A FOLIO OF ASTONISHING DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN
We begin with two drawings by Joanne, a partially sighted six-year-old who drew to tell stories which frequently combined graphic imagery and printed text. Drawings One and Two are the final two in a series of over twenty telling the adventures of Lucy and her friends who are on a house painting spree.
DRAWING ONE: "LUCY WAS TIRED NOW" JOANNE (6)
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LUCY WAS TIRED
NOW. BUT PINKY
AND PERCY CARRIED HER
ON A DEATH BED.
* We don't know if she started with the words or the illustration, but together they make a powerful language artifact. Mature artists who combine words and images are members of a small minority and indeed we can say the same about children's drawings but Joanne's is an exception. (Lack of text is a gap parents and teachers can close: for most children add words only if caring adults make a point of suggesting it.) Children are not artistic purists and if words add to the overall meaning or emotional impact or simply add to the story then words will be added.
* This drawing passes one test with flying colors: not one additional line is needed and to remove a single line would break the intricate network and weaken ‘aesthetic energy'. It is an excellent example of form content unity and the relationship of parts to each other and parts to the whole. Another critically important point: we feel that subject matter is deep and important to the child's life. In this drawing, subject matter is lighthearted on one level, and multilayered and rich in ambiguities on another. (At the same time, the dynamics of drawing as children use it tends to make simple themes important.)
* In a mood of community mindedness, a happy gang of children takes up house painting as something useful to do. (We never learn whether there is a fee for work or if they are all volunteers.) Joanne's word for "painting" is "spotted" which is curious because her spelling, punctuation, and syntax are otherwise impressively correct for her age. After some twenty drawings of hectic activity, Lucy - who is clearly Joanne's alter-ego - feels the need to rest and now the theme becomes archetypal level: the drawing presents an image of the ‘dying hero' being carried to a "death bed" by loyal followers. (No one has been able to explain the source of this remarkable phrase.) In the final panel Lucy is fully recovered and so it was only for a rest after all.
* As mentioned above, Joanne is visually impaired, indeed, legally blind. Children's schemata - the graphic equivalent of words - although invented, tend to be more or less the same, one child to the next. We may assume that this similarity is the consequence of all children sharing similar perceptual experiences. Curiously, Joanne's schema for human head and facial features is atypical and this may relate to her visual impairment. On the other hand, it may be that she was so prolific that her fish-head shorthand evolved from a need for speed and spontaneity. (Test this by finger-tracing the line of her consistently repeated profiles: like my you may be reminded of Gregg Shorthand!) At any rate, Joanne had plenty to say and wasted no time and yet, there is no glossing-over, no vague approximations. Her graphic ‘word' evolved through use and she uses it like a compulsive talker!
* Each of Lucy's pals contributes to the support of their leader. Fourteen arms reach up to support Lucy, Pinky, and Percy. Fourteen arms succeed in at least touching the slab, fulfilling the urge towards a holistic image. Recall that empathy is visceral and links the sense of sight to the sense of touch. As viewers, we feel the stretch of muscle, the splaying of legs, the almost desperate effort to reach and touch, the near-collapse of one pal, the squashing of another. This feeling is a direct communication of empathy to viewer.
* Joanne in spite of her disability managed to participate in team sports, play the clarinet in the school band, ride her bike through city traffic (!), teach herself to type and print texts so she could tell stories in words and pictures.
* It is typical of Joanne's drawings that Lucy plays a leadership role in the company of loyal followers, a theme that runs through many of her early drawings. She was an intelligent super-energetic child raised to be independent in spite of her handicap. Her parents were not only loving and supportive but wise. Her teachers and school mates did much to help and, according to her mother, the school environment was supportive. And yet as an outsider she did have dark experiences and was sometimes subjected to teasing. In any case, she had time on her hands which made drawing and writing and the world of the imagination attractive to her. Her collected drawings are impressive for sheer bulk and consistent quality. Drawing gave her a language medium through which she could unconsciously, at least partially, satisfy her emotional needs.
