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.