Friday, March 07, 2014

A Passageway To Truth

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. ~Pablo Picasso

In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind ~Paul Gaugin

A couple years ago, my wife and I attended a fundraising event for North Seattle Community College's Parent Advisory Council (PAC). Our cooperative preschool, like most of the hundreds of cooperatives in our area, is affiliated with a neighborhood community college, through its parent education department. The college buys insurance for all the schools, operates officer training for the leaders of our schools, and most importantly provides education to our parents, who are all also enrolled as credit-earning students.

PAC is comprised of a parent representative from each of the some 40 schools in the NSCC system, charged with doing things like hosting ECE speakers, producing a newsletter, sometimes getting involved in legislative matters, and raising scholarship funds. The latter is the reason we all came together that Friday, first in the Seattle Art Museum's sales and rental gallery, then later in the museum itself to view SAM's Gaugin and Polynesia exhibit.  

Northwest painter Kathy Liao was there to discuss her work. During the cocktail portion of the program I found myself talking to her, and as it is my wont in the context of party banter to offer up to new acquaintences some theory or other I've been noodling over, I inflicted this one on her, "Having made art with a lot of young children and a lot of professional artists, I think the main difference between the two is that the professional artist knows when to stop."

I see it almost every day, young children creating great beauty, breathtaking beauty, but it's only a phase they are going through in their process, one which quite often ends in a mucky canvas of what I call "preschool gray." As a teacher, I see the gray as evidence of learning, as a sign that this child has explored and experimented in every way possible. As an artist, I see yet another masterpiece lost to the world.

Kathy replied, "A lot of artists strive to paint like children . . ." then we almost simultaneously quoted Picasso's words from above. She then went on, "You know, when I was in school one of the biggest criticisms from my instructors was that I overworked my canvases."

I've heard that criticism myself, both of me and of others. I said, "You were still a child. Now you know when to stop."

I know a little about the life and art of Paul Gaugin, probably the same things you know: a Frenchman who left it all behind to seek out truth among the "savages" of the South Pacific:

I want to do simple, very simple art, and to be able to do that, I have to immerse myself in virgin nature, see no one but savages, live their life, with no other thought in mind but to render, the way a child would, the concepts formed in my brain and to do this with the aid of nothing but the primitive means of art, the only means that are good and true.  

What he found, of course, disappointed him, as he felt that Europeans, and particularly the missionaries, had already ruined the natives, but still he stayed, striving through his paintings to discover that innocence and simplicity. That we imagine we see these attributes in children and "savages" alike is a testament to our arrogance and presumption of superiority, even as we strive to attain those attributes ourselves or somehow "return" to them.  Like Gaugin, who seemed to feel, at least at first, that he needed to protect these people, especially from the church, so often as adults in the lives of children we think it is our place to protect their innocence from the big, bad world.

The reason we were there on that Friday evening was to raise money for families that struggle to afford even our low tuitions. The children in these families are already accustomed to looking into darkness. All children, even infants, already know that life can be hard and unfair, that pain, hunger, and fear are facts of existence. They know this from the moment they emerge into this world. Adults cannot protect them from this because there is no innocence to preserve, just knowledge to suppress. If anyone is "innocent" in all of this, or perhaps willfully ignorant, it is we "civilized" adults, who strive to push all the icky-ness to the margins, to box it up in the dark corners of our minds, to pretend it doesn't exist. I submit that, indeed, what we really admire in those mythological nobel savages and mythological children is how directly and comfortably they seem to co-exist with the darkness from which we run. When we seek to protect them, more often than not we only succeed in causing them to doubt their instincts about the world, replacing them with our fears.

When a child continues beyond our conception of beauty into the miasma of gray, she is exploring the places where we in our false innocence rarely go any longer. Where we bemoan the "loss" of a masterpiece, the place where professional artists have learned to stop, she is using beauty as a passageway to truth.

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artists once he grows up. ~Pablo Picasso

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Stephanie Schuler said...

I'm always amazed at what works of art our preschool classes come up with here in Chicagoland. Sometimes, I don't think that the kids' parents see some of the inherent talent! A few of my kids even stay after school while I'm grading papers to paint even more! Always love their enthusiasm. Brightens up my day.

Cindy said...

This I love: "I submit that, indeed, what we really admire in those mythological noble savages and mythological children is how directly and comfortably they seem to co-exist with the darkness from which we run."
Thanks Teacher Tom