Working with mud, sand, and straw is a way to teach geology, engineering, physics, history, drawing, composition, and design. It is also a way to teach social skills, like cooperation. But more important than just what it teaches is how it teaches:
Jon Young is a wilderness educator who takes kids into the woods, and teaches them to identify and track wildlife, among other things. He cites Microsoft research suggesting that tracks in the mud were an original source of writing, that alphabets are like birdprints, and that reading a set of tracks, from a brain science point of view, is the same as reading a bunch of symbols written on a page in ink.
He also says the kids who do best are those labelled “ADD,” or “Attention Deficit Disorder,” who are too wound up to sit still, but who can develop total focus on a set of tracks because the tracks require them to move. The excellence they develop for this kinetic reading reliably transfers into the classroom, where their grades improve. Young concludes that kids don’t have “learning disorders,” schools have teaching disorders.*
As an occasional “artist-in-residence” in schools and other public settings, I’ve come to much the same conclusion. I gave one second grade class some simple drawing exercises. All the kids set to work. I stood back and watched, waiting for the rare question. The teacher stood next to me appreciatively, and asked if she could make some copies of the exercises. “The only time they’re ever this quiet is when we do art,” she said.
I was too stunned to ask the obvious question: “why not do more art?” But it occurs to me now that part of the problem is that art is treated as a separate subject, rather than as a method.
As method, art is simply a way of learning that requires greater physical involvement than reading and writing. And while it can be done at a desk, it gains force with greater involvement.
For example: at a treatment center for at-risk youth, I and the writer working with me were warned that it was “one of those days,” and we might have to cut short our session due to behavior problems. We were building a model village, out of earth. The kids had drawn designs for their houses, developed stories about the characters who lived in them, mixed mud, and roughed out the homes on 2×2 foot pieces of plywood. Only finish work remained.
The kids lined up, single file, military formation, for the hundred yard silent walk to our “shop.” An extra adult or two (for a total of 4 or 5) ensured adequate supervision for 7 kids.
They arrived and set to work in palpable quiet and concentration. Gregg and I attended occasional calls for help or materials, or technical discussions about design and engineering. One of the most sullen kids volunteered a positive remark.
Staff were amazed at what seemed to them a remarkable transformation. I was amazed that what was obvious to me seemed hidden to them: we were engaging the students in something outside themselves. Rather than trying to “control negative behaviors” we had engaged them in a positive, collaborative effort to achieve a shared goal.
Unfortunately, in the field of public health, and as a socio-economic category, “youth” is often associated with disease, and not just in “treatment centers.” Violence, drugs, alcohol abuse, and fear are daily fare at school, and even healthy kids who exhibit “negative behaviors” are evaluated to see if they’re “at risk,” as though early diagnosis will prevent infection.
It seems to me that art, as a method, is a healthier preventative that accepts reality as it is rather than trying to deny it. Finding and claiming beauty, which can be done even in the midst of war, is a fundamentally positive act that helps unite a fragmented world, and makes sense of harsh and confusing realities.
As Wendell Berry writes: “When all the parts of the body are working together, are under each other’s influence, we say that it is whole; it is healthy. The same is true of the world, of which our bodies are parts. The parts are healthy insofar as they are joined harmoniously to the whole.”+
Art helps join us, harmoniously, to a whole. It is a way to understand our place in the world. That it has become, too often, a rarified expression of some unique individual vision is, I think, evidence of fragmentation, not art. But if we look a bit deeper, we find art in every basic activity of everyday life.
John Wesley Powell put it another way that makes immense sense to me. He said, “the greater part of knowledge is always preceded by generations of doing.”* Powell explored the Colorado River before it was tamed, and knew and respected the way that native peoples lived in harmony with land, life, and other creatures. At the start of the 20th century, he wrote that phrase to introduce Frank Hamilton Cushing’s classic ethnographic study, ZuÃ±i Breadstuff.
Powell called Cushing “a man of genius” because as a teenager, he had learned from indigenous sources all the skills needed to transform the stuff of wilderness into the stuff of civilization – tools, vessels, shelter, clothing. His manual skill became the basis of immense scholarship, won him membership and a place of leadership in the ZuÃ±i tribe, and made him into a teacher of future generations, a conduit for the re-creation of culture Â all based on simple acts of doing.
By contrast, when I was a kid interested in stone-carving, I found materials in art shops and bought small chunks of cut stone off metal shelves. What I couldn’t buy was a fundamental knowledge of the essential wholeness that any art tries to express: the forces and landforms that made stone and quarry, the taste and sources of water filtered by layers of ancient rock, or the human stories that linked me, my stone, chisels, and the animal shapes I made, to the rest of my world.
