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Self-Portrait with Rising Moon

At the Happiness Homestay schoolhouse the Art Club kids range in age from 6 to 60. Usually some of the international Happiness guests show up as well as the local kids. Last night we drew our first self-portraits with lots of laughter in the process. Cambodian children have very little experience with art materials. This is all delightful news to them.

I noticed that pretty much all the kids, whether 6 or 16, are at about the same skill level. Looks to me like scribbles beget stick figures until open perspective occurs, which is followed by closed perspective, then realism. I remember my own son’s artistic expression at six was completely free of convention. (I framed and entered his work in a show at the Boulder Museum when he was eight, not revealing his age. Viewers compared his work to early Milton Avery.) At ten he moved onto logic and realism.

Cambodian children are taught to choose the correct answer. No one asks them what they think. Originality is not the prize here. American children’s art is displayed on refrigerators all across the land. Not so many refrigerators here in Cambodia. Not so many colored pencils or the opportunity to use them, either.

At the beginning of the first class I asked the kids to make a notebook by folding a couple of pieces of paper in half. I said they could title their notebook and decorate it as they liked. The room grew quiet. No one moved. I had my cohort translate in Khmer. “They don’t understand what you want them to do.” I want them to make up a title for their notebook. “That’s what they don’t understand. They want you to tell them what to write on the cover.” How about My Notebook and your name? Okay! Now let’s proceed.

Drawing and redrawing the same scenario is part of the development process. Kids that haven’t picked up a pencil in six months will go right back to that blue bunny, or girl with the rose-red shoes, or the elephant in the garden that they’ve drawn before.

Peace Corps English teachers share stories of exasperation—how difficult it is to elicit critical thinking. Cambodian students may know a true or false answer, they can fill-in-the-blank with a word from a list provided, and they can even make a pretty good guess at a multiple choice question. But they cannot (or will not risk) speculation. If Peseak built a rocket and pointed it at the moon, where do you think he will go? No clue. Better ask Peseak.

I’m shooting for the moon. I cajoled, prodded and pushed those kids last night. I made them draw as big as the paper. BIGGER! I yelled at them to put more color on the page. Their self-portraits had purple hair and big brown ears and red lips. It made them laugh and laugh. It made me pleased. We’re on the launch pad, and the moon is rising.


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