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On skulls, coffins and bloodied wrists.

A huge, heavily, black outlined forearm extends across the oversized manila drawing paper. On the far right side a tattooed yellow heart, split in half by a zigzag crack, the sign of its being broken, covers apparently once bulging, now sunken piceps. Directly beneath that unusual adornment lies a second tattoo: a green serpent whose scaly body twists into angular letters spelling out the word SORRY. Several jagged lines traverse the exposed wrist flanking the one open cut from which large, bright red drops of blood drip into a puddle lying under the hand at the bottom of the page. In the upper left-hand corner is a relatively small pencil sketch of a young man rowing a boat in what is clearly a much larger and perhaps overwhelming ocean.

When art teachers receive drawings such as the one described above, they understandably may feel great concern and even urgency. How can they not? Teachers, perhaps more than others, are aware of the enormous pressures and perils confronting today's children, especially adolescents (in these times, anyone eleven years old and older). They know that our children are being put at increasing risk for alienation, despair and suicide. But what should be done when you receive a disturbing piece of artwork? From my experience as a consultant to schools, this is not an uncommon predicament for the art instructor.

Some Guidelines

1. Take no hasty action! Though such a drawing may be a cry for help and may reflect underlying torment that must be attended to, remember it is only a drawing. Artistic expressions, like thoughts and feelings, are not the same as deeds. A suicidal thought or sculpture is no more a real suicide than is a momentary, angered wishing for someone's harm or death is a reportable and condemnable crime or homicide.

2. Don't confront or question the student immediately. The very nature of art that invites creativity, embraces spontaneity and taps the inner, more primitive aspects of human nature, is inevitably going to bring to the visible surface the rougher and (unfortunately often thought to be) uglier aspects of life--dark and cold loneliness, unbridled aggression, venomous hate (including that held for oneself), frightening sexual confusion, and all of the other stuff that has fueled the most wondrous productions of both great and not-so-talented artists.

Such a drawing may not indicate a suicide about to happen or any real emotional danger, but may reflect that the student feels safe enough with you to confess some of the turmoil with which a majority of teenagers are familiar. If you and your class are serving that psychological function, the last thing you want to do is expose that cover and take away that refuge, which an overzealous reaction can easily and irreparably do.

3. Take note, observe. Does the young artist's demeanor match the drawing? Does the student seem isolated or distraught? Is the student watching for your reaction with sadistic pleasure, appear to be in a genuinely good or brightened mood? (Needless to say, sharing such heavy feelings can considerably lighten one's load.) How does the drawing jibe with the student's previous work? Is it something quite out of character, or is it a more upsetting, though coherent progression of his or her work to date?

4. Beware of becoming too much of a student's confidant. If the student should wish to tell you about suicidal or other worrisome thoughts, you cannot promise not to tell others, particularly a parent. To do so is clinically quite dangerous, and you would be putting yourself on a very thin and high legal tightrope should anything go wrong.

5. Seek consultation. Talk the situation over with someone--another teacher, administrator or counselor--whose judgment you trust, and who can be discreet and restrain from pursuing premature and ill-considered action. Use this shoulder and ear to allow yourself to recognize how upset and frigthened the drawing may have made you feel. Some of us are prone to take unnecessary and exaggerated steps with others because we are scared or worried about getting into trouble ourselves, or because our own anxiety about our student is not fully understood.

6. Having carefully thought about the matter and having sought a valued opinion, take action if you have decided that the situation warrants it. At this point, you will need to talk with a parent who will make decisions about therapy and so forth. Before doing so, calmly let the student know of your concern and of your need to inform a parent. There is no need to rush through your meeting with the child. Talk slowly, explaining your reluctance to breach confidentiality and expose your student's artwork. Give the student plenty of time and opportunity to discuss the feelings in the drawing, and his or her reaction to your intrusion and intervention. The student may be thankful or relieved that you noticed and are doing something, but at the same time, the student might need to express any anger or resentment, including a possible vow never again to trust or show you any artwork.

Slowly and Carefully

For the purpose of this article, I have focused on a rather extreme drawing. I realize that teachers are faced by less clear-cut situations and drawings which, though not depicting acts of suicide, may involve overly vivid themes of death and destruction. My suggestion concerning these more common, on-the-fence drawings is no different; we need to go slowly. A careful eye along the way can prevent your being caught off-guard by a more striking picture months along in the school year. As art teachers understand more than most, artwork--like any other form of expression and communication--is precious and should be interpreted carefully and with utmost respect. To jump the gun on less obviously disturbed material will likely backfire and result in the child's abandoning one valuable--and perhaps the only--channel the student has for sharing feelings with another person.
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Title Annotation:disturbing artwork by children
Author:Bromfield, Richard
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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