Though I loved the doing of it, “being an artist” seemed shallow and dull. “Success” meant selling stuff to strangers. The reward was just money. Artists were middlemen, trapped by things that had nothing to do with art: the “market,” galleries, critics and collectors. Where was the joy of doing what I loved? Meaning and beauty? Inspiration and communication? I turned cynical, and abandoned art as cut off from people, place, beauty, culture.
Working with earth for the past ten years, however, has changed me. Everywhere I step is a quarry. Everywhere I dig, I build relationships. The result is not sculpture or architecture, but home: beauty that I share by inhabiting. When ethnologists call pottery one of the first indications of human civilization they are merely naming the obvious – when we shape the earth, we shape ourselves.
I felt this wholeness long before I knew or began to work for it as an idea Â and I had work at it for a while before I understood it. First, I started to garden, and to eat from my garden. Then I knew Â by my hands Â that I came from the earth. When I started to work with kids, I knew by experience that the act of making is more important than the thing made, or the maker.
Recently, a friend asked me to make a container for the ashes of her late husband, Jack. Being a sculptor and not a potter, I offered to contain the ashes in the material itself – to mix earth and ash, and make them into something that would be “beautiful to look at and friendly to live with.”
She said yes, and delivered a small plastic box. Inside was a plastic bag containing a few pounds of bone-grey gritty ash. There’s not much left after a body is incinerated (a process requiring thirty gallons of propane – enough, at our house, to cook our meals for 6 months!) The bulk of the tissues – primarily carbon, nitrogen, and water – all return to the air to be re-synthesized by green plants. The part that comes from the earth goes back to the earth looking alot like sand and grit.
Familiar as I am with sand and grit, this was Jack going through the screen that I used to separate coarse from fine particles. He watched me from a photo on the wall as I worked. It slowed me down. It seemed disrespectful to just let bits fall on the floor, so I was careful not to drop bits; I paid extra attention.
Materials speak. They tell you what they can and can’t do. Sand varies according to the mountains it’s made from, how it’s worked by weather and water: rain, stream, river, or ocean. Ash has qualities too, peculiar to its sources and the river of time and technology that carries it through life and death and back to life. Jack’s ashes behaved differently than sand – felt different, stuck to and pulled differently on the trowel, differed in how it came to the surface when polished, how it reflected light.
All the time, I had in mind that this was Jack.
Then I remembered what the red men tried to tell the white men who demanded the right to buy and own their land: how can we sell you the bones of our fathers and mothers, the bodies of our children? Land, people, life are all one – a gift from a generous creator, and one that finally returns to its source.
A shovel feels different now. I dig with respect; I pay attention.
William Morris suggested that the highest duty of the artist is to make a beautiful home. I don’t know if he meant a house and garden, or if he meant home in the larger sense of our place on earth, but my wife and two sons and I share a small house in a large garden which feeds us vegetables and beauty. A few years ago, planting and fertilizing and eating out of my own garden for the first time, I realized that my purpose is to make compost – to go back to the ground that grew me. As obvious as that may seem to read, it took a couple cycles of doing before it became tangible enough for me to know that my small part is worth doing, to feel the comfort and confidence that my life will have value when I die, that somehow, it will be in harmony with others Â animal, plant, soil.
All of this reassures me that art is not a thing, it’s the who and how and why of all my making: not “pieces” and exhibits and money, but children and relationships and home and family and community and neighborhood and citizenship Â including taxes paid (or not, because a garden isn’t taxable).
Kathleen Norris writes that “there is but one creator, and ‘creating’ is the very thing that artists cannot do. The gifts of the human imagination that artists employ operate equally in science and scholarship, teaching and philosophy, business and mathematics, ranching, preaching, engineering, mothering and fathering.” She goes on to suggest that the goal of art may just be for the artist to “come to a mature understanding of their communal role.”++
Mud has given me a communal role, because it invites participation and promises pleasure as well as beauty. By simplifying the doing of art, mud offers a direct and simple connection to wholeness Â a wholeness that seems to me more durable than bronze or marble.
* Interview with John Young, by Christina Bertea, in Newvillage Magazine, no. 3, 2002, p. 60.
+ from The Unsettling of America
** In the Foreword to Frank Hamilton Cushing’s classic exploration of ZuÃ±i food and culture, ZuÃ±i Breadstuff, Heye Foundation, 1920, p. 13-15.
++ The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, NY, 1997. Norris is a poet who, among other things, works as an artist-in-residence teaching poetry to children in public schools in South Dakota.