The elusive act of teaching children how to be creative …

To be creative is a basic desire of humans, all humans. It is a genuine expression of who we are even before we are defined by our social and economic circumstances. To teach a child to be creative therefore seems … Continue reading

Working with young artists

IMG_5531Working with Young Artists

By trade I am a lawyer. Many lawyers do have a passion besides their original profession though, I happen to have three, if you count my love for children in general and my own children in particular. The other two are writing and art. I mention this because you will surely want to know how I am qualified to “teach art” or as I prefer to say: to work with and alongside young artists.

My grandmother used to say I have been born with a brush in one and in pen in my other hand – and as far as I can remember I have been scribbling and drawing on every appropriate surface – and some less suited. That I came to study law is strange, all things considered, but I guess I wanted to try out if I could succeed doing something else and law had always been intriguing to me. It turned out that I could succeed. I graduated with two law degrees – and came straight back to art. And at some point I started doing it both: art and law. Kids have always played a role. I have been teaching all kinds of classes, art and law, over the last ten years, and it has been a truly rewarding part of my life, not just my professional life. As you might imagine, I am never asked how I qualify to teach legal workshops, I am a lawyer after all, but often how come I teach art as well.

I do believe that art is not the esoteric, isolated endeavor that people sometimes take it to be. Artists are well advised to take notice of their world and have an understanding of it that transcends the visual. Beuys pointed out that every person is an artist, that artistic creation is at the center of human life. He went as far as demanding that every physician, scientist, philosopher be first trained in art. I will venture further by saying that the art world would profit if artists would first be trained in a trade that explores the practical aspects of their environment. Every artist is part of a tangible social reality. The training to become a lawyer might in the end not be either so far from or so detrimental to artistic process as is might seem at first.

Why I do love to work with young artists? Because it refreshing to leave the stereotypes that people retreat to as they become older. Every child I have ever had the pleasure to meet turned out to be an original artist (albeit sometimes a frustrated one …).
I respect the creative work children are capable of. As a first hand witness and as someone who still draws and paints, saws and glues every day: There is no time like childhood to experience the joy of art.

I had the good luck to be raised by a grandmother who had the wisdom of an older generation to pretty much let me do whatever I thought appropriate as long as I did not nail her good table linens onto a broomstick for a pirate sail (happened only once) or cut out my great grandmother’s lace to make curtains for fairy dwellings, also a one time never to happen again situation.

However I was allowed to make use of any tool that I would find in my grandfathers tool shed or in the kitchen without anyone trying to figure out if they were child appropriate. I was also allowed to make generous use of old newspapers and magazines, of the newsprint paper that my grandfather, who was publisher of a local newspaper, brought home, and in general of every piece of metal, screw, paper, feather, stone or yes, glass! that I would pick up on our long walks. It never occurred to my grandparents that I might pick up some dangerous germs on the way.

I brought everything home and assembled it very much the way every child will when you do not interfere. I do not know where our desire to “make” things has its origin but I do know that we already possess it as children, together with an instinct of how things fit together. If children are not allowed to roam as freely as I was, they will still build markers from pebbles and stones, they’d still use sticks to draw in sand, build strange, improvised gardens in mud, decorate prefabricated play structures with ritual signs.

To be creative is a basic desire of humans, all humans. It is a genuine expression of who we are even before we are defined by our social and economic circumstances. To teach a child to be creative therefore seems to me an elusive act. I look at children with a sense of awe, they are still there, right at the origin, and all I do as an art teacher is to take them on the same kind of  long walk that I had been privileged to undertake with my grandparents and I simply allow them to discover their world and to collect at will what responds to their own desire of creating this world new. If we’d allow our children more freedom and time to explore their own world and provide them with materials that are not dedicated to specific purposes, we could cut back on many extracurricular activities. Let them venture out there and the artist that lives in every one of us but is acutely alive in our children is ready to meet all the great challenges of art right in our neighborhood.

To come back to the question of my own expertise: I do believe with visionary clarity that it is not my academic expertise that is relevant. It is my willingness to acknowledge and celebrate children as the artists they are. I do believe that art is not a matter of paper and ink, of perspective and shading, I do believe though art techniques can be taught art cannot, no more than breathing, walking, seeing. It is something that happens when things go right or when you have to make them come out right. Art is life.

But is it ART?

English: Butter making woman Français : femme,...

English: Butter making woman Français : femme, faisant du beurre Deutsch: Frau Butter stampfend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alternative approaches to teaching ART

Joseph Beuys and the use of butter and animal fat in his work

 

This is a journal entry describing an indirect approach to the question if a certain object as later illustrated by Joseph Beuys “fat corner” is or is not art. Rather than to start by discussing what art might be, I took two sticks of butter and a box to a class of fifth graders. I opened the butter and started squishing it between my hands without explaining what I was doing and why I was doing it. The butter was slightly softened and was growing softer still through handling and it had good sculptural properties. As I worked air into it, it produced disgusting sounds. I walked around the room, talking about art in general,never referring to my activity, still working the butter between my hands. The kids were intrigued, their reaction ranged from mere disgust to laughter, on which i did not comment, but after a while they started to be fascinated by their own responses to the demonstration, how emotional, shocking, entertaining this seemed to them – and why, and so they talked about that. in the end I sculpted the butter into a corner of the box. I picked the box up and presented it to them like a diorama. then I asked: is it art?

 

Out of 21 kids, based on their own experience of the performance, 19 judged it to be art.”

 

Art and me, or: The crowd at my breakfast table

Wer guckt da durch?

