Art and education

By Josina van Schaik, Netherlands

Artist Miriam Abrahamson is an art teacher on an elementary school in Upper Gallieli (Israel) which implements new education concepts and methods of learning, with as prime motto that learning should be pleasurable. The academic curriculum is used as medium to create space for a broad range of attitudes, ways of thinking and qualities in children that teach them how to live a life successfully, and how to become an adult with ones own, free mind. In this interview Miriam speaks about different functions of art and the vital part that arts and crafts education plays in establishing balance, confidence and belief in children.

Josina: What is the function of art in teaching art and education?

Miriam: Being an artist is one thing, teaching art is quite another aspect. These are separate things; in my belief creating and learning ways of art expression should be offered to all students. You don’t need to be a genius or so-called ‘talented’, because any person by the fact that he is a human is potentially highly talented, in any direction. There is no such thing as someone who knows how to paint and someone who does not know, by potential. There are children and people who are specifically gifted in one area or another, that can be recognised from very young ages. Yet, for most people it is the influence of the family, culture, experience that will make one person more capable and another blocked - or somewhere in between on the bar - of finding expression through the plastic arts. When I meet children in first grade, I genuinely don’t see one who does "nice" pictures and one who does not. I do see children with greater abilities to express themselves through colour, or image, or children who have greater or lesser freedom of expression due to levels of motorical skills, but I would not say that those who are less inclined have no chance of learning how to draw and give expression to their special, unique nature and person. It’s exactly what they are in art class for: to get the bits they’re not naturally inclined to or haven't had the chance of experiencing. They’re there to get introduced to it, by generating options in this territory of art. In the younger grades we offer a greater range of different experiences; in the higher grades it gets more focused and deep. In the first years we start off creating many options for a child to find out what is best for him. At the age of 13 or 14, young people are less available for absorbing disciplines that they don’t identify as needful for them. Puberty is not a good time for introducing disciplines that require repetition and concentration, unless they’re specifically interested in it. Experience shows however that if I insist because it is needed - even if they don't see it at the time - they can end up liking it. But it’s important to reason out with them why you’re insisting on i.e. exercising sketching.
At all ages the big question is what a person has had successes in. When people have a success in something they tend to be open to trying again and like it.

With all techniques in arts and crafts, it’s the teachers responsibility to show the ways and means of how to work with things, to think about how to go about a challenge and to go through the sensation of how something feels: how does it feel to work with watercolours, oil-pastel, pencil or gouache, what is the difference? This week children in 3rd grade worked in art class on a biblical scene they study in their bible lessons. I talked about perspective, how to show something close in a picture or something far away and about notions of how colours closer by will be brighter and far away colours will be dim. We spoke about which material would most fitting for which parts of the painting. Big parts like the sky would be good to do with watercolour, pencils would be good for details, which would be frustrating to do with oil-pastel. Within that is the guidance into how to decide what material you choose for specific purposes and how different qualities of the each material can be used to the best extent. They need to learn the options so that they have a knowledgeable basis to choose from. Once you offered techniques one at a time, and gradually created circumstances for the children to experience how things work , they can choose in every circumstance, which way works best. That information can make the difference between a work of art being enjoyable or frustrating. In teaching a lot of repetition of skills is given, from varied angles and subjects, so that all children have a chance "to get on the train" and not only the faster ones. Practicing techniques and creating art has a great advantage because when a learning process includes doing, absorption is far better and the learning turns into a throughout process which in the end results in pride in the children and self-confidence.

Josina: ‘And they know it probably for the rest of their lives.’

