Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
Momentum Magazine, 1975
© Karen Laub-Novak
That early imperative to learn words: to explain, analyze, categorize; to learn words at the expense of imagination. Without that imperative, the young child is moved by inspiration. Given the opportunity, the child expresses knowledge and emotion without words. The child records the emotions of her life with private images and symbols. The child delights in things for their own sake — delights in line, color, shading, not for what she can make with them, but simply as line and color.
Later, as he or she begins to use images, the meaning is still personal and private. The sky is red; the tree is purple; the dot in the corner is his sister; and his mother is ten times taller than the tree. Each line, color or image is real and immediate to him. Then, as the child grows older, verbal values begin to dominate her world. The fantasy images of her past experiences retreat into the unconscious. They only rarely become conscious, in her dreams. Material essential to her creative and religious spirit is neglected in the schools.
In school, the emphasis on teaching the child cognitive skills is nearly total. Intelligence is very narrowly defined. Kenneth Keniston notes: “Although children are whole people — full of fantasies, imagination, artistic capacities, physical grace, social inclination, cooperation, initiative, industry, love and joy — the overt and above all, the covert structure of our system of preschooling and schooling largely ignores these other human potentials in order to concentrate on cultivating a narrow form of intellect.”1
The arts in the school curriculum have always been distant cousins to the important subjects. In most schools, music and crafts are taught once or twice a week. These classes are treated as education for “leisure,” but not for the real world of intelligence and practice.
I want to propose a different way of thinking about art in the curriculum. Artistic perception is the symbolic base of all practical thinking. We use it not only in the school but also in the family. What I am proposing, for lack of a better word, is an aesthetic view of life. One that begins at birth, with affection, care and attention.
The family first acknowledges that there are other habits of intelligence of equal importance to verbal and conceptual habits. These habits of nonverbal reasoning and intelligence demand equal development and training. In school, they need to be incorporated into every subject, not only reserved to a special class. At home, they need to be nourished every day.
Aesthetic perception is a normal inheritance of every healthy infant. But this perception does not grow “naturally”. Inattention, physical or spiritual neglect, will make it wither.
Let me go back a little. Childbirth itself is an aesthetic discipline. “Natural” childbirth is a misnomer. “Prepared” childbirth is more accurate. We train the body, come to understand it, notice its reflexes, practice special kinds of breathing. At each moment we understand what is happening within us better than the doctor. We learn how to work with the pain and diminish it, rather than panic and increase it. This process is more than will power. It is not an individual solitary act. There is need for a “coach” — ideally one’s husband, who will be present the entire time, to keep track of the intervals of contractions, create an order that keeps us calm, give reassurance, comfort and discipline. The stop watch clicks, a contraction begins. But he knows the minutes and instructs easily. The birth itself seems spontaneous, but until that moment, everything has been hard, sweaty work, requiring instantaneous decisions about breathing, relaxing, sensing. One feels exhilarated, conscious, aware — in control of spirit and body. An individual and communal act. An act that requires discipline, habit consciousness and understanding of one’s body, hard work, training, and community. What does this mean? Not merely being “rational,” but learning how to perceive. Perception is much more demanding than reason. Most things in life are like that. Demand more than concepts. Teaching is like that. Each child to be taught is different. One must learn to notice the differences one by one in all their subtlety. Children have perception, until it is taught out of them.
Art teaches us to perceive accurately; to see the structure visually, emotionally; to select the important from the unimportant; to make quick, nonverbalized decisions; to judge; to order; to act. And finally, as with so many of our acts and decisions, we put it all together, transcend the hours of conscious learning, and act unconsciously. Without the “rational concepts.”
I want to write first of children; give examples of their ways of perceiving. Then, some examples of how to teach perception and how to teach it.
I became concerned with perception through my work in art through teaching, but mostly through my own children. I’ve seen qualities in them and in their friends I would like to recover myself. The qualities I’m speaking of are not the same as artistic talent or intellectual creativity. I’m not speaking of special gifts but of one side of the ordinary intelligence everyone has.
