Art Experiences

person thinking

Since I am a teacher, I pretty much have the summer off (not counting all the work of taking care of two teens, a home, etc.) The summer is winding down (although you’d never know it from the heat here in Texas), and with the start of school comes the comfort, predictability and productiveness of a more regular schedule.

The cordial question everyone will be asking each other is, “How was your summer?” And I will answer, “Good, bad, hot, cool, fun, trying, interesting, boring.” So what exactly DID I do? I incubated. I took time to slow things down in my life. I taught a few summer art classes and took a seminar on creativity. I spent a week in Florida with my family and a week in Santa Fe by myself. I’ve learned it is very important to spend some downtime just thinking, or not thinking but just being. It’s also important to put yourself someplace different; it doesn’t much matter where, as long as it’s not your own home. Creativity requires time, space, stimulation and novelty. Our brains need time to rest and take a break from the usual in order to recharge and come up with new ideas and solutions.

Incubation is defined as one of the 5 stages of creativity. When I first learned about the scientific documentation of the creative process, I was a bit insulted. How dare academics squeeze the abundance and magic of creativity into a linear and definable process! However, the more I studied, the more I learned that creative people have a lot in common when it comes to generating their creativity. It’s not just a flash or a dream, it’s a somewhat logical process, which varies from person to person, but follows a real, enumerable path.

On a side note, although many use the word “creative” to describe artistic pursuits, I see it as applying to everyone in any kind of position where they are making choices, whether it be business options, life decisions or what to make for dinner.

The Five Stages of Creativity
from “Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

1. Preparation. During the initial stage, you immerse yourself, gathering all the information you can find about what you want to do. You read a lot, talk to others, ask questions, maybe take a class. This process further arouses curiosity, the one essential ingredient of creative innovation.

2. Incubation. Go do something else, something completely unrelated to your issue. During this period of time, your unconscious mind is churning, combining ideas, ignoring rationality and thus coming up with insights and novel ideas you could never come up with consciously.

3. Insight. This is what is known as the “aha moment”, although in reality it is rarely just a single moment. It is when things start to come together, the pieces of the puzzle start to fit and conscious connections are made. You may have several insights over a period of time. Most creative people say their insights occur during “idle” time, such as when they are gardening, showering or taking a walk.

4. Evaluation. This is the hardest part of the creative process, and often what separates the great from the average. As the saying goes, “Coming up with ideas is easy, finding ones worth pursuing is not.” This is the period where you and/or people you know decide which of your many insights to develop and which to discard.

5. Elaboration. The final step is where the hard work is done. Refine your thoughts and ideas. Test them out. Try and fail and try again. Take action to take your idea into reality.

This process is not entirely linear or even reproducible. Every creative person has their own method and every creative choice will have its own path of resolution. Sometimes you need to go back and forth between incubation and insight a few times, then back to more preparation. Sometimes insights appear slowly, over a period of years. Sometimes incubation lasts for months, sometimes hours.

Did a summer of incubation work for me? I believe it did although I’m not entirely sure what problems I have solved, and maybe I won’t find out for a while. I do know it felt great to relax, see some new scenery and do some different activities. You don’t have to wait for summer to do some incubating of your own. Think about some ways you want to improve yourself or problems you want to find a solution to. Do the preparation – read, talk, think, write. Then enjoy some incubation and be on the lookout for your insights and solutions. I’m looking forward to mine!

Heart In Sand

Since most of us are more relaxed in the summer and our brains are more receptive to new ideas, it is the perfect time to do activities that promote creativity. I have found these sand projects interesting, adaptable for all ages and very open ended – the best way to expand creative thinking skills.

If you are going to a beach this summer, you have the golden opportunity to create some unique art. Even if you are not fortunate enough to be at a beach, you can revel in some sand at home. Sand is such a wonderful art medium because of the infinite possibilities it holds as well as the unique tactile experiences it brings. Water is the key to working with sand so have a spray bottle and a bucket of water close by.

