Asking for children to be taught sensitivity
‘Potatoes say they are ticklish because they are full of worms’
‘… There’s a worm that walks; it’s taking a walk, and if it goes straight on, it’ll go right to the sea…’
This is the title of a child’s picture that was displayed at the Ashiya children’s exhibition.
The children’s painting exhibition in Ashiya began in 1949 as an initiative of the city of Ashiya. At that time, we members of Gutai earned a living by teaching children to paint, and we would send the works of our children to the exhibition. However, even if on paper we were the ones who taught the children, in reality it was the children who were teaching us, and they had a profound effect on us. To obtain the works to send to the exhibition, we did various artistic experiments, and in this way, we learned to be avant-garde. Immediately after the war, we members of Gutai created several works using new methods. It is no exaggeration to say that we owe all this to the children and this exhibition.
Incidentally, this exhibition is still running today (1991, eds) and continues to show, as usual, pictures whose inspiration is, as always, totally free, and the titles of the works are very unusual, like the one mentioned.
And that wasn’t the only long title. Once there was a picture in which there was a large black circle and lot of red dots. The title was Potatoes say they are ticklish because they are full of worms. I found this very touching and I still keep it as my own motto.
It is something I often talk about.
At the art school of the university where I teach, with the arrival of the new students I used to begin my first lesson by telling them about this title: ‘When you are at home and you go to the kitchen to cook potatoes, you pick them up, but you realise they have worms wriggling about in them. How do you react?’ You probably think you have to throw the potato out. If you are the kind of man who thinks in terms of gain or losing out, you have no right to become a painter. It is more important to have a poet’s heart capable of thinking how ticklish a potato can be than to have a good painting technique.’
I teach this: if you are a person who thinks only of loss and gain, like an economic animal, then you shouldn’t learn to paint for some time.
By the way, I should say that the children didn’t tell me the title of the picture in a clear and direct way. In fact, children get fed up because the kindergarten teacher or their parents, with their rich experience and superiority complexes, ask them the titles of their work and criticise them if it has nothing to do with the painting. Thinking like this, the adults enter the world of the children’s dreams and they block them with their unkind words. Adults need to know that they have lost the spirit of the artist and are unable to imagine that ‘potatoes are ticklish’.
Even now, at over 80 years of age, Master Sone still dedicates his life to nursery school children and their painting. When he asks the children what they are painting, they, who see him as an ordinary adult, answer, ‘I’m not telling you’, because they think that Master Sone is one of those stupid grownups. So Sone says, ‘I didn’t go to nursery school so I don’t understand…’ ‘What? You didn’t go to nursery school? You’re mad! I’ll have to tell you’ (the title), and that’s how teachers at the kindergarten learn Sone’s method and eventually learn to communicate with children. They no longer disagree because they now realise that they have lost the sense of wonder that children have.
Once, when I was an adjudicator for a children’s art competition, I came across a huge picture with just one blue mark and the title ‘it’s enough’. If a child says that’s enough, it means that that’s sufficient. There’s no point in criticising, saying ‘It’s not enough, you have to paint more’. Another work that caught my attention was a box of sweets displayed without anything added or altered. The title was: This is Miyo’s.
The nursery school teacher had probably given it to her telling her to use it as a starting point for her work, but Miyo thought it was beautiful as it was, so she showed it at the exhibition. I must say, the teacher must have been a sensitive person because she let her show the box at the exhibition.
The Ashiya Children’s Painting Exhibition ran for its fortieth year in 1991. Currently, each participant has to pay fifty yen. Despite everything, they manage to put together more than ten thousand pieces of work. There is also a size limit of two metres by two metres, and still most of the works are almost at the limit. The participating nurseries struggle to find the materials, so they are constantly collecting polystyrene, wrapping paper, rolls of tarpaulin, sheets, etc., and they keep them in the storerooms. From these, the children choose the materials with which to paint pictures and build sculptures.
For example, while a child is painting a giraffe, he realises that there isn’t enough paper because the giraffe’s neck is too long. They do not intervene but only clean up the splattered colours. The prepared paper is of different types to prevent them from becoming stereotyped.
In this way, thanks to Master Sone’s teaching, children produce works of art, and many are transported to the painting exhibition by lorry. In addition, there are also works by children taught by members of Gutai or by private schools participating in the exhibition. Thus an art exhibition by children is a joy to set up.