08 August 2008

The Kindergarten Symbolists

When I started teaching here I found that the children had a limited pain threshold when it came to vocabulary and memorization. Writing and recitation only got us so far before the brains began to go elsewhere for stimulation. In Lincoln class, where last month's book was an ABC text with animals ("A is for Alligator"), I took to making word lists for a few letters each day. I would let the children generate four or five words for each of three letters, have a brief recitation and a spelling contest ("Who can spell for me....Newt!") and then they would draw pictures for each word. This generated fairly predictable, yet still precious, results when the words were nouns. But the children were also coming up with adjectival abstractions (new, soft, nice, kind, hard) and nouns from other classes that really challenged the minds of my six-year-old illustrators (how do you draw earthquake or safety?). The results were fascinating.

I once wrote an article about a man named Henry Darger. His art, some of which can be seen here, is considered very special by people who study art and human development because his artistic impulse and method appears to have occurred in a near vacuum. It was only discovered after his death that Darger had not only written a 15000 page novel (and an unfinished 8000 page sequel), but that he had also illustrated it with drawings and watercolors, some as large as 2x8 feet. Darger's vision is beautifully horrific and the suspected reasons for this, childhood trauma suffered in the turn of the century Illinois state orphanage system, are even more terrifying. The subject of the novel is a group of young girls (often depicted nude and sporting penises) who are assisted by friendly monsters in a war against an adult male army. It is called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

What makes Darger, and other rare "outsider artists" like him, so special is that art of any kind is typically very derivative. From the first time we pick up a crayon we are conditioned by the lines we fill and the images we are shown and techniques we are given to emulate. Darger apparently had few influences other than those generated by his own unique mind (he was posthumously diagnosed with Ausperger's syndrome).

I am not saying that these children are developing as artists in a vacuum, but when given that they are trying to express visually concepts that are not only new to them in many cases but also presented in a language they are only just beginning to learn they certainly qualify at minumun as having fresh perspectives. There is also evidence ("Is Google Making Us Stupid" Harpers Magazine July/August 08) that the language center of the brain develops differently in people whose language is pictographic (like Chinese) versus those with a phonetic/character based system (like English) and that the cognitive affect of this is far reaching, effecting everything from emotive response to image making. This isn't hard to understand: if your word for love is a picture not a set of interchangeable characters, the emotion itself would take on that specific association far more readily. The Korean language, Hangul, is in many ways a hybrid language, with pictographic-looking symbols created from phonetic characters. In many ways it represents the best of both concepts: the beauty of an image-like presentation with the convenience of phonetics and character construction.

The children continue to amaze me. Every day one of them comes up with something at which I can only shake my head. And one of the most fascinating things about being here and doing what I am doing is that I have a front row seat from which to observe the development of the Eastern mind. "Earthquake" generated a lot of human characters and tilted buildings in the middle of zig-zag lines, as if the pencil marks were illustrating the motion they felt. "Safety" (likely preconditioned a bit by my simple definition "being careful so people don't become sick or hurt") brought pictures of human carnage with "X"s drawn very carefully through them (the hand sign for no is not the western palm out hand waggle but two crossed forefingers or, in extreme cases, forearms). For "soft" I got bunnies and puppies, but also, interestingly, quite a few mothers cradling infants. "New" had shiny things (like rings with sparkle marks), but also wrapped presents and one bird nest with a chick emerging from an egg. Brilliant.

More Darger links:
Synopsis to a PBS documentary.
PBS.org slideshow of selected work.