Sand Castles / Sand Sculptures – This is a fairly obvious idea, however if you have a few extra materials and knowledge, your kids (and you) may be captivated for days! Sand molds better when damp so keep your sand wet. The best ratio is half sand and half water. You can mix sand into water in a large bucket and use this mixture to create your sculpture. If you are at the beach, use sand that is from the shoreline or dig a hole down to the water table. Bring plenty of plastic cups and buckets of various sizes, shovels to dig and plastic knives to sculpt into the sand. The way to get height and stability is by stacking thick pancake like shapes on top of each other. Resist the urge to pound the sand, instead jiggle it into place gently. Pounding expels water; your sand will dry out and lose stability. For even more fun and gasps, connect towers together with small arches or form groups of towers. If you want to carve into the sculptures, carve from the top down and take off only small bits of sand. Kids especially love embellishing sculptures with sticks, shells, rocks, seaweed and other beach items. If you are not at a beach, you can find these types of items at your local craft store.

Sand Casting – This is an easy project that turns out really beautiful. You will need wet sand, items to “cast” such as shells, sticks, pieces of tile, pretty much anything three dimensional and fairly small. You’ll also need plaster of paris, clean water and a large bowl and large spoon you are willing to part with. You don’t have to dispose of these but you shouldn’t use them to eat out of. You can do the casting straight in the sand or in a disposable aluminum cake tin. Dig an area about 2 inches deep in the wet sand or pour a layer of wet sand into the tin with about 2 inches left on top. Now the fun part comes. Press your items into the wet sand, almost all the way down, leaving some of the item showing above the sand. Since casting works from the other side, if you need to, press your items into the sand upside down. For example if a piece of tile is colored on one side and plain on the other, press it into the sand colored side first. Keep your sand wet as you work, misting it if necessary. Arrange and rearrange your elements until you are happy. You can create a picture of something, a pattern or a random fun design. When you are ready to cast, mix up the plaster of paris with your large spoon and container. I used 2 cups of plaster mixed with 1 cup of water to cover one 8″ x 8″ aluminum cake tin. Plaster starts to harden quickly so pour it on top of your artwork as soon as it starts to thicken. Once it’s poured, leave it alone for a few hours. Never put plaster down a drain or sewer or in the ocean. If you have extra, let it harden and throw it in the trash. To unmold, carefully turn over the tin or pull the plaster from the sand. Use your hands and a paintbrush to brush most of the sand off the plaster. Nice!

Beach in a Bottle – Use those empty sports drink bottles to collect memories of your trip or create a beach scene at home. Sports drinks have wider tops but any type of plastic bottle or a clear plastic box with a lid will work. Remove the label if needed. Start with the sand, either use beach sand or colored sand you can buy at craft stores. Place a layer in the bottle. Now place a layer of something else on top, for example shells. Keep repeating layers of a single beach item until you fill the bottle about one third of the way. At this point you can solidify the contents by pouring glue into the bottle and letting it sit for a day, or leaving the items loose to float around. When ready, pour clean tap water into the the bottle, about halfway to the top, add food coloring if you like – remember the ocean can be any color! For even more fun, pour mineral oil or cooking oil into the bottle through a funnel. Keep at least one-fourth of the bottle unfilled. The oil and water will separate, creating interesting effects. If you like, add small plastic fish and sea creatures and maybe some glitter. Squeeze a little bit of glue on the bottle cap and close it tightly. You can wrap duct tape around the top if you want extra protection. These bottles keep small children fascinated for hours in the car or in a restaurant. Older children will love having their keepsake on a special shelf to shake up anytime.

If you are travelling this summer, take along a small sketchbook and be sure to give one to each of your kids. You will be surprised what your brain and hand can do when you are out of your regular element. Keep an eye out for interesting items that can be used for creating during the rest of the year. Often you can find things in small stores that you won’t find in the big craft chains. Most of all, delight in the moment and forget your worries, just for a little while.

