Lessons from a creative patch: Kids and Ceramics
Lesson's from a Creative patch: Kids and Ceramics
By Barry Kostrinsky
The art world is large and has many subsets, satellites and stellar moments. Few are brighter than the light from children's art work. You will not read much about kiddie art in the larger art world today that is focused on money, madmen and monstrosities. Even though Kindegarden Klay is all the rage in the contemporary ceramics world not much homage is paid to today's micro masters. Many great artists that fill the art world's canons realized the firepower of these young maestros. Often imitated and praised by the likes of Picasso, the German Expressionists and many others, what is that these pre-teens and pre-self conscious mini men and women seem to possess that so many try and unleash in their own work and why?
This summer I worked in Westchester at a Elmwood day camp teaching ceramics to kids ages 5-9. It was a blast and gave me a unique insight into creative young minds. Are these young artists that different from their mom's and dad's? In essence they are not. Often they emulate their parents and being older and thus are running from youth and it's romanticized purity many artists long to get back to. Remember your elementary schools days, didn't you always want to be older and emulate an older sibling or a parent?
However, kids barriers to their creativity are either not formed or are easy to brake through. With a lump of clay often they can easily run with an idea or explore form. And yes, often they are stuck just as an adult would be when given ultimate freedom without guidelines. Yet, kids are able to run past these barriers with a slight push and a leading thought to engage their imagination and begin exploring. Most adults will quickly tell you they are not artists or able to create art and thus they are not. Kids have not yet fully plastered the ceiling of their possibilities and thus a slight sledge hammer to the walls of the self opens them to the skylight from above.
Indeed most of the kids ideas and forms come from television and the media's influence on these young minds. In this way they are not much different from exhibiting post MFA artists. The German expressionists certainly idealized a child's free probing portal to a pure self. Is there even a pure unfettered self that can touch God or the Devil? Tabula Raza seems more like a play toy for Bam-Bam's friend Tabatha on the Flintstones that a real possibility.
From the rubble of bits and pieces of earth's dirt, the kids would be engaged and totally absorbed when working with clay. I would ask "Do you hear that? It is the sound of silence, the sound of concentration, creativity and focus, art is being made." Indeed some girl retorted, "How can you hear the silence?" Yet, another said, "yes I hear it, it makes a hum, like "ohmmmmm." Kids vary as widly as pears in the supermarkets; some are naturally sweet and fresh, while others never ripen because of racing to adulthood.
In the end it is a young minds ability to run unfettered without hindrance that older artists long to get back to. Hours are spent by many exhibiting artists trying to get outside themselves, trying to connect to something more unteathered by the desires, longings and calculable misgivings of the self. In-front of a canvas or clay with coffee, cigarettes, beer and more powerful mind enhances and deadners artists try and ply themselves from the news, the moment, the minutia and the monotony of men. It is hard to do this when bills, bankruptcy health care and dementia loom in the dark and present future. Kids don't have many bills and can hardly spell dementia. I did not need to give them coffee to excite them and did not want to spend time in jail by plying them with the usual art hallucinogens. But don't think kids are less conscious of their social standing, their inadequacies (as quickly pointed out by their peers as a white moth on a brown tree trunk) or their appearance.
We of all ages are vain fragile folk wary of criticism, longing for approval and willing to join any team without thinking. When the kids were engaged with the clay they dove in deeply. Boys that seemed to be as sports minded and Yugio card maniacal as any fixated adult easily used these core interests to spring board their imagination. Once slightly pushed to open up a stream of ideas, additional comments and rifts filled their minds and their little hands went to work. Often they seemed less critical of their work than a mature artists but often they were as critical. At times their works was as balanced and methodical as older artists and at times they were as sloppy and free as could be. Both approaches has its' merits.
The best project I did with the kids was a group art work . In the early part of the season I had the kids make a pinch pot, do "The Cheese", free build, make coil pots, use forms and build sculpture. The most rewarding part of the season was when a boy asked "are we making sculpture today?" The clay world, like the larger world has problems with the KKK- Kraft, Kitch and Functionality. Okay, one was the F word. Whereas the larger world is right to be wary of the extreme right and the KKK, the art world's fear of craft and functionality is ignorant. Another K like word, conceptual has taken the reigns from many artists hands and the horses are no longer running wild but instead corralled into an ideological narrow path to inch the old canon forward. Who uses canon's in battle anymore besides pirates? Wide sweeps are needed to clean up the art world and the young minds have the sophisticated ignorance to not know of the barriers many older artists learn in their BFA and MFA programs and from their peers and parents.
So what was "The Cheese" project? One day while talking to my son on the phone I began to doodle in a rectangular block of clay with my fingers. The finished work had the blind simplicity and honest expression most artists are looking for. I turned this into a kids project and gave each kid a block of clay and asked them to push holes into the block with their fingers to gain a feel for the clay and a feel for the form that would evolve from a finite and fixed geometric form. Instantly some kids got it, they realized they could make tunnels, pathways, water slides and more and they saw a dead plain closed form open into something new. Yes, at times the works looked like Swiss cheese and so the short handed moniker stuck for me and my assistant Jamie.
It was the group project that blew the lid off. Yes, even with the other projects it was a matter of some encouraging words to egg the young yokes on. Often pointing out what was good in their works and how many possibilities worked and were correct was an ideal way to express that unlike a math problem, art problems have and resolve many different ways and can be right and correct and yet varied and different. The group project did more. I had all the kids build freely or make a simple collection of round balls for 15 minutes. Indeed not enough time to develop too much. Then, I would take what they made and accumulate the pieces into one large work. The kids looked in awe as the seemingly meaningless and small pieces they made were combined to make amazing, interesting and wondrous art.
They became enthralled and quickly saw possibilities in what was being aggregated. They would then build from what their imagination saw in the accumulated piece with the excitement only seen on a soccer pitch when taking a direct penalty kick. Some saw castles, others lakes and pools, some saw animals but all saw something emerge from nothing and were transfixed by the growing work of art. The kids would hurriedly bring up their pieces for me to attach or be so absorbed the works would have to be pried away before they had to leave for their next event. They came up to me with pride to have me adjoin their pieces to the group art work. I would ask them, where do you think it should go? Some kids showed the complexity of a mature artists and seemingly knew one of the more appropriate spots that enhanced the piece. A few kids hung close to me as if watching magic happen in-front of their eyes and hugged me from behind.
Most of my teaching was done by their doing. At the end of the classes I would ask some questions of the young minds. I would start simple and say, what words rhythm with clay. When they hit on play I would emphasis the value of play in creativity; however, I would follow the seemingly simple language skills questions with a little more complex question. I asked, what is art? The faces stared intently upon me. I could see their minds thinking for I had asked them to go beyond what they knew by rote or simple rhythm. Their answers were great but not so easily coaxed. They had to think and feel for their answers and this was the best I could offer the kids. Again, I emphasized there is no one correct answer and praised the kids.
The grandma and pa in the society plays an important roll, to praise and give confidence to the grandchild. Their job is not to critique and kill creativity as RISDee and other college art professors might do in a crit. Call me grandpa and I wont get mad, my hair has turned grey and white and my sight has been slipping since 42, 15 years ago. The kids offered me insight into the creative process, I could see art being made and the minds awakening, smiles blossoming and self confidence flowering. They learned the power of the group, the ability to find their own way and the beauty and reward of making an object; all skills and traits often missing from our computer based Borg like world. To know why great artists from the past revered children art work is one thing, to see it being made, to smell the fragrance of an awakened mind was the gift the children gave me.