Express Yourself

Something that strikes me about all modes of artwork is their platform for creative expression and the emotions they can inspire in audiences. The emotional impact of a painting is, in my opinion at least, the most impressive.

Books and films envelop you in their story long enough to emotionally invest in the story and characters. Photographs reflect images that are immediately recognisable to us; their power lies in the composition and how the image is taken. Paintings, however, do something very different. Most often they can’t tell a story as effectively as books, and they can’t reflect reality as exactly as a photograph. Because of this, we don’t connect with them in the same way we would a movie. Many paintings have no recognisable subject matter at all, and yet have the ability to inspire a moving, visceral emotion immediately upon viewing: joy, sadness, passion, fear. It’s not quite as sophisticated as sympathising with the inner psychological world of a character, but it is much more startling.

I think of paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when remembering my most powerful and unexplained emotional reactions to paintings. Often the movements don’t matter. It was a time in history when formalist painting – aesthetically ‘pleasing’ and unemotional art – was really being rejected. This had a lot to do with war and political unrest being rife at that time. This quote from Barnett Newman, one of the major figures in the Abstract Expressionism movement, explains why emotional expression became vital in art at the time, and much earlier too:

“We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, a world destroyed by a great depression and a fierce World War, and it was impossible at that time to paint the kind of paintings that we were doing—flowers, reclining nudes, and people playing the cello.”

The chaos of the world reflected in the artists’ works. I like to think that they began painting with their hearts, instead of their minds; that the paint felt its way onto the canvas, rather than being planned out and structured. Perhaps images of some of these paintings can convey more accurately the raw emotions they were created in the image of:

 

Edvard Munch - The Scream (1893)

Edvard Munch – The Scream (1893)

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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff – Corner of a Park (1910)

 

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Emile Nolde – Still Life of Masks (1911)

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Pablo Picasso – Guernica (1937)

The first three paintings are by artists that belonged to the German Expressionist movement. The last is by Picasso, who did just about everything under the sun before his death. I chose mostly scary or shocking images to better illustrate what I mean by paintings that make you feel something. I’m not even sure what some of them make me feel, but it is something powerful and I find that fascinating.

Since that time, the tendency to express oneself emotionally through art has not faded away. It has manifested itself differently through the decades, as it still does today, but the importance of this form of expression has been realised more and more. Creating art has been recognised for it’s therapeutic abilities and it’s capacity for healing. People no longer go to art museums just to view beautiful paintings, but also to feel something; to take some emotion or insight away. I think that is an experience unlike any other, and one that is so valuable in appreciating art and understanding oneself.

I highly recommend visiting the biggest museum you have access to and exploring its halls for works that make you feel something.

Academic Inflation – How Education is Robbing you of Creativity

“Even a circus lion learns to sit in front of the whip, but you call such a lion well-trained, not well-educated”. This idea is taken from the thought-provoking film, 3 Idiots, and it makes a poignant comment on how unimaginative schooling systems are breeding generations of well-trained automatons.

The issue of hierarchical and test-based education systems is one that has been discussed and critiqued widely in recent years. The structure of this system is attributed to an anti-chronological process of thought: In order to get a certain job, I need a degree; to get a degree, I need to do well at university; in order to get into university, I need a prescribed number of A’s, and so on. It is easy to see how this way of thinking drains all creativity out of schooling. Sixteen years of learning become nothing more than a glorified checklist in pursuit of employment. The only thing more dangerous than this problem is the innumerable students who have no idea that it is happening to them.

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Are books coming before creativity?

 

In 1958, a series of creative tasks were conducted with around 400 children by Professor E. Paul Torrence. The purpose of these tasks was to develop a way to measure creative aptitude. The progress and success of the subjects was tracked into adulthood, and it was accurately predicted that children with higher levels of simultaneous divergent and convergent thinking would be significantly more successful in their careers. Since then, the “Torrance tasks” have become the recognised standard for judging CQ – creativity quotient. According to a Newsweek article, over 300,000 scores were analysed recently, and the results were more than disheartening. While IQ scores tend to rise with every generation, CQ scores have been dropping rapidly since 1990. This is attributed mainly to the structure of schooling from a young age, and how too much emphasis is placed on academics and left-brain dominated subjects.

