*I Can’t Art*


What a dreadful thing for a child, or adult, to believe about themselves, that they *can’t art*. This phrase is an old family chestnut, relating to what The Financier told his mother one day after school when he was young. It seems he deemed himself a failure in art class. This was back in the day when art, music, speech and gym were part of the everyday curriculum, with a grade given, like math, spelling, reading, science, etc. Frustrated with an inability to draw a perfect likeness, he believed himself to have no artistic gifts.

October 18, 2009 Ashv 011 (2)
Instead of laughing along with the rest of his family when told this story of the cute childish grammatical error, I was horrified. It is untrue, of course. Everyone, and I mean ALL OF US can art. Art is not just drawing or painting or sculpting something in a representative way, it is the creative expression of something that exists deep down inside of us, all of us.


It comes more naturally to some, admittedly, but it exists in everyone and should be encouraged the most in children, is my belief. My dear friend Gail tells me I am left-brained, whatever that means. When looking up that phrase, an explanation was found about how the left-brained sometimes have a problem with creative expression, expecting perfection and giving up when it cannot be achieved.


This hit home with me for a very clear memory still inhabits my brain, left or right, about an experience from grade school. In art class, we were asked to bring a glass bottle of any size or shape from home for a paper mache, (or papier-mâché if you insist) project. My pop bottle was supposed to be made into a squirrel standing on its hind legs with tail up and curving, just like the ones I saw regularly in our backyard eating acorns. A wadded ball of paper was taped to the top for the head with masking tape. The tail, cut out of cardboard and also taped to the bottle, was bent to resemble the curve of the real thing. Strips of newsprint were torn and dipped into the wallpaper paste bowl and slathered on the squirrel on a bottle as best as we could. I painted the whole thing brown. It was a disaster and looked nothing like my vision. On the way out of class, I threw it in the trash.


Mrs. Denham, the art teacher, a very pretty and kind lady, saw what I had done. She called my name and took me into the supply closet. I was terrifed that I was in trouble. She produced the failed squirrel and asked if it was mine. I had to admit to it, and was ashamed. She then performed a feat of extreme magic with a paintbrush dripping with black tempera. She deftly drew a face on the squirrel, eyes, ears, nose and a mouth. Suddenly it became the vision, a masterpiece, even if the head was lumpy and the tail was crooked. She turned me around to follow the path of self confidence in artistic endeavors rather than believing that things I made were awful. It literally changed my life, that magic, and I think of her with respect and fondness to this very day.


The fear of imperfection can be crippling to creative juices. The lesson here is that every single child should be encouraged to express themselves through art, be it drawing, painting, clay, or just the combination of objects in a pleasing manner, cooking, writing, dance, anything at all. Consistently applaud their efforts, brag on their creations, praise them, buy them paints, don’t be a critic. Guide them to the path of self confidence. What matters is how they view themselves.

August 20, 2009 040 (2)
What brings this little homily to mind is something that The Financier made when we were trying to make the steps to climb the steep slope of the garden behind the main house. To my husband, function is much more important than looks. The steps at the end of the wall needed to be strong and well spaced. Attractiveness was not a consideration, but being aware of my need for aesthetically pleasing in the Fairegarden, his brain came up with the curving curbing at the top of the steps, seen above. I find it to be brilliantly beautiful, a testament to his artistic inner self.


While I make most of the gardening decisions around here, the making of this space into what it is today and will be tomorrow is a joint effort. The Financier has come up with many solutions to tricky topography, including the double wall under the garage deck and the two round planters gracing either side of the old steps that belonged to the house next door that was torn down so the garage could be built, with the earth scooped out to make it level with the main house. He can so, art. And so can you.

