The Underfoots are a collection of creatures from various places around the world. They are all manifestations of the overlooked, mossy intricate worlds underfoot.
Setting out to build a village and teach children about the negotiations and collaboration needed to work together in and understand how to live together harmoniously with the land and each other. Sounds great.
Once the materials came out on the floor, and the first kids arrived, something else happened. Something I should have remembered by now: the first two children were two year olds (so being able to explain techniques and context for building villages will be impossible with words, so how to proceed?)
What works then for kids of this age, what they can be taught is the magic of the materials, and through the materials can be found lessons and much to chew on, especially if you’re not looking (that’s a joke, and an argument for using natural materials–because little kids will eat the workshop when you’re not looking – ha!).
We brought out clay, sticks, bits of plant, old flowers from the summer that have been eaten by birds (cup plant eaten by goldfinches if you care), bits of fired brick in miniature, leftover parts of christmas trees not needed for decoration when they were bought at market, and had a jam session.
This work is jazz. It’s setting up the stage with instruments, and letting go of the product you thought would emerge, as the players arrive with their own ideas, skills and inclinations.
One of the animators who helps bring out the creative side of children who i work with says: “the less you tell them, and direct them, the better.”
But also, in the same breath, she says “BUT: kids need to be told when they are damaging or hurting something (watching kids pour drinking water on the ground instead of on plants, this needs to be spoken).”
Somehow both can happen, but only if the facilitators are knowing that they cannot control the outcome, and are paying keen attention to what kids are naturally drawn to, and allowing this to emerge and be elaborated on through play.
This comes back to ideas of what we are trying to teach children, and really, what they can tell us about our desires to be heard and make change through those little illogical minds.
If we can impress upon them the importance of cooperation, care, true collaboration then they will be better able to manage shared resources in a world with less available and cheap energy, where these values will save lives.
Can you imagine trying to have this conversation with two year olds?
Well no, because the drivers for their worlds are more direct, less abstract. More about what is in their sensory view and not predicated on ideas of global resources and energy security. It’s really about feeling secure, though not for the wee ones, for us.
This i remembered all in the course of a minute when the children arrived, and i remembered my course as an artist, to bring out questions of depth through the material play, like a treasure hunt where we know all the stops on the map, but do not yet know what treasure will emerge at the end.
This potential could depress the more linear minded, that kids cannot follow through to the lessons we need to impart to make us feel secure and good about ourselves, but to me this brings deep and meaningful inspiration. I want to see how far I can go in finding transformation, and sometimes that looks like spending an hour listening to the inner imaginative world of a kid who others dismiss as, well, childish.
When it is possible to take this dream world and make it real, to get kids into leadership positions in the design, and to become a resource to them to realize projects beyond what they have participated in up until then. This brings more inspiration than work I have been commissioned to make from my own imagination, relying on my specialized professionalism.
(Don’t get me wrong, I am totally open to having projects of depth that I can display and make with my own hands, but when kids are involved in design and building environments they inhabit, this is a lesson beyond my own ego and/or professional aesthetic choices as a professional artist.)
You, little child, can tell us how to make this building, paint this hallway, design this garden, these are lessons of empowerment that are missing from childhood. It is also a method for finding and including a departure from what is possible, when you include those who think differently.
It is a test of adulthood to see how far you can take this process;
Can kids actually build parts of the urban environment?
Do they have what is needed?
Most of us would say: of course not. There are safe-work practices, skilled hand-work, judgement and assessment before implementation. Not to mention focus and maturity. All of these commonly held cultural beliefs which impart the lesson that we need professionals in every part of our lives, and that kids have no place in this world before they are trained and disciplined adults.
Ok maybe you would not want a two year old as a doctor (“I can see there is pain, but all you need is candy and a movie, you’ll be all better”). or a lawyer (“just pretend you know nothing until they have evidence….then say sorry….works for me”). I am sure you can think of funnier examples.
I have seen amazing things emerge when kids are given the control and power. Every year around our fire pit (at the Children’s Garden within Evergreen Brick Works) we would get pooling water, and we blamed the professionals. Those who graded the gavel in the space before we moved in did not do it properly….then everything we’ve layered on top is therefore effected by this grade (metaphor there).
Every mini flood we would bust out shovels and dig trenches to redirect the water. We were playing at making rivers, and every time, more or less, kids drained the fire pit space. Then, eventually we came up with the money to hire professionals to make a french drain and re-grade the space.
The design and build landscape firm built a trench EXACTLY where the kids had been making it for years! We just left it impermanent, for you don’t want to take away problems that others may solve later. Now there is no river to dig, and our wallets are lighter for paying professionals. Somehow ‘playing at’ doing the same work with kids really taught everyone something. It proved what is possible when we do not disguise our problems and ask for help. (anecdotally i remember one mom digging with her two kids, she looks up at me and smiles “I am so glad we are doing this here, and not in my back yard”).
These inclinations are natural; to dig, to build, to destroy and rebuild. Often nature takes the role of reclaiming materials back to base elements, even while we are living within them. Removing the curtain behind which we hide imperfections, and asking families who visit to invest themselves in rebuilding our space, is what I observe creates the cohesion and connection that we speak about in placemaking, village/city building. When this relationship is extended to caring for other living things like plants and animals things really get interesting.
