Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind.

- Magdalena Abakanowicz

This article about art may turn out to be an article about my thoughts about art. It is difficult to write about something like art, especially if one is not a ‘writer’. I hope the reader will be patient enough to read through this. I have been given enough time to write; and what do I do? I wait, go about the regular acts of living and hope that soon I shall have something profound and earth-shattering to say. Finally, I can only write about my thoughts, and experiences of art while being aware of their limitations.

There is much writing on art that one browses through in the hope of finding that magic that will change perceptions. This never happens. All those who write try to convey through words what has made sense to them and what has worked for them. Each person begins from where he or she is and proceeds further.

I read poetry, forewords by poets, autobiographies of interesting people, newspapers and novels. I watch films, and all that I see in front of my eyes. Interesting shapes, colours and sounds constantly bombard the senses with images. Some of these, I believe, lock into place in the canvas of our brain. Others fit in over a period of time, although time is irrelevant.

Who is an artist?

So, what is it that allows you to call yourself an artist? I have wondered about this. Is it public recognition or is it the number of works you have produced? Or, is it the fact that you are drawn to gather your energies very often, in spite of everything else, to create something for the eye to see? A musician, an electrician or a window cleaner — they can be artists in their own right.

And at the same time, bills have to be paid, food needs to be cooked and eaten, problems of the world have to be allowed to enter the brain and be assimilated, and one’s own thoughts and feelings have to be dealt with constantly. Interactions with others and the peace and conflicts these bring have to be gone through. And in all that, there has to be a desire of wanting to put pencil to paper. This is sometimes difficult. If there is patience, however, and not just a desire to churn out work, all one’s thoughts and experiences will influence, direct, guide and inform one’s work.

What is an ‘arty’ type? I don’t know. Are there people who can be put in this category? Not just for the fact that they do art but because of behavioral traits, moods and biases which are plastered on to such people. Many people say they ‘dabbled’ in art when they were younger, but they do not anymore. They feel there are too many things to do — something has to give way. It was just a hobby that could be returned to sometime later when there is the time.

It saddens me to hear things like this. Perhaps because I see the power of art, the deep sense of joy and contentment it brings, the way it causes time to fold into itself and disappear. It definitely creates an awareness that allows one to focus on the reality of the moment. Often when I look at something I have worked upon in the past, it is difficult to believe that it was this ‘I’ that created that particular thing.

And how does one look at a painting? Is it different from the way one looks at everything else around? Does the fact that it is within a defined space or the fact that it is framed help us to focus? Is the rest of the world a mere jumble in our heads? And after a while does the painting that caught one’s eye also become part of that jumble? How does one look afresh at everything? Is it possible?

Working with children

Am I an artist? Well, yes and no. It is easier to say that I teach art. Even this is not an accurate statement, as I do not think it is possible to teach art. What is actually possible for me to do is to invite the children to think in an unusual way, to allow pictures to take shape in the brain, to have the space to explore in any way they want to. But explore and be alert — they must.

After working with accuracy and measurement, it may seem like the much-needed break to have an ‘art class’. However, for a few children, it can be their worst nightmare — having to sit with a blank piece of paper and do something ‘creative’. Often, I feel, that the adults around help to create this feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes children are praised lavishly for something quite ordinary. On the other hand, they are taught to draw in laboured, prescribed steps. Is it possible for a teacher to encourage but not interfere? Is it possible to demand discipline and regular work habits and yet be supportive, affectionate and allow for exploration?

I continue, every once in a while, to remind the older student who is studying art that there are these points to keep in mind: the capacity to work seriously, a grasp of technique and, most importantly, the ability to visualize and execute your ideas. And behind this of course, one needs an active brain that is alive and alert to the world around.

Over the years, I have seen that the fuddled and unresponsive brain produces art (like all else it produces) that seems to be lacking in something. A piece of art is largely subjective but when one is not involved and not relating to what is around, that art becomes insipid for oneself more than for anybody else. It does not occupy or lead the artist into understanding. It becomes as ordinary as our perception of the rest of the world.

Joy and pleasure in art must not take away the beauty in the seriousness of the work. Often I have found that when there is seriousness, something beautiful is produced. So, it is possible and very important to focus not on producing something but on working with attention. I have realized this again and again whether it is in the children or in myself.

In their busy lives, children move from one activity to another. It is difficult to get them to experience the beauty of working in depth on anything, including art. Is it because our lives are so broken up or is it that they need to, at a young age (unless there is a strong tendency from within to move in a particular direction), be exposed to various things? Or is it that they are working as ‘in depth’ as possible given the limiting nature of our brain? I wonder about this. Meanwhile, all that can be done, for now, is to expose the child to what one considers to be important and meaningful in the interactions that take place. The rest of the time, the world at large will be either bearing down upon the brain or stimulating it.

Art is seen by many as a means of improving one’s ‘creativity’. This is very difficult for me to understand. Isn’t every response to the world a means of improving creativity? The art room I work in is a beautiful little structure, on the edge of the school campus. It has enough light and wall space for displays inside and outside. There is an open verandah with an excellent view of distant hills. There is the pottery shed close by. Neither the simplicity of the built structure nor the fact that there aren’t any fancy gadgets, come in the way of the children enjoying what they do. Children enjoy working outside when it is not windy or raining. Sometimes, I do not say anything if I find a child sitting quietly and looking at the horizon. This is a luxury possibly only the art teacher has!

There is no dearth of ideas about what to do in a classroom. All sorts of exercises, using all sorts of materials can be thought of or found. Some children would like the easy way out. Arguments about how they prefer ‘abstract art’ ensue. I have always discussed with them how anything in nature is an excellent example of how beautifully abstract things can get. The abstract nature of the work is enhanced if one has the patience to draw from nature. The ideas don’t become monotonous if you spend a long time observing and drawing. To observe carefully is as important as drawing from the imagination.

Methods may differ and people may differ but the attention is what finally allows you to enjoy and explore what you do. Deciding what the child is going to work on is a very interesting process. If the child is part of this process, the ease with which something can be gone into at most times is wonderful. This does not mean that things can be approached casually. A serious commitment — that the child works at something and sees it through to the end — is demanded. Also, beginning this way often makes the resistance in the child, and thus teacher intervention, minimal.

Talking with children allows them to learn slowly, often non-verbally, what is acceptable and what is not in an art class. Such an atmosphere is created over a period of time. The most important thing is for the child to think in a creative way and be able to execute the thought with seriousness and joy.