I’ve just finished three weeks of school residency programs with elementary children. We write using techniques and strategies that I use in my own books for kids, and then we illustrate using cut paper collage—also a method I employ in my books. The sessions are lively and let kids have fun learning without really realizing it. I begin each session by telling them that I haven’t come to work with them—there will be no grade on what we do, no homework and no test—but instead to play with them. Don’t tell the grownups, though, I whisper with a wink-wink; I’m not so sure they’d want to pay me to play… they smile and nod their heads quietly in solidarity.
A few years ago, before I prefaced what I now jokingly call playshops (instead of workshops), with this caveat, I often watched the stress in kids build as they got ready, essentially, to perform for me in front of their teachers. As soon as I finished the lesson and gave the project directions, anxious hands would go up with all manner of questions all beginning with “Are we allowed to…?” I am now more careful in getting them ready to begin and the result is immediately evident: shoulders relax, smiles appear, sighs of relief are exhaled. Hooray! She came here to play.
Collage is an interesting medium. I began dabbling with it back in college making handmade cards for birthdays and have illustrated all six of my picture books using this medium as well as many images of trees, my favorite theme. Currently I am mostly a painter, but my first love is truly collage. Paper, scissors and glue. People have always asked me how I have the patience to cut all those little pieces of paper, but there is a mesmerizing, relaxing and very “zen” aspect to this technique and I’ve witnessed the most jumpy and attention deficit children become deeply focused on creating a piece of art out of brightly colored, paper shapes.
Most of the time, when I’m working with kids, I collage, too. It is good for them that I model the joy of creating something, but I also find that making stuff with children helps me with my own artistic anxiety. I am faster and more free with the scissors when I’m in a classroom rather than my studio and I am much more bold, cutting without the tracing paper I almost always use for patterns on stricter projects. And, because I see this in myself, I have one rule with kids and collage: no pencils. No pencils?!? They don’t like this one bit. Some of them are actually quite defiant about this rule and get a little angry. Accustomed to drawing, they fear the line-less-ness of “drawing with scissors,” and don’t always believe me when I tell them their shapes will be bigger, better and more beautiful without those beloved pencils and the even more beloved erasers.
Last week, during the last session of the day, I spoke to a group of fourth graders about the philosophy behind the no pencils rule. I said, you know, for a long time I was only a collage artist. I liked the way my work looked, I thought it was “good,” and I didn’t think I needed to do anything else or change anything about it as long as I believed that was true. I never took art classes with other artists or even talked that much about other mediums with them. But, I told them, one day I finally realized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I didn’t know what it felt like to use other techniques and other supplies. I started to look more at other artist’s work and I began trying to learn about other mediums. I bought a few new things and started playing around with them. It was—and still is—a real challenge to let myself be free of the need to make something “good,” but I have learned so many new things that I would never have learned if I’d just stuck with what felt comfortable and familiar. I would also not have been able to find the little bits of goodness that I discovered in the sloppy, messing around stuff I did. Some of these weird and ugly things became the new and much beloved facets of my work and helped me grow as an artist and a person. What, I asked them, do you think it would it feel like to let yourself be open to trying something new that maybe feels uncomfortable but could lead to something wild and wonderful? Do you trust me? Yes, they say, we trust you, Dar. And they begin.
The session with this particular group of fourth graders was on the day of Jeff’s birthday and I’d found myself without a card for his gift and an early dinner reservation directly following my time at a school. As the kids cut their animals from bits of patterned paper, I sat at one of the tables with them and began a quick little illustration for his card. The moment I begin to make something in the midst of children, I get an audience. You’re sooooo goooooood, they moan. How do you doooooo that? It’s practice, I say, that’s all. I have cut a lot of paper in my life.
What are you making? Why are you making a hot air balloon? I explained to them that it was birthday card and that I had a party right after school (I also mention that handmade cards are always better than store bought ones and they agree). Who is that for? Whose birthday is it? I already know that saying “boyfriend” around grade school children will elicit giggles and exclamations of “YOU have a BOYfriend?!?” Old people, you see, do not have boyfriends and girlfriends. But I say it anyway and, after they giggle and ask me how old I am for Pete’s sake they continue their interrogation, What did you get him? You got him a hot air balloon? No, silly, I say, a hot air balloon ride. Which is true. I got us a one-hour, real live hot air balloon ride. The kind where you are way, way up in the open sky, far above the ground, with no real steering, a puff of air riding on the whims of the currents, powered by a flame-fed balloon, and dangling from a basket. Oy.
Without drama, I tell them very matter-of-factly that I am kind of afraid of heights. I admit to them that I do not really like driving over big, long bridges, riding on roller-coasters, rock climbing or even the idea of hang-gliding or sky-diving. I tell them I am not really sure how I feel about the hot air balloon ride but that he likes things like that. As I continue to make the card, the conversation over it dissolves into how many scary roller-coasters they have all ridden. And then, one of the girls leans in toward me and says, You will be trying something new. But, maybe it will be wild and wonderful!
TRY THIS WEEK: Something new… and put away your pencil.