What do you think are some of the most important things about being an artist?
I recently asked this question to 80 fourth graders as part of an “application” for a book illustration project I am working on for a non-profit, urban forestry organization called Tree Pittsburgh. Out of the 80 children, I hand-picked 40 kids from Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School to illustrate a 40-page picture book that I wrote for Tree Pittsburgh called, If We Were To Plant A Tree, a spin-off of my 2008 title, If I Were A Tree. Next week, I will spend five days at the school working with these children as a part of the school’s Earth and Arbor Day celebrations. The book will be launched later this fall as part of Pittsburgh’s “Neighborwood” festival but its larger objective is to spread the mission of urban forestry to the country—and maybe even the world!—at large. I am so excited and honored to be directing such an amazing project.
I visited the school briefly a couple months ago during my first information-collecting trip to Pittsburgh. There was a quick introduction to the kids and a tour of the school, which sits on the edge of the city’s largest green space, Frick Park. Then, a couple weeks ago, I did a video-conference with all 80 of the kids to tell them about the two different ways they could participate during the week I’m at the school. Children who are not illustrating will be involved in a week-long, urban seedling-planting project with the educational outreach person from Tree Pittsburgh. The two parts of this project dovetail so nicely and, as a grade-level project, I think it’s pretty cool for these students at ECS to be involved in something with such local and national outreach.
Predictably, many of the initial questions I was asked were concerned with how the forty would be chosen and I was able to sense a little anxiety and angst over the perceived “fairness” of selecting some and not others. Indeed, this was the initial concern of the teachers at the school even before we secured the project with them. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I am not a big fan of the “everyone gets a medal” mentality that is so pervasive among this generation of children and that I am an enthusiastic proponent of healthy competition among people of all ages, especially children. Much of the research done by the likes of Daniel Pink and Carol Dweck supports this opinion and most adults, if they are being honest with themselves can usually acknowledge that it has been, and will always be, true that, no, not everything in life is fair.
My criteria for picking the children who will do these illustrations was, in general, a response to obvious expressed interest in the project (they could choose between this and the outdoor tree planting project), thoughtful and often funny answers to the seven questions on the application, and then something “extra” in the quick drawing of a tree I asked them to do on the back of the form. The project is an important one and the book will be promoted nationwide so I wanted the kids who truly wanted to be a part of it, but I did want the kids to have fun with this “playsheet” as I called it, and felt that I would be able to detect sincere interest.
Many of the questions were asked just to prime the pump on thinking about trees in preparation of the project and to see if the children would answer beyond the rote responses of knowing that trees provide us with oxygen or that they grow in city parks. Playsheets with questions that were left blank, answered with “I don’t knows,” or that provided tree drawings that portrayed the ubiquitous “lollipop” tree were quickly cast aside. Some of the answers made me chuckle out loud and those were immediately put into the group of 40 kids who would illustrate the book with me. If a kid can make me laugh, that’s a kid I want working on a big, fun project.
My favorite question was the last one: What do you think are some of the most important things about being an artist?
I wonder if you will agree with me that the answers given by these children are pretty astute considering they are all of nine and ten years old. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of answers and the insight they offer on what our young people think is important for someone who chooses a career in the arts, however, I find that this list of responses is good advice for any profession or any relationship.
-Creativity (this answer came in more than any other).
-Being imaginative and having freedom.
-Being passionate because, if you aren’t, you won’t be able to do your best work.
-If you show your work to someone else and they say something bad about it, just let it roll off your back because you know you like it and that’s all that matters.
-Keeping an open mind and looking at things from all perspectives.
-Being in touch with your art.
-You have to make all your work very detailed and get ready for questions from fans.
-Don’t be discouraged.
-Using all your senses.
-Being happy, loving art.
-Creativity is the base of all things, from architecture to politics.
-Honesty and being yourself.
-Having pride in your work.
-Keep a notebook with you in case you have an idea.
-Knowing how to let your creativity out.
-Never underestimate what you can do.
-The most important thing is having fun because if you don’t have fun, your art won’t look fun.
-Sometimes you don’t need amazing art skills to make a masterpiece.
-Concentration and a brain that is always expanding.
-To know that the project you are working on can help you work on your life.
-To inspire others.
-To express what you are feeling.
-Your art flows your own way.
-Having patience when you mess up.
-Dealing with artist’s block.
And this is my personal favorite:
-Being able to keep your cool.
The kids sure get it right sometimes, don’t they?
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about things that matter most to you.