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The Present

About two years ago when I started my Art Clubs in Cambodia, I noticed that the kids who showed up (between the ages of 12 to 18) all had similar skill levels. Most kids here have limited access to art materials, so I reckoned the lack of familiarity with crayons or paintbrushes was merely that they had yet to be introduced. Artists draw stick figures before they recognize contours. Before a baby can learn to walk, she must crawl.

At my very first class I laid out art materials for 20 students—60 showed up. They were all so eager and happy to see so many markers and pencils and paint boxes, that I couldn’t turn anyone away. We tore the watercolor paper in half, and half again, so everyone could try different materials. The students waited politely for me to tell them what to paint. I explained that I wanted them to simply make marks on the paper to see what the various media could do. They did not like that idea much. The worst prompt ever is to say to a kid, “Draw whatever you like!” Most have no idea what to do and will default to their old familiars. Many drew images they had drawn before, no matter how long ago: a map-like layout of their home or school, or stylized arrangements of flowers and animals. These images were repeated across grades; certain themes were gender specific: boys drew bird’s-eye-views of soccer games, girls painted pictures of themselves in glamour pink dresses.

I learned to teach these kids by bringing an example of the project. “Today let’s make a book out of one piece of paper.” I would show the completed book as well as examples of each step: 1. Fold the paper. 2. Cut here. 3. Draw the story. 4. Outline in felt pen. 5. Color with pencils. But if I left my examples on the table, some of my baby plagiarists would simply copy my story of The Cat with the Crooked Tail verbatim. So I developed a Look-Quick strategy to explain the process, but would hide it before they used it as a template. To elicit an original response I interviewed my artists. “What does your house look like? Draw a picture of your family. Draw a picture of your favorite animal.”

Cambodia is a collaborative society. To a Western artist filled with the light of self-expression the notion of collaborating on the same drawing is confounding. At my Art Club often two or three kids will “help” each other. From what I can tell there is no discussion, like “Should we paint the roof red?” They just do as they please, as they would on their own drawing. The collaborators never dispute artistic decisions. Everyone is pretty easy going about it. When I was a kid sometimes I would get so frustrated at my drawing I would tear it up. I’d cry because it didn’t look as good as my imagination. I still tear up my drawings, (but don’t cry anymore) for the same reason. I have never seen a Khmer kid artist waste paper like that.

After our Art Club’s triumphant return from Create Cambodia, where they brought home * three * ribbons from the art show, I asked them to pass along their inspiration to launch a poster contest to Keep Our School Clean & Beautiful. We offered paper and pencils and markers to take home, and got a good response from a variety of students. As could be predicted, many of the entries looked mighty similar. The most copied motif is a curious unfolding perspective. It usually features the school gate (much grander than the one we actually have), which frames the statue of Jayavarman VII in one point perspective, with the school buildings and library laid flat, like an open box. It’s kind of like looking at a pop-up map that hasn’t been unfolded. All the kids know this trick and were very proud to have their variations taped to the wall.

Yet every once in awhile a kid will come up with a drawing that is different from the rest. It stands out because of its individual expressive qualities. This kind of self-expression is something unfamiliar and generally not encouraged in the Kingdom. But I am a trained professional, and recognize the hand of an artist. I particularly want to reach out to that kid, to let them know they have The Gift. To encourage them to unwrap themselves—they are the present they’ve been hoping for.

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