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Every year we take in the Arkansas Arts Center's annual Delta Exhibition. Every year, I'm impressed.

But there's another show you shouldn't miss going on at the AAC through July 22--the Young Arkansas Artists Exhibition.

Every year it is thrilling. The show suggests that every child starts out as an exuberant fauvist, an expressionist demon slopping, slathering and swirling emotive, charged color around. There's no tentativeness, no tightness--no evidence of clenched concentration steering their lines. Not at first.

Just look at the images of cats, dogs and dancing giraffes. They're amazing. The first painting I came upon, a watercolor and oil pastel confection of what I took to be a squirrel (but is actually more feline than sciurine) by a young artist named Charlie Marks, a kindergartener at Episcopal Collegiate Lower School, just floored me. It makes wonderful use of color and practically bursts out of its frame. Had I seen it in another context, I would have accepted it as the work of a mature artist.

Charlie's kindergarten cohort, the first graders, and most of the second graders represented at this show are all geniuses. Their work is vibrant, humming with something like joy, unfettered by conscience or self-doubt. But as they get older only some of them continue to make arresting images. Instead, they become competent. Some of them become obsessed with perfecting details; you start to see the effort, the way they try to imitate other images they've seen. Some can copy a face with near-photographic precision, but even the best of them seem to lost touch with the spirit that informs all the little kids.

I don't blame art teachers (God save art teachers) but perhaps there's something to the idea that instruction has a chilling effect on creative endeavor. Rules are helpful; it's much harder to write credible free verse than it is a sonnet (though it's much easier to write something crappy, call it free verse and pretend you've made poetry). Were it not for deadlines and enforced inch-counts, I might never finish one of these columns. But to be really good at something, you have to internalize and overcome the rules--you have to understand when and why they need to be broken.

But most of us get broken by the rules long before we achieve a position where we can confidently break them.

Education is necessary--young artists need to learn about perspective and the Golden Ratio and how to use Cadmium Red and French Ultramarine to produce a particular shade of gray. You have to do more than learn the technique, you have to master it. The artists represented in the Delta--like David Bailin and Warren Criswell and Lisa Krannichfeld (whose painting New Skin won this year's Grand Award) don't have to think about how to translate their ideas into real-world objects; for them that's the easy part. Real artists do all the real work in their imaginations. After that, it's just a matter of getting it down.

These fresh artists are similarly able to tap directly into their imaginations. Then we learn a little, and start to (mis)understand what art is and adopt certain ideas about the very special people who are able to make it. We become self-conscious, neurotic. Our super-ego kicks in. We worry that someone might mistake our cat for a squirrel.

I don't know much about teaching art, but if I was going to teach a kid to play golf or hit a baseball, the first thing I'd have them do is swing hard and wild. To get used to that feeling: a certain oiliness in the wrists, the way the arms can centrifuge around the body like a whip. I'd want them to taste that feeling, to internalize it, because that's what we want to come back to after we've installed all the other programs. Because without that swing speed, it doesn't really matter if your mechanics are sound.

But try to teach yourself to play golf or hit a baseball from a book--even a good one, like Ted Williams' The Science of Hitting or Jack Nicklaus' Golf My Way--and you'll probably never get a feel for the freedom essential to the task. You'll find yourself thinking about the angle of your elbow relative to your spine. And that's no way to live.

It's the same with writers--the biggest problem with young writers is none of them swing hard enough. They don't take enough chances, they're too careful, too stifled, too cool to genuinely go for anything. I tell them this, I tell them to let their editors worry about reining them in. But they don't listen, most of them. So I empathize with art teachers.

But the good news is that it's in us, folks, it really is. Maybe it's laying latent, maybe it got all confused and embarrassed in middle school and decided to lay low, but it's part of what makes us human. And you can see it manifested in the works in the Delta Exhibition in the Townsend Wolfe Gallery at the AAC and on the walls of the main hall. A kid could do that.

Maybe you can, too. If you swing hard enough.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 06/12/2018

Print Headline: Very young and early work

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