The photos:
1. Dahlia ‘Gallery Cobra’, showing that Nature is the best in artfulness.
2. Detail of a woodpecker on a metal arbor at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, a destination, perhaps, included at the 2012 Garden Bloggers Fling in that faire city.
3. Monarch butterflies on Dahlia ‘Bishop’s Children’, see number 1.
4. Squirrel eating a black walnut, taken from the back deck at Fairegarden-East in Asheville, NC.
5. Moss hummingbird made of chickenwire, click here to read its story.
6. Offspring of offspring expressing themselves with paints, taken Thanksgiving 2010.
7. Art example by The Financier, the ivy is now gone, for anyone horrified by the sight of it.
8. See number 7.

Frances

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25 Responses to *I Can’t Art*

  1. Barbara H. says:

    What a wonderful gift your wonderful teacher gave you. What I love is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Not only did she open your eyes to what you had actually achieved, she gave you the new perspective that you have been able to share with everyone you encounter. When we have personally been in those dark places, we are able to spot it in others and hopefully bring them into the light.

    The photograph of the squirrel is sheer perfection. My guess is that besides changing your perspective on your artistic abilities, you have looked at squirrels from a different perspective, too.

    Thanks so much, Barbara. Children are so easily molded, like clay, at that tender age. Mrs. Denham, it took my brain some time to recall her name but it finally bubbled up to the surface before the post was published, was a very kind woman and I owe her an extreme debt of gratitude. Any interaction with kids, as a Girl Scout leader, kindergarten helper or substitue teacher allowed for that debt to be paid, in part. The squirrels at the Asheville house are quite bold.
    Frances

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    You are oh so right Frances. I know several people that need to read this post. They are most artsy and don’t realize it because of some person in their life telling them they can’t. I remember an art teacher telling me that I “didn’t look at” something I was supposed to be drawing. I then went home and drew a very intricate lamp with all sorts of shadows. I didn’t dare show it to him for fear of failure but it did make me “look” at most everything much more close. Now I do the opposite and worry about the little details. Ha.. So it goes.

    Thank you for that supportive comment, dear Lisa. You are such an accomplished artist, it is hard to imagine you ever being anything but. *Seeing* is crucial in representative drawing and painting, for sure. But I sincerely believe there is more to art than that at which you so excel, it is about expression and finding that which pleases you visually. It is ever evolving, too, thank goodness.
    Frances

  3. Gail says:

    Dear Frances, If only everyone could have had a Mrs Denham. She was a gift to you and every other student her kindness and wisdom touched. I am encouraged that more studies are showing that the arts, all of them, are important to creativity, learning, brain development and relaxation. Now if only the schools would forget this madness for testing and teach the whole child. I love the photos that accompany this essay! Your grands look thoughtful and fully engaged in their fun projects! xxoogail

    Thanks Gail. The grands have all grown and changed so much since that photo was taken last year, I almost couldn’t believe it was only one year ago. I like to give them art projects here and when we are at the beach together. I agree about the importance of artistic expression for mental health, too.
    xxxooo
    Frances

  4. This is one of your best posts my friend. I think I am a true mix of left and right, but it was only when I let go of my perfection that I began to make art through my writing, photography and gardening. We are all artists you know. I wrote a post on that once. Thanks for the reminder.~~Dee

    Thank you so much, dear Dee. Your writing is so wonderful, truly an art in your fingertips. I believe that I have some right brain in there as well along with the strong left tendencies. We are all a mixture, thank goodness.
    Frances

  5. Life is a funny ole thing, innit? I’m very much a self-critical perfectionist, yet I’ve never felt that way about creativity. I think all kids are creative; it just gets beaten out of us as adults. (I have been accused a few times of being too “childlike” by coworkers, and that was not a compliment, though what do they know neener neener.) How nice of your art teacher to show you some magic! I’ve always been amazed how when I teach adults to make evergreen centerpieces I hear all kinds of negative self talk, doubt, and panic. Most of my advice turned from purely functional instructions (it’s pretty basic) to giving encouragement. Two things I say over and over is “If you don’t like something, change it!” (it’s very easy to change these around) and “There is no wrong way!” It’s always fun to me how different each one ends of looking, given everyone used the same basic materials–that variety makes me feel like I’ve done my job and encouraged everyone to do their on thing. 🙂
    P.S. I also purposefully don’t have a finished one on hand to show them because it makes everyoe just try to copy what I’ve done, not do their own. Some people get really twitchy so I have a photo to show them for reference, but I show it and then take it away. HA! I’m subtly making them rely on their own visions, and watching them see it come together is fun–they become confident!