Art and me, we have a strange and very complicated relationship. I have been chasing it with determination and desperation, and it has cold-heartedly denied me. The pain of rejected love is cruel, but I submitted to it only so long. I retreated, admitting defeat was the most dignified thing to do in this situation, I thought, and I became a lawyer. But then, surprise, instead of going its own way, art took up a habit of following me instead, never quite disappearing out of sight, yes, I would say, teasing me, challenging me.

Eventually, we made up, kind of, since then I have been treating it with respectful nonchalance,and it has been faithfully and annoyingly waiting for me ever since at the breakfast table, casually asking me: “So, what are you up to today?”, not being offended by my silence while I am hiding behind my crucially important notes for the day, while I am all business, anticipating legal arguments and dictating the first legal brief in my mind, instead asking again, equally casually: “Mind, if I tag along?”, and I – with an air of studied indifference respond: “Sure, why not?”, and out the door we rush.

And when I come home in the evening and I open my very important briefcase out tumble bits of this and that, drawings on note paper, done while I was on the phone, creatures with big eyes while I was thinking about security of data transmission, one of my new wooden drawings “Watch out while you are being watched” over a quick coffee break. At home I don’t know how to archive the mass of these  bits and pieces anymore, nor where to store the heap of casual paintings done at night, JUST because, and during every free moment and I feel like I imagine the husband must be feeling who doesn’t quite know whether he is cheating on his wife when he spends time with a female friend his wife is well aware of or whether he is cheating on said female friend when spending quality time with his wife.

Garbriel Lorca, the beautiful Spanish poet who was murdered by the Nationalist Forces shortly after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – who really was a much better poet than an artist expressed it very much the same way, because he loved drawing, tenderly calling it his “mistress” while he stayed married, of course he did, to his writing. I remember reading in a small, illustrated Lorca volume I had bought at the Heinrich Heine Buchhandlung at the main train station of the Berlin Zoo station – a book store that was as great and complicated and deep and full of books and ideas about books as it could possibly get, probably a dependance of Borges library. I was twenty and attending classes by Prof. Robert Kudielka at the HdK, the University of Fine Arts in then still Westberlin – while actually meaning to study law at the Free University. You see, from the beginning this was a complicated thing and the small Lorca volume seem to me like an announcement of something I was not ready to grasp yet. I still own it.

I got constantly side-tracked during those years because of places like the Heinrich-Heine book store where they absolutely supported the idea of spending your entire cash worth a month of earnings at  some student’s job on a heap of books you could just so carry to the register – after first staying for what seemed like days in the sacred railway catacombs, resembling a labyrinth of overpacked shelves. You’d come out with marvelous finds, books that had been hiding for decades, books unknown even to the book seller, and you and the book seller would jointly rejoice in the find, and the book seller would come up with a fantasy price for the book because the one displayed on the inside of the cover seemed – unreal. 51 cents, Pfennige, or something like this. So, you’d pay 2,50 DM, and it wasn’t a used book, it was a book that had been waiting for you to be the first owner patiently since about 1953, well over a decade before you had been born and even more time before you became literate and then some more.

I got constantly side-tracked because there were the collections of old masters in Dahlem, one S-Bahn station before Thielplatz, my law school station, and you’d only guess that I must be a somewhat decent lawyer for passing my exams besides the fact that getting off the train in Dahlem to for a small detour through the beautiful tree-lines streets of Dahlem as often as not ended up with an entire day in the collections, studying Rembrandt and Baehr and flemish artists instead or, if I made it to class in the morning, not returning from the university’s cafeteria at lunch time because it was located pretty much right next to the collections.

I am actually now practicing law, specializing, surprise, on art and law, and art still has a very sly way of side-tracking me. Maybe it has something to do with the fourteen years I spent in New York, idling away time at the MoMA and the Met, and at Crawford Doyle booksellers. Art has always influenced the Why and Where, has seduced me to accept situations I would not have dreamed of for the sake of studying a Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Calder’s Circus at the Whitney, or rough Miro drawings at MoMA or Gerhard Richter‘s black and white paintings at MoMA, Odilon Redon, Armando Reverón, Richard Serra, Lucian Freud, Swoon, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramović, Nancy Spero, my appetite may have been more voracious than discerning, but it found nourishment as I found distraction from more pressing questions and challenges and time passed swiftly as I was holding still, holding still and just looking and looking.At times that seems my main occupation. Looking. Thinking. Understanding. Reversing. Looking again.

Sometimes now I suspect that I do what I do – including law – because of art not despite, but I am loath to follow up on that suspicion. For now, I like the casual question in the morning, the uncertainty, the “Wow, this is still going on” and with as much determination and desperation as ever before. One could not ask for better. Want me to tag along. Sure.

By the way, above drawing is one done on the side, complementing a serious legal interest of mine. Even as I write this blog. Who is watching you? I am still married to the law. But if you made you way through to here, you realize that I as I have spoken about “art” as a single occupation I have really referred to two loves: Writing and painting. Now, that is – almost – too much for one life. definitely for one blog article that is already stretching the limits of a reasonable article’s length.  It’s a bit crowded at the breakfast table at times.

a galaxy of marbles

a galaxy of marbles

Marbles are wonderful and mysterious. They are simple, fit in any pocket. You can take them with you wherever you go and start dreaming. You see, in this marble I hand to you today, there is a whole world. If … Continue reading

kids and art – life is an adventure!

kids and art – life is an adventure!

Children are born with the natural ability to “make art”. Without ever having received formal instruction they will still alter their environment in a way that reveals the creative mind all humans possess. A stick is used to scribble in … Continue reading