Lifelong Learning

art, bottles, brain plasticity, Children, Creativity, flowers, Imagination, mystery, nature, Painting, renewal, vision

Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,

There are three classes of people:
Those who see.
Those who see when they are shown.
Those who do not see.

When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.

Family and House

Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.

Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”

I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”

It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.

Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.

I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.

Jasper Johns: Order and Disorder.

Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?

The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”

Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.

Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook,
“Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”

We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.

Leonardo was a lifetime learner.

We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.

Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.

The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.

Very nice Beauty Berries

I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.

Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.

Sunlight on an Antique Vase of Beauty Berries

My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.

If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.

Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.

Until next time, Joy and Peace,
Cornelia

Children’s Art Stages
https://www.d.umn.edu/artedu/Lowenf.html

Edible Beauty Berries
https://www.sarcraft.com/news/american-beautyberry

The Brain That Changes Itself—brain plasticity
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science NORMAN DOIDGE, M.D. https://www.brainmaster.com/software/pubs/brain/contrib/The%20Brain%20That%20Changes%20Itself.pdf

Mountains and Molehills

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, Faith, Fear, Imagination, Love, Ministry, Painting, purpose, renewal, Right Brain, righteousness, seashells, shadows, United Methodist Church, vision

I’m one of the world’s worst worriers. I can make a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t bode well for living life to the fullest, for none of us know for certain what’s coming up around the corner, much less further down the road. This knowledge paralyses some of us, so that some of us cannot make choices until we have more information.

The fear of making a poor choice keeps some of us confined to our beds, for what happens if we get out on the wrong side of the bed? Our whole day might be ruined. We’ll choose to stay in bed, rather than risk making this first bad choice of many. After all, there’s no sense of starting a day that will only go downhill from the gitgo.

In times of stress, I have repeated this sentence as if it were a mantra:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment,
and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

~~ 1 John 4:18

When faced with a blank canvas, we all have choices. If we use a pencil to draw the shapes, then we try to fill in the exact lines, even though we may not have yet found the perfection of form of the object we are representing. I always recommend drawing the general shape of the subject matter with a brush dipped in a wash of yellow paint. This helps the artist do two things: set the general composition and forms on the canvas, and provide an opportunity to correct any first misperceptions, since the pale yellow is easily over painted.

Lines of a Landscape

Of course, most of us have not lived in a world of unconditional love, even in the church. We Methodists are traditionally called to go “onto perfection in love of God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love, nothing else exists.” Judgement causes fear, so people are afraid to give what they have or to serve with their gifts, if others tell them how poorly they are doing.

In art class, we have a rule of positive critiques. First we find three constructive statements to make about a student’s work. Then we talk about what can be improved. It takes time to move people’s minds from thinking negatively about their own work, to believing positively in their capabilities to learn. In this aspect, I confess to a belief in “works righteousness,” for persistence will pay off. While we may not become Matisse or Michelangelo, we can enjoy the pleasures of color and the creative act of making art in our own way.

We had a full class last Friday when I brought a small still life. The objects were a small clay lamp from the Holy Land, a white stone scraper I found on an arrowhead hunt with my family, my grandmother’s darning egg, a stone fossil from my San Antonio neighborhood, and a leaf I picked up in the parking lot. Artists can make anything interesting, for we don’t need to have luxurious items for our subjects. Each person brought elements of their own personality to the subject at hand.

Mike is one of my repeat students, who loves texture and mixing colors. You can see he favored the lamp, the scraper, and the fossil, for these have these best rendering. The rest are suggested just enough to balance the others.

Mike Still Life

Erma is new to the class and comes from a mosaic background. Her shapes are true and carefully drawn. Working to get the dimensional qualities is a challenge for everyone. This comes from learning to see the light and darks. Last year the class had traditional perspective drawing classes. I may have to do this again for this group, now that I see where they are.

Erma Still Life

Tatiana has a fine drawing of the leaf and the fossil. Her colors are natural. Getting shapes down is the first goal. Later we’ll work on highlights and shadows.

Tatiana Still Life

I was glad to see Glenn back after his health issue. Can’t keep a good man down. He was in good humor the whole class and was a blessing to all of us. He got the basic shapes of the still life on the canvas. Next time, we’ll work on filling more of the canvas, so it won’t feel so lonely.

Glenn Still Life

Gail is on her second year of art classes. She’s either a glutton for punishment or she’s getting some pleasure from them. She is an example of persistence leading to improvement. Her objects are to scale, relative to each other. We see highlights from the light source, as well as the cast shadows, both of which emphasize the sense of solidity of the objects represented. She has marked off a front plane from the blue background.

Gail Still Life

Some say artists never use logic, or the left side of their brains, but I’d disagree with this. Back in the 1970’s, the commonly held theory was creativity’s location was in the right side of the brain, but today neuroscientists believe both logic and creativity use both sides of the brain at once. While speech and sight are located in certain areas, which if damaged, can affect these abilities, logic and creativity are spread out across many areas of the brain, says Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also affiliated with the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

As we age, older adults tend to learn better how to be both logical AND creative. This may occur because this kind of a shift is helpful to bring extra processing resources to bear on a task to compensate for age-related declines in function. Or it might be a sign that the brain is simply less good at maintaining its youthful division of labor. Understanding hemispheric specialization is thus also important for discovering ways to help us all maintain better cognitive functioning with age.

Those folks who say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” haven’t been to an art class. We don’t teach, we give opportunities to learn. Every day in my own studio, I learn something new about myself, the paint, my world, my calling, and my vision for the future. I never reach perfection, but at least I’m going on to perfection. My little still life has a mosaic quality, because I took an old canvas, which didn’t meet my expectations, and I sliced it up into evenly spaced vertical cuts. I took another poorly done old work, cut it up into horizontal strips and wove it into the first canvas. Then I painted over what was underneath. Yes, I had to pile the paint on thickly, but that gives it a rich effect, as opposed to a thinned out, watercolor feeling. While I made no clear line of demarcation, the color change denotes the difference between the table and the background.

Cornelia Still Life

I do not know what tomorrow will will bring, or what will come to life on the blank canvas before me. If we will trust the one who lived, died, and rose for us, we can live and work in perfect love every moment of our whole lives. I know I trust the word of our Lord who always will be there for us in our futures to make our mountains into molehills.

“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
~~ Mark 14:28

https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2013/12/02/248089436/the-truth-about-the-left-brain-right-brain-relationship