Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Painting Together: Elbow to Elbow.


 One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful.... 
                   Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It: And Other Stories

Sometimes in your life you daydream with a far off gaze on doing something unusual and extraordinary. Perhaps to pitch to your favorite baseball team, write a best seller, build a log cabin or travel to your ultimate destination. The past two summers I have experienced some amazing dreams I didn't even know I had. But I would consider them just as great as the lofty ones I described. Some of my dreams happened with a paintbrush and paint, a barn that is like a cathedral, some remarkable teenagers, and being in some of the most beautiful nature on the planet. Yes, that is right. I got to teach teenagers to paint their masterpiece. The clincher? They would paint together as a team--elbow to elbow.

My girls (some of the girls I taught) learning how to create collaboratively. Egos begin to diminish since it is a group/team effort. Everyone feels their different strokes add to the finished beauty.
Am I an art teacher or even a trained artist? The answers are both no. But the surprisingly wonderful thing is that every team of six did paint a glorious painting. As each joyfully expressed, "I couldn't believe our painting all came together in the end." Yet perhaps the best thing about my dream coming true was watching those teenagers' faces on the journey to painting their collaborated creation. I observed with curious interest their confidence grow in the two sessions I was privileged to be with them.

Elias, my son, inside the cathedral art barn. The bounteous windows, looking out in every direction, with rays of light steaming in, is a place that naturally grows creativity--in unexpected people. And that's a whole other beauty that emerges here....
A large plaque I made with the scripture of Isaiah 55:12 (as shown behind Elias). For me this scripture is what the art barn and creativity engenders-- uncommon joy and peace. As I looked out at the aspen trees around me, listening to their gentle rustling of leaves, I could almost feel them clapping for joy. Painting nature always reminds me of how sublimely marvelous this world is that we live in.
One lanky, athletic 16 year old boy was quietly painting a most beautiful sky--with soft, billowy summer clouds. I complimented him, and exclaimed, "Wow, you have captured that sky. It is gorgeous!" I meant it too. I will never forget his astonished glance at me and then his reply, "That is the first time anyone has ever told me I was good at art. In fact, I don't think I have picked up a paintbrush since I was in kindergarten." He then happily proceeded to paint a lush field with Van Goghish strokes. As I looked at his careful, thoughtful brush strokes on the canvas, I hoped that he would not doubt himself in the future. That he would remember this holy moment when he felt he could do something way out of his personally conceived boundaries.

Times to never forget where I saw young boys and girls make something much bigger and better than they ever imagined....

This summer I taught teenage boys from 13-17 to paint in a barn that is designated as "an art barn"-- reminiscent of a cathedral. Instead of stained glass windows, there is a panoramic view of the Teton Valley--even viewing the three Teton peeks. In that awe inspiring setting, I spent an afternoon with each team in two different sessions, with a break where they went to another class. When they returned, they were refreshed to start painting again--ready to tackle the canvas. Each team chose a theme to paint such as light, mountains, fields, sky and stars, water, trees. They studied, thought, and talked about that topic. And then with an enlivened fervor to create, I saw the beauty of the world grow in them. It was real and visible; every day the joy of creativity was manifested.

Working with the boys this summer, I added  my son, Elias, who has autism to many of the sessions. It was heartwarming to see them include him, allowing him into their space--letting him explore and discover along side them. In the art barn all kinds of connections were created. When we walked out the door after being together for two sessions, each of us was different. We were better people than when we entered.


Each team proudly talking to everyone about what they learned from the experience.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but it was interesting to note the differences in teaching teenage boys and girls. The boys jockeyed for position, all of them boldly crowding around the canvas. Early on they were eager to get their hands into the paint.--even when they didn't know the direction they were heading. One boy who had never painted before on one team put the first brush stroke on the canvas. They talked to one another like they were at a soccer or basketball practice, "Dude, that was so great. Bro, you've got this." At first they reserved "territories" on the canvas to paint ("Eli, you do the sky, Henry does the trees, and I will do the mountain," etc). But then toward the end of the session, they all unitedly painted every space of the canvas together. For example, Henry who had been the painting the trees the entire time touched up the sky. They welcomed assistance from one another. Also, they didn't mind if the other teams saw their pictures before they were finished.