* Creative tension is a condition of life and a condition of art, a natural byproduct of empathy. We find it in the drawing in the weight and downward thrust of the ‘death bed' which is so pronounced that the legs of her supporters are splayed and their bodies pressed into extreme positions. Tension is also evident in the posture of Lucy's immediate helper who strains to lower her to a resting position. We ‘feel' the tension both children are experiencing. Lucy is tired, but only her backside touches the surface; her head, shoulders and legs are stiff with tension.
Percy is the helper on the down side of the slab is curled in the direction of his leader to counter-balance the slab's tilt. The effect is to keep the trio from sliding down the inclined plane right out of the picture. The composition is filled with thrusts and counter-thrusts in the dynamics of classical sculpture! There isn't a slack line to be seen!
* Did Joanne's physical disability have anything to do with her talent and output? El Greco's astigmatism is sometimes offered as an explanation for his elongated forms. Or was it a depiction of religious ecstacy? Late Titian oils are sometimes thought to be the result of a ninety-year-old's cataracts. Or was it the miraculous late-blooming of an inner vision? Joanne too had a seeing problem: does it help us understand the formal integration of her design and her drawing's impressive unity of form and content by suggesting that loss of sight brings about a compensating increase in empathic touch?
DRAWING TWO: "THEY TOOK LUCY OFF THE DEATH BED" JOANNE (6)
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LUCY OFF THE
AND THEN LUCY
COULD STILL SPOT.
* Her highly informal lettering is as spontaneous and sure-footed as her drawings but the drawings are the main source of ‘aesthetic energy'. For Joanne and all children, drawing is the language of subtle and complex articulation, of deep expression beyond casual conversation.
* The mood of crisis and "broken hero" is kept to one drawing and in the final panel, happiness returns. A Lucy re-energized is ready to lead her friends in new painting adventures. It is a joyous, arms-in-the-air image, as life-affirming as the earlier drawing is semi-tragic. Two children - presumably Percy and Pinkie - join hands to create an "in-and-out-the-window" configuration and Lucy - much diminished in size - is symbolically raised to rejoin the gang. * Is this configuration an unconscious reference to a birth canal and rebirth? We can assume that she didn't intend the metaphor but perhaps it springs from deep psycho/physical origins. If this seems far-fetched, I remind you that pictorial analysis may use metaphors so long as there is supporting evidence in the drawing and so long as the presentation is suggestive rather than dogmatic. We might say, so long as there is a question mark at the end of the sentence! Lucy has been on a ‘death bed' and this was Joanne's choice of metaphor! She is no longer there but re-energized, brought back to life, reborn, resurrected! ‘Birth canal' doesn't seem all that far fetched! After all, birth is a universal experience and "born again" a universal metaphor.
* In the final drawing Joanne uses a more difficult frontal view. It would have been easier to repeat the profile format, but Joanne is a prodigious inventor and a different mood called for a different relationship to the viewer. Moreover, the in-and-out-the-window configuration would not have been possible in profile and the birth canal metaphor possible. In "Lucy was tired now" the forms are knit together in a tightly-bound network of friendship relationships that seem right for the crypto-tragic mood and hierarchical social organization. In the final drawing there are fewer friends and fewer relationships, personal and formal. Those who are present are more open and casual. A feeling of celebration prevails and life is worth living again.
DRAWING THREE: "DOG ON THE RUN" JOANNE (10)
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* "Dog On the Run" is a perfect example of ‘empathic realism'. True to Joanne's penchant for telling stories this series is about a teen-aged girl who wears dark glasses and needs the assistance of a seeing eye dog. In this one the dog breaks loose and abandons his mistress. As Joanne becomes more sophisticated in word use, words are less frequently used in her drawings.
* Joanne's dogs - and there were many of them - remind me of drawings by another sight-impaired artist/author, the American James Thurber. There is a photograph of Thurber drawing at his work table which shows him with a jewelers glass in one eye and his nose close to the drawing, which is how Joanne drew but without the jewelers glass. The similarity may be a coincidence or it may strengthen the theory that a lack of visual perception increases empathy.
