Possibilities, Not Limitations | Shaqe Kalaj

“I can’t do it, that’s to hard” “My son does not know how to draw” “He is disabled and can’t do it” “She is unable to write her name.” I have heard these comments and many more like them prior to doing a residency or starting a private lesson. When someone says something like this I let it pass by me because I know differently.

In my creative practice as a teaching artist, I don’t see limitations. I know I have an endless number of possibilities, approaches, and perspectives to draw on as I teach.  As a strategist and a creativity coach I look for strengths while, at the same time, understand that the creative process can help people overcome limiting statements.

I view limitations as advantages. By viewing the limitations as a positive I naturally see entry points for learning and accessing art.  For example:

I was in a class this fall in Detroit with thirty first graders. I had a student art therapist in the class who was assisting me. There was a specific student in this class who I thought would get a lot out of working one-on-one with an art therapist. When beginning the residency the homeroom teacher commented that this girl could not write her name. I could of looked at this as a limitation but I honestly saw that drawing lines and shapes would help her in in this task.

So, during the course of the residency the student TA implemented several different techniques over the residency. First, he used hand over hand, then he used a shape recognition technique, followed by the Betty Edwards method. By utilizing several different techniques the child does not become dependent on any one of them, but instead builds confidence of her/his own abilities through the process. The technique mainly used in her homeroom class was hand-over-hand. I felt one technique actually limited her experimentation but, by the end of the residency, the child was more confident, took more initiative, and began writing her name.

I was also just recently in a school where I was working with severely disabled students. On the first day when I walked in for the observation I understood what the principal mean when she told me the students “don’t do anything.” I understood her statement that a student who has no mobility, no verbal communication ability and may have some cognitive disabilities may not be able to do anything. But I tuned out that statement and I started the residency by looking for possibility. I really feel that its not my job to see limitations but to find unique entry points to the creative process and that is what I did.

I focused on mark making through painting, drawing, and sculpture. The students were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six.  Within this group there was a particular student that stood out to me. Ivan was given a paint brush and initiated painting for a half hour. He layered the paint and was really mesmerized with the process. He was using several colors but black predominated his color choices. I noticed in the following class he painted for only about five minutes. I was perplexed as to why he did not show the same interest in his painting as he had in the first session.

A few days later after mulling over I realized that he did not have the color black in his painting. As an artist who has used predominately black in several series of works of art I knew the significance of the color black.  Color can play an important role in an artist’s interest in art making. Some individuals have a need for a certain color in their painting. This need comes from what the color has to offer on an emotional level. The people who have a preference for the color black need strength and a need to understand their darker side. I have done extensive color research on the meanings of color; having this knowledge helped me figure out Ivan’s loss of interest was due to not having black as one of his choices. In the following classes Ivan had black as one of his choices and painted for at least a half hour in each session.

In the same school as Ivan was Raquel.  She was in a class for students ages ten to fifteen and is in a wheelchair, has limited mobility with her hands and does not verbally communicate. The first thing I noticed about her was her glowing smile. It was her smile that guided me through leading her through the creative process.

Raquel showed no interest in creating early that day in class. I decided to approach her by asking her if she would like to see me paint. As I painted I lightheartedly played around with choosing colors.  I noticed that her smile appeared. As I painted I asked her if she would like to join me. She took the paintbrush and did sharp strokes across the page. I accidentally sprayed her hand, as soon as the water hit her hand her smile appeared. We continued to paint while involving ourselves in a mutual play with the spray bottle. If I looked at her disinterest in painting at the beginning of the hour I could very well not have pursued this interaction. But I saw a possibility in her glowing smile and I knew that smile would teach me and guide me as our painting evolved.

Whenever I begin to work with someone or a school I am careful not to believe in statements that limit possibility. Instead, I rely on my ability to see possibility in my students, engaging them with all the tools and techniques I have developed over the years. This seems to work for me.

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