For an onlooker, it was marvelous to view all the differences in the teams--their personalities, interests, backgrounds, and then to watch them enfold their creativity together.
     

Last summer I taught the girls en plein air (painting outside with an easel)--before the barn was built. The girls generally came to the canvas one by one--with one girl who felt the most confident in her artistic talents coming forward to begin. When the others saw the picture was beginning to take a shape and form, they joined in too. With the girls, the entrance to the canvas was more like a gentle trickle. As they felt comfortable and their assurance grew, they picked up a paintbrush. They had to feel confident in the process before they became vulnerable enough to begin something so new and different for them. Most soaked up the confidence and courage, and then decided they were ready to begin. Each one eventually took her place with the team--until each girl was standing clustered together elbow-to-elbow. There were not the designated "territories" or spaces on the canvas for the girls as much. Two or three girls would socially be painting a tree or mountain together. Each team wanted to "unveil" their masterpieces at a show at the end of the camp session. For them, the thought of a grand exhibit where everyone gathered at the end to gaze at their paintings was joyous.

Another team that is capturing the aspen trees around them.

Learning to paint in a cluster--elbow to elbow--and loving it!

I gave both the boys and the girls praise and some instruction, but stepped back--letting them own their creation. Wavering confidence grew into assurance with each brush stroke. They were weeks I will never forget.


Lessons from two summers of teaching art to teenagers:

1) When people are around beauty, they desire to capture it--particularly when they feel connected to the land. It fuels them to talk about colors, textures, light, shading, allegories and a few stories. At first perhaps they will put one color on the canvas to paint a tree or mountain. I invited them to the window to look out at the scene or in en plein air to quietly have them gaze at all the colors that make up the tree or mountain. So many greens or browns to discover....  It was glorious to watch them begin to mix the colors, and put on three colors of green on a paintbrush. The world is not designated in a crayon box with eight colors. I watched them see that there is always another color to mix and discover.


A team reading about mountains, gazing at the gorgeous shading they had created in the summits and crests.
2) The world began to unfold to them. The crevices, summits, leaves changing, contrasts of light emerged. Like a person who puts their glasses or contacts on in the morning, I watched them begin to see, as if in a panorama. Nature was not the only thing they discovered in all its splendor. They widened their own vision of themselves--of who they are and who is at their elbow. Layers peeled away. I saw them transform--becoming more alive. The connection between the beauty around them and in themselves was more bonded, sealed. Also, they knew they had achieved something great together, and their friendships were strengthened.


This team didn't want to leave their "mountain" picture. They had to go to another level and admire from another angle. To many of the teams I said, "You all should go to art school. You are amazing." This team replied to me, "Only if we can do it together." Ha! Way to be united!
3) Sometimes adults think teenagers are sulky or look bored. I propose they just need to find a place where they can open their hearts and minds. One way is for all of us is to create a little more with our hands--to get rid of all the goblins that tell us we can't create or make something beautiful. Find a place or zone to create and watch the goblins shrink inside. Doubts flee, and joy flies in like a beautiful bird on a landscape. And in those moments, you can find your own cathedral or sacred spot. 


This team captured their light. I remember they told me with great pride, "We should take this picture to an art gallery. I am sure many people would want to buy it." Love those happy, confident, creative faces! With every team, I saw this joy. It was fun to watch them move past the fear of not doing it right. They had conquered it not only in themselves, but with their team.
4) You get confidence by doing. There is no other way! You just have to boldly put your brush to the canvas. The first stroke can be tentative. You just have to begin. And that goes for anything in life.


Bryn adding her strokes to the aspens.
5)  I taught them that nothing is ever permanent. You can redo, repaint, erase, and cover over anything you don't want to be on the canvas anymore. One team completely changed the mountains they had painted when they came for the second session. The team agreed together the mountains they had painted two hours before were childish, too whimsical. They wanted something more lifelike, more real. So they went to work and did it all over again. We talked about how that experience is an allegory for our lives. We can start over. Nothing is ever really permanent. 


Trying to capture the colors....
6) There is no need to stand too near when you are teaching. Step back. Listen. Let them discover their own creative pulses. To see a person become more enlivened through creativity is the best kind of reward. As I said, it is a dream come true.