* Joanne's later drawings are less imbued with the "hidden order of art" than her age-six images. This is generally true for children: the years four, five, and six and seven are the peak ones for the production of ‘aesthetic energy'. What happens? For one thing, the "I can't draw" syndrome arrives and children hear their parents say, "I was never any good at drawing; couldn't draw a straight line with a ruler." And so on. Children lose their interest in drawing unless they come from homes where it is encouraged and, ideally, scheduled daily. They become more self-conscious about peer opinion. It is the age when the talented class artist appears and stands as a witness to the totally incorrect notion that drawing is a talent and if you don't have it, you shouldn't waste too much time on it. It is also a time when drawing disappears from many school art programs, crowded out by a host of other arts and crafts activities. It is also a time when parents and teachers are apt to praise ‘naturalism' and disparage ‘realism' as we have defined it, or tolerate it as being "just the way children draw." And finally, it may also be a time when primary teachers use authentic drawing in the morning to support a growing vocabulary/syntax and offer spurious step-by-step art projects in the afternoon.
* It is interesting that researchers tell us that brain capacity in children reaches a temporary apex in the very years we ascribe as the best performance years for drawing. Joseph Chilton Pearce writes, "(Nature) offers an infinite expanse of possibilities through concrete operational thinking, but if the appropriate nurturing environment has not been provided and no appropriate models for such operations are given in those middle childhood years, such development cannot take place." The kind of "nurturing environment" children need for unbroken drawing development is found in "the daily draw" as described in Drawing Network pamphlets.
DRAWING FOUR: "BOAT HOLIDAY" ZION (6)
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* I first encountered "Boat Holiday" on the walls of an exhibition featuring art work from Sue Leung's classes for children. I was immediately attracted to it and few drawings have come my way since to match it in the qualities we have been discussing.
* Zion and his parents were at the opening and were surprised and pleased that his drawing would attract attention. Shy, and somewhat overwhelmed, the boy had nothing to say except to express his pleasure with a grin. The event that triggered the drawing was a day trip organized by an uncle who owned a power launch. On docking at the picnic site, Zion asked his Mom for his sketch book and the ballpoint pen she would have in her handbag. While the other children went off to play, he found a quiet place and drew "Boat Holiday". When he had finished, he joined his cousins at play.
* The content is strong and multilayered, personal and authentic, related to an experience that had just happened. It was a drawing from recent memory. The ride on his uncle's boat had been special and very exciting and his impressions were fresh. Zion was bursting to respond in the language impulses he was unaware of intellectually but which are basic to language use: articulation (thoughts and feelings taking shape in the mind), expression (projecting thoughts and feelings through a medium, and communication (first to his mom and eventually to everyone at the exhibition and on into the future. It contains many parts organized like a well-designed machine. It is hard to believe that youngsters of Zion's age can make such perfect structures, every line pulling its weight, nothing needing to be added, or removed - a perfect balance of pictorial energies. * A solid shape, the boat, is unconsciously repeated in the fretted shape of the flock above. A row of fluffy clouds is ranged still higher. By six, children routinely place everything on a base-line, typically hastily, which stands for the ground plane. In this case it is the choppy waters of Georgia Straight. The sun, a common feature in children's drawings, envelopes everything and everyone. The members of his family line up as though for a portrait.
* ‘Aesthetic energy' seems to increase when imaged operate on two levels, spatially and symbolically: here one level deals with a family event and the other concerns itself with nature. Nature rules the upper half with gulls, summer clouds and a larger-than-life sun, while humans and their boat occupy the lower. And here is an astonishing detail which never fails to amaze me: the two parts, Nature and Human Family are joined by a single person, a sunbathing aunt - as I discovered at the gallery opening. Other family members are anchored to the deck; the sunbathing aunt hardly touches the boat, her legs float toward Nature, towards the birds, towards her source. We know that this is Zion's inability to handle objects in space - the challenge of a human form lying on the deck - and we assume symbolism was not intended, but isn't it astonishing that Mother Nature and the Human Community are symbolically linked by a sun worshiper!
