Art Experiences

Archive for May 2011

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.


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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