The transformative power of art by Denise O’Brien

As I collapsed onto to my couch the other evening, my hair dishevelled, flour all over my clothes and paper strewn across the room, I knew something out of the ordinary was afoot in my life.  This was not my usual end of day demenour.

I had just spent the day walking around Arts and Crafts shops buying paper and metal spiral decorative ‘thingees’ for something I am ‘making’ and getting ideas for the cover of my ‘Book’.  I was now entering a hitherto unmapped territory of acrylic paints, pastels, crepe paper and other such exotic and unrecognizable items.  I had dashed to print out photographs I needed for “a project” I’m working on, had a driving lesson, shopped for ingredients for Lasagne and given an Italian cookery class to two 10 year old boys, all before heading into my 6.00 Art class.  So you see the dishevelled hair, flour and papers everywhere had a certain raison d’etre, as the French say.

Now there are many active, productive people out there for whom this sort of day may be normal.  Within a working week I myself would be as busy and active as the next person, but you see I am not working at the moment, by profession I am a teacher.  So why the need or reason for all this running around?

Art has always played a very important part of my life though I wouldn’t have always realised that fact.  I suppose it was so important to me that I didn’t notice it being there in the same way you don’t notice air when you are breathing.

I loved it in Primary school, painting and craft work.  I loved the ‘nature table’, the smell of crayons and the sound of scissors they always sent a shiver of anticipation down my spine.  I don’t exactly know when all that stopped except that all of a sudden or perhaps slowly, I can’t really say, there was a gap in my life.  Rather than being a producer and full participant in the act of creating I was relegated to or relegated myself to the role of observer and passive participant in the process.  I was no longer part of…. I would look longingly in from the outside like a lonely person who looks in through lighted windows of other peoples homes.

Maybe it was the school system, which treated art as a subject rather than an experience or adult reactions to my efforts that didn’t allow me the time or space to continue my painting and creating.  The fact is that for the past 25 years I steeped myself in art passively and obliviously (living in Italy..Tuscany to be precise) while ignoring it consciously.  That is up until last week that is or rather the build up to last week, which was this summer when I innocently went to the Burren to do an Art course with my friend the artist Jole Bortoli, director of Art to Heart.

Here for the first time in years I felt allowed to cut, paint, draw, colour in.  We even had a nature table!! (creative altar). What freedom and joy!; I felt safe to create.  This course on teaching children through art released the repressed child artist in me and the void or gap I felt suddenly filled!

Since then my life has been a constant hum of ideas and activities.  A huge transformation has taken place.  Dance, music, cookery along with painting and planting have burst forth into my everyday life.  Things that before I would have looked upon as mundane and run of the mill now have taken on a much deeper, real meaning and presence.  All of a sudden my priorities shifted, buying a frame for my latest painting has become as essential as remembering to pay a bill.

It is as if I have come home to my native land after being away since childhood and hearing my own language spoken; familiar, comforting, deeply emotional and connected right to the core of my being.  It is a coming home to the self.  Painting myself in a self portrait, happy, pretty and bright was like giving myself a gift of those feelings.  Painting a picture inspired by and for my God-daughter I felt like I was giving her a part of herself by letting her know how she makes me feel, this is what her spirit/ soul looks like to me.

On reflection I realise that I should not be so surprised at the effect a “healthy” exposure to art has had on me.  I sense there is a huge connection between how we experience the Universe and ourselves and artistic expression.  For is not the aim of life, the experience of life, to reproduce and to leave our mark?  Do we not all have the instinctual desire to take part in the activity going on around us in nature.  Like the bees making honey, the spiders making webs, we too want to make an impact on the world?  Children know all of this.  They are privy to the sounds of the universe and the secret messages it holds.  They own their space in the general activity going on around them.

In our school system we teach children to read and write but it seems we do not teach them how to create, to express feelings and their inner selves.  We may be stuffing feelings down, we often   stifle  creativity.  Education is all very structured and disciplined and certain things are prioritised such as sitting still, silence, passively receiving knowledge.  We disconnect from the creative process treating children as empty vessels to be filled rather than whole beings, privy to the secrets of the Universe.

Certain behaviours of educators and adults can damage and communicate non acceptability to childrens’ ideas.  In doing this we may do damage not only to the childrens’ art skills but actually to their development as complete human beings.  We need to emotionally educate our children not impoverish them.  Art is treated as a luxury not a necessity. After my own recent personal experience I firmly believe that art should not be a subject at school but a means through which we teach and learn from and about each other. Et viva la révolution!