    Thanks for adding in here, Monica, it seems you have the gift of teaching as well as being able to understand your inner artist. Truly a needed gift for the many people who don’t believe in their own talents.
    Frances

  6. Layanee says:

    Oh, Frances…I love this one. I clearly remember not being able to ‘art’ in 3rd grade. Some things stick with you. I did not have a kind teacher…my pictures never were hung on the wall. I still remember that! I know I can ‘art’. I just see things differently. Love your steps and wish you still had that squirrel but perhaps the memory is enough.

    Thanks Layanee. We were lucky to have art clases back then, if not kindly and encouraging teachers. I never had anything win a prize or hang on the wall, but her magic gave me just what was needed for a lifetime of creative and fulfilling endeavors.
    Frances

  7. Leslie says:

    I have, in the past, taught workshops on art for children and would have LOVED to have had this for one of my handouts. This is exactly what I tried to impress upon the parents and teachers and you wrote it beautifully.

    Thank you so much, Leslie, I am honored that you would say such a nice thing. There needs to be more art workshops in this world.
    Frances

  8. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Wonderful post, Frances, and there’s a lesson for all of us.

    Thanks Cindy. We all need to believe in ourselves and not be stymied by perfectionism. There is no wrong way in art! I think Monica said that, and it is a good one.
    Frances

  9. Ginny says:

    Wonderful post! I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged me in all things “art ” and though I don’t consider myself especially talented I am always happy when I create. I just wish I had more time for it!

    Thanks Ginny. How lucky to have parents who cared about more than grades. I was lucky to have art in school, it was not stressed at home for me, and even more lucky to have Mrs. Denham. Someday, soon I hope that you will find the time for it.
    Frances

  10. Amen to that! I believe that making art is a fundamental part of what makes us human and different from the other inhabitants of this planet. (Although I’ve read about some animals that paint, I’m not sure they’re really making art.) I understand completely where you & the Financier are coming from. It has taken me years to get over the perfectionism thing and to go with the flow to create something I hadn’t even intended. I see that my boy has inherited my perfectionism streak, more’s the pity. Thanks for reminding me to encourage him to make art. I haven’t done so for too long.

    Thanks MMD. You have so much artistic talent, but I do see that perfectionism sneak in. Going with the flow is a good way to think about creating. I know you will teach your children well…
    Frances

  11. Gardentina says:

    Enjoyed the post…. It’s sad to see that in these days and times, the art funding for schools is going to the wayside, along with funding for other classes. The four R’s (reading, writing, ‘rithmatic, and RECESS!) are important, but so is having an outlet for creative and scientific exploration, because after all, it is these last two that spur innovation…..

    Thanks Gardenina. It is sad that schools are so strapped for cash, and so dependent upon test scores that they aren’t able to include art and music in the regular curriculum. You are exactly right about the all important innovation that makes any society better, without it, we stagnate.
    Frances

  12. Alison says:

    What a wonderful, touching post. Mrs. Denham’s actions brought tears to my eyes. Bless her!

