From little seeds grow mighty trees

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Introducing children to outdoor art making, using nature and its elements to build forms, and drawing on natural surfaces.

It has been a year of conducting workshops about the outdoors, rekindling observation and using found objects and material of we have around us. I was invited to Goa earlier this year to conduct a workshop in Anjuna, and was fortunate to have a venue so apt for this kind of work. The workshop was held at this outdoor location, by the sea, amidst farm animals, lots of space to wander around and observe nature.

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This was an exciting beginning to designing this workshop that spanned over a month.  All I could think of was natural light, walking around barefoot looking for tools to work with, the sound of animals and the joys of not having to imagine what the outdoors has to offer, but actually having it all around us, to witness, as we worked.

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I’ve found this to be especially important when working with children, as it adds an extra touch and memorability to the learning experience.

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For children, the outdoors are the greatest playground of all, with all its diverse structures, smells, textures, its creatures of all shapes and sizes.

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The workshop was divided into three parts beginning with looking at the earth as a canvas, moving into water life and changing landscapes and the air that surrounds us. Using the outdoors as a fertile space for ideas, inspiration and building an outdoor studio draws on a model based on a playful, child-centered, nature-based art education.

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Nature Narratives: exploring the Gond tribal art form

I’m fortunate to have a dedicated group of kiddies in Bombay who are always enthusiastic and eager to join me for a workshop, every time the opportunity presents itself. This has meant that in the last 6 months, I have been able to consistently visit them with a new workshop module once every 6-ish weeks.

As a facilitator, this continuity has helped me see the growth not just in the work and the art we’ve produced together, but also their interests and keenness to explore new areas. It leads me on to make interesting connections and that in turn helps when I conceptualise and plan every progressive workshop.

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This is how I came to conduct a workshop on the Gond folk and tribal art form, that relies heavily on an illustrative style and language of dots and dashes. The style is heavy on storytelling and evolved as a way to narrate their history, culture and beliefs, and make sense of them. Through this workshop, I hoped to get the children to make and understand drawing through dots and dashes, depending on simple yet strong pictorial contexts. As I went into reading and designing this workshop, I realised how many stories we know, believe in and continue to tell are derived from nature. This was largely possible because of two lovely Tara Publications books in the most exquisite silk screen-printed art books with stories that introduce the tribe and this art form.

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I chose two of these books that tied the workshop together:

The Night life of Trees and Water Life both helped build an understanding of the illustrative language and motifs of the art form. Also it brought the idea of nature, forms of nature, seasons, elements and the environment to the centre of the workshop.

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Trees are central to the Gond tribal imagination: in addition to the stories that surround them, trees are important in a lived, everyday sense. There is a Gond belief that trees are busy during the day, giving shade and food to humans and animals. It is only during the night that their real spirit emerges. I used the books extensively, sharing these stories with the children. In keeping with the tribal form, we used natural pigment paint to render the drawings and worked on large scrolls. The primary activity involved each child making their own accordion-fold books based on their understanding of Waterlife and Trees as we know them today.

Each child went away having learned how to explore a drawing through dots and dashes, and how even the most complex of drawings and stories can be can be minimised and told through the simplicity of dots and dashes.

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 Layer by layer

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Developing a close relationship with not only each child but also the class as a social organism, is something I have learnt to focus on. It has meant becoming very aware of the means to enable collaborative art practices for myself.

 The significance of storytelling, sharing experiences or observations built upon storytelling at an early age provide strong foundations and makes learning a tangible and interactive activity. This is one way for me to engage their entire beings through experience and imagination.

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 In the last week of my month-long stay in Goa I began to notice how every child was making connections with each other’s visual sensibilities and finding a rhythm of working collaboratively.

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 The studio was now ready for an intervention. Drawing lines and connecting the dots to all our explorations made over the previous weeks, I proposed that both batches of children aged 2.5 to 5 and 5 to 12 respectively, come together to work on a single large canvas.

 Layer by layer, wash-by-wash, they added textures, objects patterns, sometimes removed pigment, they built a simple rhythm and movement in collectively creating a piece of work together.

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Collaborations bring a sense of togetherness and joy to the learning experience. It especially thrills me to see children actively appreciating each other’s efforts, and to see that appreciation grow over the weeks of going through the process of working together and making discoveries along the way.   

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 I stepped back, watching this process and saw each one of the children play a role in making selective decisions for the canvas that they worked on together, over a period of one week.

 The morning batch would come in and work on it with some guidance following with the batch in the evening come in to see the progress made and took over seamlessly, to add the next layer of elements.

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This has been the most exciting process for me. This work was a coming together of all the collected memories from nature and stories shared over the month, along with the studied observation from our studio nature table.  The progression of not just the elements we brought in to the work, but the synergy in terms of collaboration, and the result – the finished canvas — was mesmerizing to watch and left me feeling so full of emotion.

