We spent the afternoon at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), soaking up the 7th Triennial Asia Pacific Exhibition. There were stunning pieces and plenty of my kind of art: visual feasts that challenge social, political, economic and cultural mores. We ooo-ed and ahhh-ed in all the right places (the right places being different for all of us) and moved with the best kind of questioning wonder and amazement through the paintings and sculptures, the installations and masks, the short films and photographs.
But the most fun the four of us had at the exhibition was producing our own art it in the dedicated kids’ area: masks based on Hahan’s work, crazy family photos from Kazakhstan, Parastou Forouhar’s zoomorphic calligraphy animations*. We adults got into it more than than Mr D.
It reminded me of what Julia Cameron says in The Artist Way, that we produce some of our best creative works before we reach primary school. That we are at our creative peak at kindergarten!
Junking Notions of High Art
Society delineates between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, ‘art’ and ‘craft’, ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’, ‘commericial’ and ‘cottage’. All arbitrary terms created by someone who wanted to sell something to someone and make a little extra dosh. And don’t get me started on elitism.
The thing with ‘high art’ though–whether it be a professional theatrical or dancing production, a gallery showing, scoring that illusive commercial deal for a book or album– the creation of ‘high art’ is beyond the reach of most of us. And it’s marketed as being beyond us… it is art made by experts, highly trained professionals who have dedicated their life’s work to doing what they do. Not nufties like you and me.
It didn’t start of that way for us though. As kids we are oblivious to this tripe! The older we get, the more we understand this dichotomy between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (we see it in all forms of artistic pursuits—think the age old argument between literary fiction and genre fiction—high and low art!) and the more we feel separate from it.
We see it in the way ‘talented’ kids are singled out and nurtured, to the exclusion of others. We learn creative success is earned by a lucky few, and is not intended for everyone. Creativity is an exclusive club not meant for us.
What kids create is often seen as ‘junk’ or disposable (outside of their adoring parents and family members/close friends) in comparison to the ‘high art’ adults make. But childlike creativity is accessible, fulfilling and available to all (regardless of age) to engage with and enjoy. That’s priceless. Not junk!
A Life Time Ago
The best thing about my kindergarten was the old red telephone box in the playground (yes, I was raised on healthy Dr Who, just like my son!). When I wasn’t inside making phone calls or flying away to faraway lands, I was painting and playing in the coloured water trough, typing things on the typewriter. I loved glitter, the more the merrier (and I still have a soft spot for it now, especially when its going on someone else’s floor!)
I remember I made a magenta leather bookmark for my father, weaving leather strap through holes punched in along the sides. Dad used it for years and years and years. I also remember a dried flower collage on a cork coaster… it hung on the wall for years and years too.
Reclaim The Childlike Wonderment
The pure joy of a child’s creativity is well within everyone’s reach. What we have to do is step up and embrace being kids again. It’s the best antidote to exclusivity of ‘high art’; to feeling beyond, frozen out.
We were all creative at kindergarten—cut and pasted, nailed, sewed, weaved, painted, constructed, coloured-in, sang, danced, played instruments, dressed up and put our dreams into motion through play.
Some of my most treasured moments are not on a stage in front of a paying audience but in a lounge room or front lawn in a semi-organised concert with my cousin and my sister. I remember many holidays dancing on a platform in our potato packing shed with just the dust and rats looking on (I can still remember several dance moves from the Footloose number we did!). And other holidays with my Nanna and Pa, making smiley faces on Marie biscuits from smarties, orange segment lollies and icing.
I wrote notes to Willy Wagtails on the back of gum leaves at my cousin’s and weighed them down with pebbles atop fence post so they wouldn’t blow away. I sang loudly in the toilet (my parents joked it was the acoustics) and when I got older, in the shower (they may have been right about the acoustics of small spaces!). From scraps of material I sewed Barbie clothes. I knitted jumpers for dolls from wool I scavenged.
My love of colouring-in lasted long past its age-appropriate used-by-date. The last colouring book I owned was of Ewoks during the summer of my last year at primary school in 1985.
As a teenager I bound my book reviews as tiny books with staples and gaffa tape, accompanied by hand drawn covers. All my assignments had colourful borders–one on my family history had a stone paved border that after page three didn’t seem like such a good idea, but I kept going with it. I sketched Wendy James and Patrick Swayze when I wasn’t scribbling stories. I skipped out on classic piano music to play jazz standards and old show tunes from organ books I borrowed from my Grandma. My friend Kim and I performed Chicago’s “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” for a school arts day. For drama a drew detailed character mock ups to accompany the scripts I’d written.
But the older I got, the more the other creative pursuits petered off until I was left with dancing and writing. Then just writing. Then nothing.
There’s No Secret Password
We make excuses for not doing the things we want to do. The things we know will make our heart sing; bring lightness and variety into the otherwise dull, monotony of life.
There’s all the excuses under the sun by the time we’re adults, not to be creative: I’m tone deaf; I can’t draw a stick figure; I have two left feet; I burn water. But as a four-year-old did any of that matter to you?
You sang loudly and off key, knowing only ever fourth word, but did it with gusto. You splashed paint on a piece of white paper or smooshed it between your fingers and smiled proudly when your folks unpegged it to take home at the end of the day. You danced the hokey pokey and it didn’t matter which was left of right. You poured pink water into weird shaped containers and created fountains and rivers, you formed up the best mud pies in the world with no thought to if it was under done or over cooked or if anyone else liked it but you.
As adults we need to embrace our inner child and re-approach creativity with the open-minded wonder of a four-year-old who doesn’t care what others think, who has all the time in the world to be absorbed and dissolved in colour, sound, movement and all degrees of imagination.
We need to step away from the awareness of skill, experience, status, money, critical acclaim or any other of the external accruements that attach themselves to creative endeavours beyond childhood. It’s time to get back to basics: the simple act of doing something creative for the sheer enjoyment of it.
So, what did you really enjoy doing as a kid? Now go out and rediscover the joy all over again.
* Yes, that’s the goat I designed with the computer program!
Extended Reading: For more great reflections and ideas on rediscovering creativity dip into Adam Byatt’s three part serial: