Friday's child

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Reva Klein on what it's like to be...artless

I'm crap at drawing," insists Renee. Looking at her artwork, her Year 8 art teacher has to admit that Renee is no Rembrandt.

But it was not always thus. In primary school, she was known as a talented draughts-girl, meticulous in execution and detail and occasionally inspired in concept. She loved doing paintings and drawings at school on particular themes and then coming home from school and working with clay and papier mache on more whimsical, non-representational pieces. Her parents were happy to supply her with anything that would enable her to give vent to her creative energy and let her know how proud they were of her.

Family and friends, too, marvelled at her artwork and teachers heaped praise on her beautifully wrought paintings and 3D work. Other children would ask her to do drawings and cartoons for them to put up on their bedroom walls. "Renee's brilliant at art," was an oft-heard remark.

Then came secondary school, and, as if overnight, Renee turned ambivalent about putting paintbrush to paper or doing any kind of artwork at school. A self-consciousness set in, enveloping her in a determination not to stick out in the crowd. She didn't want to be known as the arty kid because she was afraid of it attracting negative attention in her new school, where it was cool to drift and coast but not excel.

But there was something else going on in her mind, too. That demon self-doubt had taken hold, contaminating her previously healthy self-image. Was she really as good as everyone had made out all those years? Or were they all just being nice? When she looked back at her artwork from primary school, it was with an unrelentingly critical eye. "How could I have done that?" she'd ask herself and, more corrosively, "What did everyone else really think of it?" Given her doubts and fears, Renee decided to cover her tracks. Art is so exposing, so permanent, so obvious and unequi-vocal to the beholder. She would dumb down her drawing so that not only would she blend in with her peers but she'd also lower the expectations of her teachers. No one's going to say "could do better" to someone who looked as if she couldn't really do much better. Much easier to coast along with everyone else.

Adolescence is a sod. At its most ferocious, it can wreak havoc, undermining confidence, distorting reality, prioritising conformity at a time when you feel more alone than ever before, creating problems where none exist. Renee's compulsion to blend in, even at the cost of betraying her own talents and pleasures, is not unusual. But it doesn't make it any the less sad. Whether she "comes back" or hangs in there, out in the wilderness with everyone else, will depend on a number of factors, not least of them the insightfulness of her art teachers and the way achievement is dealt with at the school. And, just as crucially, how soon the worst of the demons of adolescence begin to lighten up.

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