As much as we all love our freedom, we often want to be told what to do, because life sure seems easier that way. We want to know the steps, we want to know what to do next. We often follow a preset roadmap of life even if we are not completely comfortable with it because that’s what others have done and it looks like it’s worked out okay for them. It is hard to truly be in touch with what you want. There are many inspiring experts out there (and here and here) to show you how to live your passion and I highly recommend spending time with their work. What I want to address here is how to solve some of our everyday problems by dealing with the duality of creative freedom and the need to follow instructions.

As an artist and generally creative person, you can pretty much guess that I am not very good at following instructions. This is an over-generalization. In some cases, I am great at following instructions and want to do so. In the real world of life we’ve got to do laundry, stop at red lights and fill out forms (not necessarily in that order!) because we want the end results – the clean clothes, undented car and cell phone rebate. Being creative doesn’t mean being rebellious.

One thing I really enjoy is do it yourself home projects like assembling cabinets, putting in a new mailbox and installing a shower head. I like the sense of accomplishment at the end, but I also like following the step by step instructions that tell me exactly what to do next. I don’t have to figure it out, it’s all figured out for me. The enjoyment is in the methodology, a start to a finish.

On the other hand, in some circumstances I love unpredictability. When I am painting, I have no idea what the end result will be or even how I will get there. I feel free and positive about this, I do not want a set of instructions on how to paint a landscape. The painting will evolve as I work on it and it may not even turn out to be whatever I initially intended it to. The enjoyment is in the journey, creating a surprise ending.

When I read a great book or watch an exciting movie, I don’t want to know in advance how it ends. I want to follow the twists and turns and guess and then be dazzled by the ending!

Teaching art has a similar buzz for me. I plan out what the lesson will be and often it goes as planned. But just as often a child will ask a question I did not plan for and I need to come up with an answer on the spot. Sometimes I try out a new lesson or project and the children take it in a different direction than I planned. I need to quickly reevaluate and change direction to go with their interests and needs.

I did not have this seemingly inherent flexibility when I started teaching young children. I remember my first year teaching preschool,  I would be flustered when a carefully constructed lesson took a detour. “No, children. Do it this way, follow the steps.” And being the three year olds that they are, they kept doing it their way anyway. Were these children bad or rebellious? No, their way IS the right way. Parents often get frustrated with this behavior as they try to make their children do things the “right” way, in other words, the parent’s way. Teaching became a lot more relaxing when I jumped on the children’s bandwagon and channeled  their natural inclinations. Parenting is also less stressful when we realize there is more than one way to do almost anything, and our own way isn’t always the right way for our child or anyone else.

The past few weeks I’ve been working on reorganizing a room in my home to become a study. It has been a junk room for decades – a place to put things we didn’t know where to put. Finally I got up the courage and resolve to tackle this large task. This is not the type of project I generally enjoy (thus the decades factor) and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. It could be that it’s a bit boring or overwhelming. It is a large task and must be broken down into steps. However, the steps are not outlined for me. There is no instruction booklet to tell me to place this document in this file and stack these containers here. No “Step One, Step Two.”

So how am I supposed to do this without an instruction manual? Maybe this is part of the reason I have put it off for so long. I had no idea where to start. No idea what Step One is. I checked out some organizing websites and books. It’s cute to paint some stencils on the wall or put your pencils in matching boxes, but these resources did not give me what I needed – Step One. As I thought about this project, it occurred to me that I might try to apply the same lessons I had learned teaching art. Have a plan but go with whatever happens. Get in touch with your gut feelings. This comes naturally to children; you know exactly what that toddler is feeling right now. We adults have spent so many years tempering our feelings and believing what others tell us we should feel that we have almost lost touch with our feelings altogether. But that is the topic of a future post.