Education doesn’t begin in school. Parents teach by way of touch, presence, sight, sound, emotion, appreciation, encouragement. The very young, healthy child has a heightened perception. If the child is neglected or abused in body and spirit this perception diminishes. A total insistence on the values of rational conceptual, verbal skills will also diminish this perception, this creative skill.
The young child is not innocent. His perceptions are complex and knowing, even without words. He or she is aware of our frustration, our anger — even when we cover it with a smile. He or she senses the real emotions behind our attempts to be reasonable. They feel our anger, though we think we are disguising it. Children are hurt and deprived too often by our own self-deception. By our dissembling we teach them a distrust of their own perceptions. They receive a double message — one from our emotions and another from our words. They learn to betray their correct intuitions. The infant’s emotions, will, and senses are affected by everything around him. As adults, we have learned to filter out many of the sensations around us. Infants haven’t. Each perception is intense. Their lives in simple things are very complex. They need emotional and physical order.
What they give to us, what they ask from us, is fresh perception. A clear eye. We need to act toward them the way an artist does toward her work. Each color and line changes relationships on the canvas. We can respond to each new deed or event. We can listen, reevaluate. Look to the child, ourselves, our community, and create a new order — a new form — a new perception.
I’ve spent some time watching, learning from my own children. Each of our three children has a special style — in person, in action, in art. One is thoughtful, slow, precise, careful — a dreamer. Her fantasy, her art, seems precious, fragile. A stoic, she needs to be drawn out, to be encouraged to show her anger. Yet in her interior life she is stronger, more flexible than she seems. Another child is direct, bold, insistent. Large sweeps of the brush — an abstract expressionist. He says where he is, tells all his hurts. He is outwardly expressive and yet his more vulnerable and sensitive than his actions show. The third is a wiry combination of the other two. Affectionate and stubborn. Cuddly and strong. Direct and confident. At three, most serious about her “reading” and drawing. Since she started nursery school, her teacher is the center of her existence. After she started school, she developed an exaggerated habit of talking from the side of her mouth. Who talks like that? Her friends? “My teacher.” We hadn’t noticed — but she had. She loved her teacher and imitated something special. I asked her to ‘talk like her friend John.” She spent the next 10 minutes showing me all the speech habits of her friends. In the end, I asked her to just talk like herself. She did.
The child perceives multiple uses for everything. Everything she touches, sees, hears suggests associations.
Jana, when two, looked at a cupcake and cried: “I scared.” “Why?” “It’s a scary monster.” I refocused my eyes on the cupcake. She was right. The chips of chocolate seemed to forma menacing face.
All three children learned their ABC’s as designs. I cut out large alphabet letters in masonite (about a foot tall). From early months they “played” with the pieces. They carried them around, made houses and roads with them. They learned their shape and feel and size. Then they noticed they were like the shapes in books. They would trace the shapes on large, white sheets of rolled butcher paper, making designs of various sorts. By the age of three, they were forming words. We haven’t hurried them in learning skills. They develop at their own pace, each with different strengths and weaknesses, slow in some skills, fast in others. Our youngest, now three, showed me the other day that she, too, can print her name — JANA. On questioning, I found she recognizes all the letters of the alphabet, but had kept her skills hidden. She made a road with letters on the floor of her room, then walked down it naming each one. And for many she would say K is for Kelly, my friend; N is for Novak. Now she is trying to spell and print the names of her nursery school friends. Letters are like a world in which she lives now, a forest in which she keeps making new discoveries.
Even the children’s printing was “artistic.” Words and letters moving across an unlined page in strange patterns. Large and small — like snakes weaving their way to some destination. Teachers wanted them to print neatly, in lines. They liked to print in designs all their own, covering all the white spots on the page. You had to study the design until you found the key, but then you read the words. Perception. I loved it. But the school’s imperative was to be neat. Lines in order. Yes — but as they’re ready for it. The muscle control of the oldest is not the same as his sister’s. Richard with his relaxed hand and his snakes has now stiffened up; he writes and prints poorly. Grabs his pencil too tightly, erases too much and, in general, is tight and messy about writing and printing.