    Thank you so much, Alison. Wherever you are now, Mrs. Denham, thank you!
    Frances

  13. Racquel says:

    So true Frances, we all have some creativity within us that we just need to find and express. I always have considered my garden my art, while my son has his music and my brother his ability to draw. 🙂

    Thanks Racquel. I agree, we all have it and no one should be telling children that they do not, or adults believe that about themselves. Gardening is for sure art!
    Frances

  14. Catherine says:

    It’s amazing those lessons that we learn in school that stay with us as adults and really teach us something. I wonder if your art teacher realized how that sweet gesture affected you. I’m very guilty of saying that I’m not creative, then my mom will say, “Oh yes you are, look at your garden.”
    Last year ,as a 7th grader, Sweet Pea took art as an elective because she is very artistic and extremely creative and loves to draw and paint. Unfortunately her teacher was into grading on perfection and it really affected how Sweet Pea felt about herself as an artist. In fact it ruined art for a lot of the students. I’m not sure how you can grade any type of art since it’s an expression of what the artist sees/feels. Luckily Sweet Pea has come to realize that she is very artistic and that it doesn’t matter what her art teacher thinks and more how she feels about it. You are right, we all can art! Loved this post!

    Hi Catherine, thanks for adding to the story here. Of course you are creative, your mom is right! Aren’t moms always right? HA I am happy to hear that your dear Sweet Pea understands that she does so have artistic talent, and grading such would have to be done on effort rather than perfection, I would think. I did not think of what happened to me in school at the time to be of any importance, but obviously my left brain thought otherwise, for the memory is clear as crystal, still. Glad you liked the post!
    Frances

  15. Linda says:

    Frances………..this is your best post ever! I’m a mentor at the Police Activities League, here in Lexington, so you’ve touched on a subject, near and dear to my heart. I teach “Recycling into Art”. When I implimented this program, the kids thought I was CRAZY! Except for a few “naturals”, it took months, for many to “get it”. At the last day of the July Jamboree, this summer, several parents came to meet me. They said they didnt believe their children could take toilet paper rolls and create something they would be proud to hang in their living room! But more important, the parents stressed that the best part was the kids repeatedly said, “I cant believe I did this beautiful Art!” Your post made me cry…….reminded me of that day! Thank You! YES! We ALL can Art! You ROCK, Frances! Linda

    Dear Linda, thank you for that wonderful comment. Bless you for your teaching and mentoring of those lucky kids. Artistic expression is what makes us human, MMD said. I believe it should be encouraged in all. You, my dear, also ROCK!
    Frances

  16. patientgardener says:

    I often tell people that they can draw or as you say do art if they just beleive in themselves. It makes me so cross when teachers and others undermine a child’s fragile confidence, it is such a hard thing to rebuild. I think your teacher must have been a very special teacher

    Hi Helen, thanks for visiting. Drawing can be difficult for some, but making art is something everyone can do and should be encouraged in that expression. Mrs. Denham was indeed a gem.
    xxxooo
    Frances

  17. Yes, I agree, he can so art! I love the curbing on the stairs. I also love that your teacher took you aside and showed you the beauty in your lumpy squirrel. Art was the only class where I ever received a failing grade in school. Not for the entire class, but for the end of term exam (yes, in England we had to draw under pressure for an art exam…crazy). Even then I wondered how on earth one could ‘fail’ at art. The comments on my piece were that it was ‘too cartoonish’. That comment was burned into my brain for years. I had a terrible sense of color back then, even my clothes didn’t go together ;), but I didn’t think what I drew was so terrible. I stopped drawing after that though, and dropped the art class the next year from my elective curriculum. I’d failed, so why pursue it? Instead, I should have told that art teacher that cartoonists can make a lot of money, or at the very least told her she had no right to squash my creativity! I’ve seen some art masters whose work I’m not fond of, but it doesn’t mean they can’t art, it’s just not to my taste. As such I have fun encouraging others, especially our godsons, to be creative. I agree with you, and think every child should enjoy art, whether they think they ‘can art’ or not.

    Thanks CV, for joining in on this topic. I can’t imagine anyone failing art if they made sufficient effort, for it is the expression of something deep inside, not engineering with a right and a wrong. Maybe that’s just me. I am so glad your creativity seems to have survived and that you encourage your little ones.
    Frances

  18. It took me a long time to understand that I could “art,” and I blame the stoopid only-one-right-way art projects we had to do in school. I gradually came to realize that both my writing and my gardening were art, and most importantly, that I could trust my own “eye” as to what looked right–in clothing, in home decor–in anything.