I emptied the contents of the room into my living area. After throwing away the obvious, I was still left with a lot of stuff. I tackled the art related things first. I felt confident with that. I went with my gut feelings – I tried not to think about an item too much. (Am I going to need this in the future?) I just made a snap choice about it. I purged, gave away and grouped together various supplies. Time consuming, but not too stressful. Then I tackled the furniture. Again, I tried hard to gauge how I felt at my desk over by the far wall and judge if it feels better next to the window. It took a while and some rearranging, but I finally decided the best place for my desk, bookshelves and other furnishings. I was left with papers. Decades of papers in boxes, bags and piles. Not art papers, but the papers of living – bills, receipts, forms, notes, statements, checks, you name it.

I was paralyzed and overwhelmed. I sat in the middle of all my papers, looked around and cried. Well, at least I was in touch with my feelings! Papers are not my thing. I don’t know what to do with them, where to start. I lacked the experience and confidence to make any choices. I knew getting rid of it all wasn’t the right thing to do, but what was? The more I tried to figure it out, the more frustrated I became. I kept thinking, “What is so hard about filing papers? Millions of people do this every day.” Well, this self-defeating way of thinking made me feel even more inept.

Time to call in the expert. I am a big believer in doing what I know and letting other people help me with what they know. I’m lucky enough to have a friendly accountant who “gets” me and can show me the other side of my issues. She came to my house and we sat in the middle of the papers. Again I felt the choking feeling in my throat. I took a pad and a pen and wrote down what she told me to do, step by step. Start on this pile because it is a recent one. Step one, make a file folder for the next piece of paper you pick up. It’s a bank statement, so put the name of the bank and account number on the tiny slip of paper and slide it into the plastic top of the folder. Put that in your file cabinet. Find the date of the bank statement and place it inside the folder in chronological order. Step two, rinse and repeat. Just do that over and over again until you are done. We went over various paper scenarios I might run into and outlined the steps to take in each case. Wow. This is so much more manageable now that I have instructions.

So what’s the takeaway? In some situations, going with your real feelings is the way to get things done and done right. It’s the only way to feel satisfied that you are doing the right thing. When it feels right, it is right. Other times we need to express the feeling and then put it aside in favor of instructions. Following the steps is the only way to get these tasks done and done right. You are indeed a very lucky person if you have the confidence to use both these strategies on this wonderful road of life.

This being our last week of school, there are lots of items being sent home. Papers, projects, anything that has been tacked up around the classroom, anything in a locker or cubby will be going into a big paper shopping bag to be sent home on that fateful last day of school.

I don’t want to add to that pile so for the last week of art class, I will be giving the children experiences. Truth be told I sprinkle these experiential classes throughout the year because I think it is important that children expand their definition of art. I had an interesting discussion with a class about this one day. I put some blocks on a table and asked one child to build something with them. He moved a few blocks around and called it done. I asked the class, “Is this a sculpture?” No, it was just some toy blocks on a table. I asked them, “Is this art?” No, art is when you paint a picture and take it home.

Then I talked for a minute about how a sculpture is anything three dimensional, anything that is not flat. We talked about “regular” sculptures – statues of horses, sculptures of heads in museums, a metal piece of art in the mall. I stretched their thoughts even further proposing that many things around us could be sculptures – trees, buildings, blocks on a table.

I don’t expect that the kids will have an “aha moment”, but if they are exposed to this creative thought process all year long, new brain connections will be made and innovative ways of thinking will emerge. It may happen tomorrow or when they are twelve. You never know. But I do know that early childhood experiences have a real impact on how children develop ideas about our world.

Anytime children play with interesting materials, pouring or stacking or squishing, they are learning how the world works, how things feel, how to make substances do what you want them to, how to balance objects. They are engaging their imaginative, intuitive, big picture, spatially oriented, anything-is-possible right brain functions to experiment and explore and create.

So, what are some of these experiences? And are they “art”? This last question has been a topic of much societal discussion for centuries and continues to this day. I feel that anytime you create from your intuition, your passion, even if you can’t take it home, it is art. Creating a great project at work, an exciting event or a wonderful dinner is art.  You will know when it is art because you will be engaged and absorbed. Time will feel like it is standing still but is really flying by.

