Resolution: Free the Hand

There is no must in art because art is free. – Wassily Kandinsky

The best way to describe my educational approach is – Hunter-Gatherer. I get an idea from reading, listening, or just being in the world, and something sparks my curiosity.  That little something leads to something else, and something else, and something else until I’m not quite sure how I got onto the path I’m currently going.  I love the journeys I’ve taken. I hadn’t thought of them as a learning process. I didn’t really think about them at all; I just naturally follow my thinking. When I work with children, I teach them this process to get them interested in reading. We talk about things that interest them, and I invariably will find something more they can read about the subject.  After reading about the topic, I encourage my students to write or create something from what they’ve learned.  I continue to nudge them:  What inspires you? What does that make you think or feel?  How do you want to express yourself?

This method has worked well with students over the decades.  If reading is hard or uninteresting at first, it is the ideas which must grab the child, the ideas that call for her to act and learn.  Often while reading novels with children, we will come across an idea that we want to try out.  A few years ago when I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs and Knee-Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt with one of my private students, she got interested in how clocks work. We read some articles about clock mechanics and decided that we should try to make a clock.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  Maren wanted to make the clock that was described in Knee-Knock Rise.  It was a cuckoo clock made my Uncle Anson and was described like this:

“But not like any other clock you ever heard!” warned Uncle Anson, his mild face beaming with pride.  He wound it carefully and set the hands near twelve. They stood and listened as the clock began to tick toward the hours. Even Ada, with Sweetheart in her arms, came up to watch. Suddenly, there was a whirring and a click. The egg in the nest opened like a door and out came a little bird.  Jerkily it spread its wings, wings made of real red feather tipped with black.”

Maren and I read and re-read these lines carefully as we planned to make the clock.  In the story, Sweetheart the cat pounces on the clock-bird and destroys the clock smashing to bits of springs and feathers. As Maren read about the clock, she was determined to restore it by making a clock of her own.  And indeed, for about a month we worked on making the clock.  I bought a basic wooden clock kit, and Maren and I set about to create a clock with fancy numbers, a pendulum, and a nest with a bird and eggs at its base.  It does not exactly tell precise time and it cost me what I usually charge for a tutoring session, but it was money well spent, because it is something Maren still keeps next to her bed and treasures because she made it.  She read, she got an idea, she read some more, and she created something beautiful.  This is a lesson she will never forget and so she goes on reading.

My hunter-gatherer approach is my foolproof idea box.  Whenever I get worried that I may develop writer’s block, I start reading, observing, listening and I find that the ideas coming rushing towards me.  I then have to decide which one I will act upon first.  Last week, I was just scrolling through some blogs and one led to another and then to another.  I came upon the 99% Invisible website, which highlights the creative thought that goes into ordinary objects.  It celebrates the people and things that have been forgotten.  From this site I learned about the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.  Specifically, I became intrigued by Noguchi’s idea of Play Mountain, an abstractionist playground for children. Noguchi expressed his relationship with sculpting this way:

 To search the final reality of stone beyond the accident of time, I seek the love of matter. The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity—not what might be imposed but something closer to its being. Beneath the skin is the brilliance of matter.

These words led me to further journeys viewing images and videos of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, the Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, and his California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California. The parks are beautifully simple sculpture gardens and playgrounds allowing visitors to use the structures in imaginative ways.  I had never heard of Noguchi before this, and I wondered how someone so accomplished, so in tune with the way I see art and play, could have escaped my attention.

This excursion of Noguchi’s life and work made me think about how I express myself artistically.   Lately, I have been sketching and I’ve faced some obstacles since what is in my mind hasn’t translated to what I put down on paper.  I’m quickly frustrated with my level of skill and then get mad at myself for not letting myself just create and not worry about the product. Over the years when creating, I love building with scraps of cardboard, handmade paper, twine, beads, wire, and buttons. I let the objects form the art work. I come out of my head and into my hands. 

