A Cathartic Experience

Posted by M ws On Friday, October 28, 2011 2 comments
Art was the only subject that I failed in school. Unbelievable right? Since my kindergarten days, I dreaded art sessions. When I progressed to primary school, things got worse as my skills did not improve. By the time I was in secondary school, I was always filled with dismay on the day that I had art lessons. The fact that most of my cohorts were brilliant in artistic skills exacerbated matters and my inferiority complex worsened. My works succeeded in entertaining them and while I laughed it off, deep inside, I felt miserable and most ashamed of myself.

In upper secondary school, I did not have art lessons any more as I was in the science stream and I thought I would be deeply relieved BUT ironically, the artistic side of me was awakened. The yearning to draw and to be able to paint -not for any artistic reason but as an expression of my reaction to what I saw, was no longer latent. During my sixth form years, most of my close friends took art and I used to marvel at their works and different aspects of art that they learnt. In university, I took a couple of papers from the Fine Arts faculty including Islamic Art where I studied Islamic calligraphy and Islamic architecture. By that time, I resolved to take Art lessons to get rid of my hangups. I did try my hand at Chinese brush painting but being illiterate in Mandarin was a serious handicap and I dropped out of the course, much to my regret today, as the instructor was indeed a fantastic teacher and celebrated expert in his field.

When my older boy was four, I started sending him to art lessons for I was determined that my kids must develop their artistic side. His teacher was willing to teach me but the thought of sitting together with other kids and worse still, my own son, really put me off. Again, I procrastinated.

One fine day, an old friend called me up and asked me to join him in an art course conducted by a renowned artist cum retired teacher, Tan Lye Hoe.

I balked in horror as the thought of being in the same class with this sharp-tongued old friend rekindled memories of my secondary school art class nightmares. Although I was very wary, I agreed to attend the 10-lesson pencil sketching course and proceeded to Carnavon Street and purchased a whole set of pencils for the F, HB and B range, charcoal pencils and also an assortment of other stuff. Armed with all that, I went for my first class. Horror of horrors!!! I was the OLDEST student there!

The rest of the students were in their late teens or early twenties and it was quite disconcerting to hear them calling me "Auntie" this and that...It is not so much the age that mattered but warning bells rang as I knew that their skills would be better than mine.

As a former teacher/lecturer, I expected to be taught in a most methodical fashion as to how to sketch etc. To my surprise, Mr. Tan took me on a soul searching journey. He taught me how to see objects and people differently and challenged me to put aside my pre-conceived and mechanical ideas of approaching art. Stunned, I could not even sketch a line.

The whole experience reminded me of episodes when students in my classes just stared at the piece of paper before them during a class test, an exam or even just some class work. Then he dropped a bombshell when he said something to me that pierced my heart and soul and made me look at life, art and teaching so differently that till this day, I still remember his words that seem to resonate in my brain now :

"Every mark that you make with your pencil on that piece of art block paper is a commitment that you dare to express from what you see before you. Do not let your inner fears inhibit you from leaving your mark on that paper. Relax! Do not be afraid of making mistakes as you appreciate the form and shape of the subject. Just let yourself go and start drawing.."

With that, he walked away and left me staring at the paper. Initially, I was dumbfounded by what he said but the stark realization of the truth of his words dawned on me and slowly but surely, I started working on my first piece - a sketch of an old red brick. I spent hours and hours and wasted many pieces of art block paper while trying to recall and to apply what he taught us in the class about cross hatching, shading and how to see the source of light. Finally, I was quite satisfied with what I regarded as a fairly good job (or so I thought!).

I gasped during the next lesson as the other students handed up brilliant pieces of work and I could see the approving nods from Mr. Tan as he studied each piece. Needless to say, I was MOST reluctant to hand up mine which paled in comparison; in fact, I wish it would self-destruct in Mission Impossible style. See for yourself in the following photograph.

To this day, I still remember he said something like this: "It looks more like Swiss cheese because the texture is wrong and the source of light is also wrong....etc etc."


