All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
One of the more frustrating aspects of teaching school is being party to a system that drives the joy out of learning for probably nine out of ten students. By the time students get to high school, they have had their “skills drilled” and their “proficiencies assessed” so often it’s no wonder they finish out their secondary education in a cynical haze so thick that neither my most inspired lessons nor my most intimidating deathstare can penetrate it.
In American classrooms today, there is so little opportunity for personal expression and genuine exploration it is almost laughable.
Except it’s not. It’s tragic.
I’m not sure whose fault all this is, and I promised myself I wouldn’t use my blog to rant about the system which provides my living, but shoot, it was bound to come out sooner or later.
Anyway, I bring all this up because yesterday I related the Tragedy of the Green Ceramic Beaver, in which my authoritarian 8th grade art teacher managed to sour me on art for about two decades. And I feel that, had Picasso been present in my classroom that day, he would have rapped Mrs. Hill on the knuckles with a paintbrush. (Or maybe he would have flown into a rage at the sight of my little sculpture and smashed it to pieces. Not sure.)
But Picasso’s point about children inevitably losing their innate creativity is right on. Unless young people are given time, encouragement, and proper instruction in any artistic pursuit, the vast majority will come to see themselves as “talentless”, “non-artistic”, or “soooooo not creative”, and will simply stop participating.
So it was for me when it came to art. When Mrs. Hill’s class was over, the set of sketching pencils and pastels I’d eagerly purchased the summer before was shoved into the bottom drawer of my desk.
Many years later, in 2008, I signed up for my first Landscape Design class at GW. One of the recommended books listed on the syllabus was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Warily, I ordered the book and began going through the exercises to brush up my drawing skills for the class.
To my great surprise, I discovered it was a sheer pleasure to sit at my desk late at night and draw. Except for list-making and essay-editing, I hadn’t really put pencil to paper in years. Shapes! Curves! Texture! Shading! It was fun.
Not only that, but I was fascinated by Edwards’ discussion of children’s developmental stages with regard to drawing. Like most people, I believed that drawing talent was genetic, that by the time you entered adolescence either the gene had revealed itself or it had not. Mine had not, so I stopped drawing. But Edwards asserts that drawing is simply a skill — like playing the piano or throwing a strike — that can be learned with good instruction and consistent practice. Not everybody will be a Durer or a da Vinci of course, but most adults could be far more skilled at drawing if they’d ever been taught how to see.
According to Edwards, it is during the “tween” years, a time when kids have a strong urge to make realistic drawings, that they lose interest in art. They will draw the same princess or rocket ship over and over again, but when their drawing does not match their perceived reality of the object, they become frustrated and quit. Edwards argues that this is a time for teachers to scrap their lessons on abstract art and simply start teaching kids how to see.
This idea of “learning how to see” is a gift that my study of landscape design has given back to me. Had I not begun to study design, I would have quite happily kept gardening away; however, my study of design has brought a whole new dimension and level of excitement to the way I garden and the way I see landscape.
While I don’t believe it’s necessary for a garden designer to create gorgeous drawings, I do believe that the act of drawing and sketching keeps the designer (or gardener) sensitive to the visual world and better able to execute the landscapes they “see” in their mind’s eye.
And though I learned plenty of practical stuff in my GW classes (calculating slope, properties of different construction materials, etc.) I feel that re- learning how to see was my most valuable take-away from the program.
Alongside all of the nitty-gritty plans and perspectives we were required to draw, we got to practice our ability to see by doing stuff like this:
This assignment involved selecting a well-known abstract painting (in this case, “Bleu II” by Joan Miro, shown in the center) and then re-interpreting the painting through a collection of landscape elements. How fun! I’ll be honest, I had never even heard of Joan Miro before doing this assignment. I still have no idea what “style” or “school” he is identified with or what this painting “means.” But it was relatively easy to get into the spirit of the painting and re-imagine it in terms of colors, shapes, textures, mass and void, etc. This was a great visual exercise, it was gratifying, it didn’t require any specialized knowledge or technique other than using a glue stick, and it made me appreciate a painting that I may have just walked right past in an art gallery.
Monet was famous for saying that his garden at Giverny was his finest work of art, but I am also enamored by the idea of using art to inspire garden design. This symbiotic relationship between gardens and art can be a boundless source of inspiration for both amateur and professional designers.
More on this relationship in my next post!