gentle sway of breeze
brush of bamboo leaves – music
strings the night in gold
~ Mary Grace Guevara
For several months, children in my class have had the opportunity to practice meditation, deep breathing and relaxation techniques as part of the implementation of the MindUp curriculum. Children have been learning about the different parts of the brain that are involved in our emotions and how our bodies react in stressful circumstances, while the teachers have been learning about the impact of stress on the ability of children to calm themselves, to concentrate and to learn, and about how to create learning environments that help children to self-regulate. I found myself thinking about the relationship between art and meditation, around the same time that a colleague suggested Sumi-e as an activity to do with the children. Given what we were learning from MindUp, and our earlier exploration of watercolour painting, it seemed like the perfect way to learn something new about painting, and to understand and experience art as a form of meditation.
Cathy Weisman Topal, the author of Children and Painting, provides excellent guidance around teaching children the technique and philosophy of Sumi-e (black ink painting of East Asia). Prior to painting, children can be encouraged to contemplate, and visualize each marking they wish to make, and to paint their subject using the fewest brush strokes, aiming for simplicity. The idea is to represent the life force or spirit of what is being painted. Typically subjects include the orchid, the chrysanthemum, the plum tree and the bamboo (the four gentlemen). We painted images of bamboo, which in Chinese culture symbolizes strength, acceptance of the natural flow, and openness to wisdom in emptiness. Ideally we would have used an ink stick and a grinding stone; by necessity we used black and green watercolour paint and bamboo brushes to create our paintings on rice paper. We tried using the side of the bristles and long, wide strokes for the bamboo, and the tip of the brush for the long, narrow leaves. The children eagerly explored the technique and materials involved in Sumi-e and were interested in learning about the idea of painting as an avenue to feeling calm.
I can’t say with certainty that the children saw the same connection between meditation and painting that I did. When I paint, occasionally I become so absorbed in creating that I lose track of time, an experience that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as being in flow. Perhaps as meditation becomes a more regular part of our day, the children will realize that it is in their power to use that sense of calm as part of their experience of any activity, including art. I did notice that some children took more time with their painting than they usually do. Some were quite focused and I could see a look of concentration while they attempted the new uses of the bamboo brushes. It is possible that playing traditional Japanese music performed by Yo-Yo Ma helped to create a relaxing atmosphere for painting. Exploring Sumi-e has been a very rich and important experience, not just because the children learned a new technique but because they were introduced to the philosophy behind it. A window has been opened for them to see the link between their own mental state and the act of creating.
“So when you’re thinking about creativity, it comes from a source – an inner source. When you’re meditating, you’re bringing your consciousness to that centered source of creativity and intelligence. In my opinion, it’s the best way to tap into creativity.”
~ Tosin Abasi