    Hi Kathy, thanks for telling your story here. The thinking of only one right way should never be applied to art, especially for children. I am sure your kids have been encouraged to find their inner artists with your superb teaching. Trusting your own eye, a good way to put it!
    Frances

  19. Lyn says:

    Is it really true that some schools in the USA don’t teach art and music as part of the regular curriculum? That’s horrifying! In Australia, art, music and drama are mandatory for all students from Kindergarten to Year 8, and then offered as electives right through HIgh School. I just assumed it was the same there. Seeing kids realise they can create art was always one of the joys of being a Primary Teacher for me. You can probably guess that I agree with everything you wrote. And I love that woodpecker!

    Thanks Lyn. It is with great sadness that I have to report that art and music are no longer part of the curriculum in the US, victims of cost cutting measures. They are electives in secondary school and playing an instrument or chorus is an option in some places. Art class allows for a more well rounded individual and creative expression is important for mental health. I wish it were still taught, but at the least parents can be art teachers at home. That woodpecker makes me smile, too.
    Frances

  20. Alistair says:

    Yes, teachers, some have that little bit extra, that leaves a good feeling with us for the rest of our lives. And you never know, maybe I can art after all. Frances would you mind if I added a picture of your garden and a link to your blog on my (your gardens) page. alistair

    You are so right, Alistair, some teachers, in any subject, can make a difference that stays with folks forever, good or bad. I am sure you can art, gardening is art, too, so you already are doing a great job. I would be honored for you to add my garden to your page.
    Frances

  21. Marguerite says:

    Frances, thank you for bringing this topic some attention. I remember someone saying something similar about singing once that really disturbed me. If you have a voice you can sing, why do we want to allow only people with so called ‘talent’ to take part in these activities. How sad that so many feel they can’t enjoy this. Whether it be music, art or even math and science. You don’t have to have natural talent to try an activity and derive enjoyment or benefit. We should all be encouraged to take part in whatever subject interests us, however else do we learn?

    Thanks for joining the discussion here, Marguerite. Singing is such a joyful noise, I would hate to think of anyone not doing it because they didn’t have the perfect voice. Art is exactly the same. Life is too short not to try everything!
    Frances

  22. Lola says:

    Great post.
    There is nothing more pleasing to one than the smile of a child that has just been told that “you have done a great job. I’m proud of you” You can see the self confidence in their eyes.. Beautiful.

    Thanks Lola. It is such a good thing, praising a child, or adult for that matter, on making the best effort. That is the important thing, the effort.
    Frances

  23. Jill-O says:

    My niece went through a similar difficulty as the Financier, with her 7th grade art teacher two years ago. As her creative aunt, I always gave out Christmas gifts of art supplies, beading kits and sewing lessons to encourage her creative side. I was dismayed when I overheard her say that she couldn’t draw. Apparently her art teacher was very critical of an assignment she had completed for his class.

    My feeling is that art is very subjective and the teacher should not have been critical if the piece is not a cookie cutter copy of his own work; and, at that age, creativity should be encouraged, not squashed no matter what.

    Thanks for adding here, Jill. One would think it to be common sense for art teachers to praise the efforts of children and encourage them. Parents can chime in, as well, and perhaps override any negative comments.
    Frances

  24. Very nice post Frances. It is so true to encourage and not criticize. Too many teachers did just that and squashed budding creativity. I had no problem with art, but I do remember every teacher that said discouraging things or worse. Especially the one responsible for beating the left handedness out of me in second grade. I am a right hander today as a result.

    Thanks Donna. As a left hander, I am horrified at the thought of someone trying to change such an inborn trait. Luckily my father had a little talk with my teacher in the early years when she wanted everyone’s papers turned the same way on their desks. I see that you were still able to keep that strong creative streak, very much so, for you are an awesome artist!
    Frances

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