This week my studio-mate Angelina and I led a painting workshop for Portland’s homeless street kids. We didn’t know what to expect but we were aware that this at-risk young adult population has bigger things on their mind than the color wheel or negative space or perspective. Knowing that the night brings cold, wet and potential danger their daytime activities are instead colored by thoughts of survival and broken dreams. We were also aware that many of the youth would be high. On this Tuesday it was almost everyone.
I was struck by their politeness. I’ve taught this age group before– the highest socio-economic population in the state– and none of those kids were as considerate and respectful and polite as these young people. I wondered if they had to gently shepherd other’s feelings just to get by. I did not see anger or rudeness.
The p:ear arts mentor program provides shelter and food from 8:30 AM until 2:00 in the afternoon. They also have a room with a few instruments where music can be made freely and there are many art projects in progress and a plethora of materials available for use. A gallery borders the activity room where professional artwork is in view next to the youth work. They can go and sit in quiet just to look. The staff spends most of their time in the office staring at a computer trying to keep funding and scheduling, etc. rolling. All except for Will, who was recently hired to coordinate the arts program. He was inspired and excited by our visit and granted our every wish. Volunteers manned the kitchen shoveling out food like they were keeping the engines of the Titanic burning. Hot, homemade apple crisp was one of our rewards.
The staff was very enthusiastic to have us teaching and thought our idea would be a winner. Our exercise had to do with letting go, playing–loosely painting with long-handled brushes (4 feet) made up of several materials like foam, bristle, chicken feathers, etc. on large sheets of good paper rolled out onto the floor. Music was supplied so a sense of the dance might emerge and engage. Visual elements both in the form of plants and dried flowers and photos of nature were tacked around the working space. Playing and imagination were encouraged with thoughts of nature as a place of solace. Energy and connection in mark-making was lauded.
Phase two of the exercise was to use a mat to frame pleasing compositions within the large, colorful piece. Then they were cut out for further refinement with paint and other media.
One person had interest. Only one of the youth had the focus and impetus to even want to pick up a four foot long brush and dance around a large sheet of paper. (The staff and volunteers were dying to try.)
This hit me hard. Although the p:ear folks said that just having that kind of creative energy in the room was their goal I felt as if we failed. We instructed staff and volunteers who thought the exercise was a gas, but it didn’t seem to touch the youth. I thought we had designed our project well with room for random creative bursts—no skill set required— and then an opportunity to teach some basics in the small scale work with lots of room for individualism.
Later it occurred to me that much of art-making for me is about exploration. The very word implies time and the unknown. Having the time to discover and uncover and be led down unexpected paths, taking risks and having the opportunity to overcome obstacles is what is most exciting to me about painting. These kids do not need any more risks or unexpected paths. And although they have plenty of time, they also have plenty of obstacles. Our next workshop in a few weeks will focus more on more prescribed tasks with assured outcomes.
In my own work and what I want to present to the class is the opposite. I want to practice trusting the risk. It isn’t automatic. As much as I believe that exploring failure is an opportunity for the unexpected to rise up and become something new, it takes discipline and time and a willingness to let go of expectations. These are both necessities and luxuries in our work. It’s a problem-solving adventure in which overcoming obstacles is, lucky for most of us, about discovery and not about survival.