November 7, 2010

Art as Child's Play

Picture by Solomon Higgs, age 10

There’s competition for jobs, competition for promotion, competition for college, for classes, for road space, for birthday and Christmas presents, for boyfriends and girlfriends, and nowadays, competition to enter grade school. So what will my son, who is currently competing for middle school acceptance and is very much like me, learn from this? Like me, he will probably learn that if he tries his best, holds many talents, and struggles to compete with his peers his whole life and isn’t number one in a world with no room for second best, then all of his blood, sweat and tears will be for nothing.

Hopefully not.

I stopped drawing at age twelve because my friend Todd was better skilled than I could ever hope to be. I quit playing guitar at age seventeen because another friend, Randy, had savant-like fretting abilities. Competition can generate unimaginable feats and push us beyond where we thought possible. The downside, however, is that if we are not competitive by nature, we end up passing the torch to the very best and moving on through another course. For most of us, this is what happened, long ago, to our creative endeavors.

Picture by Sharlotte Higgs, age 8
Disregarding the almost complete disappearance of artistic education coupled with the onslaught of standardized testing in our schools, the most likely cause of why we don’t create like we love to is our competitive nature. We don’t write because we’ll “never write poetry like that guy.” We don’t draw because we’ll “never paint such vivid portraits as that gal.” We don’t sing because “she has such a beautiful voice, I sound awful compared to her.”


Why do we care how we compare to others? From where does this forfeiture of competition arise? In a natural survival setting, the surrender of competition would mean death. We may not be able to cook a gourmet spread like our favourite nationally syndicated chef, but we cook nonetheless. Why? Because we want to eat. Why shouldn’t we also, because we want to write, paint, or compose, be able to do so without the supposed shame of mediocrity?

This week I want us to think back to when we were five years old, when we would paint landscapes that had no form and write words with no perceptive meaning, when we were in competition with nothing but our limitless imagination. In the style of this child, this uninhibited free spirit uninhabited by chagrin, this left-behind us, we will open ourselves up and discover a moment not experienced for twenty, thirty, forty or more years. We will readdress all of our hopes and dreams that were squashed along the way to adulthood, and kindle and ignite new fires. We will discover the fountain pen of youth.

Picture by Simion Higgs, age 6
The first thing you need to do is to decide, for each Moment, what you wanted to be at a certain moment in your past. Astronaut, fireman, cowgirl or rock star, we all had aspirations that fell by the wayside. After you choose your theme, you will draw/paint a picture, exactly how your five-year-old self would illustrate their future self.

This may prove a little more difficult than you might initially think. Finely tuned motor skills and learned techniques may impede the production of a truly juvenile portrait. Ignore ideas of shading, proportion, depth and perspective. If you need to, try drawing with your non-dominant hand. Use tools with which you are not acquainted, like a large unwieldy marker, or finger paint. Anything you would be using for the first time would give a realistically awkward approach; this is a good thing. This means that if you’re out to lunch at any contemporary chain restaurant, then grab the pack of crayons and the place mat. Pens, pencils, highlighters–mix them up as a child, who’ll grab anything within reach, would.

When you are finished with the drawing, you will write a quick little poem. Like the drawing, the poem will read as a five-year-old’s would read, with short and simple words and phrases. Don’t be concerned with spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but at the same time, don’t pressure yourself to write poorly. If you don’t already know the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” then don’t look it up. If you can’t quite figure out how to use “myriad” properly, then use it as it sounds right to you, but ask yourself: “Would a five-year-old use ‘myriad’ in a sentence anyway?” If not, just use “many” or “lots.” In academic and professional writing, you need to know these rules. Your Moments are neither.

Your poem should, somewhere, include the words: “I want to be.” Also, state the reason that you did not become that person. If you honestly don’t know, then admit it and say so. Recognize the point at which you deviated from your childhood dreams. These fantasies, at one point, were the most sacred things in the universe. Honour them.

When you are finished with your Moment, fold it up tightly and shove it into your pocket. Carry it around and play with it for the day. When you get home, if it has appropriate content, give it to your children. If you don’t have kids, then give it to a young relative, or your friend’s children, and tell them to always follow their dreams (to them, this has yet to become a cliché).

Competition for survival is fierce; competition for dreams is brutal. The last thing that I want is for us to read through these essays and then decide that we can’t follow through because “my coworker is very artistic, she’ll probably laugh.” There’s no competition here. No matter how bad we think we are, our art is unique and non-imitable; I promise. No one can do it quite like you. Open up; be naïve; feel like a kid again. We know that we’re probably not going to be the artist, the great American novelist, or the platinum-selling rock star that we’ve always imagined, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pretend.

Don’t be afraid to pretend. When you become fearless and shame-free, true innovation and artistry really do become child’s play.

Now to be fair, here's my Moment:

Acrylic and ink on construction paper.


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