“I can’t, I’m not good at art.”
As a Recreation Therapist, this is an excuse I hear at least once a week. I have found through my work that art and creative expression scares many adults as they opt to stay in bed over just giving art a try. I often follow up this excuse with “Don’t worry, it’s not being graded” to which some people will give in but many remain unable to open themselves up enough to giving art a try.
I have a few theories as to why as adults we become afraid of art and creativity, but I think what is mostly to blame is our society’s understanding that we need to be good at something in order for it to be a meaningful use of time or an age appropriate hobby. This is problematic.
In a world where things are created to be perfect, too often children build sticked borders between what they can and can’t do and firm identity around what they are good at and what they are bad at. Often when we learn we are bad at something, such as art, we stop trying. The kids who are deemed to be “bad” at sports you rarely seen trying out for the basketball team. The kids who are “bad” at singing are often not offered a spot in the school choir or year-end talent show. Sometimes these limits are due to performance expectations but I think the problem lies in the individuals who don’t even make it to the tryout because they have internalized the idea that they are unable to try something or get better at something that they are “bad at”.
When we are taught art in school, often there is a desired outcome. The teacher pins an “example” at the front of the class of what the art project is supposed to look like and each child is told to create something as similar to this example as possible. Then all these creations are hung in the hallway outside the classroom, side by side, with an obvious differentiation between the work of students who are “good” at art and the ones who are not “good” at art. The “good” art pieces receive better marks, have clean lines, matching colours and closely resemble the example pulled from the teacher’s Pinterest board. The “bad” art pieces loosely mimic the example and are tarnished with eraser residue. This is when we learn what it means to be “good” at art and from grade six on, art becomes a class for the artists and everyone else is set up to fail.
But it does not have to be this way.
In my work we use a success based approach. This approach does not mean everything is easy or simple. It means that any way you approach the task is right and there are many different ways to create something meaningful. For example, if I asked every individual in an art group for people with disabilities to paint a tree, this would set a lot of people up for failure. Maybe some clients don’t know what a tree looks like or what colours a tree should be. Maybe a client has fine-motor challenges that prevent them from creating something that resembles a tree at all. Do these individuals suck at art? Should they never experience the creative release of making something that is beautiful and celebrated and unique? Should they not know the feeling of bringing something from inside of you out into the world for others to see and know you better? Absolutely they should. So let’s try this art group again with a success based approach.
Let’s paint the word “Happy.” A happy painting does not have to include specific shapes, colours or images. Painting something happy could look different to every participant, therefore every creation is perfect and cannot be compared to the creation ton it’s right or left, each creation is uniquely perfect.
Another success based approach to creative expression is collaborative art, which is one of my favourite things about my work. In collaborative art, individuals contribute what they can and each piece is put together to create one, big art project. This could look like each person creating a small section that is put together to create a bigger picture. It could look like one client painting, one client cutting out pieces of that painting and one client gluing these pieces onto a mural paper to create a mosaic. The opportunities for collaborative art are endless and can create such stunning results. Collaborative art prompts us to work together and use our skills to make something wonderful as a team instead of one artist against another. No one’s work is better, or more valuable, we come together to create beauty and we need everyone’s skills, ideas and contribution to create a final product.
To me collaborative art just makes sense. If you are still lost, try thinking about art they way we think about music. Sure listening to someone sing a solo or play an instrument alone is nice but the power and awe moments often lie in the performances where voices and interments play in harmony. There is power and diversity in numbers, each instrument and voice contributing their part to that tear-jerking crescendo. Art can be the same when we unlearn this idea that art is a competitive sport that some people are good at and some people are bad at. Art is a creative outlet and a skill that can be grown and developed. Art can be a full symphony orchestra where each individual’s part is unique and necessary and contributes to the overall creation and beauty.
Amy is a fresh grad with a degree in Therapeutic Recreation. University does not come naturally to a person with a learning disability, making Amy uniquely proud of her undergraduate accomplishments. Amy is working to be more open about her disability and strives to view her learning challenges as an opportunity for growth in resilience and creativity.
She has worked with rehab patients, people with disabilities, veterans and mental health clients searching for more equitable access to community recreation. She believes wholeheartedly in the therapeutic benefit of doing what you love, as often as you can.