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29 JUNE 2001
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Aesthetics or therapy in art?

Bernard Hemensley and Joy Coates

Our Art Club (for seven to thirteen-year-olds) started some two years ago with no clearly defined objectives. No therapy was intended, except that it was considered valuable for our children to be given the opportunity to express themselves through such activities as painting, modelling, collage etc., art in this sense being a “plastic expression of self”.

Most of the children who were to come were extremely inhibited in their approach. Whether they were applying paint to paper, cutting out, or handling clay, they seemed frozen, as if frightened of spoiling the clean sheet of paper, or of making an unacceptable shape with the clay. “Can I draw a line here?" a child would ask us, or “Can I paint this blue, please?" – much in the same way as he or she might ask for another cake or piece of bread.

Quite often a child would come with the express intention, perhaps instigated by a well-intentioned houseparent, of drawing a “nice picture” – “Bring me back a nice painting!" Always, there was the feeling that something of merit must be produced: a well-drawn face, a photographic looking house or scene, probably a representation of something the child had never really looked at or investigated for himself. Unfortunately, we think, in the early days we perpetuated this attitude by suggesting subjects and criticising the technicalities of the children's work. (We too were subject to external pressures, and Iaboured under the misapprehension that attractive results must be forthcoming for the Art Club to be regarded as successful.)
Eventually, however, we found ourselves asking a question” could repeating school-type art lessons really benefit – our children”?

During the early days then, the children were not finding much freedom of expression in their art, but nevertheless useful relationships were being built up between ourselves and them. One boy, especially, formed good relationships with both of us, and gradually gained confidence in himself and in his ability to express himself artistically in various mediums. It was a great joy to all concerned when recently he won a prize in an art competition recognition that was noticeably good for his ego!

His was perhaps an exceptional case, and on the whole we came to feel that we could achieve far more in Art Club than we had done so far, if only we could introduce a greater flexibility of approach and remove some of the restrictions on the quantities and variety of materials in use. At first we had bought expensive cartridge paper. This could only be handed out in small quantities and therefore experimentation was discouraged.

We came to feel that the use of material of such high quality gives the feeling that “high quality” work must be produced. A new supply of paper had to be found. Shelf paper was found to crinkle when painted upon and wall paper was never in sufficient supply. We made various enquiries and found that superfluous, uncirculated memos, stencilled only on one side, and spare, partly used office paper can be frequently liberated from office shelves. Thus we have now an almost unending free supply of paper and this together with bulk-bought powder paint has meant that the children can now make as many efforts or experiments as they wish or have time for, scrapping what they do not like and asking us to keep, or keeping for themselves the pieces they do like. (We also now use rolls of sugar paper for those who wish to paint a large picture, though numbers and space prevent everyone using too large a piece of paper).

Our policy has changed too. We now give guidance in the main only by introducing a variety of materials and allowing each child to choose for himself which medium he will use. We only make suggestions as to subject matter to individual children who really seem to be at a loss as to what to do. The most popular medium is clay, though the demand far exceeds the supply and on the occasions it is available it goes immediately. Strangely, this medium really exposes the inability of many children to express themselves freely. At first it seemed as if the only thing to be done with clay was to make a pot or an ashtray, never an interesting shape. Happily now, there are a number of children who will quite spontaneously play with it and mould the medium, for no other reason than that they enjoy it. It has been interesting to watch two small groups of children, each from a different family group. One group would quite happily use old hard clay, work it and remould it and get very mucky in the process; the other group would never use clay, though later they did, in a very perfunctory way.

Now and again we still find it difficult not to be pre-occupied with results. One session, a little girl of seven created a marvellous “Braque-like" pattern. We had both been watching the final stages closely intrigued and delighted by what was appearing on the paper. With the paper covered in paint, we proclaimed the painting finished. However the child had not finished, and was now contemplating a green wash which to us would spoil the painting. We stopped her and persuaded her that what she had done was terrific and that any further painting would spoil the pattern. She condescended. We have gained her painting on the art club wall. We wonder what she has gained!

One of our now allayed qualms was wondering how our objets d'art were being received when taken home by the children. Some adults do not understand their child's imagination and find it impossible to applaud their efforts. Perhaps it is sometimes difficult to effuse over, for instance, a board with multi-coloured wash background and broken china appended, with no hint of pattern or conventional form. To many people an art object must be colourful, or beautiful, or nice, or at least easily recognisable. There must be little doubt as to exactly what it is or represents. Antoine de Saint Exupery comes to mind. In the opening pages of The Little Prince he painfully explains that the reason why he gave up his ambition to be a great artist was that “Grown-ups were so stupid and dull” – and this, he relates, happened at the age of six!

We wonder how many other children find themselves in a similar situation.

Younger children
This article would not be complete without mention of our group of younger children. These children, aged six years and under, came regularly and voluntarily to Art Club during school holidays. For many of them, there are few inhibitions and they happily splash paint about, or play with materials, according to their personaIity.

One little boy may be content only to pour paint from one container to another, while another will use a single colour, making bold exploratory strokes and squiggles. Some will completely block in the sheet of paper and then start to block in a new colour over the top. Others will paint pictures full of colour and movement – crude but exciting pictures which make one think of a comment of Picasso's: “At twelve I could draw like Raphael. It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to paint like a child." What we now have in art club then, is an environment where interest, experiment and talent can be freely encouraged and developed in a variety of different ways.

Children with problems of communication can (and sometimes do) find themselves able to express themselves through painting, especially in an environment where external pressures are at a minimum. The accent is on doing rather than on results and children, by being praised for improvement, are able to work towards their personal best. As artistic potential is independent of intelligence, it is not unusual to have several talented children in a group whose usual attainments at school are poor.

An Art Club can therefore play a small part in building up each child's confidence in himself as an individual, complementing the work of the child care staff at home. It is often possible to come to a deeper understanding of a child's personality by unobtrusively watching him paint. One little boy, for instance, made literally only two or three small lines with a felt tip pen during a whole one-hour session, after refusing paint and brush – and our attention and encouragement. Much patience and understanding will be needed if he is to be helped to be less withdrawn and uncommunicative. Most children who have been with us for some time can relate and contribute (even if they come only to watch or talk to us).

In doing this they gain confidence, learn about themselves, the world about them, and other people. After all, you are you, and what you create is yours – an expression of, and a communication from yourself to those about you.