Miriam: ‘Yes, within the lesson there are many lessons that are more to do with attitudes towards life. In fact at times, the art "bit" is a means to get bigger and better things across to the children, such as how to ask for help, how to allow yourself to try something even if you’re not sure how it will turn out? How to agree to the fact that you’re not perfect and may make mistakes? How to accept your own work even if you like somebody else’s better? How to not get discouraged if you don’t understand something or if you’re not succeeding to do something? How to ask a question in an open way? These are very big things for living a successful life. Often I hear children say: ‘it came out ugly and it’s impossible, I’m not going to try.’ So I say: ‘how about, instead of telling me that your painting is finished because it’s ruined, asking me what you can do about it, for it to be more like how you want it to be?’ When I say it, their faces clear up, because it’s like offering them an opening where they thought there was a wall. ‘If you try to sketch a cup and it came out very wide and you say it’s ugly, you’re not helping yourself by not giving yourself any information about what bothers you. After you realise you’re disappointed - which is understandable - the next question should be, what is the matter with it? Once you’ve defined for example that something you drew is too wide, you know that you need to make it thinner. If you don’t know how, you ask for information. As an art teacher I can help from that point on. On account of all the mistakes I have made in my own work- I have become a magician in fixing things up. But I can’t help you if you say it’s ugly, how can I argue about that?’ So, it’s turned into a code, that in the classroom I say ‘instead of you telling me that you can’t do it, ask me hów you can; and can I help you?’ And it works. One of the girls used to cry, if she does not get something right. She is genuinely really in tears about it, so I have been giving her these "mantras" year after year. She is now in 3rd grade. This year she called me to help her and said ‘how can I make these branches easier and better than they are at the moment, I am not managing to do the branches?’ This was a real step forward, that is a life changing skill. They will get more help from the world if they know how to ask the right questions. Forget the art, forget the painting, forget that entirely, but if they learn to change their questions into specific inquiries, I believe they will get more of what they want in life. What I love about teaching art is that it allows so much uniqueness on the one hand, on the other it gives excellent skills of communication, tools on how to think and offers experience that shows that the process really does influence the result, hence that process is more important than result.’

Josina: ‘What are specific rules and freedoms in your teaching?’

Miriam: ‘To get to something good, you need to project something good. It needs a clean room, physically and in the electromagnetic energy of the atmosphere. There is no point in trying to do fine art when you are in a lousy state or low atmosphere. It depends on what you’re aiming at. If you are after a therapeutic circumstance, it requires a very healing and safe atmosphere. Art-lessons need to carry that healing and safety because expression of ones inner life and feelings is a spontaneous part of artwork. Lessons are not directed at therapy as a first premise but require a purposeful learning circumstance, that is pleasant, promoting and positive. I say to them: ‘if you want your drawing to come out special today, you have to put a special effort inside.’ I want to widen the children’s possibility to approach the fine aspects of life and art. In our first agreement it is established that the art-class is an ecology: as soon as they come through the door, there are certain things that they cannot bring in. One thing is laughing about each other, or giving other children comments about their work they didn’t ask for I have at least one defined purpose for each lesson. Sometimes it will be to encourage their own resourcefulness, and to see where they are located, or what is in them so the lesson would start with, ‘okay, today is your day, do whatever you like, take any size of pages you want - big, small, coloured -, use any material.’ Some lessons are laid out every step of the way when I want to take them through a process they don’t know about, so I have to be the leader. As teacher, I must prove to be trustworthy for them to walk that mile with me. Mostly that means that lessons are built with the consideration of insuring that all children have a success. For many children it’s a huge relief to be guided through a process. It can be very intimidating to be given white sheets, saying ‘here, draw whatever you like and enjoy yourself.’ If you ask children to do something, you are first responsible for showing them how. This sounds obvious but my own experience as a student was far from that. I remember what that felt like, and how discouraging that was. So, specific exercises that are defined step-by-step processes, a good conditioning process, detailed evaluation and encouragement help guide the children into the self-knowing that they are capable, creative and intelligent.

Another goal, which actually is a by-product, is to do one thing with many results, like putting a seed in about how to see and value our uniqueness whilst we are in a creative process. I try through art to teach information and values that I have found useful in my life and belief will be relevant for the children’s life as well.’

Josina: ‘Can you give some examples of attitudes that are to do with general life?’

Miriam: ‘One big thing is learning to see things as they are on themselves. That is one of the main benefits of sketching: it’s to actually learn to look at something else for what it is and see what it is about. Not to put upon it what yóu think it is. In learning to draw it’s vital to use the right side of the brain. Correct cooperation and balance between both sides of the brain is very important for everything. Another example is how to think about planning and arranging the page according to what you want on it. Centring something is an important function . Many of today’s generation, who only need to press on a button to centre a text have difficulty with this when they need to understand the logic behind centring something. They learn to understand a little geometry , knowing about the radius of a circle and all the patterns and designs that can be concluded from that knowledge, a bit about triangles. They need experience of simple things like that. I believe that learning how to divide a page - even how to make a simple birthday card - is important. Dividing a page or drawing a straight line with your hand fulfils a connective function in the body and brains. It causes a child to be more balanced. If it’s not right they need to define why it’s not right, use it as information in how to change it. That’s another important thought-pattern: if you make a mistake, it is excellent information because it teaches you how to do it better or how to fix it. It’s good to detect that it is wrong; otherwise you would not know. So it’s a way to get into contact with reality and therefore teaching art is much more than just teaching art. And it applies not just to art, i.e. the gymteacher can guide general functions in life through gym and sports, providing that each teacher works in an environment in which the same values are shared by all so that there is no contradiction or conflict in the ecology that’s upheld together. This is so important for the inner safety and cohesiveness of the children.

