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Friday, August 10, 2012

A Little Story (or, The Importance of Play)

When I was in fifth and sixth grade I had a  wonderful group of teachers. Fifth grade was the first year I got to move from classroom to classroom, and I had six wonderful teachers. This story is about Mrs. B., who was my science teacher.

Mrs. B. was an older woman, probably five or six years from retirement (it's hard to know, really, because when you're ten, EVERYONE seems old :). She taught science, and was very particular about classwork and about behavior. This suited me just fine, as I was an absolute rule follower. Miss Color-Inside-the-Lines, that was me. Mrs. B. loved me and I loved her.

Mrs. B. also did art projects with us, as we had no art teacher at my elementary school. We did lots of cool projects over the two years I had her, and one of the projects was a watercolor painting. Mrs. B. did watercolors, herself, I believe, and so each student brought in a photograph that they wanted to use as a model. I brought in a picture of fall trees by a stream.

I worked so hard on that painting, painting each individual leaf the way Mrs. B. told me to. The finished painting was really nice, and I was so proud of it, and Mrs. B. was very pleased.

So, I am in class, painting done, while everyone else is still working on their paintings.  I get some paper and start dripping paints into wet spots on the paper, seeing how they spread and how they mix--you know, playing.

And Mrs. B. comes by my desk, sees what I am doing, and says, "Karen, I am so disappointed in you. Those paints are not for playing with, they are to paint with! You are making a mess. Put them away, you're done painting."

And I was crushed. Thirty-eight years later, I still remember the awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was a horrible feeling. I had been having so much fun with the paints, and it turned out that what I was doing was wrong--I was making a mess.

Now I have no problem with Mrs. B., except a sadness, in that I think she missed a key point about learning: learning is all about play. Art is all about play. You can't learn 'wrong' and you can't play 'wrong' and you can't do art 'wrong'.

When babies learn to talk and walk, they are not doing it because they have an assignment; they do it because they just want to. And eventually we all learn to walk efficiently, even though we stumbled a lot along the way. Up until the age of five or so (school-age--do you think that's a coincidence?) everything a child learns is done in that spirit of play. Failure is just the chance to do it over again!. Ever watch a toddler in a bath tub pouring water from one cup to another? Playing. If the water spills, scoop some more up and keep on going. A kid in the sandbox, figuring out which sand makes the best castles? Playing. The castle collapses? Build another one.

Playing. Playing. Playing.

That spirit of playing, of total immersion in something--that's what life is all about. If Mrs. B. had instead said to me, "Some painters use the way the paints spread and mix to help them make their paintings," what might have happened then? Or if she had said nothing, what then?

Now obviously, I've gotten past that sense of shame for playing with the watercolors in Mrs. B.'s  class. I play all the time, and I recognize play for what it is: the supreme form of attention and learning. I try to recognize and honor that in myself and in all the people I come into contact with, because it's something so important that we must not forget it.

Learning is play. Playing is learning. And not only is it okay to play when you're five, or ten--it's okay to play when you're (fill in your age right here). Along with this, remember that everything you do need not be a masterpiece.

Want to learn to use Photoshop? Go play with it. Mess around and have fun. Want to paint? Get some paints and some paper and play with them. Want to learn to paint girls who fly through the night sky? Paint some girls. And then, paint some MORE girls. And keep on painting them until you don't feel like doing it anymore.

And remember, nothing is a waste of time if you love what you're doing. If you're completely absorbed in it, it is not a waste of time--not the first time, and not on the five-hundredth time. If you are creating and you are interested in what you are doing, you cannot possibly do it wrong.

And that swirly mixture of colors at the top of this entry? It is not a mess. Take it from me. It's just part of a happy morning in the studio.



Debbie said...

Oh, I agree with you 100%!! We lose our ability to play as grownups, and we even force our children to give up play, and yet, it is essential for art, as well as life in general.

Lisa Isabella Russo said...

I think playing is so important! I'm sad you had that experience. It's fine to do focused works, but it's also good to play! Love the watercolor you shared too.

Gloria said...

This is such a wonderful post. It means a lot to me. I am passing it on to my son,he will enjoy it, too.
I love the lovely colors at the top!

Netty said...

Good for you. Happy PPF, Annette x

Christine said...

good lesson on the value of play Karen, and nice art!

Rita said...

So very, very true!
I was a good inside-the-lines little girl, too. Never learned to splash colors around. Am trying to learn now. You are never too old to learn to play.
Wonderful post and I love your playing--some of my favorite colors, too! :)

Tiger's Mum said...

Wow, what a wonderful post! It's so important to maintain a playful attitude to things, especially art. Thank you for the timely reminder!

Melisa said...

Many watercolor books start out by telling you to do exactly what you were doing. Make blobs. Wet blobs and dry blobs. Add another color to the blobs. Watch it and see what happens when it is damp, when it is wet, when it is dry. In fact, I'm not sure there is really any other way to really learn it! And what good is art if it isn't fun, anyway? I'm so glad you got over that and feel free to play and make a mess again. Poor Miss B. She should have had more fun.

hastingshall2 said...

