By Bianca Polak
10 November 2006
My motivation to embark on this journey of Visual Arts and Creativity was an interest in arts and philosophy that I have always had. I am someone who doesnít like to specialise in only particular topic, I believe in multi-disciplinary and always had the problem of having too many diverse interests. Some people would say that I canít focus, but I feel it is good in some ways not to be too specialised. My expectation of this course was to learn more on the artistic process, different philosophies on creativity and how this can be used in education. Besides creative courses in free time, I had never taken an art class before on an academic level, so my expectations were quite open.
In an adult life learning takes place by building onto prior experiences and I see the journey of this course as part of my life journey. Each learning experience will reshape the way I look at the world and put things that I already knew into a new perspective. Somehow throughout this course I was reminded of an experience that I had back in the nineties when I travelled through Ireland. There is this prehistoric monument at Newgrange, which is a burial monument, of 5000 years old with a special chamber where the light only enters on winter solstice day once a year. Itís a very mystical place and it has a big stone at the entrance showing a triple spiral pattern. This pattern is said to be representing the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth: the cycle of life. Winter solstice is also a special day for me as I was born just a few days before this day.
When we first started off with the course I was surprised to find that all of us came from a very different background. I was expecting that I would be the odd one out, something that Iím very used to, but in this course we were all "odd ones". This made the class even more interesting. It also probably caused us as a group to warm up quite slowly and I felt that only towards week 4 or 5 we were starting to be more comfortable with each other and for some of us probably also with the way the class was conducted. I really enjoyed the combination of having a discussion on a topic at the start of the class and doing an activity in the second half of the class. The activities were something quite new to me, in the way they were conducted. It was very refreshing to be free to explore the different materials that we used and various ways of looking at and representing the same thing.
Besides playing with the materials and doing the activities, the social element was also very important. If we were to do the same in isolation, it would have been less meaningful. In this setting we not only explored on our own, but had to share with the rest of the group afterwards. Trying to articulate our own thoughts during the process of creation and seeing how our classmates came up with very different creations based on the same material, same time span, and same "instruction". This in itself created another dimension to the activity, a social dimension. And not only sharing our individual works and processes, but we even had to make changes to other peopleís work in the painting exercise or do an activity together with a peer in the nails activity.
Another aspect that I particularly liked about the activities was the unorthodox way of using the materials. Especially during the last exercise where we explored the different ways in which plaster could be used. But already in the first weekís activity when we were given sheets of paper to make something 3D out of it. And then in the week after to represent the same 3D shape with clay material. Funny enough, even though clay is by nature creating 3D shapes, it was not so straight-forward to "copy" the paper form into clay keeping the same concept about it. Another thing that I noticed only later when putting the different art works together is that in my plaster experiments on paper my last plaster works seems to have a similar movement as the charcoal drawing.
The readings that were given to us throughout the course were all interesting and each shedding a different light on creativity, art and sensory experiences. It sets us thinking on our own conceptions and trying to redefine the way we feel about them or giving us new ways to verbalise what we intuitively already know.
The notion of creativity is often perceived as being restricted to the arts scene. When signing up for a class on Visual Arts and Creativity one of my fears was initially (and I was glad that this was taken away immediately in the first session), that the focus would be purely on creativity in the arts. Arthur Miller and Howard Gardnerís articles explored the differences and similarities in creativity between famous people such as Einstein and Picasso from various disciplines. My personal belief is that creativity exists in multiple forms, and that everyone has an innate ability to be creative. But some people are more creative than others. James Adamís Conceptual Blockbusting theory was an eye opener for me. It gives a logical explanation why creativity is more profound in some individuals; that we all have emotional blocks of some form, that prevent us from being creative in some situations.
The most intriguing article to me was "Flow" by Csikszentmihalyi. His theory explains a lot of things that are happening in my life, or experiences from the past. The notion of enjoyment which can be both passive and active and a balance between challenges and skill required to get an experience of flow. And as you get more skilled, the challenges need to be higher to experience a similar sense of flow. To relate this to an experience that I had parallel to this course was a scuba diving course that I took.
My first time I went with a dive school and the instructors were not particularly good. Prior to going to Pulau Tioman for the actual diving, we had a session in the swimming pool to learn the required skills in a not so deep simulated environment. The instructor rushed through the skills and one of the skills I couldnít master the first time around, which was the removal (and placing back) of the mask while underwater. He told me not to worry, I would be able to practice this again in confined water at the resort, as there was no more time for me at the end of the session to practice it in the pool till I was comfortable. At the actual dive I was scared to do this 10m down at the seabed. My skill level was low, the challenge comparatively high and the anxiety causing me not to enjoy it. Finally I had to abort the dives after my 2nd dive because of an ear problem. Recently I went again with another dive school. After practising the skills first in the pool till was totally comfortable and confident, I went to Pulau Aur for the actual dives. This time, with my skills being higher, the challenge level and skill level were in balance and I thoroughly enjoyed the dive experiences and surely experienced the sense of "flow".