Sir Ken Robinson, a highly respected author, speaker and educational advisor in the arts coined the term ‘academic inflation’ in a TED talk in 2006. The talk was about the state of national education systems and how they ‘educate out’ creativity from childhood. Robinson describes academic inflation as being similar to economic inflation. Fifty years ago, having a degree meant a guaranteed job. In 2014, an undergrad means very little and one needs at least a postgraduate degree to have any hope of a decent occupation. One can never be too educated, but global population growth rates and lack of jobs have created a frenzied environment in which students are pressured to produce high results as opposed to unique thought.

In the competitive global job market today, employees need to be more creative and adaptable than ever. As is said in Newsweek, a recent survey of 1,500 CEOs “identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future”. It is paradoxical, then, that our entire learning lives should, to quote Robinson, “educat[e] people out of their creative capabilities”. When finally, after years of institutionalised conformist thinking, we have reached the stage of having employment, we now have to teach ourselves to be unique again; to forget most of what the last twenty years taught us was important. For many creative people, it is easy to wonder if a degree is worth that ordeal.

A study was conducted last year in conjunction with Adobe, in which 4,000 Matric or higher teachers, as well as parents were surveyed about creativity in the classroom. An overwhelming majority agreed that “fostering creativity in education today will fuel the economies of the future.” The top concerns of many parents and teachers were that the education system doesn’t value creativity and that schools don’t allow enough time for creative learning. In addition to this, they agreed that the greatest hindrance to creativity is an “education system that is too reliant on testing”. Testing does little more than to unfairly reward those with good memories and quick thinking, and yet it is the prominent standard of assessment at almost all levels of public schooling.

While tertiary education is vital for some, there is a lot that can be said for those who weren’t taught to think like the rest of the herd. Many revered icons, such as Quentin Tarantino and Mark Zuckerberg, never studied or dropped out of studying towards their degrees. They simply didn’t need them. University is a valuable tool for many people, but being uninfluenced by an academic mind frame often fosters creative thinking and fresh ideas. Hundreds of millionaires with unique visions would support this claim.

Parents, teachers, psychologists, educationalists and employers all seem to agree that creativity is vital for the successful future of our world. And yet, the powers that dictate structure do not seem to be coming to the party. Creative and academic exploration need to be valued equally, and time-based testing assessments should gradually become a thing of the past. Once that has happened, the imagination of future generations might know no limits.

You don’t have to be Picasso to use a paintbrush

When one thinks about artists, we tend to envision the greats: Da Vinci, Monet, Van Gogh. Beyond that, perhaps contemporary artists that have appealed to us, like those I have shared in previous posts. It makes sense that we do this; one doesn’t think of struggling plain Jane in Hollywood when the word actor is mentioned – (I think of Ryan Gosling, but maybe that’s just me).

Anyway, my point is that there are millions of artists out there who don’t get any of the recognition that professionals do. There are those who aspire to make art their career and struggle, but there are also those who make art purely for themselves. In some regards, I think that is even more admirable than those who turn art into jobs. I may be generalizing, but I think that a lot of people don’t do many things they don’t have to anymore. Hobbies have largely been replaced with social networking and browsing the internet. Making art is something that takes time, patience, determination and genuine interest. I know this from personal experience.

I thought I would interview someone who is not a professional artist, but has spent decades working on their skills nonetheless. I wondered for a while who to speak to, but it dawned on me that the choice was obvious: my mom.

She has been painting her afternoons away since before I can remember and long before I was even alive. It takes guts to dedicate half of your life to something, but I don’t think I would have developed the interest myself if I hadn’t watched her for years growing up. I may be more than a little biased, but I think she’s pretty amazing.

