For all that my experience as an exchange student in Finland was, I walked away from the experience with an appreciation for visual arts. It was during my time there that I took my first art class, bought my first SLR camera, and took my first photography class. I also visited the Fernando Botero exhibition when it came through Helsinki.
The Botero exhibition was important to me because it was the first time that I saw art that I was astonished by. Since then, Botero has held a special place in my artistic-heart. The bold figures and vibrant colours captured my attention. It was something that wasn’t what I thought art was. It opened my eyes to the world of creative expression through a visual medium.
I ended up at the exhibition because I was travelling with another exchange student and his host-mother. We were living in Turku and he got the opportunity to go to Helsinki and invited me to join him. He was from Argentina and spoke very little English. His host-mother spoke better English. I didn’t speak any Spanish and only knew Finnish curse words. I was living with a Swedish-speaking family and “attending” a Swedish school. I didn’t speak Swedish, either.
I blindly followed my travel buddies into the exhibition, which I later found out was the impetus for the train ride to the capital city.
Fast forward some 15 years, and this morning, I was searching for some arts and culture apps for students to look at. I walked by one of the classes I teach yesterday and saw that they were working on drawings inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. (The Art Gallery of Ontario is hosting an exhibition on O’Keefe, which opens to members today (I’m a member *brush dust off of shoulder*).) I thought it’d be great to get the students looking at some art through a digital medium.
Of course, Google had something for me: Google Arts & Culture. When I opened the page, I saw that Botero was born on this day. I went down a bit of a rabbit hole for about 45 minutes as I clicked through the web of links. You should do the same: here.
When I showed students the app, getting them to stop snickering over the nude human form paintings was driving me fucking bonkers. I was so excited to share this door to the arts with them, I forgot that there would be boobies. Eventually, the majority of them settled down. When they did, I showed them works of Dali and Picasso. We agreed that they may come across “inappropriate” material as they searched for works by O’Keefe and that they were to act maturely and responsibly by navigating around these image, before I let them explore the app on their own. I did have to have a private word with a few of them during their exploration time, but they were all on track by the end.
For fucks sake, they were creating their own drawings inspired by O’Keefe and I was having to explain to them that the human form, in all its incarnations, is a beautiful thing. I might have done better to throw a handful of pansies at the board and asked them to recreate their impressions.
By the end of class, so many more students were engaged in their work than I was expecting. Students who I never anticipated would have any interest in the arts were asking for names of artists and movements to look for. They found ways to take virtual walkthroughs of museums. I was pleading with about half a dozen to give me the iPads back so I could get to my next period (prep) (I have only 13 iPads to share out).
For me, this is the power of art. This is also the magic of Google. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to be able to access so much art on a 9.7” touchscreen when I was a kid. I was 18 when I was first taken in by a painting. For me, I had to be in Helsinki, Finland, on a day trip, to get exposure to a world I never knew I’d fall in love with.
This is the power of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics): it can bring the arts to the people. It has democratized a world owned by a privileged few. For all that we teach, if we can’t teach the value and appreciation of the arts, I’m not sure any of it is worth it.
It’s fundamentally human to create. It is in the expression of ourselves that we at once find and lose who we are. There is no science to this, it’s an art.
A favoured cousin of mine sent me a link to Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel Lecture a number of years ago. It’s turned out to be one of the few things that I return to at least annually. It holds true and rings truer with each pass; give it a read. There’s so much I’d like to quote from it, but I’ll leave you with this:
A human being is an aesthetic creature before he is an ethical one.