Macon: Art is key to developing problem-solving skills

Friday, May 25, 2018 8:38 PM

Creative problem-solving has become a modern day hinge pin of success. Why is art important in education and in life? Because the practice of seeing and observing, often found in artistic pursuits such as drawing, painting and sculpting, are some of the best ways to strengthen our problem-solving skills.

Yet many schools limit art class time for children, or they go about project work in a way that is one-size-fits-all. All children are born observing the world around them, but often adults tell them that their observations are not accurate.

Where does it begin? I wager right about kindergarten. Do you remember the turkey hand? If you don’t feel like you’re good at drawing, you can probably blame this exercise. You’re not alone. In November, when well-intentioned teachers have been going strong for a long time without a break, young school kids get to make a kitschy and cute rendering of a turkey made by tracing their hands on paper. Add beak and legs, and voila!

The bright promise of this activity is clouded by the dark and quiet suspicion that this is not really “art,” nor does it embody the essence of “giving thanks.” What the turkey hand does offer us is an easy way to copy our way into an agreeable two-dimensional, easy-to-color form that can’t go wrong.

The truth is that this collectively agreed upon elementary exercise that has survived the test of time – the turkey hand – has undermined the creative potential of many of us since the 1950s.

We learn through this exercise that “same is better.” Later in life, we are often rewarded for “thinking outside of the box,” yet exercises such as this keep us well inside a comfort zone that offers no reward. The turkey hand is damaging to our creative power (arguably the highest and best use of our human capacity) and hurts our potential as ace problem-solvers.

There is a popular book by Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In it, Edwards explains that a symbolic structure is like a universal picture that everyone agrees upon, like the generic “man” and “woman” silhouettes over public bathroom doors. As we have come to discover culturally, those symbols are limiting. They no more represent real people than a turkey looks like your hand. Yet because we learn language in accord with corresponding symbols, we also learn that “same is best.” Yet creative problem-solving requires a different kind of thinking.

Edwards was inspired by the findings of Nobel Prize-winning psychobiologist Richard Sperry, who was the first scientist to acknowledge that the right and left hemispheres of the human brain are responsible for different functions. Think of it this way: The left side is our “have-to” half. It is linear and logical, and we strengthen it daily through awareness of time and award for performance. The right half of the brain is non-linear and any activity you’ve ever engaged in where you lost track of time was allowing you to be right-brain dominant.

Based on Sperry’s findings, Edwards changed her teaching style to include unconventional exercises, such as drawing objects upside-down to remove the left-brain assumptions of the object so that the right brain might observe it better. Her methods became exceptionally successful. She went on to lecture on the Fortune 500 business circuit, telling business leaders about the power of creative problem-solving that is strengthened by exercises designed to learn how to observe things properly.

Drawing requires that you start with a basic unit of measurement and go from there. You look at angles, you take as many steps backward as forward, you adjust this and remove that. It is problem-solving at its best. We don’t practice this nearly enough, and it gets harder the older we get to claim our creativity because we lose confidence in our ability.

Over time, we become resistant to seeing things the way they truly are because we believe with all of the power of our dominant left hemispheres that we know what a turkey, or a hand, or an eye, or a house is supposed to look like.

We abandon our intuitive and relative perspective for a more universally agreeable notion of what something should look like.

Thankfully, the human condition quite often compels us to resist uniformity. So if your kiddo comes home from school with enthusiasm for art and a project that is more interpretive than realistic, instead of saying “That’s nice, honey, what is it?” Use these words instead: “That’s cool! Tell me about it.”

You might be raising the world’s next great creative entrepreneur.

Brenda Macon is a Durango artist of 13 years who is the founder and owner of Overall Art and Art With Brenda. She paints custom commissioned paintings and offers calligraphy services as well as art instruction. Reach her at