Drawing Room – Goa from Niyati Upadhya on Vimeo.

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Play with Chance

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The discovery of a city through journeys to source material, has always and continues to be one of the best introductions to all the places visited and lived in.

Meeting the local artists, and visiting their work spaces is to me a special way of knowing what makes the city, town or village. It is even more special when the communities of artists make their own material within their studios. There is an entire journey of the process in front of you, from the raw material to the final product, with a present sense of time and age to the place and the work. Yet this is what makes an artist studio memorably unique.

I had a special ride through the villages in Goa to find and source the clay for our “happy accidents”. The 2nd week of my sessions focused on Technique building, Interaction with various surfaces and textures, associative thinking and the flux of chance and control.

Goa clay3Clay being a versatile medium allows for children to play and experiment with the various forms and textures. Through this manipulation of the medium the children were able to share and express their ideas as they moulded the clay into a form.

Goa|clay1Keeping to my overall theme of the workshop celebrating nature, bringing the outside, inside, the clay played an important role within the month long interactions, connecting to nature in its very immediate form. This process was a really big learning for me to observe children between the age of 3 to 11 relate and connect to a medium with the easy and uncomplicated manner.

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Changing seasons

Goa welcomed me with its light, warm air and the various shades of green that carpeted over walls, streets and rooftops, as it happens every year once the rain has fallen. Everything comes alive; the smell of wet earth and new leaves, insects and animal life all set off to this new beginning. During my time in Goa, the seasons were a blur. The post-monsoon heat swung back into what felt like a never-ending monsoon.

Within the studio itself, a nature table became an unlikely centerpiece almost as an extension of all the action that we were experiencing outside. I adopted the idea of having a nature table in the studio from the Waldorf System. I constantly reintegrated the need and made it a priority for kids to notice the beauty in all aspects  nature. The idea was to begin to be aware of things around us, notice patterns, find a rhythm and bring parts of it into our space.

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Children would pick things on their walk to class, I’d add a thing or two and pretty soon we had a motley collection of beautiful things in various stages of life and decay. This collection of treasures from the outdoors set the tone. This space became a lab for some of the children who wanted to watch how various objects in nature transformed over time. They were keen to notice changes in colour, form, texture, smell etc., over the weeks. For some it was an excuse to go on walks outside of the class.

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Being in the lush settings of Goa, so close to nature, and being able to experience change as it was happening, I felt that celebrating that uniqueness in, and the process of transformation would be a good focal point.

I decided this would be the basis for my interaction with the children, and a starting point of sorts, for the month-long workshop session in Goa. It’s important to honor all that is growing and dying around and within you, I felt. And in surprising ways within and without the workshop setting, my time in Goa has really driven that truth home.

Naturetable4Follow Drawing Room on facebook for more updates and my experiences with teaching art.

Travelling with Drawing Room

It’s been a busy few months and the new beginning I made with Drawing Room is slowly unfolding into some exciting projects lined up.

Right from the start, my dream has been to be able to create Drawing Room as a travelling entity that can go to anywhere that children may be seeking an opportunity to make art. Free from the boundaries of classes, or schedules and timetables. I wanted to be fluid with the destination, and open to going to children, rather than having them come to me at all times.

I’ve been working at expanding the reach of my interactions through workshops and private sessions across cities, to make this as true as possible. So far we’ve had workshops and private sessions in Bangalore and Mumbai (see here and here) with incredible regularity and it has been all kinds of exciting!

Later this week, I’m off to Mumbai once again for private sessions, after which I’m taking Drawing Room to Goa in September. Stay tuned for more information about that!

Thank you all for the support and encouragement all along. I would like to share a peek into Drawing Room with you all, to see how we unpack ideas and allow them to take form into stories told through drawings and painting.

 

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Beautiful Oops!

When you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.

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Beautiful Oops! By Barney Saltzberg.

There have been times when as a facilitator, I have had to explore ways of unlearning concepts and some of the strong conditioning that I come with, both as teacher and as a child. This challenge has many a times brought me to discover wonderful ways of unlearning and re-learning.

I’ve grown up hearing adults and teachers at school say, “making a mistake is part of learning” or “making a mistake is part of life”, yet I never wanted to believe either of these statements. When you use the word “mistake” to describe an artwork for instance, you immediately imply that it’s far from perfect, or that it can be better. Whenever I heard the word, it was hard to not compare my work to something that was right and perfect. Because as we all know we celebrate our correctness over our mistakes a lot more.

