This weekend past, I volunteered at a Youth Art Fair, sponsored by the local Art League. It was a very enjoyable day, filled with pleasant sights and people, interesting conversation (and of course, enough material for at least two blogs!) Volunteering felt good, and I was rewarded for my time with two outstanding moments.

The first was when a friend—a very talented artist and award-winning silversmith—explained to me how the artwork of kindergarten and nursery school children is evaluated by the judges. I could see only shapes and blobs. She showed me favourable characteristics a judge might look for in several pictures that had been contributed by the ‘under sixes’. This child filled the background with uniform strokes of her crayon, all going in the same direction—she didn’t scribble it in. That child didn’t use primary colours, thus giving the watercolour picture of a flower an appealing and gentle appearance. Another child had actually mixed media—tiny blossoms glued onto a branch painted in sumi-e ink. All these artists were under the age of five.

In less than sixty seconds, she opened my eyes to something I would never have otherwise been able to grasp! (This new vision humbled me too; I walked away realizing you will get more money for a Vermeer done at age 3 than you will for a Chapman done at age 59!)

The second moment came during the award ceremony. The exhibits were arranged by the school grade of the artist. I was responsible for bringing forward the 1st prize-winning artwork for each grade. The children sat near their artwork, waiting for ‘the envelope please’. When I approached a table to retrieve one particular student’s first-prize artwork, the artist (age 11?) saw me approach, and his eyes widened in surprise. He watched me pick up his picture and an enormous smile spread across his face as he realized he had won. I don’t recall ever having seen such pure joy. It was a moment I won’t forget.

A lot of children who brought their work to the school the morning of the show seemed to be hesitant, if not actually stunned—‘why am I doing this?’ After the award ceremony, when the exodus of parents, children and art pieces most resembled Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow, the children seemed happy and satisfied, even if they hadn’t won a ribbon and a prize. Just being at the art fair had given them a sense of accomplishment—‘I can do this!’

For the rest of the weekend, I thought about creativity in general terms. It requires more than the ability to draw, or create an image with words or sounds. The Arts are meant not only to entertain and soothe, but to challenge and surprise us as well. I thought about what goes into ‘being creative’.

Well, naturally, you have to have imagination. That generates ideas. You need the ability to express those ideas, which calls on vision and innovation. Talent is a good thing to have, of course, and after a while, you will need a lot of that four-letter word—discipline.

None of this matters if you lack the ingredient that holds all the rest together—belief in yourself. If you don’t think you can succeed, you won’t. A defeatist attitude invariably guarantees a defeated attempt.

There is a ‘hidden benefit’ to art fairs, writing competitions, dance recitals and the school play. Sure, the children have an opportunity to showcase their work, and the parents to beam with pride and tell everyone, ‘My kid did that!’ These events offer people an opportunity to believe in themselves. That is a very daring thing, for children and adults alike. Up to now, creativity has been a personal, private thing, and now the whole world will see it.

It’s paradoxical that individual belief is a community effort. Positive individuality thrives in a positive, nurturing environment. You can’t get figs from thistles, we’re told. Even more paradoxical, individual belief in one’s self may start with someone else. The seed of potential already exists, but it must be planted, watered and nourished. Few people are strong enough to maintain belief in self in the midst of an environment of doubt and disbelief.

This poses a challenge to all of us. Positive, supportive environments are difficult to discover and to maintain. The media, the small and silver screens, are replete with examples of disbelief, scorn, and derision. I’m certain we all remember moments in our lives that were painful and disastrous, primarily because of the negative and defeating attitudes of the people around us. The challenge is to create enough positive environments in the world, thus allowing all sorts of creativity to flourish because people believe in themselves and each other.

I’m very glad there are Youth Art Fairs, Poetry Competitions, Amateur Dramatic Societies, and even the local church choir concert. They offer artists and performers an opportunity. On the face of it, they all say: show us what you can do.

The vital subtext is this: we believe in you.

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