I spent all of 2012 building tree houses for my Treehouse show that was held at the Riverside Arts Center in May of 2013. While I’d taken some wood shop classes over the years, I had no formal training in constructing homes, so there was a lot of trial and error. My biggest failure was my Candy House. I spent probably twenty hours covering a tree branch turned mini tree trunk with melted Tootsie Rolls to make candy bark. I then took Lego-like candy blocks and built a house with windows, doors and a porch. I placed the house on the trunk and fashioned branches out of more tootsie rolls and thankfully, photographed it. Days later, like The Blob, the Tootsie Roll bark started migrating down the tree. Somewhat frantic, I showed my husband, who is in the candy business.
“Cold Flow,” he said.
“What is cold flow???”
“Cold flow happens when candy shape changes due to gravity. I’ve only seen it happen in those lollipops with faces.”
Ugh. Experiencing failure in art making is more common than not and I learned that I should’ve prototyped my idea on a smaller scale before investing so much time in that piece. I ended up scrapping the candy house idea and moved on to my next concept. While making art can be about making beautiful things, that can’t happen without a lot of problem-solving which always involves failure.
I try to teach the kids in my Doodle Art & Design classes that experiencing failure is a good thing. It can be tough because we live in a time where we expect a lot from our kids. We want them to take a career test in high school and know what they want to do with their lives before they get to college! There is little encouragement for exploration probably because of the high cost of college. So in addition to exposing my students to art from around the world, and many different materials, my goal is to help them become more creative and resilient, and become comfortable with failure as part of any of their journeys in life.
I’ve been teaching my Doodle Art program for three years and I am always amazed at my students’ interest in each project, the urgency with which they grab the materials, and the calmness that settles in the room as they begin to work. These kids tell me that they’d rather build stuff than draw or paint. Making art allows them to explore their physical world, use the tools they learn in math and science classes, and test out their ideas. A bonus is when they create something they can play with, such as swords and hobbyhorses. Another benefit is that making art allows children to fail in a safe place. Being able to accept failure is so important to becoming successful.
Last week we made birds and birdcages. It was a difficult project and in one of my classes, there was a bit of whining going on. Making the cages consisted of sticking wire into holes in a base, adding some glue and a bead for stability, and bending them out and attaching them with more wire at the top. Some of the kids gave up when the first wire didn’t go in easily. I explained to them that art making isn’t always easy and they need to persevere. Once the cages were built, they were to begin making their polymer clay and feather birds, which I thought was the easier part of the project.
I gave my students some suggestions such as don’t make the clay part of your bird too big, or too delicate that they can’t sit on their perch. Some kids asked me to make their birds before they even touched the clay! When I refused they sat down, got engaged, and created fun and feathered fowl! Some had to remake their birds when they discovered that a long-necked, Dr. Seuss-like bird looks great on paper, but when you build it out of clay, may not be solid enough to sit on the perch. Then you’ve got to tweak your design, and adapt it to fit.
Interestingly, in another class with the same project, I watched a child take apart her entire cage when she discovered she needed to glue the wires in. She neatly reassembled it and then went on to build very detailed birds with curved beaks to put in her cage. This child had a vision and was enjoying the process of trial and error. Not only did she not mind starting over, she seemed to expect it in order to bring her vision to fruition. And that is the goal of art class.