How much choice to give children at each age is a live research in me. In our school we tend to give it in small bite-size pieces in the beginning, and more as children grow up, but even then choice needs to be guided into. Too much freedom can be a big prison if one is not ready to receive it. And yet, there is a lovely thing that comes across when they are doing their own thing; there is a place for that as well. It’s a question of balances and timing. If you decide that the exercise for the day is to paint a plant, then within that boundary they can be free and very expressive. If they’re lost in an ocean of possibilities, they will scribble something but it will, in fact, have no or very little choice in it. It might just be that one thing they managed to draw in repetition. They will pull it out from their non-skill, which is not a very wide range of choice.

Another question is about whether and when to insist i.e. to fill the entire page. It’s not a holy value in itself but mostly when a child doesn’t want to fill the page, he has a motorical problem. He will only overcome with a lot of practice, so he needs much encouragement and graded levels of challenges. Encouragement and specific positive feedback is very important. To create cohesion between the children and avoid contest, I address the whole class with "You are all doing very well today", or "I am very impressed by your seriousness," or "there is such a nice feeling of good work being done". When these things are said and sincerely meant the atmosphere in the class changes. Above all the top criterion for me is to create successes for the children. They múst have success! Success is not one thing. There is no one correct answer. Demonstrating a large range of considerations and criteria for success is very educational because with different considerations as- "boy, you didn't give up, your persistence is amazing!" learning is going on and each child can have a success by the mere fact of them doing and trying. Judging results as if we were in some beauty contest, is damaging, it creates the notion of failure that is not promoting. Appreciating and acknowledging their successes strengthens their awareness of their ability and further openness and willingness to try the next time. It is really very natural and at some point in going out in life they will hopefully be able to encourage themselves, and not dismiss even the small so called obvious successes.’

Josina: ‘What is important for you about art?’

Miriam: ‘The plastic arts are very revealing, because the language is not through words; it’s through something more abstract and perhaps coming from the semi- or even unconscious of a person; it’s a bit freer. Therefore you can express things that you don’t yet have names for; you can put countless nuances and variations. I think it’s really can be a translation of what the soul might want to say, or an embodiment of essences. You can paint one tree, and you can paint a million trees. Each tree can be so different, highlighting different aspects. One may know exactly what one wants to express through the tree, or one may express something from deep inside. I believe there is also the option of connecting to an essence consciously, for a deliberate reason, and gain in so doing a huge freedom through art. Then you’re speaking about ‘essence art.’

However, this issue of essence art needs to be talked about within the context of human, planetary and creational process and progression. For it is in this context that art can play an important part. Without going into another huge territory, it means that art can be an anchor and means of exploration into new incoming forces that we as humans have the means and choice of processing and translating into our lives, expressing, celebrating, giving life to. And if what we connect to is progressive in the face of this evolving human and creational process, than we have brought something which is useful for other humans to share, for the sake of their own connection and development within this process. We are all really in one big human proposition and can be very helpful to each other, if each person does what he loves to do, thus actually translating the bits that he or she connects to well. It’s like when a musician writes a song that can be elevating for others. So it’s here that I believe there is a differentiation between art that is meant to bring something that is beyond a personal level. For this you have to learn to be open, colourless and unbiased, so that what is coming through gets what it needs to come through well. And there is a very fine line, between your own expression (which is no less relevant) and between an essence that you are hosting. In any case you will feel connected to this essence and perhaps you will find it difficult to differentiate between "IT" and you. I am not sure that the definition is so crucial, but the intention and the reason behind why you give a stage to this or that influence is everything. To do that requires a skill that will not compromise what you want to give expression to. If you only know how to draw in pencil and something fine comes up which needs to be expressed through watercolour, you won’t be able to do it; or if you can’t sketch for the life of you, you can’t get something down in the right proportions as seen in real life. The broader spectrum of skills you have, the freer you are and the better the tool for whatever wants to get expressed through you.’