A child’s emotions, will, senses, are keyed to everything around her. Her joy and satisfaction in making something is immense. A very small child gets such pleasure out of each new skill mastered. “Look at what I made.” Even before those words can be spoken, we can see the liveliness, the delight in their faces as they accomplish small deeds. Godlike. A creator. The child is ecstatic; it has come from her hand, her eyes, her experience, her mind — and in her delight she knows it. It is awesome to watch her satisfacton. To take time to be with the child and to discover with her all these small delights. Not to do for them, to draw, to make it for them or make an image they can imitate — what a tragic mistake. But to be with, be present, give community to each stage of these discoveries, to encourage, acknowledge; to suggest where to look for solutions, what direction to pursue, without forcing the way. To guide rather than to direct.
Tanya at four made some Halloween pumpkins out of construction paper. Faces with large eyes and funny teeth. Cutting a lopsided circle, cutting out eyes, nose and teeth, making strange masks for them in all sorts of colors — which she then pasted over their faces. They were “beautiful.” Unconsciously she was learning “small muscle control.” She later made torn and cut paper people with the insides first, then layer and layer of shapes (“skin”). The pieces were cut and partially pasted so you could lift up parts and see the insides. Another way to teach biology? Each time a child acts out an idea, makes something related to it, it is further impressed in her memory. What we act upon becomes part of us. Too much learning is rote learning and we wonder why it didn’t stay with us. We see the need for class trips to actually see what printing presses are like. Presence and action increase the impact on our memory. By working the presses, participating in the printing, the child learns more.
They have a wonderful salt water aquarium in our son’s class. They’re watching crabs eat, be born and be consumed by other fishes…but what about sitting at the tank and drawing pictures of some of those sea creatures, exercising other parts of our talents, awareness, memory, concentration? I see all too much the increasing disinterest in the arts as students go on in school. And with it a decreasing ability in the art of “perceiving.”
The three and eight-year-old are staring at my drafting table, watercolors and pencil in hand. Eight-year-old Tanya is making a giraffe. Jana is frustrated! “I can’t make a giraffe. Make one for me.” Tanya asks, “Should I make one for her?” I’m saying things like, “No, Tanya, each vision is important. Don’t make one for her.” Jana insists. “You make one for me, Mommy?” What to do? Two days ago she had discovered how to make a “monster bug.” I say, “Jana, make me a monster bug. A real scary one. One I can hang over my bed tonight and have scary dreams about.” She’s happy! “Yes, I do that. I will make a monster bug so scary it will come right off the paper and eat you up.” She’s content, absorbed in her work. Tanya continues with her giraffe. A while later, Jana comes over to where I am typing: “Wooooooo here comes the scary bug.” “Terrific,” I say. “Make me two scary bugs now.” She goes back to the table and starts another masterpiece. Later we go to the library. Jana, with some pleasure, finds a book with giraffes in it. She spends some time looking at the photo. Perhaps today she will try again. And if she succeeds, it will be a part of her. She will have done it. She will have developed skills of her memory, her eye, her hand. That joy is hers.
One problem in teaching art (or any subject) is that one can concentrate mainly on the media. One teaches the use of material, but not a method of perceiving the whole subject and how it is interdependent with other subjects. We too often give each student the same project others have and consciously or unconsciously import our own image of the way to do it. Rather than helping them in the art of perception, we place their imagination in channels, without letting them find their own channels. (Jana some day will draw a giraffe to her own satisfaction. It’s her problem.)
Another problem is going from one extreme to another. In reaction against robs discipline, some have held that “creativity” means complete subjectivity, whim, loss of order and discipline and, in a word, chaos. As usual, human life is fullest when these two extremes are transcended. There is a middle way above the two extremes. Not merely a compromise, a different way altogether. It consists of finding one’s own order, one’s own discipline. Insist on discipline and order. But recognize that order is already written in the human heart. Children love, need, and continually create order. Order is natural. It is interior. Finding the law within is not subjectivity; neither is it mere external order.
I came back sorely depressed after a school night of night of seeing what seemed to be hundreds of Eskimo drawings — all looking attractive, but approximately the same. You couldn't tell one child’s from another’s. Vainly I looked for what I knew my children’s work to be — but each piece was stylized in the same way. A modernized version of the old naturalism. For all the Eskimos to be almost alike is a disservice to each child’s rich abilities and imagination. Rather, one should say to the child, “No picture will be like another — in the same way we all look and are different.”
