Listening, an(d) Art

-Shruthi Ramachandra

A large part of being a youngster teaching art and design for high school students, is answering the question-

“Do the students even listen to you?”

Of course, when the outside world uses the word ‘listen’, they usually mean ‘obey’, and they’re compelled to ask this question since the present generation of children have a reputation of driving adults crazy.

When I walked into my first class with eighth grade, all of us were equally incredulous; I was in awe of how uniquely talented each of these students was, and they wondered how I could conduct a class when I looked just like one of them. After one class of still life and creative compositions, I could see each one’s pencil lines outline their identities. There is nothing left to teach these children, I panicked. Having studied in mainstream schools and colleges where textbooks hold the ultimate truth and questioning a teacher takes great courage, I wondered how I would be a role model and make these teenagers ‘listen’ to me.

But a few classes into the term and I realized something. We demand that children conform to teachers, and then put ourselves under pressure to be perfect. I was asked a hundred times if my students listen to me, and I always thought, do they have to?

Because not listening to me helped them express, and create the most wonderful artworks. Not listening to me made the class far more interesting, because I’m not the encyclopedia on art, and the students know more than we ever did. We ended up sharing a lot of knowledge, and our conversations ranged from watercolors to comic books, food to photography techniques. In no time, we felt comfortable in class like it was our own bedrooms. Some ofthe children found their favorite corners in the art room, some of them sprawled across the floor to find a comfortable posture, and some of them sat in groups humming their favorite songs while they sketched layouts for posters. None of this would have happened if they listened to me in the conventional sense.

A major part of Art and design curriculum was Interpretative design. We were all introduced to it at the same time and figured it out together as a team. The subject involves taking a basic concept (it could be a word, a visual or a thought) and develop it into a completed work of art, in the process of which we make connections along the way and explore whatever is necessary to reach the endpoint. The process here is as important as the finished work, the journey as vital as the destination. The students were also required to submit their supporting studies in which they record all their thoughts in a flow and every sketch that helped them get to the end.


Every Thursday we sat in a circle, started with a word and tried to develop it into a complete work of art. In the process, the students learned skills from acrylic colors to origami, making a mask to make-up techniques. We studied light to click good photographs, we studied anatomy to draw great portraits. The whole idea was to make connections, develop an idea into a bigger one. One of the first words we explored was ‘scream’. That was just a stimulus, but each student thought of a different interpretation of it. By the end of two weeks, we had thirteen different meanings of the same word. I couldn’t help but wonder, how brilliant these minds are when let free to think, and how dangerous it would have been to tell them what to do.

This is why we are called facilitators, not teachers. We don’t tell them what to do. We talk about what can be done, and let them find their way. Every Thursday for three years, we got together and explored a world of visuals, experimented with paints of different textures, and admired the works of artists all over the world. I slowly accepted that a teacher is just another student who has grown up too much and lost the ability to be crazy. I found my craziness in these art classes, none of which would have happened if the students had ‘listened’ to me. We listened,  and that made all the difference.



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