Life as Art: Inspiring Children To See Through Personal Exploration

Living Through Expression

‘Inside-Outside’ was Samir’s theme for the annual student exhibition held by Art4All, a studio in Mumbai that holds various art learning programs for children and adults. The theme intended to bring together the impossible experience of seeing the inside and outside of something simultaneously. At six years old, Samir’s understanding of perspective was limited, but he painted a staircase - inside his building but outside the door of his apartment. The staircase is a long, winding, multi-hued affair, as seen from the eyes of a small child perched on the banister, and it is a  delightful glimpse into his sense of his surroundings. His artist’s statement says it best: “In my painting, I’ve painted the top view of my staircase. It looks like it is endless and I’ve made it very colourful.”    

  Endless Staircase  by Samir Shah, 6 years                  Abscond  by Aariya Shah, 15 years

Endless Staircase by Samir Shah, 6 years                 Abscond by Aariya Shah, 15 years

The open-ended theme made it possible for the children to paint what was personal to them. Some, like Samir, took a literal approach, while others conceptually depicted the turmoil between their inner selves and outer appearances. Fifteen-year-old Aariya’s interpretation of Frida Kahlo hoping to hide her flaws and be as poised as the Mona Lisa was symbolic of her own teenage insecurities about external perfection. As a teacher at Art4All, I watched as these young children illustrated their thoughts beautifully through visuals, thoughts they were hardly able to put into words. 

Purnima Sampat, Art4All’s founder, has been an educator for over 30 years and has very clear views on the teaching methods in the studio. There are no wrong ideas, dots cannot be drawn in place of eyes and art - drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture - must draw inspiration from children’s own lives. Even if the work made little sense to anyone else, it is completely up to the children to decide what aspects of their lives, their interests or hobbies they want to explore through their art. Keith  Haring, an artist who fiercely believed that art was a personal exploration wrote in his diary:

“I am me. I see things through a completely different perspective because in my life I had experiences you didn’t have, and I had feelings you didn’t have, and I’ve lived places and seen places and experienced life from a completely different point of view than you have.”

This especially applies to child art, because children’s unique perspectives are more important in the shaping of their personalities than we imagine.

 

Learning Through Formulas

In India art is a low priority subject as it is, and Mrs. Sampat’s brand of innovative, personalised teaching is rare to find. Indian art curriculum in most schools follows similar rules as other subjects and relies on textbooks and right or wrong outcomes. Many scenes are so universal that they have become a part of the country’s collective intelligence. If asked to draw a nature scene, almost everybody will draw from memory a near identical view of a river flowing down from in between two mountains, the sun rising behind it and V-shaped birds in the sky. A country of over a billion people and it appears we all woke up to the exact same sunrise every day.  

 A version of the typical Indian nature scene

A version of the typical Indian nature scene

That art is ‘taught’ is the problem. It conditions children to follow instructions mechanically, and not rely on their own observations and feelings. My own childhood experience of preparing for the state held Elementary and Intermediate Art Examinations support that hypothesis. I was taught to paint flowers and still lives from photographs in a textbook, and this experience is shared by the over two hundred thousand students who appear for these exams every year. On the day of the Nature Drawing exam, not a single student in my centre, including me, needed to actually look at the flower (it was a Zinnia) to be able to paint it, because we had memorised it in our art classes. Such homogenous training is a common practice in classrooms across India. 

Devi Prasad, a renowned artist and contemporary of Gandhi and Tagore, was a pioneer of art education practice in newly independent India. In his book ‘Art: The Basis of Education’ he observes wryly, “However, my own conviction was not enough to convince the educational experts, who did not give much thought to the new discovery that children are also artists.” 

Close to a century later, we are still struggling to accept this discovery.

 

Developing Through Creativity

There’s more at stake here than classrooms full of uninspired mini artists. Children who are discouraged from relying on their own perception, and incentivised not to express it are unlikely to have much success in many of the skills that depend on art. It is now commonly accepted that early stages of reading and writing in toddlers are linked to their scribbles. Elliot Eisner, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, lists even tolerance, good judgment and the ability to deal with failure as lessons the arts teach children. “Not everything has a practical utility, but maybe it’s experientially valuable,” he wrote. 

While the stages of development are common to all children, their aptitude and potential are inherently unique. Howard Gardner’s ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ proposes that our traditional idea of intelligence is too narrow and that there are seven kinds of ‘intelligences’ (such as visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and musical-rhythmic) through which people perceive the world. Most schools focus on linguistic and logical intelligence - math, memorisation, and writing. It is only through exposure to the arts that children can learn in compatibility with their intelligence. It appears that drawing, painting, dance, music, and sculpture can make kids smarter, after all!  

  Students preparing for the exhibition at Art4All:  Researching, conceptualising, sketching, and painting!

Students preparing for the exhibition at Art4All: Researching, conceptualising, sketching, and painting!

We have established that children need to learn art, but how they learn is equally important. Teaching art through strict instruction can be counterproductive. The greatest risk is to have entire generations of children who are unable to see beyond the ready-made values and truths presented to them as education, and then have to suddenly make choices in adulthood. It compels children to forgo their passions, ideas, and obsessions. When children make artwork they care about - whether of their pets or of Princess Elsa - and which are authentic representations of how life feels to them, they are actively defining reality rather than passively reflecting a given reality. Children need to grow up defining their reality to become perceptive and innovative adults.

