Colouring outside the lines

So, I’ve been blogging for two weeks now, and after my initial posting frenzy I have decided that I really cannot manage to post every day. The housework is starting to suffer, I can’t find anything, the washing pile is taking on a life of its own, and the children are, well, just hanging off me, literally, at any given opportunity. I get the message: they are starved of attention. I’m feeling bad, and things need to settle down now into a gentle, manageable rhythm – more moderato than presto, let’s say. With that in mind I have decided to limit my posting to three times a week (hopefully quality, not quantity, in the spirit of Friday’s post – see below), and I’m going to aim to do two shorter posts and one longer one each week (but, of course, I reserve the right to completely change my mind about all of that at any point in time).

Anyway, let’s get back to the point of this post which is not really about photography or phenomenology (directly, at least). The title is inspired by this lovely poem Colour Outside the Lines, by Jared Louche:

I was always told to colour inside the lines,
but sometimes lines just confine your mind.
From somewhere far down in the orange deep
I start to see new colours flowering all around me.
Confusion looks like black static-scrapes
on crinkled, white, burned-edge paper scraps.
Sleep’s always coloured deep-ocean green,
rivers of copper tug me through lavender dreams.
Bubblegumblebees swirl from my head
When I’m being silly in bed;
electric red-yellow wasps start to drone
when I’m an angry screaming cyclone.
Thinking hard at doing maths, my head follows
pencil-thin, jagged, rust-red paths.
Shouts are nasty, silver daggers stabbing
Huge policeman’s blue hands grabbing.
Whispers slip out on a crisp, cream strip
with chocolate-brown writing typed across it.
Snores have wide, blazing tiger bands.
Boredom has no colour but fog-grey on wet sand.
Birds chirp chatty, blue paint chips.
Dog barks are cloud-white with dawn-golden sparks.
Trucks rolling by burp grouchy black splashes.
Bicycle bells ring in shaky pink flashes.
Thunder blows a splatter of sickness-green grim,
brushed throughout in a bruised-blue trim.
Boiling kettles make tiny neon-yellow fish that swim.
When I sing a song,
a long string of loud,
rowdy colour explosions
slowly go floating
past my nose and
hilarious horns brightly
pop purple spikes.
Drums’ black splashes and
guitars roar orange-red slashes clash,
blue fuzzy bass feathers fly by and
white flecks of dry piano bone-specks
spatter across the mixing mess.
Glorious, glorious, colourful mess,
But music’s the colour I love the best.

It’s a wonderful, vibrant, symphony of colour. When I read it I think of a child allowed to run wild and just create: sing, paint, make music, dance in all the glorious clashing colours of the rainbow. And don’t we, when our children are little, encourage them to run wild with bright colours, to just be creative without restriction or adhering to form? But then, as they grow up and go to school, something happens and we start expecting them to conform. We start expecting them to be neat; to colour between the lines.

When my son was three he went to pre-school. We were living in Italy at the time. I remember one day his nursery teacher pulled me aside and expressed mild concern at the fact that he struggled to keep his colouring between the lines. She was so kind and looked so earnest about it and I remember nodding my head and trying also to look concerned, but inside I was wondering why on earth this was so important, that my son who was only 3, and just wanted to run around and be wild, should be able to pick up a crayon and colour in a picture without going over the lines. I shrugged my shoulders and assumed that it was some kind of cultural thing and decided not to worry about it. Now that he is 6 and I know much more about the education system, I understand completely why that teacher expressed concern. Of course, colouring is a pre-cursor to writing and we encourage nice neat colouring in schools and nurseries so that children will develop their vital fine motor schools that will allow them to in turn develop nice neat handwriting later on.

Except of course there are some children, like my son, who have no desire to conform, and no interest in learning to colour between the lines. For them, school is a long, hard battle of wills.

Last night, Alex and I had a rare night out in London to have dinner with some old university friends. The red wine was flowing, and as we picked at our tapas we got to chatting about all the extracurricular stuff we were up to. One of us plays lead guitar in a band and does gigs, the other is taking acting classes but has dabbled in singing too, and another is getting involved in her local community, doing a course in permaculture, volunteering in her local amateur theatre group, teaching youth theatre workshops and writing screenplays (she’s a busy girl). Alex is also very much into doing photography, but also painting, and his music (we have about eight guitars in the house, all of which he plays – we joke that they are breeding). And of course I am doing my blog and photography. This is all in our spare time, on top of holding down full-time jobs. (That is apart from me as I work part-time, but I like to think the children and the housework more than make up for the other 60% of my workload.)

We wondered why it was, that at this point in our lives, in our mid 30s, we have started to feel the need to reignite our latent creative urges, which have probably for most of us pretty much lain dormant since at least our free and easy university days if not since early childhood. None of us really do particularly creative jobs for a living, but we all felt the need for some kind of outlet in our spare time (or indeed, perhaps because of this). And we all felt like we had mostly suppressed our creative sides for so long for fear of not being taken seriously, or not being very good, or lack of confidence, or lack of time, or a combination of all of the above. It is quite scary to veer off in another direction and do something new. It takes more than a bit of courage.