Below are a few of the experiences I provide my classes. Most of the time I give each child their own individual tray to work on. This makes the experience theirs and eliminates conflicts. Older children will benefit from group experiences such as building a sculpture together.

  • sand on trays with cups and spoons
  • dirt with a small cup of water and popsicle sticks
  • a lump of clay with large beads, shells, forks and anything that makes an impression
  • packing peanuts with a handful of toothpicks
  • tape the letters of the alphabet down to the table and give out Q-tips
  • sand, flat rocks and a stick
  • a bin with a few inches of water, a plastic cup and a funnel
  • pieces of aluminum foil
  • pieces of plastic coated wire (I like Twisteez brand)
  • a tray of recyclables, scissors and a roll of tape

Try a few of these things at home with your children or when you need some down time in your classroom. You will be amazed at how long they want to work on this. Ask them a few open ended questions about what they are making and write down the answers. You can practically see the gears spinning in their heads!

A great way to expand creative thinking is to ask questions. When I teach, I ask the kids a lot of open ended questions in order to get their brains moving and their creative gears going. When we are painting the desert I ask the children, “What would you bring with you if you were in this hot, dry desert? What would you wear? How do you feel?” When we are sculpting animals with clay I ask, “How does his clay feel? What is your favorite animal? What do you like about your animal?” These types of questions do not have a right or wrong answer so children do not need to be afraid of being wrong. Whatever a child thinks, is the right answer.

One question every child gets asked is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’m not even sure what I want to be, so I don’t think too many preschoolers have a grasp of this! However, their answers are often cute and sometimes reveal interesting things.

I listened to a class discuss this very question one day at preschool. As expected, many girls said they wanted to be ballerinas and many boys wanted to be firefighters. I think most of us wanted to be one of those a long time ago too. The one answer that struck me was from a boy, let’s call him Justin, who said he wanted to be a mommy. The teacher, who I think highly of, said, “Justin, you can’t grow up to be a mommy because you are a boy.” I cringed at her answer. Yes, logically, this boy could never give birth. And the chances of Justin having a sex change and adopting a child in the future are pretty small. But we are only looking at this boy’s answer through adult, logical eyes.

Justin is not saying he wants to give birth to a child or become a woman. He is saying he wants to be like a mommy, his mommy. He wants to have the qualities his mommy has. He wants to love unconditionally like his mommy loves him. He wants to be fun and nurturing, safe and happy. He wants to know it all and do it all. And you know what Justin, you can be all those things. Go forth, grow up and be a mommy.

The best way I have found to nurture my creativity is to hang out with preschoolers. They have a sense of wonder about the world that comes naturally because they haven’t been here very long and truly do wonder about pretty much everything. Just watch a small child play with his set of little cars. He will line them up all around the room, sort them in various ways, play out elaborate scenarios with them. Take a walk with a toddler and be prepared to stop every five steps to observe a bug on the ground, chase a squirrel or touch a flower. They see everything with fresh eyes. This is what being creative is all about – seeing the world in new ways.

It’s a lot to ask of an adult. We have seen our share of bugs, read this book a million times and just don’t have the patience to sit on the floor and put together more Legos. What to do? Slow down. Just spend an alloted time, an hour, even 15 minutes, and try hard to put yourself in the mindset of a 3 year old. Just for that short period of time, forget all your adult things – forget your errands list, your work troubles, your family issues. Turn off your technology. You can turn it back on in an hour. It’s hard, but just try. Then, take a very slow walk, noticing all the cracks in the sidewalk, colorful flowers and all the tiny things around you. Shop in a store and go slowly through the aisles, looking at all the colorful products and packages. Imagine things you could do with these cans or where you can go wearing those clothes. Consider how this thing got to where it is. If you have a small child or know someone who does, spend time just playing with them, and absorb yourself in it. It will feel boring at first, but do it anyway. If you really pretend you are a small child you will find the wonder. A renewed sense of wonder lifts both your mood and your creative thinking.