In the coming month we will continue to build towards this idea of a connected, healthy village, and I will bring in the voices of other facilitators of this work, to share alternate perspectives of what we are building towards.
These villages depicted are the first step in a winter of village building, where we look to what kids have to teach us, and will celebrate this work during family day in February 2017. On that day, what we have learned through many weekends of setting out provocative materials and watching the jazz emerge from expert miniature hands will have it’s moment in the winter sun, and we will see if the idealized village in my imagination is alive in the sculptures we make with kids.
SYMBOLS OF CHANGE;
A collaborative process where school children in Rankin Inlet are encouraged to ‘draw out’ their vision of what symbols can be used to illustrate change. these drawings were then brought into the studio and painted with hand made gauche with a mind to putting painted emphasis on only those details in the drawings that the children elaborated. these works were supplimented by a documentary film (with the questions and process guided by the kids participating) and exhibited in the local school, a small gallery near Stroud in the UK and at the University of Toronto.http://www.foolishnature.org/homely/cultural/world%20turns/WORLDturns.html
WORKSHOP PROPOSAL FOR INTERESTED STUDENTS. Feb. 2009.
Background: I am an artist working in Toronto for a national charity called Evergreen, and have an exhibition organized in south-western England for mid-April of this year. I could easily sit down and paint a number of paintings on the subject which interests me, namely, the evolution of environmental/social change in Rankin Inlet. I thought it would be more interesting, and valuable, to host a series of workshops which teach through experiential education by engaging students in creating their own symbols of change. These symbols will then be drawn onto large paper, which I will then turn into a large series of paintings. The resulting work will travel with me to England where these symbols will exhibited. Half of the proceeds from the sale of this work, in England, will go to the school to buy art supplies, and this will be emphasized in the exhibition.
Workshop Content: speaking about symbols and their function in our everyday life, and allowing students time to brain-storm about the kinds of symbols they are surrounded by. This leads into the discussion of change, and writing out what kinds of change they are surrounded by. How do they think things have changed? Are changes good? Finally we begin the process of finding the symbol, the one most important detail, a detail which encapsulates all that is the story, the process of change. These is the symbols we find in groups of ten, and illustrate individually on paper and with materials that I provide. Guidance and some artistic guidelines will help to provoke creative work which will be effective, both in the sense of being a valuable learning experience through dialogue about change, but also will give some insight into the community and the lives of people who live here.
Overall Goals: I will leave Rankin Inlet, in two month’s time, with a body of work for this exhibition, as well as a short documentary film about the process. Through making this work as an artist-in-residence within the school, I will be able to provide means of creative expression for interested students which will then travel and give them a chance to have an international audience hear their unique voices. This project will both allow the students the chance to to tell their story to a large audience, and give the audience the opportunity to support the community whose work they are viewing, and contribute in a holistic way to the development of the arts in Rankin Inlet. This is the difference in intent between commercial and community art, and I strive to become a more successful community artist. Success in this sense is measured by the integration of the project within the community, and the mutual benefit found in the process.
Additional Ideas: There is a possibility, as an introduction to this workshop process to host a couple of events, short talks, film screenings, within the school. I could give a short talk on the nature of environmental change, and the usefulness of symbols to educate people about our environment. It would be valuable to also find a member of the community who could mirror this talk by speaking about the evolution of culture in Rankin Inlet. Finally, we could exhibit the work here for a short time, before it travelled to England in the end of March, giving the students who participated a chance to see how I have painted their drawings of change, while opening up the work to the public. This event could be a one night show sometime in mid-March, celebrating the achievement of the students.
Specifics: We would need thirty interested students (especially those interested specifically in the arts) to participate in two half day workshops in groups of ten. In four hours we would cover background, brainstorming, discussion of symbols and, for the last two hours, drawing our symbols of change. In between the groups would be assigned some light, creative, design based homework, before finishing in the second four hour session at a later date. Each student will have two large sheets of paper (approx. 20”-30”) provided by me on which to explore these symbols with pencil and charcoal. We will be using erasers extensively as a way of changing their symbols, and as a practical joke about making changes. These drawings will then be taken back to my studio and painted. There is an opportunity to facilitate up to three dedicated students to assist as apprentices in the project in helping with documentation, paintmaking (since they will be painted in home-made watercolor), and some of the painting process.
draw a picture of your own skull…
more than my faith in my own ability to mentor or tutor is my faith that creating opportunities to draw natural artifacts have lessons embedded deeply in their forms. they also draw us into shared learning that leads down unexpected paths.
last week we took some invasive trees and spelt words we would then draw. each branch brought with it lessons which sink in through drawing the irregularities and patterns.
this week we brought out the skulls, and even though we were in a strange office environment, these solid tracks of living animals have stories to tell that i do not have words for. this also allows discussions of how to articulate what we see, and how we all interpret how we see and draw differently to have equal weight with thoughts and conversations about where these bones came from, how old they are, and how the animals lived and died.
the objects, and other living forms, become the primary activity for environmental arts mentoring, as they teach us about ecology and representing it.