Helping Kids Find the Artist Within

Art programs are invariably the first to go when funding cuts happen in public schools, and a friend of mine who is an award-winning artist tells a touching story of being invited by a teacher to visit such a school to give a presentation. As the artist walked onto the campus, carrying beautiful, colorful canvases, she was swarmed by curious little children who begged to be allowed to look at the paintings.

The children could hardly keep still during the presentation; they kept getting up out of their desks to get closer to the artwork, and the artist was so peppered with earnest questions at the end of the presentation that it went far into recess after the bell rang. The teacher told the artist that this presentation continued to be remembered by the students until the end of the school year. The artist was very glad she’d made sure to emphasize to the children that each one of them could be an artist, too, if they wanted to.

Montessori schools pride themselves on the benefits of their art programs, with good reason. For at least 35,000 years, humans have put their hands to creating art. Though archaeologists and anthropologists confess they may never be able to explain the meanings of the ancient and stirring cave paintings which dot the continents, we know when we see them that they are expressing something that is uniquely human. In point of fact, these earliest art forms tell us that the manual creation of new and beautiful works and objects is part of being a human person.

I think it’s a shame that when people talk about art, one of the first things they say is, “I can’t even draw a stick figure.” Most likely when they were children, they drew with zest and joy and didn’t worry at all what it looked like or what other people thought. Nearly all young children react with joy to art and are thrilled when crayons, paints, pencils and paper are put into their small hands so that they can become a creator.

But, at some point, most of us decide we’re just not ‘artistic’. That early joy we felt disappears as we become convinced that art needs to be left to experts. Perhaps this is a result of our efforts being compared to those of peers’ who showed greater aptitude or skill at an earlier age.

Perhaps we were shamed by a lack of gold stars into thinking our endeavors were no good. Boys, in particular, may be given the message that drawing is ‘for girls’ (an odd thing when you consider the majority of the artists the world recognizes as great are men!) Whatever the case may be, only a small percentage of adults can claim to see art as a meaningful way of expressing themselves, and I think they are missing out on a crucial aspect of being human. Your painting may not be a masterpiece by Vermeer, but it is yours. It’s about you.

It is no coincidence that modern psychologists use art as a form of therapy. In the act of putting pencil to paper, brush to canvas, hand to clay, we tend to create what has personal meaning to us, and we may even get in touch with feelings and beliefs we give little thought to at other times.

I think one of the best gifts we can give to kids is to encourage them to feel free to express themselves artistically. I’m not saying that we can’t give them instructions and suggestions, but there shouldn’t be a feeling that they’ve failed to meet our own expectations in whatever they’ve chosen to create.

The best art programs will be the ones that teach kids specific skills and then let them take those skills and make something completely original. And by all means, art shouldn’t be graded! Art supplies should always be available and projects should be open-ended if at all possible.

If there’s anything I could change about my own art experiences as a child, it would be to make sure I understood that just because I wasn’t able to draw and paint beautifully right away, I could learn to do it if I practiced. I had the mistaken notion that “you either had it or you didn’t”, and that art could only be practiced by those who “had it”.

Here’s to all of you, as you encourage the budding young artists in your lives. May they always feel free to turn to art as a means of self-expression. And as you encourage them, perhaps you’ll feel the desire to pick up a paint brush yourself. I think I’ll go do that right now!