 

Thinking Through Making

However, there is some hope. At Art4All, Mrs. Sampat follows a method of instruction called Teaching for Artistic Behaviour or TAB (also called Choice Based Art Education). Developed in Massachusetts classrooms over thirty-five years, TAB allows students to determine their own art class experience. The teacher is there to provide guidance and information, but the rest of the process - materials, subjects, techniques - is self-selected by the student. For example, when Falak, a  nine-year-old student at Art4All wanted to illustrate her love of music for the ‘Inside-Outside’ exhibition, I talked to her about Wassily Kandinsky, an artist who painted abstract representations of ‘sounds’. She studied his paintings and created her own composition featuring a colourful guitar surrounded by abstract marks depicting the rhythms and melodies coming from inside it. She thought, behaved and performed like an artist and painted what music looked like to her.  

Freedom to choose does not mean that children are allowed to run wild without supervision, nor does it reduce the quality of their work. It is simply a methodology that respects the artist in every child and fosters that talent through a reimagined classroom. For example, Mrs. Sampat suggests that young children are the centres of their universe, and with age, this radiates outward to include their families, surroundings, and cultures. When projects are devised to be compatible with the stage the child is at, it boosts artistic thought and learning of techniques. 

 

Struggling Through Acceptability

With so many benefits and pure and simple joy such teaching can bring to a classroom, it is a wonder it is not more widely adopted. I asked Mrs. Sampat what her greatest challenge was, and her answer was a resounding “Parents!”     

 The young artists at the gallery                                            Students pose with their paintings

The young artists at the gallery                                            Students pose with their paintings

Dramatic, yes, but also relevant. In the pursuit of overall excellence for their children, many parents, and adults, in general, need art to have quick and measurable success. But art does not have quantifiable victories in the way that winning a gold medal in gymnastics does and therefore has the unfair task of having to constantly justify its value. It is usually considered to be irrelevant to the ‘real success’ of children. Many Indian parents make their kids drop out of art classes when it is time to ‘focus on their studies’ or they demand steady improvement in their child’s ability to ‘draw well’. A parent of a three-year-old enrolled at Art4All wanted to discuss how her daughter was doing in class, and as her teacher, I had great things to say about her sharp perception and well-developed motor skills. Her mother nodded patiently through it all, and said “That’s all very well, but why hasn’t she learned how to draw yet? Can you please give her drawing homework?” 

This kind of insistence to have children learn to make acceptable and ‘good’ art puts pressure on teachers to modify their curriculum. Imaginative blue-haired self-portraits may be replaced by observational drawing of fruit, a Monkey-Butterfly with a rendering of a horse, and expressive mark making with one point perspective. While these exercises may sound silly, they are opportunities for children to learn art techniques, as well as problem-solving, divergent thinking and many other skills that boost their overall growth. It is not possible nor expected for every parent to be a child psychologist, but a growing awareness of the value of a choice based art education is required to keep art programs relevant and effective.

 

Growing Through Awareness  

 Paintings by the elementary school batch (ages 5-10) at the gallery

Paintings by the elementary school batch (ages 5-10) at the gallery

We each have a unique way of seeing things; our personal realities depend on this. Art is the only medium that celebrates this. The purpose of art education is to give children the opportunity to understand their way of seeing, and the tools to express it. Through this, they learn to be aware of and curious about their surroundings. But in a world where we prioritise scientific innovation and technological prowess and neglect artistic exercises for logical ones, we have created a civilisation of hideous objects and misshapen human beings, of sick minds and unhappy households, of divided societies armed with weapons of mass destruction. Art combines the reflection and awareness of looking inward with the knowledge and discoveries of looking outward in a wonderful, personal way. For example, the Rand Corporation found in a 2005 study called “A Portrait of the Visual Arts” that art education does more than just give students a creative outlet. It can actually help connect them to the larger world, ultimately improving their contributions to their communities.

The ‘Inside-Outside’ exhibition ran at Bajaj Art Gallery in Mumbai for four days in August 2017. It was a proud moment for the students and their families to see their work displayed in such a grand manner. The paintings were beautiful, all sixty-four of them, and helping to bring them to life made me so happy. But what stayed with me was how simple the theme was, and yet how evocative and imaginative each interpretation turned out. After the exhibition, as was evident in their work, the children looked at life a little closer, a little deeper, and found many things that excited them. As the adage goes: when you draw, you know. It got me thinking: can making life - in all its unexceptional, messy glory - into art, make life more beautiful? Maybe it can, and maybe it can’t, but teaching children to think and behave like artists can certainly create adults who view difficult situations more sensitively, who approach problems more creatively and who appreciate beauty more passionately. I don’t claim to have the solution to the world’s problems, but sometimes the simplest ideas are the strongest. In the past century, we have majorly accelerated our destruction of our planet and heritage, and this issue has never been as urgent as it is now. Just think, if we all knew how to create beautiful things, would we be comfortable with ugliness in our thoughts and systems? And if we could all see beauty everywhere in the world, would we be able to callously destroy it?