When they come to art classes at camp, they are usually safely protected within their teen-shells. That is when I take out my mallet and chisel and try to chip away.
We start with exercises; draw balance in one minute, imbalance in two, movement in four minutes, stillness in eight. It is also a practice in letting go; after each time period elapses they have to move one chair to the right, so they are seeing the way someone else expressed the theme before. After all four exercises are complete, I give them a demonstration on talking about art, I give them some guidelines, then, I give them the chance to talk. After they have all practiced talking about art, I tell them that I will expect to hear from them about their classmates after lunch, so get busy talking to each other.
Then, I tell them we are going to do an exercise called, "Draw it Like You Mean It." I direct them to go to the storage closet, which is full of really cool stuff, and pick something they really like, and draw it so that it conveys that they really like it. They get 20 minutes. After that, I tell them to pick something out of the closet that they really don't like at all. They have another 20 minutes to draw it so that this feeling is conveyed. I tell them they can change the object in any way in their drawing, just so they convey their emotions.
I explain to them that engagement is the key. That I could have them go through exercises where they are practicing looking and drawing, but the true challenge is to express and convey a feeling with confidence. That if an artist can do that, she can draw almost anything and have it mean something.
Both of the exercises yield great results. There are some funny drawings, some very accurate drawings, and frankly some pretty creepy drawings. I then tell them that the whole point of the exercise is to convey the importance of engagement in art. That while this is a class at summer camp, I will never ask them to do anything easy, and each assignment will not only challenge them to improve their drawing skills, but will challenge them, as well, to put themselves into it. I tell them that in art, the best stuff is the stuff that conveys something confidently. The best stuff is not someone knocking off someone else's style or subject matter, but digging up the stuff that is within them and putting it on the paper. That this is the true practice of art; to convey something that matters to you so that the viewer might also feel that.
We discuss this at length, and eventually, we come to, "what if they don't get what I mean? What if I have gone through all this work to try and convey something, and they get something completely different?" This is of huge concern, I can clearly see this as I look at the faces in the room looking back at me. So I pull out my football analogy. I tell them that they are the quarterback, and their job is to throw the ball down the field. There is nothing they can do once they let that ball go. About two of them get it, so I pull out the Sparkle Pool analogy.
I tell them that we each have our own Sparkle Pool, and that everything inside it is our business, and everything outside of it is none of our business. As I look around the room, this seems to have resonated. I go on to tell them that once we have hung our art up on the wall, it is officially outside of the Sparkle Pool. At that point, you must allow others their space within the work. I go on to explain that this is why making work that matters is so vital. Because if you make work that you don't care about and the people love it, it won't really matter to you because you didn't really engage with it. If you make work that you don't care about and the people hate it, you will kick yourself for not having put yourself into it. It is like failing as someone else.
Now, if you make work you care about, I explain to them, and people hate it, that is the fear. That you will put your heart and your guts up on the wall and people won't get it, or hate it, or think you are an idiot. And that happens sometimes. But when it does, it hurts, but you realize it matters much less than you thought it would. You live through that and find that if people don't love your work, it doesn't actually kill you. You might even get to a point where you realize that if someone doesn't like your work, it's not about you. It's about them. Because that too is outside of your Sparkle Pool.
There is also the possibility that they will love it. They might think you are a genius. This feels great. This feels validating. This feels like you are not so alone in the world, when you make work that resonates with people. This too, is outside of your Sparkle Pool; beyond your control but a very nice benefit of making work that matters to you.
The point is, in either of these scenarios, you learn. You learn whether or not you care if people love your work, (it is rare that everyone does,) and over time, you will come to learn that you are making the work for you. That people do or do not like it becomes less of an issue because what you are doing is for you. Yes, there is the market, there is the business of art. But right now, when you are learning to draw, you might as well start learning how to express yourself honestly too, because that is where you will set yourself apart. There are millions of ways to duplicate art, to imitate styles, to steal ideas. The best stuff is the stuff that comes from each of you, and if you are not willing to share your experience, your perspective through your art, there is really no reason to make it. The value in the art is the filter of the artist, not the flowers she paints, or the smile on the Mona Lisa.
Then I take the leap. I just jump in. I tell them that life is like this too, that none of them can control whether or not people like them or how others will behave. That other people, by definition, are outside of their Sparkle Pool. "The only person inside your Sparkle Pool," I say to them, "is you. There is no one else like you in the world, and if you spend all of your time trying to act like everyone else, you rob the world of knowing you. You rob yourself. And your Sparkle Pool ends up being quite shallow, because not even you are in that thing."
I know I have taken a leap, but I figure if just one person heard this, it might be enough to change a life.
This is another reason why I love teenagers. They are still open enough to consider that being themselves might just be the very best thing they could ever hope to be.
Also, on July 23rd, I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for my Love Yo'Self Coloring Book For Adults. I will give you the details as they surface.