Monday, May 03, 2021

"Art Therapy is Therapy"

Conversation isn't always the best way to get to know a child. This is true of adults as well, but it is especially true of children who are still developing their language skills. The words they say are important, of course, but more revealing is often how they interact with their environment, including the other people in their world. How they use art materials can be especially instructive to someone committed to listening.

This is part of the art and science of art therapists, for instance. Nona Orbach, author of The Good Enough Studio and presenter at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, says, "Art therapy is therapy," although not necessarily of the "talk therapy" variety. 

A classic example, are drawings children make of their families. A lot can be determined from, say, the relative size of the individuals portrayed. The mother, for instance, is often portrayed as the largest figure, representing the out-sized importance the child places on her. Older siblings might be represented as being smaller, revealing a sense of rivalry. The child sometimes makes themself the largest figure and we might begin to worry when a child draws themself as dramatically smaller than the rest of the family. The relative position of the individuals on the page, a new baby or a father drawn as separated from the rest of the family might tell us something else. Children might include people who are not, to our minds, family members as all. I've often been included in family portraits.

Color choices, material choices, the manner of making the art, body language, vocalizations: a careful observer, a researcher, a full-body listener might learn a great deal about a child without a word being spoken. Many of us have a bias about art, one that we've learned from our highly literate society, that causes us to judge it based upon how well or poorly it represents visual reality, but that is a narrow way of looking at art, one that only considers a singular visual perspective. The making of art is a language unto itself, one that is in many ways far superior to the spoken or written word for communicating certain things.

The process of making art, especially for young children, can be understood in ways far beyond the mechanical logic of geometry and perspective. When we set aside our prejudices, we begin to be able to see a connectedness of meaning that perhaps can't be put into words.

This is a problem in our profession. So often we wish (or are required) to put our observations into words in the name of documentation or assessment, yet the dictates of the written word, its grammar, causes us to re-shape the actual experience to fit rather than fully reveal. Indeed, it's not just our profession, but the modern world that trusts the written word over all other evidence. We might see that a child portrays the new baby as a dot at the corner of a page (which I've seen more than once), we might even feel with and for the child, understanding their entire experience in that singular, faint mark on a page, yet it's not "real"  in our world until it is somehow rendered into words. And the process of rendering it into words, quite often, diminishes it, even, in some cases, stripping it of all meaning and replacing it with mere grammar or geometry.

Let me be clear, I'm all for literacy, but this is what literacy does to us. Seeing is believing, but what about feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling? Literacy has taught us to value and trust the visual over our other senses, and when it comes to art we tend to attempt to force it to make visual sense by assessing it according to what we perceive as "realistic." What young children create is non-representational art, more akin to the art of medieval painters who would often repeat the main figure many times in the same picture by way of representing all the possible relationships that affected them. They knew, the way young children know, that revealing this kind of truth can only be done by a simultaneous portrayal off all of them, even if it doesn't make sense visually. We often think of pre-historic cave paintings as crude representations of reality, even sometimes comparing them to the "immature" drawings of preschoolers, but it's likely that these early homo sapiens knew exactly what they were doing. These were certainly not depictions intended to be viewed under the blare of modern lighting as we view them. They were created deep under ground, in profoundly dark interior places, and were only revealed by the flicker of torchlight, hidden and exposed by the shadows cast by moving bodies, shaped and reshaped by the movements of people, flame, and textured walls, offering a multi-faceted view not restricted by the fixed-point realism that has come to dominate our modern manner of perceiving art.

This is what both early humans and children are creating when they make art. As another summit guest Robert Pucci puts it, there is a "grammar of matter" that cannot be understood according the linear chain of logic that children usually understand far better than we adults. This grammar is unique to each child and is expressed in everything they do as they engage with materials. In this process, children are expressing what could be considered a pre-literate, pre-linear, pre-visual dominant reality, one that most of us have forgotten in our drive to put it all into written words (as I'm doing, poorly, right now). When we study children's art by looking for evidence of geometric development, we miss the things we have been conditioned to ignore: the connectedness of meaning. The process of becoming literate is in their future and, whether we like it or not, it is a process of homogenization of both the people they are and the materials they use. 

I worry that in our current cultural drive to hurry children through this pre-literate phase of their lives by forcing formal literacy instruction earlier and earlier, we are robbing them of something vital. Literacy with it's emphasis on a singular point-of-view, linearity, geometry, and "realism," changes the human brain in ways we are only now starting to fully comprehend. It seems to me that this connectedness of meaning is something we should not hurry children through. Studies of unschooled children who have never received literacy instruction, tell us that the natural window for learning to read comes between about seven and 11 years old, yet today we are trying to teach it as young as two and three. What do our children lose in the rush?

Preschool teachers have a great deal to learn from art therapists like Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci, who strive to understand children where they are, through their art, which is a more natural and expressive language for young children, with a more flexible, personal grammar. A page with a dot in the corner can sometimes express far more than an encyclopedia full of words.

It's all right there in their process, but often must we must do the work of overcoming our modern conditioning to hear it.


I have been profoundly shaped by my discussions with Nona Orbach (Israel) and Roberta Pucci (Italy), both of whom are presenting at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summitalongside two dozen other international thought-leaders. This is nothing less than an attempt to bring the full web of the early childhood world together with the singular mission of transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? Together we can turn this world around.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: