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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