My wife and I are away from home in Northern Ireland on an Artist Exchange. We were sent by the Sister Cities in Danville, KY and are being well taken care of by the Mid & East Antrim Borough Council. We are staying in Ballymena, N. Ireland and are creating a mural with a group of students from Castle Tower, a cutting-edge special needs school. Prior to our arrival, we asked their teacher to give the students a prompt – “What makes your community great?” We then scanned their drawings and created an entire composite scene, utilizing at least one component of each of the students’ drawings we were sent. We used a projector to accurately reproduce the nuances of their pictures.
One of the things that I’ve found most reassuring in the work that we’ve been doing with these students with special needs in another part of the world is that creativity is a universal equalizer. I’ve said it before – you can express yourself creatively regardless of your skill, intellect, or ability. I’m afraid that all too often, we don’t express ourselves because we aren’t the BEST at whatever we’re doing or we’re afraid that people will laugh at our efforts. There is so much that we can do to share our ideas and what matters to us without having to be Rembrandt.
The drawings we got from the children were a great forecast of the things that we would go on to experience during our visit. As I scanned their sketches, I had no idea what Poundland or Costa were. I could tell that they loved video games – a topic that was covered in at least two of the drawings. After our arrival, so many of the drawings came to life – even within the first few hours of our landing.
We found ourselves in a Poundland, a store a bit like our Dollar Tree where everything costs about a pound (their currency) buying toiletries and basic supplies. We passed Costa stores (a bit like our Starbucks with coffee and snacks) on the way to Ballymena. We even found that the houses that they had drawn were very similar to the cute, triangle-topped dwellings in the drawings. Several students had illustrated playground equipment and we saw what an emphasis that they school had placed on outdoor play, and how many new playgrounds they had added.
It’s easy to ask children to draw something, and you might not expect to see anything profound in their drawings, but these children with special needs let us see inside their world into the things that really mattered to them. I found it easy to talk to them – even adapting to their accents easier than most adults we had encountered to the point, because I knew what their priorities are. We talked about video games, and America. They were all thrilled to meet an American and asked us all kinds of questions, and it was interesting to observe how easily children can absorb culture. They are avid watchers of youtube and had all kinds of questions about our culture, which we were glad to answer.
I had never met these children before, but we bonded over shared creativity as the older students helped to paint the designs of their younger classmates. I enjoyed seeing the pride that they had in their work as they hustled and hurried over the almost paint-by-number panels we had laid out before them. Some students were quite tidy while others would have been content to paint the entire panel blue. As I looked over the balcony of the teachers’ lounge, a few of the students we had befriended saw me watching and gave a wave.
Creativity is something that we can all tap into to share what we know, love, and value to others around you. We often forget that not everyone lives within the same “bubble” as we do, and that every doodle, quilt square, or melody that we create can go a long way into explaining not only our community, but what we value ourselves. Through creativity, you choose the things that matter and truly “make them matter” –whether it’s family, cars, or even video games; by creating art about them, we are saying a lot about the things we value. While the drive to consistently reach for greatness is inherent to artist, you do not have to be able to create art at the level of a Renaissance Master to express yourself.
Often, when we face a blank canvas, a blank page, or even empty silence – we find ourselves frozen, not sure what to do next. It is in that moment that we need to ask ourselves, “What matters to me?”