Buddhists call this mindfulness or being in the moment. Three year olds are always in the moment. They are not thinking about what is going to happen in the future, or even in an hour, they are just happy to be doing whatever they are doing right now. The adult compromise to this is mindfulness. We need not ignore our future, but we do need to appreciate the present much more than we do now. We need to not rush through our days only to get to the next fretful day. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, make that the most important thing right now. Really immerse yourself in it. Use all your senses to soak up the experience.

Say you are having lunch in a restaurant. Chew slowly. Savor and really taste your food. Feel your food go into your body, nourishing your organs. Watch the people around you. Observe them as if you are observing an alien race of creatures. Try to figure them out and imagine what kind of person they are and what they are saying. Listen to the conversations around you, or better yet, listen, really listen to the person you are with. Don’t think about what you are going to say next, or the workload this afternoon, or anything else that has to do with the future. Just listen, taste, smell, feel and look.

Do we want to be three year olds all the time? Of course not. We need to be adults, taking responsibility for our actions, staying safe, planning and preparing. Just try being a three year old for a few minutes every day. Eventually you will be able to incorporate the benefits of wonder into your adult life. Slow down, notice everything, be in the moment. Your mind will thank you for it.

When babies are born, parents innately dress them according to their sex. We put our girl babies in pink dresses and our boy babies in little blue jeans. I think part of this stems from the fact that often babies look like, well, babies. It can be hard to tell the baby’s sex if it weren’t for their clothing. Plus, we adore our babies and want to dress them up and show them off. As our babies grow into toddlers, we just continue what we started. Most girl’s clothes are pink and most boy’s clothes are not.

Even at the age of two, many girls seem to develop a bit of an obsession with pink. A well known study surmises that females are biologically programmed to prefer colors in the red spectrum. This comes from our prehistoric days when men hunted and women gathered. Women needed to spot red berries and ripe fruits.

Society tell us that pink is not only a color for girls but the color for girls. Stroll down the toy aisle and you will see a sea of pink plastic doll houses, jewelry, kitchenware and so much more. There are entire stores that sell only pink clothing and accessories. Like it or not, Disney Princess items rake in over $4 billion a year. I see many little girls decked out in pinkwear with their sparkling tiaras every day.

I recall a controversial rant last year that made the Facebook rounds posted by the mother of a 5 year old boy who wanted to dress up like Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween. She thought it was fine, bought him the pink and purple costume and posted a very cute photo of him in it. Some other mothers however, were a bit disgusted and dismayed that this mother “allowed this to happen.” Granted, it’s not exactly like wearing a pink polo, but the point is that adults do transmit gender biases to children.

Interestingly, there are also many children who do not develop this bias regarding the color pink and see pink as one of many colors in the world to choose from, be it on a shirt, in a painting or on a toy. Boys are very happy wearing pink, painting with pink and playing with pink toys. Girls can take pink or leave it, they may wear pink clothing sometimes, but not all the time. These children aren’t necessarily the ones with the most confidence, but maybe they are the ones with the most innocence – their choices come straight from their hearts and have not yet been clouded by the expectations of others.

As the nature versus nurture debate goes on, art teachers will continue to show our charges that pink is a color just like green, blue and yellow.

Even I find myself occasionally wincing when a boy chooses to paint his whole picture in pink. Is it because I think his parents will wonder why I let him do that? Is it because I think I might be promoting some kind of not exactly normal-ness in this boy? I mentally kick myself when those thoughts fly by and then let the creating continue!

Hi! I'm Susan Stein and of my many passions in life,
two of my biggest are art and children. In the process of teaching children art, I also teach them problem solving, brainstorming, inventive thinking, originality, working with others, hand eye coordination, and so much more. It doesn't matter if you're good at drawing or not, everyone will benefit from experiencing art.

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