I took this up as a challenge in my role as an art facilitator (and also for myself in life, in general) to learn to try and accept, and to celebrate my mistakes as much as I celebrate the times I am correct. Initiating that change meant creating an accepting and trustful environment for the kids to work in. Which in turn meant keeping in mind a nonjudgmental language when critiquing their work.

Looking back at my student life, I have come to realize certain phrases lock in judgmental ideas about the artistic processes. These phrases, the very language of feedback, right, wrong, mistake, easy, etc, cues a focus on performance, competition, comparison and risk of failure. Even though it requires constant attention to break these habits, it is well worth the effort.

In Mumbai, I taught a group of children aged 4-9, and one of the sessions was structured around this extraordinary book, Beautiful Oops! By Barney Saltzberg. It’s a simple book that shows young readers how every mistake is an opportunity to make something beautiful. Creatively made, Beautiful Oops! is filled with pop-ups, flaps, tears, holes, overlays, bends, smudges, and even an accordion “telescope” to demonstrate the magical transformation from blunder to wonder.

Introducing this discovery to the class brought about an immensely positive change in the way the kids explored and expressed themselves. It seemed to have set off a cycle of change where each of them discovered their strengths, while encouraging each other to work with a sense of spontaneity, acknowledging their mistakes and learn to work towards what they wanted their work to look like, regardless of the blips along the way.

Here are a few images from the sessions after having introduced Beautiful Oops!

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By Om Ahuja. Age 5.
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By Ahilya Lulla. Age 5.
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By Akira Kini. Age 5.
3Antalya
By Antalya Gupta. Age 5.
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By Azad Rao Khan. Age 5.

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Colour Light Shadow Party

Looking back at my years in school, I was never much of a textbook learner. Reading and writing alone didn’t do much to help me retain information. The concepts that have stayed with me the most, and that I remember to date have been those that involved interactions and physically handling objects to understand how things work. Sometimes this was about understanding materials, and other times it’s the experience of being completely consumed in an activity, allowing my imagination to run amok.

In September 2016, I collaborated on with performance artist Mahana Delacour (Paris) in an interactive workshop. Mahana was visiting Mumbai as an artist in residence at WAA Residency, and some of the key elements of her work are interactivity and art therapy. Also being a teacher, she had a really unique way of telling imaginative stories bound by theory and concepts in art.

The play of light and shadow are key elements of all visual art forms, so I planned this session with the intention to teach the kids to observe light. It was a great way to have fun while also discovering how we see light, how shadows happen with respect to the earth, sun and moon, and how the human eye perceives light and shadow.

The session involved a lot of hands-on activity, as the children played with objects, colours and a light source. They observed the change in light as objects were moved farther and closer from the source, the play of colour using cellophane paper in primary colours as well as the changes in results when they were mixed.

Excitement was high as placing the sheets one over another to discover a whole different range of colours made each child feel like they were magicians on stage! Then a shadow play session followed where they built narratives with toy animals and sea creatures and the shadows they cast. They were thrilled to see how the shadows were exponentially larger than the objects themselves.

It was a great introduction to an interactive installation as well, because the entire room was turned into a kaleidoscopic interactive art experience, with the children discovering things with every little action they made. I have always valued the delight of discovering things for myself. And it was satisfying to be able to share that feeling.

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Drawing Room: this is where it began

When I began the Saturday Art Club (as it was called then) my approach was simple. I started with the very basic idea to engage with the visual form, and use it to study objects and ideas closest to us.

Over the last few years of my practice, and some involvement with interacting with children, I’ve observed that the practice of teaching art has become unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome – involving expensive tools, stationery etc.

It was interesting to see that the children came from backgrounds in formal art education either through a previous art class or at school. Most were already initiated into art and craft through formal/conventional structures, bound by rules and guidelines typical to a classroom set-up. What I didn’t anticipate was the couple of sessions and time and effort it took to undo and break through those existing structures and frameworks they already belonged to.

Thinking back to my own years in school, and my early interest in art, I remembered how intimidating and off-putting a structured classroom set-up made me feel. So, I realized if my goal was to help children begin to engage, react and respond to the visual form freely and fearlessly, it was essential to break away from the rules and the pressure to create “pretty” things.

This is where looking outside the field of art education alone, helped my learning, how to initiate and kindle a sense of free exploration in children. As a facilitator there were so many wonderful connections to be made between the formal art education (such as learning perspectives, colour theory, colouring inside the lines etc) and the simple learning through the perspective of each child’s imagination.

By allowing children to explore their own memories, ideas and other visuals they wanted to bring to life, I found a method that balanced the two. This was the beginning to a journey I later titled “Dear Imagination”.

In the 12 months that I interacted with this group of children, it became clear to me that creating an environment that celebrates each child’s uniqueness was the best way to educate myself about what art education really means to me, and where I want to go with this.

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