#rawthought: In Defense of Black Stars and Blue Hearts

this image taken from a vintage book on my shelf

The other day I came across this shocking (or sadly, perhaps not so shocking, but rather, appalling) photograph on Pinterest:

Let it sink in for a moment. To be frank, it brought back all sorts of horrible memories of my years as a student. I have always tottered on the brink of wanting to please others and do well and at the same time pay heed to my innate “rebel” qualities, nurtured by an artistic, devil-may-care mother and an extreme case of sensual excess. Before you get uncomfortable, let me explain that the “sensual” indicted here is merely “of the senses”. Things move me or disturb me in a sort of heightened way. Early on I thought I was just weird, but later, as the Internet coupled with age allowed me to mingle more with an affinity group, I found “my kind” and in that tribe I feel solace. I’ve always loved the philosophy of Anais Nin and her approach to creativity and living, as you can read in this piece about her thoughts on the essentialness of emotional excess.

I recall being in first grade — young for my class so probably just a few months past 5 years old. It was Christmas time, and we were supposed to be making a nativity scene of cut paper forms. Perhaps the goal was learning to cut precisely (whatever…check out Matisse’s free-style papercutting …), or follow directions (yet again!), or use glue judiciously (boy was it fun to peel dried glue off fingers!). I did the cardinal sin of gluing before being told, and sticking a wise man where he should not be (as I recall they had to go in ascending order at a 45 degree angle to the manger…and YES! I remember this after 40+ years!). My teacher discovered my artistic transgression and not only yelled at me in front of the entire class but hit my fingers with a ruler (you could do that back in the early seventies).

But the sting of the ruler only made me want to break more rules

It took a long time for me to eschew the need to please and embrace my personal sense of curiosity and risk. One thing that helped was learning about those who came before. Studying history and art history in particular (my dream school would be to teach everything through the lens of art history and philosophy), I realized

conformity will get you not nowhere..but nowhere where I wanted to be.

Metaphorically speaking, the great thinkers, writers, artists, inventors and leaders of the world did not worry about colours making sense, or “staying in the lines”. They were ok with “white space” (see Keats — negative capability) and lingering in the question. They might learn the rules, to paraphrase Picasso, but only so they could break them. That being said,

After posting, I received so many comments and personal stories, often pulled from the depths of school memories from childhood.

Some told stories of their own children (one friend confessed to pulling her daughter out of school because she was “penalized for doing elaborate drawings of mousetraps when asked to do tasks like ‘draw a line/circle’ “.

@tonitones told a heartbreaking story of her friend’s 5 year old, who recently started school and “wanted to draw a purple lion” but was told “no, we are drawing dogs from the story today”. She later mused that it would not take long before she was drawing dogs like everyone else.

When @amymhudson replied “I recall papers being returned because I didn’t color in all the white space‘, I reiterated that most graphic designers understand that white space is gold — they know how to leverage it for effect and that, as Leonardo Da Vinci supposedly quipped: “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

In fact, @taevans showed up to the stream with one of my favourite Baudelaire quotes:

“the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them”

Some folks asserted their rebelliousness against this type of instruction:

and some called it like it is:

As for me, I was struck — star-struck, if you will — by the “bad” sketch of the black star. I LOVE it! It’s full of life, and of course black is my favourite colour. My response was to show how it could work (the old John Cage, “the best way to complain is to make things” mentality).

I added the stars from the poster as cutouts onto a pink background then did the lettering (with the Enlight app and Paper 53, respectively). Maybe it was supposed to be the sun, but our sun is a star, no?

Perhaps the most thorough response was from non other than Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth), who wrote an entire blog post before I could even tackle that mental task. It’s called NO WHITE SPACE and I encourage you to give it a read.

Steve offers an anecdote about a mother on a train (lots of interesting things happen on English trains!) who insisted her daughter colour the heart red, but the girl maintained that her heart was blue, and therefore blue it should be. Things make sense in different ways to different people, Steve reminds us, and those multiple perspectives are the seeds of innovation.

Quell the thirst to explore and we’ve stifled progress.

I just did a keynote discussing lessons from Leonardo da Vinci, and one of the core principles was that he was able to veer away from the status quo, canons, and “authority” and see the possibilities if things are flipped. For example, people living at the time believed we see because rays of light dash from our eyes. Through his investigative research, preceded of course by his will to find out for himself and not take things at face value, he discovered that sight worked exactly the opposite way. We take light in! Da Vinci proves that

turning things inside out can often solve the problem.

When my daughter was about 8, she started her own particular art style. She’d only draw animals, but in a whimsical yet minimalist way, using high contrast black and white and various geometric elements like lines, diamonds, and polka dots.

by Gwen when she was 8

Did I tell her there is no bloody way a dog has harlequin fur!? I’m not sure what was going on in her mind, but I liked it, and she was consistent, sketching over 80 animals in this way. She now draws in a completely different style — more realistic, except for the animal-human hybrid thing going on.

by Gwen at age 12

Like many of us, she’s been reprimanded by teachers for doodling all over her work, but thankfully her quite progressive IB school emphasizes the arts and indeed individual creativity. I think if she wanted to paint the sky pink with black stars she could.

To sum up, this is not about art

Visual art in this case is the manifestation of creative thinking and being. And as I’ve mentioned before, creative thinking is what is going to distinguish us from our increasingly automated world and ideally allow us to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problems existing and that are forthcoming.

But we need to nurture agility not promote stability

As teachers of youth in particular, it’s so vital not to suppress the desire to think, see, and make differently. Not all wise men should ascend to the manger at 45 degrees, 2 inches apart.

Make more black stars. Allow more hearts to be blue.

“You have to do stuff average people don’t understand because they are the only good things” Andy Warhol