A couple of months ago, I put out a call asking for donations of supplies for an urban sketching camp I wanted to run for the kids in a village in India. So many of you responded, and I had lots of supplies to take with me. A big, big thank you to my family of artists (and art stores) in the area that sent in supplies. Here is the report I promised you. It’s longish, but I guarantee it will put a smile on your face. (And if you knew nothing about the project so far, you might still like this post).
A bit of background on the project.
Nargolwadi is a little hamlet in the Deogad district of Maharashtra, India where my family has a small mango farm. Most of the inhabitants of the village work as day labor on the farms in the area and tend small plots of rice they grow around the village. My sister manages our family farm and teaches as a volunteer in the local schools. She asked if I’d teach the 17 kids in this village’s Elementary School (Grade 1 through 5) when I visited. She did all the organizing, the lesson plans, the setting up of meals and snacks. I turned up and had a blast teaching. I’m call that a good partnership. Here are our two days in photos.
This camp was based completely on observational drawing. (More about why later)
After an initial warmup sketch where the kids drew each other, they all set out with blank sheets taped to their boards, (and a simple lesson in perspective), to draw a house in the village.
Just the two minute walk felt like an adventure to us all. Here they are, drawing and painting the house. Most kids had never used paints before, or seen so many colors and they were delighted (and not one bit hesitant) to jump in and play. It was amazing to see little kids spend close to 2 hours, totally engrossed in making art.
Back at school, it was time for lunch. The government supplies lentils and rice and pays for lunch to be cooked and served to the kids every school day.
Post lunch, and it’s time for the next lesson in observational drawing: Still Life Drawing. We scour the classroom and use what we find for a setup. A globe, a watermelon, a little sculpture of a deer and hibiscus flowers. We discuss drawing what you see, not symbols, (an important recurring theme). We also discuss relative size and overlap. The kids get to work.
Not all paint palettes are created equal, and while some kids get palettes with a lot of colors, others have smaller color palettes. So I squeeze in an extra lesson discussing color mixing. We make simple color-mixing charts.
Our first lesson today is drawing from nature. The day begins with a walk around the village gathering interesting leaves and branches. It’s easy to forget to observe the everyday stuff around you. One of the best bits of about drawing from first-hand observation is that you become aware of how wonderful the smallest things in your immediate world are, and that’s a really valuable lesson.
We brought our collection of botanical specimens back to the classroom and talked about leaf shapes, color, edge patterns and the arrangements of leaves on a branch. I had lots of super-enthusiastic support in our discussions from the adults in the room: my sister of course, but also the school teacher. I taught in Marathi, a language I speak, but not well, and they all did a good bit of helping me find the right words to explain concepts and ideas.
Time for a snack. This one’s a treat for turning up at school extra early today: we started the day at 7:30 am to avoid walking out in the hot sun.
And then our last session of the day, Portrait Drawing. After a short lesson on basic proportions of the head, and more discussion on not drawing symbols for eyes, ears and noses, each kid sat down in front of a mirror and drew themselves. We talked particularly about common errors in drawing the head and we carefully observed how low in the head our eyes are, how large our ears are, and more. With every lesson we did over both days, my sister did a little show and tell of art in that genre. She put a lot of effort into finding examples of art the kids could relate to. See pictures of the kids below, their mirrors propped up against the wall, drawing themselves.
I just had to record all 17 kids and their portraits, they were delightful…
And finally, here are some shots from the ‘Art Show” in the classroom at the end of the session. All the pieces were taped up in the classroom and the parents and grandparents (who take a break from work at mid-day for lunch) came by to view the art. The kids were super-excited to show them what they did.
And that was our 2-day art camp. An all-volunteer effort by all of us. (and yes, that includes you!). Below are some answers to questions, observations and ‘what next’ thoughts. Feel free to skip them. Or, ask your own questions, I’ll add the most frequently asked ones to this section.
Thoughts, Ideas, FAQs and ‘What Next?’
On drawing from direct observation
I feel passionately about the practice of drawing from direct observation. There is special skill involved in translating the three-dimensional world onto paper. But even more than that, deep first-hand observation is a skill of value beyond art making. I thought of that a lot in teaching these kids. I also thought of the fact that it’s really, really important to instill in them the idea that their world is interesting and worth capturing, and not just the world they might see in popular media. We drew their village, their plants and their portraits.
It was a magical experience
I can’t explain how amazing it was to teach these kids. I’ve taught quite a bit, but never kids like this bunch. They’ve never seen supplies like these, never known the concept of having time to just make art all day, or even use a whole sheet of paper for one drawing… Every bit of what we did was an adventure to them. There was no self-doubt, no preconceptions of good and bad art, no idea that some of them could do it and some couldn’t… They just lapped it all up, enjoyed the process and were overjoyed at it all.
I’d like to keep this project going but I only visit India once every year or two, and it’s a pretty short visit, not enough to keep a program growing. So here are early-stage ideas of a plan I’m hatching with my sister:
We’d like these lessons and supplies to be accessible to kids all the time, not only in this hamlet, but for starters in all seven little villages in the surrounding area. So we’ll be writing up lesson plans with visuals and instructions and creating Art Packs. Each backpack will contain the supplies for 5 complete art kits, paper, and lesson plans to choose from. The backpacks will be at the mango farm and can be checked out and returned.
In the long term, I’d like to train a couple of adults to run these workshops more regularly: perhaps do some skype-based training?
Where you come in (Thank You!)
A huge big thank you to all of you: I put out a call to my local art groups and stores and to local friends and students in classes I teach asking for watercolor pan sets and brushes they can spare. And I received so many supplies, all of which were put to very good use.
Some of you also gave me money, and I wanted to share how it was used:
Some of it paid for snacks and supplies we bought locally. I ended up with some leftover money, and here’s what we decided to do with it: the school lunch that the government provides is lentil and rice. $120 (which is about what I had left) will buy eggs once a week for every one of those school kids for the whole school year. I figured good nutrition, focus, learning, they all go hand in hand…
So thank you again for your support, I’ll share any updates on the program here. I hope this post makes you as happy as it made me to be there those two days, with the kids.
Below: Shots of the mango farm, green mangoes on the tree, ripe Alphonso mangoes and left to right in the photo below: my co-conspirator, my sister Suhag. My mom and dad, who never complained when I spent four of the 7 days I visit them away on the farm…