Love the dropped watercolors. I think this would make such a fantastic background for a greetings card. I love to play around with various inks making my own backgrounds. Your teacher would not have approved of me either. She was probably thinking of the mess if all 35 children started dropping paint. Could have been a calamity. She could have said something more positive and still kept the creativity alive. Faye

Ginny said...

I loved this post. As a very serious little girl, I really didn't play much. But I am learning to play now and it is so much fun. Your painting is beautiful and your advice so wise. Thank you for sharing both.

Elisa said...

What an inspiring story karen! Learning is everywhere and yes we also learn from bad and hurting experiences. And the best thing is that you did not brood so much about it but you learn from it and did something about it. You did not stop. You play and learn. It's a delight! Painting is. :)

Anne said...

Great, insightful post, I agree 100%! Happy PPF! :)

Giggles said...

Beautifully put! So sad that teacher squashed your tender spirit!! I always thought an artist was conventional like Mrs.B taught. What a surprise to figure out at 47 there was an artist hiding within... who knew! Would have been sad dying never having known that!! That teacher had an old school mentality. They sure shaped who we were that's for sure!

I only ever took one art course but that male teacher saw my potential. Too bad I never paid attention to it... I still think about that grade nine moment forty odd years later!!!

Another great post!!

Hugs Giggles

Natasha said...

I agree. Play, play, play. As much as I know that, I still need lessons.

Funny how this morning, turning cleaning their room into a game and making it fun was the first time in what seems a long time that the children's room got tidied, fast and without any tears and tantrums. A lesson for all aspects of life.

NatashaMay said...

That is so sad. We all have teachers that crushed our spirit at sometime, I guess. I agree with you on the playing part. As we get older we tend to forget. :)

Mary C. Nasser said...

I agree that learning should be fun!! Art should be fun!!
Wonderful painting!
Happy PPF!!
Mixed-Media Map Art

Lynn said...

I bet way too many people have memories like this one of yours.
I was struck by the "mess" at the top of your page and gasped a breath of air in as my eyes feel in love with the colors and movement of the paints. The blending and that little bit of tye dyed look in the almost center. I had to laugh later when you called it "that mess" at the top of the page. Isn't it fun when a few dabs of paint in water can become good art so quickly?

Story well told. Poor Mrs. B. or whatever her name was...She didn't get it. I'm so glad I am having fun now. I remember in 7th grade getting the same art teacher, MR. V. who my brother had had a few years before me. Then my brother was the artist in the family. And MR. V. was so disappointed when I came along and he decided I had no talent at all. I was not my brother. I felt so squashed. Any desire to draw or paint was stomped right out of me. I remember drawing in that class with india ink and pen in a bottle and spilling it on a red skirt. I am sure it spilled out of nervousness after being told what I was doing was not good enough. I can still see the look of disdain on his face. I'm glad I eventually got over Mr. V.'s rath! And enjoy playing with art materials today! So glad. I love giving art supplies to my grandkids and having them do with them what they want. Have fun drawing painting playing today and every day Karen! I will too!

Marji {RainCityGirl} said...

Yay for you!! "learning is all about play. Art is all about play. You can't learn 'wrong' and you can't play 'wrong' and you can't do art 'wrong'."
You said this so perfectly! I fondly call people like Mrs. B a buzzkill. Glad you can let her words go from your life and move on in a playful artsy way. Happy PPF

Molly said...

I absolutely love your soft, winderful watercolor. So sad about teachers like mrs. B.... To think how teachers like that stifle creativity in kids, sometimes permanently. It reminds me of that old Harry Chaplin song, "flowers are red."

Hands to Work, Hearts to God said...

Hi Karen, There are many well meaning Mrs. Bs but there are more children who decided they are not artists because of what they said. Sad, yes! I give workshops to reverse that way of thinking for adults who are restrained with their playing because they think they have to do everything the right way or not at all! Patsy from
HeARTworks and

wednesday said...

Oh, those well meaning uptight grown-ups... Experiences like that make me consider how remarks I make to the kids around me might affect their whole lives without me ever knowing it.

I think your "mess" is beautiful.

denthe said...

Oh, that's so sad. The things adults can say to kids that still linger after so many years. Glad you kept on playing and having fun. That's what art should be about.

Cris, Artist in Oregon said...

I wonder how many Children Mrs B discouraged. Sad really. Love your colors. I always remember some saying and it goes for Art too. If you always do what you've always done you'll always get what you've always got. We need to spread our wings and experiment more. Great post. HPPF Belated.

JKW said...

So much of science is exact. You painted leaves exact. . . she was in her exact mode. We always have to look at the interpretation others put on things. Yes, she discouraged you in art, put she was trying to teach exactness in the science of things. You both misunderstood each other and was coming from different places.

I love that you look at your art and play, we all need that part too. Blessings, Janet PPF