*The overall movement is into the sun, the prow of the boat plowing the choppy water, the echoing ‘prow' of the flock-shape. And yet there are forces that pull against the leftward flow: the larger-than-usual sun pushing against the forward momentum like a benign traffic cop; the sunbathing aunt herself and even the artist's name which acts as a kind of anchor.
* The sun frequently appears in children's drawings but rarely has it anything to do with the story. In this drawing it asserts itself and seems to say, " ...like life itself, the narrative cannot exist without light". We take the sun for granted when it appears in a child's drawing, but we wonder where kids get the idea that the source of light is a round object? In nature we rarely see it as a globe or flat circle only when its light is filtered through fog or mist. We also ask why suns are drawn with rays extended from the circle, lines which have some equivalency in nature, but are not visible. Where do kids get that idea? There are no reliable answers nor do we really need them, but if we open ourselves to the sun's presence in drawings, I think that even the simplest sun adds a mythic feeling. The child- artist seems to understand, and take for granted that a cosmic energy bathes all living and non-living things. There is support for this view in Wordsworth's opening lines to "Ode on Intimations of Immortality": "There was a time when meadow, grove, and / stream, / The earth, and every common sight/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light."
CHINATOWN PARADE: DRAWINGS BY YOUNG ARTISTS WHO SHARE A MEMORY OF A CULTURAL EVENT
‘Aesthetic energy' in children's drawings is a product of innocence and any attempt to define it runs the risk of placing a ring of iron around the ineffable. And yet, to understand and appreciate the importance of this aspect of childhood, we must find a balance between knowledge and appreciation, that is, as episodes of analysis and synthesis, thinking and making.
Aesthetic energy makes its appearance with the child's very first drawing, weak but undeniable, the gesture is authentic. We feel it in the smiling configuration for humans or before that in early scribbles which are a product of life-energy. Some of the first drawings in the Paleolithic caves were scribbles and my own art has incorporated "serpentine meanders", as one poetic anthropologist tagged scribbles.
DRAWING FIVE: "CHINATOWN PARADE" HOGAN (7)
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* For sheer complexity, Hogan's drawing takes the cake! He drew and recorded this event from memory and forged it into a complex network of relationships. Now seven, Hogan is aware that he is in an art class, a very special one, but may not yet think of himself as making art. He simply falls into the mental state of empathy when he draws and the operations of his preconscious mind do the rest, guided by the mysterious impulses that constitute the "hidden order of art". As a south-sea islander remarked to an anthropologist: "We have no art, we just make things the best we can!" So it is with child-artists.
* The drawing offers exceptional opportunities for scanning formal relationships. Let your eyes wander over its crowded surface. You will discover two dragons converging on an area of intricate complexity. Horizontal configurations also line up as the crowd on the sidewalk and the rows of puppeteers.
* There is also a powerful vertical presence, the sidewalk watchers, the puppet masters and their poles. There is no need to go on: see how many links you can make, how many clearly articulated paths through this jungle of formal elements. This drawing is alive with ‘aesthetic energy' and the source is forms relating to other forms.
* Don't miss the lower dragon's head with its amazing complexity of linear forms. This section - the lower dragon's head, up to the upper dragon's tail - is more or less at the centre of a maelstrom of forms. Every line, rapidly and effectively placed, every constellation of forms is an expression of preconscious thought and feeling. A masterwork of rapid cognitive impulses and Hogan is only seven! And how realistic! Not in the least naturalistic but realistic, ‘empathic realism'! Hogan has managed another challenge, probably without thinking about it: he has rendered sound in the silent forms of drawing! You can almost hear the drums, the firecrackers. Is it the rhythmic repetition of forms that set up an interior sound?
* The masters of pictorial art throughout history proved that detail is not an issue: we find it proliferating in the paintings of the Van Eycks but there is scarcely any detail in a Modigliani portrait. But detail is important in children's drawings because each line, each form and each relationship is a trace of a cognitive micro-event. Detail in a child's drawing indicates richness of thought, a sign that preconscious decisions have been made, that mental activity has been recorded in responses to a subject. We claim that drawing is as much intellectual as it is affective and this is the basis for our claim. Children think through drawing.
go to Part Three: A FOLIO OF ASTONISHING DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN, continued