As I’ve posted here, I’m working on improving my drawing skills by making ‘copies’ of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. It’s not a strict copying, in that I’m actually reducing the card’s area by 50% or so. And I’m not slavishly reproducing every card.
Yet a curious thing happens when I show them to folks. The non-artists greet the effort with… not contempt, exactly, but a degree of boredom, puzzlement, and — to be frank about it, mild distaste. “You should be creating your own deck,” they say. “Designing your own cards will teach you so much about the process of learning the cards.”
The artists, on the other hand, see the effort with excitement and interest. “Of COURSE this is benefitting you,” they say. “You’re learning to match hand and eye, and imprinting the skills of the artist in question into your own work, and developing a sense of how line and shadow work together. You’re taking in the capabilities of the artist. You’re learning how to manage the skills of reproducing specific images, whether from photographs or live images.”
The disconnect between the professionals and the observers can’t be any wider, and it draws me into an awareness of the challenges we face as teachers.
When you look at this other recent painting (done in Brushes, a digital app for fingerpainting on an iPad or iPhone or similar device), it becomes clear that my skills as an observer have improved from doing the cards. The cards serve as a kind of triple-curriculum: how to draw certain kinds of shapes, and how to improve one’s observational skills, and the symbolic information encoded by generations of occultists in the cards. Color, line, shadow, symbol, visuals like cities and horses and feathers and pomegranates, all have deep meaning in these cards, readable to those who study them.
It’s hard to beat that kind of centuries-long curriculum development, and it’s something that we’ve either ignored, or only just begun to explore in American teaching. How could we make color, line and symbol mean so much, and make our classrooms and our learning projects have that kind of deep relevance — one that teaches drawing, meaning, symbolism, history, mathematics, and other skills on so many different levels?
Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and other members of the 20th century pantheon of American authors, made a point of writing out the words of James Joyce or Ernest Hemingway by hand, or typing them on their typewriters. They wanted to know the sense of their chosen exemplars in their hands, in the click of the keys. Once they’d copied a few stories, they absorbed some of the lessons of those writers they admired — and were able to write their own masterpieces.
There’s an idea here of how to make a lot of critical data available to a student or students, and provide them with a way to explore certain concepts or structures on a daily basis. I’m not sure I can do it myself. I’m not sure it’s the work of one person, either, or even one whole generation. But it could be done — the evidence is here that it’s been done at least once already.