Josina: ‘How do you know you are connecting to some essence outside of you that it’s not your own invention and personal expressionism?’

Miriam: ‘I think of it in terms a live research.. Because of the nature of this process, which is very high and in fact has the potential of dealing with new, incoming forces, you may not know. However, there are indications, such as how it makes you feel, what body sensations you register (if at all), and other people’s reaction to your work.. If a high essence is at play, it will cause a similar reaction in many people. In the same way that the pyramids, or the Taj Mahal, draw many, many people to them and cause great awe in many - it means that as artworks they "work", and have an actual and real effect. When you see an essence art painting of a scary tiger running at you, it will frighten you when you see it. But if someone passes by and says ‘oh, what a sweet little thing’, it did not touch the essence of fierceness. Of course people vary in their reactions due to cultures and psychologies, but the greater the art the less controversy there is about it.

Essence art is a privilege that humans have because of their ability to choose, for example, to choose this pink and not that pink, this shape not that shape, this or that composition, to put this here and not there. It’s like a very advanced machine that feels, registers and can express very fine messages into physical realms. Another way to look at pieces of art is that they are like a bank account: if you put something into a painting, other people can come and draw from it. If it’s from a more common and lower order, it is that is what will be available to draw from the piece of art – which, mind you, might be attractive as such. There can be many reasons to share different pieces of art; some can cause empathy, some are motivated to bring up issues and questions, to evoke thought and awareness, and some can cause a state in people which will help them dwell on important issues in their life. Islamic Art did that.

You can compare art - or really any human action - to telephone numbers: if you dial 7834495 you will reach one party, whilst if you dial 5477312 you tap into a different one.
Sometimes I think that artists learn to listen in a way either to their own hearts, or higher selves, to be still enough to hear and feel what wants to be called, and allow themselves to be moved, let go of their own personality and give credence to what is coming through.’

Josina: ‘How does this view about Essence Art influence your teaching in school?’

Miriam: ‘I feel committed to give the children a good solid base, of technique and confidence in their ability to do, so that when they grow up they can make their own choices about how they want to use their art, in which direction they find true for them.. I try as much as I can to let each child stay as close to himself as possible.
There is a good example of an exercise which demonstrates how I introduce them into the notion of using art as a means of anchoring, and specifically in this case using art as an anchor of your own intentions. In the 7th grade children the children make personal shields in which they express their intentions and what they want to achieve. The preparation of the shield (which is over the course of a few months) accompanies a meditative process on three questions:

  1. What you like about yourself- an inborn quality that you are glad you have?
  2. An area or asset that you have improved in this year?
  3. Something that you would like to improve in?

All three are represented by an object that carries that quality - for example: a bear standing at the right place catching a salmon fish going upstream, representing being intelligent about being in the right place at the right time... or a clock representing punctuality, or a book representing knowledge. The children worked on the shields, because they write a paper about their roots and family trees that year, so when they were finding out about their families and about themselves, they paint shields about what they are about in life in parallel to that process. The drawing is a tool to get these down in form for you to have an anchor to draw from. It’s like a bank of encouragement you put for yourself as reminder of your intentions. When you look at it you can draw from it, even much more than you have put in.

I think things join once the shields are put together, because I believe that the essences and energies like the human making choices, since these worlds are also very intricate and very versatile themselves. It’s like those telephone-numbers, where this one has an 8, that one a 7. There might be 10 digits amongst them but they will all be put together in different combinations and call for different essences with different feelings. One child will do a lion that will bring out a feeling of courage; another will do a lion with a sense of nobility, yet they work from the same picture to get down the same lion. There are multiple influences working through people that cause them to be different, therefore each piece of art comes out uniquely. That’s very special, and there are enough good essences that want to come through each person’s nature and find an anchor.

We are in an evolving world and changes of epochs will come through people. I really feel that my students are the artists of the future. I worked with 8th and 9th grade on the timeline of art from ancient Egypt up till the 21st century. At the end of the timeline I said: “listen, the next step is you!”

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