Each imagination is unique. How do we draw out the images, fantasy, style, of each child? Perhaps if a description or a short story of Eskimo life had been read. Learning and experiencing not only new media techniques, but also skills in perceiving, feeling, remembering, making analogies. How could we feel in penetrating cold and long dark days? What are the Eskimo images of family life? What are their ways of survival? Describe the encroachment of civilization — from dog sled to automobile. But with this message always clear: Each vision will be different. Each one of us can absorb, create, perfect the same skill, have the same story, use the same materials, and create something different — calling on our own special vision. As we read the story, we can train perception. Call attention to detail. Ask each child to search his own memory and imagination for analogous experiences. To search mind and emotions for metaphors, for images.
I find primary school workbooks distressing. They inhibit perceptions. Workbooks teach more than numbers, words, letters. Workbooks encourage imitation. They dull our perception. They equate coloring and tracing of stylized images with learning. (Learn the number “three” by coloring in three tops out of five; learn small muscle control by tracing and coloring neatly.) The imagination grows lazy. Two values are in conflict. The school (and I) want the child to learn the ABC’s, to count, to read, to learn control and skill in the muscles. But I also want to retain other values. Other ways of perceiving, using the imagination, responding. I would prefer that the child learns to count three tops by drawing, painting, sculpting his own three tops. Bring in a top from home. Have one on the teacher’s desk. Hold it. Observe it. See how they’re constructed, how they work. What do they look like in motion? Point out details in shape, in color. How different shapes and colors still spin. Then draw four more from imagination. Hold the original top again. Close eyes, and feel the top, then put it away. Now draw two more from what we remember about the ones we held, looked at, played with. In one set of simple exercises we’re training the child to observe, to perceive in more depth. We are saying we value their own unique style of drawing or painting; that we value their special imagination. And, finally, we’re developing skills in mastery, ways of observing and bring back those observations.
Why trace someone else’s image of a top? Why reinforce the very unusual habits taught by TV? Hours spent in passivity watching the flickering images of someone else’s choice. Someone else’s bland vision. For each age, we need to find new methods to reinforce action, perception visual and aesthetic skills.
I noticed when I first taught in college that students were preoccupied with line. For two weeks I asked the students to draw in their “natural” way. I wanted to see their way, their style.
We set up a still life — some pots, draperies, fruit. They would look at the still life then back to the paper, draw lines, and then fill in the shades of black and white. It was an inhibiting habit. We spent the rest of the year unlearning it. Several things happen when we draw first and fill in later. In looking at the object and committing it to the paper, our memory is poor. We think we know how a pot looks, how a nose is shaped. In fact, the line becomes a poor imitation of a faulty memory, a faulty perception. We have learned how not to see. How not to really pay attention. Our concentration is poor and easily diverted. The students were tense trying to get the picture to “look right.” There was a good deal of erasing and fiddling with the line. You could see messy little scratches on the paper. We started the third week with the instruction: “Use no line — only tone value.” Construct the work from the inside out. Those shades of white, grey, black are the structure of every object or the area around it. Don’t draw the shadows or cast shadows. It was not easy to give up the habit of outlining first. But it began to work. Fantastic pieces began to emerge. Each one unique. Yet the exercise itself was in one sense rather “authoritarian.” I gave the order. Each made a personal response.
We began (students and teacher alike) to notice details and shapes we had neglected before. Patterns, structure, compositions. In the subsequent exercise, each part of the language of drawing was emphasized. Shadow and cast shadow. Crosshatching, texture and contour line. Contour drawing emphasizes line, but without looking back to the paper. It heightens our perception of detail. Look closely. Draw as if the pencil were touching the fold of cloth, the wrinkle on the face. Each fold, each wrinkle is unique.
We did various individual exercises and then put them together. They were exercises in perception as well as in use of media. To draw this way was to paint, applying large areas of tone the way one applies large area of color, etching acid, clay. But the analogy goes further. How do we perceive ideas? How do we perceive words, images, symbols? How do we write poetry? How do we live daily?
