Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Encouraging creativity in children and adults

Life is Good: it's all about encouragement and exploration

Sunday night, Grant asked me what "big plans" I had in store for the little boys this week. My eyes twinkled as I said, "It's 'Great Artists Week' at Casa de How to be Pleasant!"

It is no secret that while I am a writer by trade, art is my true love. As a kid, I was always drawing. I can't remember a time when I wasn't. Early on, adults would ask what I "wanted to be" when I grew up and my answer was always "an artist". Until the first grade, that is... when a crotchety, old teacher (she seemed like a thousand years old...she was probably fifty) told me that "an artist" wasn't a real job, but I could be an art teacher. You've heard of people having the "wind taken out of their sails"? Well, I remember feeling like all of the color had been erased from the world. I didn't want to be an art teacher. I wanted to be an artist. But it wasn't a real thing. So I accepted it, with big gulps of disappointment. For a few years after that, when someone would ask that age old question, I would answer "art teacher" and do my best to disguise my grimace.

Growing up, my friends and others would often call me "the creative" or "the artistic one" of my group of friends. I remember shrugging that off. I felt offended by it. I now equated "creative" and "artistic" with something flimsy, silly, unreal. I wanted to be considered smart. I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be real. I had been told that being an artist meant otherwise. I was so impressionable. So sensitive. And the words soaked in to my depth. And this teacher who influenced me so wasn't even my primary teacher. I barely knew her. She barely knew me. And yet, I carried that notion--that an artist wasn't a real job-- with me throughout my formative years.

I went to college with the intention to study advertising. Maybe I could write print ads and doodle some visual ideas. Gratefully, some students on one of my projects told a professor that I was "really creative" and he took me into his office one day after class to talk about the "creative side" of the field. He told me about a graduate program that emphasized advertising's creative arts--copywriting, art direction, graphic design, illustration, photography. His words spoke to my heart like a song that had been written just for me. I would study copywriting and eventually, conceptualize, write, and help produce TV spots for some of America's biggest brands. My job is a blend of the two sides of the brain--pairing creativity with strategy. Being "creative" and "artistic". It is a real job.

When I was 22 or 23, I heard about a book from one of my instructors called The Artist's Way. It was said to be beloved by artists and creative people as a way to "unlock" creativity, "unblock" your creative obstructions, and give you new ideas. It was full of tasks to do just such. I quickly bought the book and chose an exercise. I don't remember the exact words, but it centered around remembering the first creative roadblock or your first censor. I went right back to the first grade and that black-haired teacher. I wrote and wrote. And then I started sketching. To say I had a "burst of creativity" would be wrong. It was more like a fireball. I ran to the art store, I stayed up all night. And three days later, I had 27 pieces of artwork lining my apartment walls. The first piece? A folk art slash cubism-inspired piece with a black-haired teacher in front of a chalkboard.

Surprisingly, I didn't just have all of this artwork, but I had a need to share it, too. I made a couple of calls to galleries that I liked in Atlanta and asked to show my work. Their was no question in my mind of whether it was good or good enough. It was as if the art had taken control. My heart had taken control. The first gallery that I went to took all of my pieces. Within the first three days, they had sold three paintings. I say this in the most humble of ways. This is not a story about the accomplishment. This is not a story intended to impress anyone for praise or applause. I tell this story because to me, this is an exquisite example of confidence-building. We all have the ability to build up confidence (in ourselves and in others) and we have the capability of defeating confidence (in ourselves and in others). This is a story about both. Fortunately, the right side won. Figuratively and literally.

Now I don't think that teacher way back when intended to break my creative spirit or diminish my confidence as an artist. I know she didn't. Because I don't think she thought enough about the statement she made to me to be that intentional. It was an off-the-cuff remark. She probably didn't remember it five minutes later. She had no idea how impressionable and sensitive I was. I harbor no ill feelings towards her. I also think that teachers are far more intentional about their words now. And I think that creativity is more cherished and art is more honored. At least by some.

We take our own experiences and we make of them what we will. We let them tear us down or we rise above them. It felt really good when that teacher in front of the chalkboard painting sold. For me, art education and giving both children and adults great art experiences has become a quest. Pumping them up with confidence about their own individual creativity (we all have it, we just use it in different ways!) and encouraging everyone to explore and experiment with art materials and creative ideas has become very important to me. I don't want anyone else to be stifled because of a stupid dumb careless remark. I don't want anyone else to experience creative roadblocks or ignore what's in their own hearts because of fear or lack of confidence or others' opinions. I am sure that there are adults out in the world who were told art wasn't real or worse---that because their work wasn't an exact copy of something else, that they are not artistic or creative.

I also think that championing experimentation of anything builds confidence and even though that experiment may end, the confidence carries on. I see this with my own children. Since they were old enough to hold a crayon, we have been enjoying art together. We read books about the great masters like Renoir and Cezanne, we go to art museums, we notice colors and textures everywhere we go.

And we do age appropriate art projects. Not crafts. Crafts are great and step-by-step crafting is great, too, for their own reasons (like fine motor skills development) but it is not art. Both of my children feel very comfortable with art materials and jump at the chance to try out new materials or attempt a new style of art project. It is the same with music--they are eager to sing aloud and "perform" or try out instruments. It's all because it has been a part of their environment and vernacular since they can remember. And their attempts and results are always accompanied by a lot of praise and that translates into positive reinforcement of the practice, of the effort. Yes, I might say their drawing is pretty or neat-looking, but more importantly, I emphasize that I like the experimentation, that they tried something new or I love that they used a lot of red this time or that they mixed two colors together to see what might happen. The praise surrounds the experience more than the result, the process more than the product. And therefore, this confidence built in art or music translates into other things...sports, reading, jungle-gym climbing, wherever they take it.

As for The Artist's Way, I only did that first exercise. It was all I needed and I am grateful for the breakthrough. Maybe some day I will pick up another copy and do the exercises with the little boys. In the meanwhile, stay tuned for pics and projects from "Great Artists Week". We're having a lot of fun with the process!

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