Little artists of excellent judgment
A FREQUENT question is, ``How did you happen to go to Nevis?'' Wearied of the routine even in the smaller and better hotels in the Caribbean, I asked the friend most knowledgeable on the subject where might be a place not infested with a program director and planned entertainment. He recommended a locally owned hotel on the island of Nevis. Tardily I went. Nevis is a small island with a small and diminishing population, mostly black and concentrated in or near Charlestown and its safe and adequate harbor. At the end of the 18th century, when Charlestown was built, Nevis was known as the ``Queen of the Caribees,'' and due to the climate, its friendly people, and the fine waters from a cliff-side spring, became a mecca for the well-to-do from Europe and the United States. The artisans who designed and built the great houses and the two-story lava stone shops and dwellings in Charlestown and Newcastle inherited and understood the laws of ratio and proportion set down by Palladio.
The hotel was on the coast about a mile north of Charlestown, a short walk, except at midday when it seemed a long walk and when one did not walk. In no time I became acquainted with many local people who were interested in my work as an art teacher. Several said, ``I wish we had something like that here.'' When I said I would like to teach there, they suggested I talk with a Mrs. Nicholl in the Department of Education of Nevis.
Mrs. Nicholl, an agreeable and knowledgeable woman, accepted my credentials and approved of my plan of furnishing art material to the students and inviting them to come and draw after school hours. The proprietor of the hotel kindly offered a corner of the breakfast room for our use. Word was sent to schools in the neighborhood and children flocked in.
To say they flocked in is an understatement. They pressed in. About six tables, the size of bridge tables, were allotted for our use. One was needed to hold supplies. Five or six eager youngsters sat at each table insisting to me that they had plenty of room and to one another that they didn't. My softhearted assistant kept bringing to me for special entrance permission two or three more pairs of appealing eyes whose owners wanted ``to draw.'' With some reason the hotel owner began guarding his flower beds. I, who had expected to be teaching older students of proper size and some judgment, found myself swirling among little beings of excellent judgment.
A student in my class does not draw from life. He or she envisions what he wants to draw and tries to draw it. His first attempts are often scratches. He is discouraged, for his untrained hand is recalcitrant. Reassured by his teacher, he studies his efforts, tries to improve them. Gradually emerges a clear drawing usually with some of the formations conceived by his primeval ancestors: a frontal eye in a profile head; articulated digits; a seated cat, side view, with two front legs; a sheep shown laterally with clefts in the hooves.
``But these things are all wrong,'' you say. ``Don't you correct them?''
``No,'' say I. ``I try never to correct. That could be destructive. This is a creative, not a technical process. Let us wait and see what happens.''
And sure enough! After some contemplation, the student makes his own corrections. The eye is in profile, the cat has lost one of its legs.
For the most part, schools and academies are not even recognizing that there may be an alternate way of learning to draw. At the age of 7, or younger, children cease drawing or lose their ability to transfer their concepts to paper. Who does what to them? When they somehow persist in learning to be artists, they find the schools swaying from one fashion to another and their leaders in a frenzy of innovation - and still teaching them HOW TO - copy.
In 1912, W.M. Flinders Petrie, who sifted civilizations in the sands of the Nile, wrote ... ``copying is an artificial system, which has no natural development in the mind, and which browses indifferently on anything that may be the fashion of the day.''
I had been happily teaching three or four days when, one early afternoon, I was told a policeman wanted to see me. In the driveway, tall and handsome, his white uniform sparkling in the bright sunlight, stood the policeman. ``Mrs. Braun, you are disobeying the law. You must have permission to teach from St. Kitts.'' Incredulously I expostulated, ``But I have permission from the Department of Education at the administration building here in Nevis.''
``You must have permission from the government of Nevis in St. Kitts.'' All government of Nevis was handled in the sister island, or rather the stepsister island of St. Kitts, and Nevis, like Cinderella, was left much of the time raking in the ashes.
The children came that afternoon chattering happily. I told them the news. They left silently.
The next morning I began telephoning St. Kitts. Now the telephone on Nevis has to be experienced to be believed. If one finally got a clear line to St. Kitts, the D. of E. line was occupied. If through some fluke one got a ring through to Government House, it was noon and everyone had gone out to lunch.
If the effort was made in the afternoon, by the time there was a clear line it was 4 o'clock and the office was closed for the day. My assistant and I took turns chivying the telephone. It was several days before I reached the minister of education. He said, ``We shall look into the matter. You will hear from us.''
I didn't. I began calling again. I extracted from someone at the D. of E. in St. Kitts a promise that they would give me an answer by the following Friday noon. That was on a Wednesday.
The following day the British-appointed governor of St. Kitts and Nevis, Sir Probyn Innes, escorted by four white-uniformed police guards, arrived at the hotel, his headquarters when on Nevis. The proprietor asked me if I would like to meet the governor. I replied I would very much like to, but couldn't think of any reason he would like to meet me so I would defer the pleasure. Who was I to meet the governor?
The next morning I waited until midday for a call from St. Kitts. None came. I told the proprietor I had changed my mind. I would now like to meet the governor.
In 10 minutes I was in the governor's suite seated with a dignified and courteous servant of the crown (and of the people) who listened attentively. He said, ``Mrs. Braun, you will hear from me this evening.''
That evening at dinner, the waiter brought me a note on a tray. It was beautifully written by hand and read: Dear Mrs. Braun,
Further to our conversation earlier to-day, I am pleased to inform you that the Ministry of Education, Health and Social Affairs approves of your giving lessons in Drawing, Painting and Sculpture at the Fin-ney's Beach Hotel, Nevis.
I am very appreciative of your kind offer. I extend to you my best wishes for every success. Sincerely, Probyn Innes, Governor