What is a canvas? Maybe a blank, non-judgemental space in which you can sculpt various parts of yourself into a more rounded whole. The residue of this self exploration is left like a trail of breadcrumbs, out of the forest. Until about age 7 it is perhaps your God-- after that, it becomes infiltrated by the judgements of others, unnacounted-for projections of parents, and both judgemental and well-meaning friends. This is because once the artwork is finished, a little more of the path is revealed and this path-- precisely because of the highly potent power it has to communicate with others ("Books are the closest we can get to telepathy")-- also has a tremendous vice, and this is the fact that young artists are very impressionable. At least, this is the stereotype of which we are informed when we're young.
The wonderful thing about working with children is that they take on any artistic endeavor with an air of lightness, a happy experience in itself. The process is the rewarding part. So to see the excitement on their faces, the way their faces light up at something as simple as an assignment involving a drawing-- instead of the same meticulous grammar work they are used to-- is, to me, a reminder of the joy of art and creativity, art for art's sake and not for the purpose of selling or being appealing.
There is rarely any artificial self-doubt in children of grades K-1... however, as you go up the grades, as you reach grade two, for example, they start to require much encouragement-- I see kids staring at the page and some of the non-native English speakers sit at the front of class, pronouncing in broken English-- "I don't know how to do."
Surprisingly enough, or not-so-surprisingly... those are precisely the kids who end up having the best drawings, though I don't know if this is just a biased perception on my part due to my excitement when I see their work flourish. In any case, I overcompensate with these kids... I tell them how wonderful their work is, I say to them that they can even be artists when they grow up if they want to, a sentiment which is met with flushed faces and a curious mixture of pride and embarrassment.
Perhaps it is the same contradiction, in retrospect, that marks the formative years of a young artist.
But from their arrival in the US, these immigrant children have been told that, in order to succeed, they need to follow directions. They need to listen to their teachers-- and as for girls, not to make too much trouble. Keep their opinions to themselves. "If you have nothing nice to say, do not say anything at all. " Coming from a family of immigrants and being one myself, I can confirm that this sentiment is unfortunately, predominantly, the truth.
It is only now, at 21, that I am starting to hear the fallacy that rings in that saying-- distinctly the part which suggests one should "say nothing at all." The trouble with the statement is that it reinforces a sense of self-doubt, augments it to unnecessary proportions. The fact is that, to a certain degree, you cannot censor only some parts of yourself without also censoring others. Who is to say what is nice and what is not nice? Going by the same logic which creates the rules, who is the child to decide? I believe that censoring only some things that one believes to be true at an early age opens the gates for a deep insecurity. This is because all truth has to be exposed and integrated in order to raise a well-rounded child-- kept to the self, even sightly negative core beliefs are given the chance to mutate into biases. When an opinion is shot down before it has a chance to integrate in this way, when the child is surrounded in an environment that is unsympathetic to creative expression and replaces this integration with competition, there is an essential part of the child's personality that goes missing.
At least, this is what I believe. Children learn at an early age through their environment that there are certain things that are taboo and that, in contrast, to say the right words and to combine them with a certain self-presentation will push you forwards in society. This duality destabilizes inner truth, and unfortunately is very difficult to evade, particularly because you are not the only one who you are working for-- usually, there is a very deep sense that your family is also relying on you. I believe there must be an antithesis to this, and most likely, this answer is the increased integration of art into public schools.
I think that if people have the opportunity to speak from their truth, this opportunity should always be taken. This is precisely what is offered by a blank page, and this opportunity is deeply connected to the necessity of introducing more art into schools.
Unfortunately, I've often seen that there is not enough of this sort of education, and not enough individualized instruction in these fields if they do exist. So I've been subtly introducing creative assignments into my homework at school at the Chinese tutoring center.
"I need a cat to help me."
... My sentiments exactly.
I've given poetry assignments, which is in my opinion a form of canvas in itself-- perhaps the best there is, because it dissociates the immigrant child from a fearful perception of the English language and it turns it playful.
A Self Portrait
"I want to go home"
A Life Lesson By: Anonymous.
Written by the girl on the right in the next picture...
And now for a digression-- because there also a whole lot that those kids teach me, and it is a fact that shouldn't go unappreciated.
If we look back far enough and find that essential truth which I mentioned previously and uncensor it, we might realize that the truth is still as intact as a field of snow. (Excuse the shabby metaphor, and all the ellipses to follow.)
I remember how much I used to enjoy romping through those fields of snow in Russia. When I was the age of the kids above, about 5-7. It is one of the few memories I have of that place, but it is much more sensory that it is pictoral-- I might only imagine that I do, and though I do not have explicit memory of it, I remember the sensation itself-- perhaps it was my first taste of feeling liberation.
For a long time in my life, I tried to preserve that feeling; to not ruin that immaculate perception, I denied myself the pleasure of stomping through metaphorical snow fields of Russia-- I thought my handwriting was too ugly for the page. Each time I wrote something down out of necessity, I did not go back to it because it was too anxiety inducing to look at the tight and indiscernible handwriting. I'd have rather focused on the bit of snow always untouched before me, or have looked out serenely at the field-- kept it always ahead of me, still in my reach, melting. I figure it might have looked a lot like having mopped the floor and been left standing on the one dry space. I tried to put walls around it to try and prevent its melting. When I was 5 I'd put the first snow of December, more precious to me because it was so late, in the icebox until it turned to ice and lost the texture of its fluffiness and the joy it had brought me. All for the intention of having wanted to keep it through the summer...
American snow, as though it was a souvenir and I wouldn't be here for all that long, before it struck me that we wouldn't be going back. I suppose my parents thought I wouldn't notice. I guess perhaps I didn't, or didn't accept it, until much later. Maybe in a way, surprisingly, I am still coming to terms.
And so, even though there is a LOT of work involved.....
It really is worth it in the end.