It’s almost as though a fresh surge of creativity has welled up from deep inside us at the same time. Yet this time, there is an urgency about it. The lazy arrogance of youth has dissipated and its place there is determination and necessity. There is a sense that this is our last chance to get it all out while we are all still young-ish, and able and full of energy-ish. But it runs deeper than that, too. Many of us at a certain point in our lives realise that maybe we might want to try walking that alternative path that we could have taken, but didn’t for whatever reason. Maybe, like me, your parents or your teachers discouraged you from following more creative subjects at school because they weren’t ‘academic’ enough and were unlikely to secure you a place at a ‘good’ university or give you those elusive ‘opportunites’ to forge a decent, respectable career.

I loved art at school. It was my favourite subject along with English, but I never took art A-level because it was just never really valued as a subject. And people (even teachers) would say, well what are you going to do with art? How crazy is that, really? And how crazy is it that vulnerable, immature 16 year olds who know nothing of the world are forced into making life-limiting decisions like that which will ultimately fashion the path they will take in life. These are the first steps we take in narrowing our choices in life rather than broadening them, and narrowing our minds.

Education is the key factor here, of course. The other day I came across a talk on TED by Sir Ken Robinson (I love TED talks – I have the app on my iPhone and watch them whenever I can snatch twenty minutes here or there) on the subject of how schools kill creativity in our children. His premise is that the global education system stifles creativity in our children in order to prepare them for an ‘ideal’ life of academia. But of course in reality this is not the kind of route that all children would desire to take, or indeed should. Why do we pressurise our children into aiming for a university education, why do we prize that above all else, when a university education doesn’t really get you a job anymore?

We are failing our children because we are not preparing them for an uncertain future, where creativity and the ability to innovate will be the most valued skills we can offer to the job market. For me it is also simply about teaching our children to be true to themselves. This is the key to creating happy, well-rounded, succesful individuals. The speech is fascinating, inspiring, sad and hilarious (I defy you not to laugh out loud at the anecdote about the girl drawing a picture of God). I highly recommend checking it out.

So I will try, (tenuously?) to bring this back to photography. I have actually been thinking about these points a lot with reference to the subject. The photograph I have included today is a picture of one of my son’s drawings. He likes to fill the page to bursting with lots of colour and lots of intricate detail. He often adds bits of torn paper with writing. It’s almost as though he cannot be contained by a piece of A4. There is everything original about this picture – my son conceived it, and coloured it himself, but there is nothing original about the photograph. It is a picture I have stolen from ‘real life’. This is something which I both enjoy and find frustrating about a photograph at the same time: it can’t exist in its own right, and (unlike other art forms) it has to be contained by its own form. I don’t wish to enter into a debate about whether photography can be art (I think unquestionably it can be), but I do question whether it can ever be truly original. You can’t colour outside the lines of a photograph… can you?

And if you can or could, what would that kind of photography look like?

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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4 Comments on “Colouring outside the lines

  1. More excellent thoughts!! I totally agree that the wrong school can crush creativity – I was like a little wild animal when I started school as I’d been allowed a very free and creative time for the first 5 years of my life..I just couldn’t understand this place where I had to be so still and perfect. It wasn’t an inherently bad school, and I do have fond memories, but in my first two years I was literally smacked, slapped, held and taught to become a more contained and “acceptable” person..leading me to become intensely “good” and “perfect” at school for the following 8 or 9 years…when I reached my last years I just couldn’t take it any more, all that creative spirit just flew out of me and I went a bit wild for a while..maybe both ways were too far in the extreme..too much freedom, too much containing…balance is the key I think..how to get that…?!

    • you are right, yes, a balance is needed… I do think we need our children to grow up to be moral, social human beings, and children do need to learn how to organise and present their thoughts and how to get on with others. These are all things they learn at school. But… I do struggle with how much regulation there is in schools although I understand why it is needed. Today in class we were writing snow poems and the teacher gave them a closed exercise in which they were given a framework of a poem and had to fill in certain words with their own ideas. Some of them just wanted to write their own words though, and were coming up with some really interesting ideas. I couldn’t stop from telling them what they were doing was good, even though the teacher’s instruction had been something else. They need to learn to follow instruction, too and in an exam they would not get the marks – see the struggle? It’s so hard, but I think there does need to be a radical re-think about how schools are organised. I wish that children were encouraged to question more and sit still less!

  2. I think it would look like light-painting, just free and wild and long exposures. 🙂

    My husband and I have been going through/are going through the same emotions when it comes to our art forms lately. He’s lucky, though…he works in a creative field and can let his urges play out and be paid to do so. At 33 I’m starting school again in the fall to finally study creative writing and library science and put my right foot forward towards my dreams.

    I think children create an urgency in us. They remind us of the legacies we leave, of how short and wonderful life is…

    I read an article about parents of recent high school students urging their children not to choose the humanities for their college majors, because of how dire the job market prospects can be in those fields. I think that is SO, SO sad. To someone who is artistically or otherwise inclined toward the arts and humanities, that is like telling them not to breathe!!

    Also, cannot believe you’ve only been blogging 2 weeks ~ well done!

    • Thanks. Feels like longer, actually. It’s so addictive! I like the idea of a light painting. Will have to think about that one…

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