Clockwork (banana parchment, handmade paper, string, and cardboard)

I started to search for something to read that would help me build on this idea, and I came across Cathy Weisman Topal.  Cathy is an art instructor at Smith College who created a teaching approach called Thinking with a Line. Using simple straight and curved cardboard pieces, Cathy designed art lessons to help children explore the elements of design and structure.  Using these basic printmaking objects, children are able to create and express what they feel and see in their minds’ eye.  Cathy has written many books about teaching art to children and has gathered inspiration from Friedrich Froebel and Rudolf Arnheim, as well as the Reggio Emilia teaching approach.  Her books, Beautiful Stuff and Beautiful Stuff from Nature show children ways to use found objects to create art.

As I started to play with line printing, I thought about how I have always loved to doodle, not intentionally making a shape or object, but just allowing my hand to wander across the page.  Then I asked myself:  What if every day I wrote a meditation and then let my pen travel across paper? I decided to make a resolution this year to keep a journal of line meditations.  I start with writing some thoughts down usually reflecting on my relationship with nature.  Then I use a gel pen to loop its way over the paper without thinking. I have even closed my eyes while drawing because it helps me not to be representational.  I also have drawn to classical music which helps flow and production.  I don’t lift my pen; it is one continuous swirling line. At times, I pause and draw in the air extending my arm moving with the music something similar to what I do when teaching small children handwriting.  We call it skywriting, and I’m think I’d like to try it again using a large sheet of paper with charcoals.

I wanted to see what would happen when I did lift my pen to make a series of lines, and I was pleased with those results too.  They reminded me of the marks I would make as a young child before I knew about how to form letters and words. I used to sit for hours at the kitchen table and write, giving my mother note after note and composing fantastic stories, which would change after each retelling. I think that in doing these daily meditations, I will get closer to that childhood wonder and openness. I hope that over the next year, these line meditations will help me focus on the process of art making and not get preoccupied on artistic merit.  My goal is expression and play because it’s only through play that we can fully learn.

Further Reading:

For Children:

A Line is a Dot that Went for a Walk: An Inspirational Drawing Book by Sterling Children’s

Art and Max by David Weisner

The Dot by Peter Reynolds

Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates

Going for a Walk with a Line: A Step into the World of Modern Art by Douglas and Elizabeth MacAgy

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Lines that Wiggle by Candace Whitman

The East-west House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan by Christy Hale

The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaefer

What if… by Samantha Berger

When I Draw a Panda by Amy June Bates

For Adults:

Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Beautiful Stuff from Nature: More Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera

Point and Line to Plane by Wassily Kandinsky

Thinking with a Line Teacher’s Guide by Cathy Weisman Topal

Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms

5 thoughts on “Resolution: Free the Hand

  1. Another measure trove of ideas and inspirations – I think I am a hunter-gatherer, too, when it comes to writing. Bits of things here and there that I read, or hear, begin sort of knitting themselves into new ideas. Sometimes I am not sure they go together. Eventually, though, the threads connect – if one follows them far enough. Love your artistic process of free exploration, captured here on so many levels.

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  2. Free and playful approach clearly fuels your creativity and supports inquiry and love of learning in children. Happy New Year! May it be filled with inspiration and joy of creating!

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  3. Another hunter-gatherer here–what a wonderful way to describe this! I loved your journal of line meditations and am interested to try some of this, as I have always struggled with representing myself artistically. So happy to read this today!

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  4. “It is only through play that we can fully learn.” These words of yours are so true and clear and just what I want to carry with me today. I love that you shared your notebook pages. Notebooks and handwriting never gets old and it feels like a sweet treat to see your pages. I, too, am a hunter-gather.
    xo,
    ruth

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  5. LOVE so much of this Jojo!!! The clock, your artwork, and process, and thinking, writing note after note for your mom, and then your meditations and doodles. Simple wonderful. Thank you for sharing all of that, as well as the extensive book list. Some day, lol, I will be able to read all I want. For now, I will just enjoy your reflection and look forward to conversations and play.

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