a study of art and cognition: understanding and enhancing unconscious and conscious abstract thought processes during the art making process
Philosophical terminology defines abstract thought as a thought process wherein ideas are distanced from objects. Abstraction is a cognitive process and is often deemed as a difficult process for young children to comprehend. Yet when studying the artwork of young children, one very well notices how objects drawn from their reality are simplified and abstracted down into the simplest shapes and forms. We know and understand this to be because the child hasn’t mastered the skills required to create exact representational work. We also know a child’s mind is not mature enough to understand this very process of abstraction they are utilizing while drawing from life.
I have studied the works of Dennie Palmer Wolf of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was very interested in her studies of Nancy Smith. Nancy Smith was an artist an educator, and an intensive researcher of the observational drawing processes of children. Nancy Smith argued that “by the age of 4 or 5, young children have already developed a number of different drawing systems, picking and choosing which to use and when. In this way, they are much like mature artists. In fact, a 5-year-old can make articulate choices about which of several developing idioms she or he wants to use-the stylized indications of maps diagrams, the selective shapes of schematic or memory based drawing, or the visually detailed alertness of close observational drawing” (1998; Observation Drawing with Children, Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Children, in the early years of their development, are using their artwork as the building blocks, of a very pivotal foundation for creating a repertoire of systems or strategies for visual meaning-making. The abstract thought process is very much a big part of their growing mental ability to make connections to and relate with their world around them. My question is how can I, as an art educator, nurture this so that they are able to understand this process and not drift away from this ability while they are learning more realistic approaches to art.
I think it is important for me to explore this form of “simple” thinking in young children because in all actuality it is quite complex. I want to learn how abstract thought works in the mind of a child and how I can strive to retain this ability in children, even while they move on to explore the more “realistic” approaches to art. Abstract thought can be learned or “enhanced” to an effective means utilizing art as a tool, if we nurture it starting when the child is very young.
This is a concept that has always captivated me due to my quest to better understand the way my own AD/HD mind works as well as the minds of the children I work with. When a child starts advancing in his or her art training he or she loses a big part of the abstract thought process. This isn’t to say they lose the ability completely; they just stop advancing in the ability until they are older. This loss is partly due to the fact that even in today’s liberal interpretation of the arts, there still is the notion that only representational art is “good art” by the mainstream. Not many art educators spend time trying to get students to understand abstract art and the thought processes that go into creating and understanding why it is an artist creates abstract art, nor have art educators found the courage needed to help parents to understand and nurture their children’s artistic leanings.
I can’t tell you the amount of times I have had parents complain to me that their child is not a good artists because they haven’t mastered the ability to draw realistically. I wish parents wouldn’t say such things especially to their children because creating art realistically has nothing to do with being an artist and often times more than not, a child’s self-esteem in regards to his or her creative expression is deflated beyond repair. When child begins the process of focusing his creative energy into the often times systematic approach to realism- exacting his or her representational approach he or she loses a bit of themselves in the pursuit if this realistic perfection.
The losing of one’s self to the systematic approach of creating realistic art is perhaps the reason why I have started falling away from the detailed highly organized process of creating representational art myself. I have been on an emotional roller coaster in terms of my personal life, which has allowed me to make many astonishing discoveries about who I am. I have begun using my art as a process of healing for myself. Simply exploring my emotions with colors, lines, shapes, etc has opened new doors for me in my own artistic quest. My thought processes I engage in while I am creating are what I find to be most intriguing to me. Sometimes my choices in the artmaking processes are intentional, especially when creating realistic art, but often times they are unconscious, like when I am creating abstract expressionistic style work. The results I find in this process are a lot like coming out of a trance like state only to be pleasantly surprised by what is right there in front me.
In studying the children I work with I am able to see why the arts are so very important to their creative being and I fear it is something we are losing for our students if we continue on the educational quest of creating lessons of art that merely correspond with state requirements meant to give the arts justification and merit in our “test” driven public educational systems. While interdisciplinary lessons are a key component in creating academically strong school systems in this country, these types of lessons cannot become the only pursuit for the arts.
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