Jeannine Evans (my wonderful mother), began drawing when she was very young. She used to take my grandmother’s sketching pads and pencils, and draw what interested her that way. She says that she “never really decided to start [making art], it just evolved slowly”. However, she began getting more serious about it when she got her first job, and attended a series of short courses which eventually ended up in her experimenting with oil paints. She has been in love ever since.

She explains that painting is “a place that [she] can escape to… a way to achieve something”. One only has to watch her work and rework the same area ten times to understand the depth of her passion and determination. Having never had any formal training, Jeannine finds that watching DVDs of professional artists working, as well as reading art books and magazines help her in honing her skills.

I think it is really important to support non-professional artists. If you live in a small town as I do, I can guarantee that there are dozens of talented painters displaying their work in a nearby gallery. Owning a work with a name is nice, but owning one from an unknown artist does so much more good. Jeannine explains that she feels genuinely humbled when “anyone wants something that [she’s] created on their walls”. A day with a painting sale is a very good day indeed.

She exhibits all around the Grahamstown, Bathurst and Port Alfred areas alongside many other talented artists. If you ever happen to be at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, I highly recommend taking a look at the local artists’ exhibition and supporting them.

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One of her earlier works in pastel, made when I was still a toddler

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A portrait of my cousin Jared

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One of her many recent township scenes in black and white

As a side note, it is interesting that my mom’s love for art started by taking my gran’s art tools, because that’s exactly how it started for me. If anyone is interested, here are some things that I drew. Perhaps someone will interview me too someday. Wink, wink.

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Now That’s Just Showing Off

In the baby years of Facebook and while i was developing my online ‘persona’, I figured out that I could make zits disappear at the click of a button and no one would be the wiser. I had overlooked the minor issue of now being significantly less attractive in person, but I was ecstatic nonetheless. At the age of fourteen, I thought I was a photo retouch genius. Turns out I was greatly mistaken.

Retouch photography is technique whereby the photographer manipulates their image in order to change or perfect elements, as well as bringing different images together creatively. Contrary to what one might think, this is not a technique that only came about in the age of digital photography; pictures have been manipulated by hand for centuries. The digitisation of photography, and editing software such as Photoshop have simply broadened the horizons for perfection and imagination in photography. Retouching and manipulation are used in almost all sectors of professional photography, with the most obvious being beauty and fashion. And trust me; they can do a hell of a lot more than cover up a few pimples.

South African photographer and retoucher, Graham Bartholomew, is one of these mysterious people I refer to. He can make the average beautiful, and the beautiful flawless if he so chooses. I bet tweenage me would have killed for those skills of manipulation. However, he also uses retouching in other, more artistic ways. It is a skill that is being exploited brilliantly overseas especially, both for advertising and private work.

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Graham Bartholomew – Back in Black

Leo Caillard is a French retouch photographer of considerable repute. He uses his well-honed skills primarily in the world of advertising, to take the limitations of original photographs to the next level. Many transnational corporations have hired him for advertising campaigns, and when looking at his work it is easy to understand why.

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Leo Caillard – Amusement Bureau

There is, however, a certain man who holds a very dear place in my heart. I have found myself coming back to his work again and again, and quite ironically decorating my Facebook wall with its sheer epicness. Erik Johansson is a retouch artist and photographer from Sweden. I have very little to say about him except that his art is magnificent and unbelievable. Erik says that “I don’t capture moments, I capture ideas. To me photography is just a way to collect material to realize the ideas in my mind”. It is hard to believe that every aspect of his images came from actual photographs that have been immaculately fused together. If you’d like to understand the amount of work that goes into creating art like this, check out his blog post on Set Them Free. It is hard to fathom for those of us whose photographic patience don’t extend much further than well-angled selfies. But if that doesn’t impress you, at least take a look at his spectacular body of work to understand why I’m totally obsessed.

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Erik Johansson – The Cover Up

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Erik Johansson – Set Them Free