It has been a summer of art at our house. My hubby has been hunkered down in his art studio working away on his new project, I’ve been writing into the wee hours of the night, and our daughter has been painting her way through a swirl of art camps.
It has all been delightful.
That is until last week.
Sweet Bug wasn’t herself.
She was attending another art camp—one we’d heard nothing but good things about from friends.
When we dropped her off Monday morning, even though the instructor didn’t offer a super warm and fuzzy greeting like all the instructors at the other camps, I still left feeling optimistic, knowing she’d have a fun day making art. The camp, after all, was the bomb.
Little did I know what kind of bomb it really was.
Five and a half hours later when we returned to pick her up, instead of being greeted by Sweet Bug’s normal chirpy voice and proud “artiste” stance, her eyes screamed, “Thank god you’re finally here!”
“Are you okay?” I asked her on the way to the car. “Did something happen today?”
“Why do you look so sad?”
It had been a hot day so Hubby suggested we get frozen yogurt, hoping it would lift her spirits.
Sweet Bug, who never has a problem sharing every detail of her day with us, was unnaturally quiet. When I said, “So tell us about camp,” she just poked at the sprinkles on her frozen yogurt and tried to change the subject.
Finally, after a little more coaxing she simply said, “I don’t like it.”
“How come?” Hubby asked.
“I don’t know. I just don’t,” Sweet Bug replied with another shrug.
Hubby and I shot concerned glances at each other. Trying not to sound like FBI agents, we gently questioned her from several different angles, all the while trying to keep our tone relaxed and upbeat. Eventually we squeezed a few bits and pieces out of her—mostly vague comments about the structure and the instructor not being very nice—but nothing specific.
Hubby and I danced around the “teacher thing” diplomatically, explaining that every teacher is different, and that perhaps even if she didn’t connect with her, she could still learn something from her and have fun making art with the kids.
Over the next couple days we had several pep talks with Sweet Bug about ways to make the best of it, but a dark cloud still enveloped our house much of this terribly long week.
Half of me wanted to let her quit, but the other half didn’t want to give her that option. After all, what kind of message would that send her? I also thought about asking the camp director if she could be placed with a different instructor, but again, what would that teach her about working with different kinds of people in the world? We also still didn’t know exactly what was bothering her.
It wasn’t until the fourth day I finally discovered what it was. After another morning of Sweet Bug stalling to get ready, on the drive I said, “I can see you still aren’t very excited about going to camp. Is there something about it that’s making you feel unsettled?”
It was then I was hit by a tsunami of words.
She railed against her instructor and how she made her feel like she was always doing her art wrong. Trying to wrap my head around her wave of anger and frustration, I asked her to give me a few examples.
“She told me I was drawing my grass WRONG,” she fumed. “I wanted my grass straight and she told me I had to re-do it because it wasn’t wavy enough. And she told me my collage didn’t have enough things on it. And she told me my color wheel was WRONG. And she told Sam he was holding his pastel WRONG, and she told Sophie she was drawing her shoelace WRONG and made her erase it and do it her way.”
The word WRONG hit me like a sledgehammer.
I was thankful I was driving so Sweet Bug couldn’t see my eyes popping out of my head or the steam shooting out my ears.
I wanted to scream: Are. You. Freakin’. Kidding. Me? These kids are eight years old, and this is SUMMER CAMP. This is about letting their hearts sing, not about making them erase things that aren’t perfect. ART IS NOT PERFECT! Plllleeeease.
After taking a deep breath and clearing my throat I looked in the rearview mirror and said, “You know what Sweet Bug? Everybody teaches differently, but I want you to listen to me, and listen to me carefully. This is important: I give you permission to draw your lines any (damn) way you want. I don’t care what your instructor says. There is no right way to make art. If your heart tells you that your drawing or painting needs curves and squiggles, draw curves and squiggles. If you want straight grass, draw straight grass. Art is about having fun and expressing yourself in your own way. It’s not about being perfect. You shouldn’t ever worry about whether you are doing it the right way. Do you understand?”
Sweet Bug nodded up and down, then smiled for the first time in days. As we walked up the steps to camp I reiterated what I had just said, and as I left her in the art room I gave her a big hug and whispered in her ear conspiratorially, “Remember, Sweet Bug, I give you permission.”
Afterward I sat in my car, my stomach twisted like a dish towel, knowing a small piece of Sweet Bug’s creative spirit had been chiseled away by this instructor’s teaching methods. I desperately wanted to glue it back into place, and hoped I’d said the right thing to make it stick.
It was impossible not to think about Pablo Picasso’s famous quote right then:
“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Sweet Bug wasn’t even grown up and she was now suddenly doubting her artistic abilities. The saddest part to me is that this instructor was an extremely talented artist who had nothing but good intentions. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body and was only trying to inspire the children by teaching them the “right” way to do art.
It made me realize just how fragile that seed of creativity is in all of us. It must be nurtured, but not overwatered with guidance and direction; otherwise it will drown in the garden of shoulds–as in “You should do it this way or you should do it that way.” By simply fertilizing those creative seeds with encouragement and inspiration and letting them grow in their own natural way, they will eventually flower into a wildly beautiful masterpiece.
Because I want to end this post on a happy note, I will tell you that Sweet Bug is back at one of her favorite camps, Art Innovators. She is thoroughly enjoying her final week of her summer art extravaganza and is already talking about next summer.
The conversation I overheard this morning as I was dropping her off says everything about why this camp is the REAL bomb:
Camper to instructor: “Kelly, I made a mistake. I need an eraser.”
Fabulous instructor, Kelly: “Oh remember I don’t have any erasers. If you feel like you made a mistake, you can just turn it into something you like even better.”
Thank you Kelly and Devon! And thank you to all the wonderful art teachers Sweet Bug has been surrounded with at Art Innovators and Camp Kono this summer. You have not only inspired our daughter, but you’ve helped her find her inner Miro and reminded her that art is never perfect.
“To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”
Note: All of the artwork in this post was created by Sweet Bug at Art Innovators and Camp Kono. I can only imagine what fun things she’ll be creating this week!