Leaves, 1983, pencil and coloured pencil
She disapproved of the prolongation of the art-education grade-school approach—playing around with materials, “expressing” oneself, being “creative,” feeling good, and not having to face any real challenges or the possibility of failing at something or doing it badly.
I think that she valued drawing as highly as she did because there, after a certain point, it wasn’t possible to fake or to delude oneself that one was doing just as well as everyone else. For her, drawing—trying to define and record significance in the visible world around one—was at the centre of the education of the would-be artist.
She believed passionately in the importance for students, whether or not intent on becoming artists themselves, of a good grounding in art history—a humane educating of eye and mind, an awakening of the soul, if I may use that old fashioned term, to major cultural and formal possibilities; a liberation from the tyranny of the contemporary, not an immurement in it. I don’t recall her ever using the term Zeitgeist, despite her time in Germany. I don’t think she believed in it. The kinship of artists extended for her across the centuries.
She was pleased when I brought to her attention Herbert Marcuse on the continuing revolutionary power of beauty, “romantic” iconography, and “the great Surrealist art and literature of the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties.”
It remained a source of keen regret for her—for both of us—that the effort to establish an Art History department at Dalhousie—an effort continuing for ten years and involving several Dalhousie committees—should have come to nothing. It meant, among other things, that generation after generation of Dalhousie students, among them the future power elite of the province, went on to their various careers without the most elementary informed awakening of the visual imagination.
I have in front of me a one-page memo from 1964 or ’65 called “Suggestions for First Year Curriculum” that she wrote when she was teaching drawing to architecture students at T.U.N.S. (Technical University of Nova Scotia). In it she says that
For the beginning student the important things is to be able to work singlemindedly on the one task of learning to observe the world and then interpret it into visual elements. It doesn’t matter if he is looking at a flower, a house, or a figure (clothed or nude). What he learns from one is directly applicable to his understanding of the others.
But also, she said,
I would like to see a course added to the program which would be purely academic. This course would be an introduction to and appreciation of art and should place its greatest emphasis on making the students verbally communicative about art.
It would, she said, have as its aim the critical analysis of “visual (formal and expressive) elements,” and the entailed ability to use technical terms like “linear,” “closed form,” “decorative,” and so on “with a fair degree of assurance” that they were being used correctly.
Such a course “would force the student to use the library, to read, to look and pictures critically and hopefully to think and question.... The student should be asked to write a number of papers.”
In 1972 she sent a fascinating letter to Barry Lord, who at that time was editing Canadian Art or whatever it was called then and directing an art museum in Moncton or St. John.
It is evidently a reply to one from him, perhaps the kind that editors and/or museum persons send out when they’re conducting a symposium on some topic.
It had arrived, she said, “just when I have been doing a great deal of thinking about art education,” and it appears to have been about increasing the amount of “perception-stimulation” in the lives of school kids when they come to museums.
She has concluded, she says,
that we don’t need any more sources of ‘perception-stimulation’ (your words) in our lives.... People’s (children are people) perceptions are so over-stimulated and their (mine too) response mechanisms so over-taxed that sensory experience has deteriorated into sensation. Any experience of reality derived from sensationalism is shallow, illusory and in the long run psychologically destructive. This is not news, but it seems to have had some very seriously consequences that I would expect to worry a museum educator.
For example? Well,
An obvious example is ‘Conceptualism’. In their effort to avoid visual sensationalism and get at an intellectual or philosophical construct (idea) the conceptualists have impoverished the object beyond all hope of being esthetically valuable, or in some instances completely rejected it. I sympathise with the effort [emphasis mine] but I can’t help feeling that they have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
She goes on:
Secondly, the abundance of available sensations in our lives comes disguised as experience. This is emotionally cruel because they are not really experiences and it doesn’t take very long for people to start feeling cheated, disillusioned and bored. That is why we have the ‘drop-out,’ divorced from culture on the grounds of emotional cruelty.
I think the one thing that excites and stimulates the mind and energy of an individual (especially the young one) is his own private quest for real experience and measurable objective accomplishment. This is my explanation of the commune phenomenon with its ‘homesteading’ hardships, and the new energy and drive in the crafts. These are activities demanding perseverance, patience and skill and result in the production of objective evidence of these qualities.
How does this bear on children’s museum classes, evidently mentioned in Barry’s letter?
What I would like to see happen is something I call ‘perception-concentration.’ Stimulation is something that happens to us from the outside and we remain passive or only involved as a manipulated object. As such it is at best boring and at worst insulting. Concentration, on the other hand, is something we have to do—it is an activity by which we manipulate our minds in order to construct something—an idea or an object.
Looking at art is like that. It is an activity by which we construct an art object through the effort of concentrating on it. Without our looking and concentration, our really seeing, the painting or sculpture is nothing. It doesn’t exist. Recreating the object in this way is demanding work, and as such it has specific objective rewards.
So what I would like to see children do before they look at art is to have a mind-clearing experience....
It seems to me entirely cock-eyed to stimulate a child’s mind with extraneous sensations and then ask him to go into the gallery and be excited by what are probably less immediate, more complex and contemplative art experiences. It confuses the child and he becomes bored and it degrades the objects in the gallery.
She suggests a dozen possible exercises, all of them entailing, as she says, simply an empty room and a good teacher. The first one is the most fully spelled out.
The children are brought to a completely empty room (as near to a square box as possible) and asked to sit cross-legged in a circle or semi-circle on the floor.
After the initial excitement wears off they should be quiet while the teacher explains that for a little while they aren’t going to see anything exciting because all the exciting things are in the gallery where they will go soon.
But first it is necessary to forget the happenings of the day and think about something very very simple. This will help to clear out their minds to make room for the new ideas they will find in the gallery.
Then one object will be brought to their attention and made the center of their concentration and thoughts for the remainder of the session.
For example, the door knob. Leading questions should be asked about it to start them off.
What is it made of? What color is it? What shape is it? What does it do? Why is it there? What if it suddenly disappeared? Who made it? Where did it come from? What does it feel like to touch it? Is it old? Is it new? Does it smell? Is it noisy? Is it cold? Warm? Hard? Soft?
The children should be encouraged to think and ask their own questions, to free-associate and imagine everything possible about the door knob.
The whole atmosphere should be one of calm and without concern for time. The various objects chosen could be preselected to relate to specific objects in the gallery.
Among the things that might be focussed on in other sessions:
On a sunny day the light patterns in the room—followed by looking at abstract pictures, interiors with windows, impressionist sculpture....
A piece of fruit, a vase, a spoon, a flower, any still-life object as long as it was familiar and simple— followed by looking at still-life paintings, ceramics, crafts.
A colored balloon hanging from the ceiling—followed by abstractions using the same color, volumetric sculpture, art work using rubber or other stretchy material....
Darken the room and light a candle —followed by paintings with halos, fire or very localised light sources (Rembrandt)....
These are just a few of the possibilities, she says. She adds:
This kind of little preparation before going into the gallery to look at the objects would in no way take the place of the art class where the children make their own things, but I think it might also be interesting to use it before they have that kind of art experience too.
I have split up some of her paragraphs in the interests of readability.
What kind of reply did she receive? I’ve no idea. Did she ever try putting any of this into practice? I don’t think so.
Do some of these activities go on nowadays? Again, I’ve no idea, and my concern here is simply with how her mind was working back then. Had she been influenced by Carol Lind Geary’s intelligent interest in Zen art during their friendship in the Fifties and Sixties? I don’t know enough to attempt an answer.