Bringing Some Truly Awful Creatures to Light

While I've been up to my elbows in canvas, paint, glue, and paper as I push to finish enough work for my show, I've also been super busy in another arena: teaching art.  For those of you just tuning in, I teach art on Fridays at a small charter school in my hometown.  I have two groups of middle school students in the mornings and I have a group of high school students for the balance of the day. 

The middle school kids are on the younger side this year, ranging from 4th through 7th grade, and for a change, it is comprised of lots of new faces for me.  I'm teaching cartooning and since there were so many unfamiliar faces, I gave a little "pre-test" on the first day of class.  I asked the kids to draw any character that came to their minds.  They could provide an "environment" if they wished but the character needed to be the focus of the art.  Otherwise, there were no rules and I just hung out nearby to provide encouragement.  I learn a tremendous amount about each student's drawing abilities and attitude with this little exercise.  I note who works really hard to get everything just right, who has trouble getting started or staying on task, who draws too dark or too small, who has an unhealthy relationship with the pencil eraser, and who has obviously not had his or her art praised and loved.  

I was sort of shocked by the results of this year's pre-test.  I have several students (more than I've ever seen in one class) who are highly critical of their drawing talents.  Statistically, I shouldn't be surprised as studies have shown that early middle school is often the time when kids lose their natural love of art, either due to bad experiences and/or time constraints created by increased academics and decreased support for art in the school system.  Still, this is a group of kids from a school that has placed extra time and money into supporting arts experiences for its students.  I saw right away that I wasn't going to be able to launch right into cartooning lessons.  I was going to have to do some art esteem-building first.

So last week, we sat and had a frank discussion about inner critics.  I told them that most people have them and that while the critics often nag about art, the critic can raise its ugly head about lots of different things in their lives.  We talked about why critics arise, what they sound like, what trouble they cause, and how to conquer them when drawing.  Then I asked the students to visualize what their personal inner critic might look like.  I also asked the kids to name their critic if they could.  The drawings you see in this post represent some of the wide variety of inner critics I'll be facing this semester.  

It is interesting to note that some of these critics are fanciful and silly.  Some are menacing.  But note the last drawing.  This student worked really hard on her inner critic portrait to get the details just right.  It seems so "normal" in comparison to all the others.  I think this is the scariest portrait of all because it does indeed represent a real live person in this girl's life, someone who told her at one point that she wasn't an artist.  

The point of this exercise is to make those insidious negative whispers of the critic into something solid, recognizable, and laughable.  Now that the critics have been given an identity of their own, I can work on loosening the hold these creatures have on my students.  Things that creep about in the shadows of our brains have less power when we shine a light upon them.  That's a lesson worth remembering no matter where we are in our artistic journey.

P.S.  Someone commented yesterday that she was surprised that I had an inner critic.  I have one of the most vicious and sneaky inner critics that you'll ever find and I battle him every day.  Some days I am more victorious than others but the point is not the outcome but the battle.  I try to keep going, no matter what vile commentary the critic slings my way.  I try to take care of myself in other areas so the critic doesn't gain a foothold.  It isn't easy.  I don't think it is easy for anyone (and those that want you to believe life and art is all roses & chocolate isn't being honest.)  Just keep working and one day you'll look up and the darkness of your critic will have faded in the sun. 


Bev said…
This is an interesting subject and good way of seeing lot of things that also worry children , Bob indeed is a worry ummmmmm

thanks for sharing ...

hugz bev
Anonymous said…
Bob is also the name of the evil being in Twin Peaks. Awful, awful being.
gypsy said…
What a lucky group of kids! I love that you are not just teaching but helping them experience the love and joy of art with few rules. Best wishes in this endeavor.
Andria said…
What a valuable lesson you shared with your will stand them in good stead to be able to identify and confront those internal critics for the rest of their lives. It might just be one of the most significant and difficult battles some people have to fight!