provoked and challenged my deeply held convictions of what I thought the world was and who I thought I was within it. For me, art, visual and written, became a form of inquiry that did not provide definitive answers but rather deepened and enriched my life through a searching dialogue. However, the language of this search needed to be learned through doing and this takes a certain amount of courage and freedom from fear. My best teachers cultivated this sureness and faith in the process. As a teacher in the Kids Art Smart program I feel it is my duty to continue this.
The Kids Art Smart program that takes place at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles enables grade schools from the area to spend a morning with a working professional artist. Much like my experience in school, the students are able to engage the artist on a level that is special because it becomes an exchange between fellow artists on a journey. In my classes I speak to my students as a person who is trying to engage the world through experiences, imagination and materials in the same way that they are going to do within the lesson of the day. I speak to them about the importance paying attention to their own unique experiences and then trusting in their responses. They begin to understand that their imaginations need to be fed and it is important to surround themselves with “good food” that nourishes and challenges their intellect. Books, music, friends, movies are just a few ways to nourish the imagination.
I teach third graders and in my classes I have been pleasantly surprised to find that not one student has said that they cannot draw. I am so pleased that the ugly face of self doubt and the “monster of comparing” has not revealed itself and contaminated their art-making experience. In art school our teachers always spoke of the idea of authenticity and how crucial it is in creating work of validity and voice. Irony had and has no place here. Personal experience with honesty is the currency of choice. We used to say that in the personal is the universal. My 3rd grade students are perfectly equipped to meet these demands.
The exercise is this: Imagine that you can create a mask that will allow you to become anything that you want. Like many stories throughout many cultures, you have the ability to become whatever you imagine. However, in order to do that, you must represent it in a visual language in the form of a mask. The challenge for them and all artists is to transfer what is in their head onto the paper. “If it is not on paper then it does not exist!” The students then draw out their ideas over and over again making constant revisions. “There are absolutely no mistakes because everything because imbued with possibility.”
I talk to them about combining many animals, machines, tools, objects to create something new and unique. By pulling from their own experiences, they are able to draw with a type of conviction. At the beginning of the exercise each student is armed only with a pencil and stacks of paper. Automatic drawing is easy for my class of third graders because their judgments are not as severe as they later become with age. They trust that what they are doing is significant due to a lack of fear from “peer review.” I have found in my years teaching in the Kids Art Smart program that my students truly get excited about each others work and it is amazing what happens when an artist feels that they have the support of the group behind them. The originality and beautiful strangeness that each student conjures is a group effort found in the care and support of the larger community. I believe that the respect they show to each other gives them the strength to take risks. Only by taking these risks can they hope to create something new and unique, something original. By forming connections where there had been no connections before is an exciting way to create. To do otherwise becomes mere imitation and mimicry.
Originality is a treasured component in a creation in my class. Strangeness and difference becomes something not to be feared but celebrated and it is in the making of these masks that the students witness the special qualities of their individuality. The simple materials of paper, markers, pencils, raffia, tissue, crayon become transformed into artworks of identity and personhood. The masks are concrete extensions of who the students hope to be contextualized, of course, in fun and humour. Through playing and searching with these materials they are able to formulate a vision unlike anyone else’s. To nurture the arts in education is to nurture a student’s ethical development. They learn empathy, tolerance and the celebration of difference in others as well as in themselves. The Self-Portrait Mask exercise is just a simple vehicle to get them to realize how wonderful and unique they really are, as individuals as well as a group. And it is their differences in background, experiences, likes and dislikes, that enriches the world. The making of art does this in a very special way and all of it begins with just a little spark, a detonation.