A few school children may have been set on a journey towards self discovery at the National Arts Festival. This thanks to the education project of the Matisse: Rhythm and Meaning exhibition’s education outreach project in Grahamstown. Years from now, somewhere washed in wonder and acclaim, a star artist will probably speak of the 2016 Standard Bank Children’s Festival as the place they were born as artists. The Children’s Festival, which takes place at the St Andrew's Prep-School, was conceived as a space where parents attending the National Arts Festival could drop their children. These children can then have a specifically designed experience of the Arts Festival.
The curator and facilitator of the education outreach part of the Matisse exhibition, Wilhelm van Rensburg, took them through one of the specially designed workshops using the Matisse visual literacy workbook for kids. The workbook is titled Meet Matisse Master of Modern Art. The alliteration is the first sign of the playful nature of the exercises it contains. During one of the classes, defying the dry chill of the art charmed Grahamstown, van Rensburg and the kids wore blue berets and aprons and went through the exercises page by page.
At first shy, and later growing bright and bubbly, kids aged between 9 and 15 traced the curved cursive tail of the letter “Z” in Matisse’s calligraphic work. They learn how to see and read its resemblance in the spiral of the snail’s shell that inspired it. Then the exercise continues by showing them the Modernist master’s paper-cut piece titled Snail. The earlier games with the letter Z and snails suddenly make sense. It’s all part of showing them how a creative process in the making of a masterpiece looks like. The magic is in watching the kids open up like blooming flowers as it all begins to make sense.
Later in the day at ThinkFest, van Rensburg spoke about the rationale behind his work book and teaching method: “The idea is to help children develop intelligence or aptitude for art as opposed to just giving them knowledge about art.” He explained that the forthcoming Matisse exhibition can’t have found a more fertile place. For instance, he pointed to “6 pages in the grade 11 Visual Art text book is dedicated to the art of Matisse. Not even the French curriculum is that generous,” he said.