THE third class students at Passage West’s Star of the Sea primary school are wrinkling their noses and puckering their lips: they look like they’ve been sucking lemons. Because they have.
Under the watchful gaze of artist and drawing teacher Carol Healy, the class of eight- and nine-year olds have been experimenting with drawing as a way of describing senses other than vision.
Earlier in the lesson, Carol, helped by class teachers Caroline Barrett and Karen Cinnamond, handed out a slice of lemon, a grape and a mint leaf to each child.
“We don’t just draw with our eyes, we draw with all our senses,” Carol explained.
“So today, we’re going to look at taste. Sometimes words can’t really explain everything so we’re going to draw instead.”
The children aren’t drawing the objects, just marking on their paper in response to the flavours. Observing the class as they sample the three different tastes, almost all the children draw sharp, angular scribbles for the lemon and more rounded, mellow shapes for the grape; the mint leaf falls somewhere in between. The responses are creative, spontaneous, unique.
“The mint sort of tasted like a box full of cobwebs,” one boy, Gael Duchaney, says.
His neighbour, Julia Bettio, has an unusual take too.
“I like the way the lemon tastes, more than the grape,” she says.
“I drew the mint scribbly because the leaves are kind of scribbly too.”
Later, after the class is finished, Carol, a CIT Crawford College of Art and Design (CCAD) graduate who teaches drawing to both adults and children, says she frequently finds that children are better at unlocking the doors to their creativity than adults are.
“Perfection is the killer of creativity,” Carol says.
“Adults can be way too stuck in their thinking mind, way too busy and stressed out to let go. A lot of adults are terrified of being vulnerable, or of sitting quietly with themselves. I find kids open up a lot quicker.”
Not only are the children able to tap into their creative spirit, but they want to engage with it, sometimes to a surprising degree. In a second exercise Carol undertook with the class, she handed out objects gathered from the seashore — limpet shells, a variety of textured stones — to each child, and asked them to observe their object in silence for several minutes.
While some found the length of time difficult, the majority of the class did so intently. One girl held her sea treasure with her eyes closed, exploring its texture through touch for almost the entire duration, while close by, a boy sniffed his shell and spent some time listening to it, before balancing it carefully on top of his head.
Asked to list words associated with their object, the same unconventional and creative approach was everywhere: “Dot, dot, dot, dot, smooth, dot, rock, circle,” one boy wrote, while another had described his pebble with the breathtakingly poetic “smelly, smooth, bracken, island, cloudy, thunder, scratched.”
The sea-shore theme is part of a bigger project Carol is undertaking with the class during her weekly sessions. Inspired by their school’s name, the children are working towards a final artwork which will be exhibited in Blackrock Castle Observatory.
Drawing may be the medium, but the subjects being covered are not limited to what would be traditionally considered part of the art curriculum.
“We’ve looked at celestial navigation, the ocean, the history of how blue pigments were made, and they’re learning about the stars,” Carol explains.
“We’re going to Blackrock Castle Observatory and their final artwork will be on display there too. Each child is taking a navigational star from the celestial map to research.”
In recent years, educators have started to view the division of school subjects into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and arts-based as an arbitrary and perhaps even damaging division. Carol agrees.
The benefits of observational drawing extend far beyond the limits of art class, she believes. To the extent that drawing should be recognised as a separate subject to art, and integrated into different subjects.
“Drawing teaches you to see, and when you can see, you notice patterns,” she says.
“You become observant. Drawing is for thinking, for working things out, to gain more knowledge or to teach things.”
Ideas of success and failure indoctrinated into children in primary school art class — children being praised for colouring right to the edge of the page, or for using the ‘correct’ colour for an object, or staying inside the lines – actually work against the child’s confidence in their own creativity, she believes.
“Being in school, maybe you got to a certain age and decided you couldn’t draw because you were taught to compare yourself to the person next to you,” Carol says.
“They learn not to trust the creative process. If kids were being taught the opposite and being taught to trust it, then they’d really know who they are and what they want to do by the time they reach secondary school.”
Carol, who graduated from CCAD in 2015 as a mature student, having raised her own two children, Dylan and Claudia, and worked for years in The Olive Company in Cork’s English Market, is speaking from personal experience; she says her own school years were anything but inspiring.
“I always thought I wasn’t as bright as other people, but my interest wasn’t sparked,” she says.
“When I went to art college, I totally blossomed. Now, looking back, I realise I might have wanted to be a scientist because my art and my science go hand in hand. If I’d had teaching about creative process in school, I would have been interested in totally different things.” Following her graduation, Carol found herself drawn to teaching.
“My goal as an artist isn’t to be alone in a studio making my own work; I needed to be an artist in the community, working with other people and working with kids,” she says.
Dying observational drawing skills, often being overtaken by tech innovations like CAD software, used to be common in professions from cartography to fashion design to architecture, but Carol believes that the benefits of observational drawing extend right the way back to early childhood.
“All children love drawing and the benefits are enormous,” she says.
“It’s a very embodied activity and very mindful.
“When they draw from life, something amazing happens; we saw that today when they were drawing their stones or shells.
“They can sit in silence and there’s a dialogue going on between them and the object they’re drawing.
“All artists have the experience of that gorgeous thing that happens when you’re really observing to draw; it’s almost like a spiritual experience. It grounds you, and it’s a part of our brain that is really not focused on in schools, a non-verbal part.
“You need your creativity, no matter what you’re going to end up doing in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re a taxi-driver or an engineer, your creativity is your ability to think for yourself and solve problems.”
Learn more about Carol’s work at: https://www.facebook.com/carolhealyartist/