At the last class session we were handed an article by Alfie Kohn on the rewards system that is so prevalent in our educational systems (although I jokingly mentioned in class that Singapore is the example of having purely extrinsic rewards, this is more or less a global symptom). And in fact Csikszentmihalyi also mentions something on getting a flow experience only when the motivation is intrinsic, the experience should be auto-telic, without the expectation of some future benefit.
When I reflect back on my own education, in Holland, it has been quite free and up to myself to make out of it what I wanted. The secondary school I went to allowed me to choose my own selection of topics and the combination of subjects that I chose was quite odd. I chose to do a combination of languages (Dutch, English, French, Latin, ancient Greek) and science subjects (Mathematics B, Physics, Chemistry). I was only required to choose 7 topics, but because of my personal interest I decided to choose these eight. The school system at that time was still such that extrinsic motivation of grades and rewards was promoted. Some of my classmates at the time thought I was weird, doing more than required and also my choice of the classic languages was considered odd amongst my peers. I even decided in the year of my exams (at Secondary 6, so probably comparable to A-levels) that it didnít make sense for me to learn certain things just for the sake of a grade. I concentrated on studying the things that I was interested in.
When I went to study at the university I had a hard time choosing a major. I was interested in languages and cultures, as well as scientific subjects, especially maths. Finally I settled for Computer Science, with a major in Artificial Intelligence. This was the only study I could find at the time that was multi-disciplinary enough to satisfy my diverse interests, it comprised of maths, concepts of computer theory, cognitive psychology, neurology, linguistics and philosophy. My interests in arts was satisfied by taking up theatre classes, pottery, silk-screen printing, etc. as extra curricular activities.
If I compare the MSc that I did back then and the MA Iím doing now at NIE, I would say that the university in Amsterdam that I went to was definitely more individualistic, but also more on an academic level. What I consider to be an academic level is to promote dialogue and critical thinking about the various theories and shape your own personal meaning. Attendance in Amsterdam was not marked, and it was left up to us to attend the classes that we found useful for our own learning. The motivation of my fellow students at the time was mostly because they were interested in the topic. Probably at some of the other faculties this would have differed, such as Law and Economics. They were known to be the courses that would lead to an easy degree with good career potentials. But if I compare it with my classmates at the NIE who started in the same year, to pursue a MA in Instructional Design and Technology, most of them decided to do this in order to get a degree that will give them a chance of salary increase and promotion.
Putting this into the light of Singaporeís meritocratic society, this is no surprise. To change this would require a change of the entire society, not just the schools, not just the teachers, not just the students. Even if the schools would change their teaching methods, place less emphasis on rewards and awards, are the employers willing to hire these "new kids on the block"? They will be more versatile, critical thinkers, but it also means they will have problems adopting in corporate structures that are better suited for people with who are able to learn and follow procedures. Either you have to find a way to adapt and fit in with the organisational culture and build your own little kingdom within the bigger kingdom or if you canít you have to find a different way to survive. Although big corporate organisations do keep coming with new business strategies and organisational change methods (which to me are the same thing with new labels), their ultimate underlying structure is not going to change.
There is always room to improve and I do personally hope that Singaporeís school system is able to slowly transform to a more socio-constructivist style, but we have to be realistic and critical as well. There are advantages in the way Singaporeís school system is organised. In some way, respect for others, other religions, other cultures, other ways of thinking, other people, is being "taught". This results in different cultures and different religions blending very well with each other. In Holland in the recent years school teachers and school children have been threatened or killed out of religious or cultural differences. Even more extreme so in some schools in the USA, such as the Columbine incident.
Back to this course, the readings, activities and discussions we had in class (and outside), have shed a different light on what creativity comprises of, what visual arts is. It also helped me to shape my thinking on other aspects of life, of my past experiences (that for some reason re-emerged) and current experiences. When looking at my expectations at the start of this course, it has certainly satisfied those expectations and has even exceeded it. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire journey, which had a lot of "flow" experiences in it (both passive and active). I will miss the sessions and our group, but Iím quite sure weíll meet up some time with at least part of this group.
This is not the endÖ itís just a segment of my life cycle and it will help me to explore more on some of the things we touched on during class.
It was an interesting and colourful journey!