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When is it my turn?

When does Room 5 get to paint? When does she get to paint? Can I paint? Can we be after Laura? Can I be after Stefanie? Please, can I be after James? Am I after Tony? Why does Noah get to paint before me? Can I paint after they leave? Can I? Please, please?

Enhanced by appropriate gestures of supplication, these pleas were just a tiny segment of what was recently experienced by artist in residence Philip Matzigkeit at San Diego's Foster Elementary School. It was recess, and Matzigkeit was working on a lively mural on which roamed a jungleful of magical beasts, plants and geological forms. He quickly attracted a crowd of students who seemed possessed only by the desire to paint. The artist hesitated, since the children were wearing regular school clothes instead of the old clothes he always recommends in advance arrangements with classes. One inventive girl suggested that if she spilled paint on her clothes she could go home with a box on her head, thus disguising herself and averting her mother's anger. Overwhelmed by such eagerness and logic, Matzigkeit gave in, and many muralists continued where there had first been only one.

Success, Logic and Praise

What is the source of all this enthusiasm? Matzigkeit believes that as human beings, our task is to find the real essence of things. He creates a series of situations in which failure is not possible, and process becomes as important as product--or maybe even more important.

Always accompanied by music (a diverse selection including African dance, Tibetan gongs, Bach, Ravel's Bolero, and the Bulgarian Women's choir), Matzigkeit seeks to reduce students' fear through laughter and praise. He begins by asking students to scribble all over the paper with their eyes closed. There is no way that a scribble can be wrong, since standards for scribbles are, for the most part, unknown.

The next task is for them to look at an object (a feather, for example) for two to three minutes, then put the object away and draw it without looking at it. Next, students are asked to hold the feather to one side, examine it, and draw it without looking at their drawing. As the assignments progress, they continue to be engaging and peculiar enough to distract the students from responding with alarm and hesitation. The projects may seem impossible, but at least they seem impossible for everyone.

Students then receive instructions to close their eyes and draw a familiar object or concept, while Matzigkeit offers suggestions of what might be associated with such an object or concept (stars, boughs, presents, joy, laughter). Next they draw a fairly complex object from life (a flower or tennis shoe) with the paper behind their backs. Matzigkeit also uses live models: He has a student dress as a mythological character, or play a musical instrument while the rest of the students draw. First they look at both model and paper, then just at the model. Kindergartners hold flowers while they draw them; older students draw upside-down plants and animals from upside-down photographs.

At any step in the process of drawing with closed eyes, there are students who attempt to look at what they are doing. Sometimes Matzigkeit receives delayed confessions from those who have succumbed to temptation. He makes no judgments on their behavior; instead, he asks them what part of them made them want to peek or what they were afraid of. His purpose in this sort of questioning is to encourage children to observe and understand their own behavior instead of trying only to achieve a successful outcome.

Influential Wisdom

Matzigkeit counts teachers as being the "greatest heroes on the planet," and is generous in praise of those who have taught him. He studied for a year with teacher Carole Austen, whose wisdom and acceptance have had a profound influence on his life. He credits her theory of brain integration through spontaneous response drawing with being the basis of much of his personal work, as well as his interaction with children.

Austen's philosophy embraces the notion that many of the world's neuroses, discipline problems and common ailments stem from a lack of understanding about how our brains work. In her drawing workshops for adults, Austen created a setting that experientially revealed the absurdity of using fear-provoking techniques in activities that require creativity and spontaneity. She told these students, "My name is Miss Austen, and this is Drawing 101. By now you should be familiar with perspective, chiaroscuro and foreshortening. We are going to draw a picture of a hand and it has to be perfect. Those who do well will get their pictures hung on the wall." While they were drawing, she continued in this vein, reminding them of the time, giving them negative criticism, and in general producing a testing type of situation complete with unreasonable expectations.

Matzigkeit remembers that such messages created sensations of tension, fear, competitiveness, embarrassment and performance anxiety--a basic shutting-down of the machinery. Participants reported that they perceived themselves as failures, felt as though they were going to cry, and had speeded-up heartbeats and sweaty palms. Many of these adults reported memories of similar experiences in first or second grade, when they first "realized" that they couldn't draw, and for some participants these sad events had taken place over half a century before! In the next part of the seminar, Austen created a context that allowed the release of creativity. Using the closed-eyes/ relaxed-effort techniques from which Matzigkeit adapted his strategies, she was able to see her students' work change in a matter of two days, from awkward stick figures to fluid contour drawings, as they abandoned their previous negative feelings about themselves.

Joy in Art

Matzigkeit characterizes this process from the artist's point of view as using confirmation and affirmation of the playful, joyful part of the children he encounters. He is convinced that cultures are basically set up so that a lot of miscommunication is likely, given the vast differences in people's orientations to the world. For him, art (including music and dance) is a way to say things that can't be said through verbal language, serving as a bridge between people. In his present work with the Young at Art program in the San Diego City Schools, he and the students make art together. Students can observe how an artist creates, while being involved in the same activity themselves.

Darcy Abrahams is Lead Artist, Young at Art Program, San Diego Unified School District, San Diego, California.
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Title Annotation:includes related material; motivating children in art projects
Author:Abrahams, Darcy
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Reflections of a first-year art teacher.
Next Article:Wholly cow!!!

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