Every child is an artist.
We’ve all heard that, read that, seen that, and most people probably believe it. Most people probably also believe that Pablo Picasso uttered these words, along with the caveat that “the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Whether he did or did not say these words, and whether he spoke the phrase in English, Spanish, French, or some other language is actually unknown.
In case you’re curious — as I was — the quote came from an article published in Time magazine in October 1976, a few years after Picasso’s death in 1973. But no source was provided for the quotation.
To be honest, I’ve never fully agreed with this quote, and I say that from personal experience. Even as a child, I never saw myself as an artist. You could give me crayons and paints and all I could do was make a horrible mess, creating art that I was ashamed to put my name on. I couldn’t draw. I had no illusions or pretentions about my childish attempts. They were awful, especially in comparison to those made by my artistically-inclined friends, but at least I had my music to fall back on.
Yes, as a pianist, I was a child prodigy, so what I lacked in visual art, I made up for with musical performances. I had other talents, too. I wrote. I danced. I sang. But when it came to art, I was hopeless. No, Picasso, I was never an artist as a child.
Still, the idea of children having inherent abilities in art is a long-standing one. If Picasso uttered or wrote those famous words attributed to him, he most likely got the idea from an earlier writer, an art critic named Carleton Noyes. In 1907, Noyes published “The Gate of Appreciation” which included these ideas about children and art:
“The child is the first artist. Out of the material around him he creates a world of his own. The prototypes of the forms which he devises exist in life, but it is the thing which he himself makes that interests him, not its original in nature. His play is his expression.”
But Noyes went on to explain that artistic instinct was usually lost as the child grew older. As he put it, “Imagination surrenders to the intellect; emotion gives place to knowledge.”
Throughout the years, many others have shared similar thoughts and feelings. In 1951, art professor Dr. Agnes Snyder of Adelphi College said in a speech that “All children are artists and will remain so if they are not ‘tricked or forced into the acceptance of adult standards’ “, and in a 1969 interview, John Lennon said that “Every child is an artist until he’s told he’s not an artist”.
Going back to my personal experience, let me re-state my position. As a child, I was not a visual artist. I was, however, a highly imaginative child who loved making things. I couldn’t draw, but that never stopped me from making up stories, creating imaginary worlds, and even composing little songs of my own to play and sing.
The only area, actually, in which I was lacking was visual art. I was, to tell the truth, a very clumsy child, and my family was horrified when my Kindergarten teacher commented that I had “problems using scissors.” How shameful! How embarrassing. I was a failure. Of course, considering the fact that I was forced to switch to my right hand instead of using my naturally-dominant left hand, I think I did fairly well with those scissors.
To this day, I still don’t do well with scissors, and as anyone reading this blog knows, I’m not crafty — largely because of the frustrations I’ve experienced throughout life with implements such as scissors, rulers, compasses, and other drawing tools. Little wonder I’m often impatient and exasperated with art projects.
I suppose the true wonder is that I have managed to become an artist of sorts, that I now have learned the basics of drawing and painting. My experience goes counter to the claims of Picasso and those others. I was never a visual artist as a child, but I found a way to become one. It hasn’t been easy.
As a child, though, I was forgiven my lack of artistic talent, and while nobody ever really got over that awful report about my problems with scissors, it was mostly overlooked because I could play the piano. I was playing in recitals at age 4. In Kindergarten, though I was dangerous with scissors in my hand, I was the star of an assembly when I performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” — even though I was actually sick that day, was excused from class, but was brought to school and carried onto the stage so that I could perform my piece. The teacher had never before had a 5-year-old student who could actually play real music on the piano. So, yes, my lack of visual art ability was overlooked.
When I sat down and began composing this post, I didn’t intend it to be all about me and my childhood. All of that just sort of came out along the way, stirring up a lot of still troublesome feelings.
But enough of that! Why am I writing this post?
I’m writing it because I feel it’s important. Children — whether they are young artists or not — need to know about line and color, about imagination, about what we feel when we look at paintings, or when we create paintings of our own. Music, dance, and literature are all important to a child’s development, but let’s not push art aside or look upon it as an afterthought to a child’s education.
Recently fellow blogger, Melody Daggerhart from Bad Cat Ink expressed a few thoughts about her childhood art experiences. She spoke of art and music teachers who taught the ideas of dancing with colors.
“I was probably in first grade or so the first time a teacher gave us crayons and put on some music of various moods, telling us to draw what we felt.”
— Melody Daggerhart —
I loved this. How I wish I’d had art and music teachers who understood how inter-connected all forms of art truly are! All art — visual, musical, narrative — comes from the imagination, from the heart, from the soul.
After reading Melody’s comments, I knew I wanted to share art with our grandchildren not only through our drawing and painting times, but through music, too. I want to reach out and find ways to use art in narrative, as well. I want our grandchildren to know and appreciate art in ways I never had a chance to experience.
And, as I’ve put this post together, I’m seeing again the importance of connecting the dots and understanding art in all its different guises.
So, I’ve been browsing a bit, looking for ideas on how we can give young children a greater understanding of all art. I’ve found a few good tips.
- Let the child experience the art (or music, or story, or dance) before you offer any comments, directions, or information. Art is a personal experience. We shouldn’t try to immediately jump in with our personal thoughts.
- Ask open-ended questions. What’s going on in this painting, this story, this song? What makes you say that? What else do you think? Give your children the chance to share their experiences with you.
- Remember that their opinions are as valid as yours. No one is “right” or “wrong” when it comes to art in any form. What I see in a painting is real to me. In the same way, what a child sees or hears or feels is real to him or her.
- Allow children to express their feelings. Arts can be happy; arts can be sad. Arts can even be scary at times. If you don’t believe me, listen to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor sometime when you’re alone in a dark room on a stormy night. I put a recording of this on each year for Halloween night and it scares the bejeebers out of trick-or-treaters. All of these feelings are part of who we are. Let your children talk about their feelings.
- Find new ways to experience works of art. If you’re listening to music, let your children draw what they “see”. If you’re looking at a painting, turn it into a game of “I Spy”, or try to imitate the poses of people in the painting. Make up stories, write poems, and learn a little about the world of the author, artist, composer, or choreographer.
- Bring arts into other areas. If your children are studying space, introduce them to The Planets by Gustav Holst, and of course, show them The Starry Night by Van Gogh. And how about Moonlight by Winslow Homer? Less well-known but equally beautiful. As for literature there are many space-related classics. And don’t overlook films. Use different resources to spark your children’s imaginations.
- Go places, do things, provide opportunities for your children. Visit art museums, see a live production of a Shakespeare play, take them to symphony performances.
Art is not something we look at, something we hear, or something we read. Art is imagination in action, and imagination is life. Art is a personal experience, and please, be sure the children you love have opportunities to make the arts come alive for them.