Too soon children learn to “draw,” to outline, to stylize according to someone else’s vision. A very young child will paint. He will use broad areas of color and texture. To outline first is inhibiting to creative work.
In speaking to and reading the words of creative writers, scientists, theologians, artists. I find marked similarities in the way creative people proceed. To take an idea, an image, and force all the detail into a preconceived order is to make the work rigid. One would fail then to respond to interior contradictions, suggestions, new lines of thought, images, color and form. Each act, each decision on how to proceed must be perceived clearly — evaluated and reevaluated. Our perception needs to be open, flexible. Not set solely upon one solution, but able to perceive multiple solutions to the problem. Finally we transcend our conscious acts. Then a truly creative act emerges.
This kind of perception is part of and fundamental to all of us. It increases if acted upon. It decreases by inattention. Society values too narrow a range of what it is to be human. Aesthetic perception is a part of every person, every subject, every activity. This aesthetic perception calls upon our imagination, our memory, our skills of hand and eye, our ability to create metaphors and to “see” connections. There are methods for deepening perception.
Art, painting, writing, music, the creative sciences always have a connection with roots. The images and symbols built up in us over a lifetime are what make our work unique. No one else’s images are exactly like ours. When art is taught as imitation, as decoration, as an activity to fill up our leisure time or as an understanding of media only, it is no longer art in the fullest sense. Art involves the whole person, not just a fraction of our consciousness. Creation is an act: an action that calls upon all our awareness, all our talents, our concentration, our patience, our discipline. It is not a fraction of our life, but a whole way of life. It applies to our every activity, every choice, decision, perception. We too often live out our lives half alive; we may relearn to live our lives with accuracy, excellence, fidelity, intensity…intensity in the small, the ordinary. Intensity in creative knowing and acting.
We begin with each child at his or her roots. What strands of images and symbols speak best to her own heritage, family, place, history? Rural images and perceptions are different from urban. The sense of space, nature, sound, smell, even the way we “pace” ourselves, is different. We respond to problems differently. I remember so distinctly how few writers spoke to “my condition” until I discovered independently in college the Russian novelists. At that point, my education began. Their images of evil, brutality, interior suffering, sensuality, and their “mysticism” of the land. Their images of the continuing struggles among competing values. I discovered that there were other styles for intelligence, excellence, spirituality, than the ones I had been “taught.” Ones that had more connections with my rural, Catholic, Northern European relatives and neighbors. I’ve come to appreciate all varieties of styles since then…but my gut reactions are still with Kafka, Doestoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Bergman, T.S. Eliot, Camus, certain Asian and South American writers, and 16th century mystics and doctors of the Church — St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Strange groups for a cocktail party, but each in his or her way picking up a strain of the imaginative life, of the unconscious patterns of my own parents, grandparents, Church and community.
That is what art is all about. For each of us to discover those rich imaginative strands; to discover our own beginnings and develop our own unique perceptions.
There is no “perfect” way to raise a child, to teach a child. We continually fail and succeed. What the child receives from us as parent, as teacher, is a small vision of the way. Quiet reflection, responding, listening, accurate anger, being together in community. A sense of discovery, pursuit of work even when we don’t know the answers — is life. Passivity, flight and retreat diminish the individuality of each spirit.
Creative work demands a ritual of time, of serious work, of quiet hours. Order and discipline are not nasty words. They can release the best in us. We can’t live without order and discipline. The question is where to find order. Mere imitation is a disaster, in art, in teaching, and in child care. For each person, some traditions are fruitful, some not. The perception to sort out these exterior forms and bring them into connections with our own interior life, traditions, values, rhythms and talents is to live the artful life. It is easy no task.
We each must find our own way, individually. No general rules quite cover our particular unique case. We have to perceive each situation accurately. We have to “hit the mark.” Not too passive, not trying too hard. Not too aggressively, not too faintly. On the button. Hitting the mark is an act of aesthetic perception. It’s a skill of enormous practical benefit. The earlier it is learned, the better each later act of reinforcement makes it. To be in touch with one’s own imagination, instincts, and private vision while still in elementary school is really to get the elementary, the basic, the most important things — right.