Most of the artists I know suffered terribly in the public school system. In kindergarten I clearly remember being put in the corner for getting carried away with a participatory music exercise. Passion for the abstract and emotional power of music drove a sensitive 5 year old to stamp my feet in ecstasy, and I was punished for it.
Instead of being the central focus of my education, art was relegated to a meager extracurricular activity. At home, despite the fact that my mother was a painter, she seemed reluctant to share her knowledge. But there were always lots of art books in the house. Instead of doing homework I learned art history and ultimately world history not so much from the words, but from the pictures in those books, falling in love with one period after another. For me, the pictures embodied so much more information than the words could express.
Perhaps my mother knew instinctively that art technique can be taught, but that seeing and thinking cannot. Yet the vehicles to discover those skills must be somehow made available, through access to tools, media, mentorship and time. Some artists become craftsmen as they learn the means to reproduce and interpret what they see and feel; some craftsmen stretch the bounds of their material to create objects beyond the realm of functional design. Others are more interested in the meaning behind visual language and the intellectual process of art. Whatever the art form, continuous learning is one of the hallmarks of any art practice.
Why do our schools teach English, French and German, but not visual language, which permeates the fabric of our society? Every sign, building, map, advertisement, tv show, video game or movie, print or product design, colour or icon, effect, aid and define us as we navigate our public and private worlds. Nor do primary or secondary schools put much emphasis on creative thinking. Many artists have to “unlearn” their schooling in order to produce their most powerful and authentic work.
An artist friend confessed that she was still unsure how to define the value of the arts. The question undoubtedly could be debated until the cows come home. Children draw, build, dance, sing and drum before they write. The oldest known example of figurative art, pictured here, looks like it could have been carved at any time in human history, but it was in fact created 32,000 years ago. Whether or not we identify ourselves as artists, it seems safe to say that for all of us, artistic expression remains one of our oldest, most fundamental and persistent tools for organizing and manifesting our feelings and ideas.
Is there anything more thrilling than grasping and communicating an ineffable idea? The applications of an art practice are immeasurable in my life. Every day I colour outside the lines. Every day I use the creative process in my life – in the way I decorate my home, in my garden, in the food I prepare, in problem solving for my day job, in writing this journal and maybe most importantly, in my relationships with others. Our creativity is what sets us apart from other animal species; it may be the downfall of the planet, but it is also our only hope. Why then, do we treat it as an afterthought in our education system?