I almost cried in class. Strange huh? And why so? Simple. The whole experience made me realize how my students felt when I made comments about their works. Empathy filled my soul and from then, I believe there was a breakthrough in the way I related to my students. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why many of my former students still keep in touch with me...Of course I am not saying that the teacher did wrong. Nope. Mr. Tan is a brilliant teacher and he released within me a certain side of me which was predominantly dormant. I accepted his comments and worked even harder, especially with all the competition around me!!!

Yet, I fared quite badly in the next assignment where I had to sketch pots. The idea was to see things in different geometric forms.
I did get the shapes but somehow, the lighting was not quite right and most definitely, the texture of the pots was wrong. Although I did improve in certain aspects, I still had a long way to go...

The course became more difficult and I had to grapple with the challenges posed by each task. The next one was on shells and the fruit of my labor was MOST disastrous as you can see below. It is supposed to be a sketch of a seashell but till this day, it appears like some mutated alien form. *sigh*

When Mr. Tan revealed the subject of the next assignment, I nearly died from shock. It was none other than a plain and simple withered leaf. I went through a catharsis of emotions when undertaking the task and had to come face to face with many of my fears, feelings of inadequacy, lack of confidence etc...You must understand that by then, ALL the other students but me were excelling....Yet, I plodded on. I told myself that no matter how badly I drew, it is MUCH better than what I USED to draw years ago....After many attempts, this is what I produced:

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not showing off these poor works of art. The point I am trying to make is that we may feel that we are inadequate in a particular field but we have a choice of whether to feed that fear and hangup or to release it and to replace it with something else.

For me, I was the worst student in the class but it did not matter. What mattered to me then and now is that it changed my perspective of art and how I dealt with my inadequacies and inhibitions. It revolutionized the way I taught my classes and helped me to see how students felt when they expressed their difficulties in a particular task. I could relate to them and could more effectively encourage and motivate them to do better, if only they would just try.

And today, I have greater appreciation for the fine arts and can draw better than what I used to do in my younger days. To me, one of the greatest barriers to learning is ourselves..Thank you, Mr. Tan Lye Hoe for all that you have done for me...

At John Dewey's lecture series at Harvard in 1932 which has become one of the seminal works of aesthetic theory, he said this:

"For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent....Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art."

And a longer quote that, to me, describes the ideal nature of arts management—an ability to foster and channel the energy of creative expression without dispersing its strength, and without devolving into crisis management:
“A surgeon, golfer, ball player, as well as a dancer, painter, or violin-player has at hand and under command certain motor sets of the body. Without them, no complex skilled act can be performed. An inexpert huntsman has buck fever when he suddenly comes upon the game he has been pursuing. He does not have effective lines of motor response ready and waiting. His tendencies to action therefore conflict and get in the way of one another, and the result is confusion, a whirl and blur. The old hand at the game may be emotionally stirred also. But he works off his emotion by directing his response along channels prepared in advance: steady holding of eye and hand, sighting of rifle, etc. If we substitute a painter or a poet in the circumstances of suddenly coming upon a graceful deer in a green and sun-specked forest, there is also diversion of immediate response into collateral channels. He does not get ready to shoot, but neither does he permit his response to diffuse itself at random throughout his whole body. The motor coordinations that are ready because of prior experience at once render his perception of the situation more acute and intense and incorporate into it meanings that give it depth, while they also cause what is seen to fall into fitting rhythms.” (pp. 97–98)
(Source : Arts journal)

Personally, it was well worth the soul searching journey...and dear reader, may you too find yourself in the little things you do....

Have a nice day! God bless you!

*This is a repost of A SOUL SEARCHING JOURNEY which I wrote on Feb 11, 2009.

2 comments to A Cathartic Experience

  1. says:

    Clansman Actually, it IS really realistic!(I am a worse arts student than you were)

  1. says:

    masterwordsmith Hi Clansman

    Thank you so much for your kind encouragement and for stopping by :-). Take care and do stay in touch.


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