I love teaching. I love art. And I love making creative messes.

So do my students.

Potato stamps! And poster paint and newsprint. Add kids. Stir. Stand back and watch.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” – Picasso

I’m reminded of this quote every time I teach my elementary kiddos. As a history teacher, I’m always telling them stories, most well outside their personal frame of reference. It’s all so “long ago and far away” that I’ve learned to cement these wonderfully convoluted tales in their minds by introducing those stories through art.

With my students….

Charles I and the Long Parliament become hilarious comic strips.

Guy Fawkes becomes a stuffed dummy made of upcycled materials, with a placard round his neck, announcing his deeds.

A discussion about slavery and the Triangle of Trade begets a morning of poster paint and potato stamps (cut by yours truly!) and used to make African-style block prints. (Or, well, we tried. 🙂 )

Student artwork is the BEST.

Every time we’ve made one of these projects, there’s always some aspect of the mess that spins TOTALLY out of control. Paint gets spilled. Someone cuts on the wrong line. Masterpieces break apart because someone skipped a step they thought “optional.” Another pieces disintegrates in some fashion because someone thought they could “add in” x or y or z, even when I told them those two media don’t mix.

After 20 years you’d think I’d be over any nettling irritation that comes with these sorts of derailments. But I still have the need, now and then, to have a perspective check on the greater lessons that messes can give.

1. Messes can teach us better than perfection. True, it’s not comfortable. If you’re like me, you can think of twenty times when your mess was uncomfortable or in some way disastrous. But it’s not always as awful as it might seem at the outset.

2. Sometimes, the beauty is in the mess.This is especially true in art. When we allow kids (or adults, for that matter) the freedom to be messy with their creativity, then the most remarkable things happen.

Perhaps making potato stamps wasn’t THE messiest activity known to man (just wait till we do paper mache!), but let’s be honest. Cutting potato stamps with a knife equates to me trying to NOT cut my fingers off as I work. Then there were sponges to cut (not nearly as hard – used scissors for that) into triangles and other funky shapes, while little hands kept reaching in to grab the next fun design – sometimes while I was still cutting.

Poster paint was flecked everywhere. Newspaper was strewn in haphazard layers, and not always covering what it ought. Potato juice streaked hands and papers with beribboned stains.

All of this, of course, while my students asked ten jillion questions. And tried to start without instructions. And wanted to improvise their designs in o-such-messy ways.

I nearly sacrificed my fingers to make these. Totally worth it.

It’s then, when I’m in the middle of the mess and a maelstrom of questions and impulsive art-ing, that I’m reminded yet again:

3. Messes are humbling. In a good way. Especially if you work with kids.

Teaching allows me to stay grounded in the world of bickering and messes and world dynamics boiled down to playground politics. It gives a perspective on human nature I’m not likely to get anywhere else. But it is also humbling, for half the time I see myself in the daily struggles of my students.

And sometimes I don’t see myself in them. And can be doubly convicting. Often it means, like Picasso, that I’ve lost some of that native, creative unboundedness.

4. Messes are how we learn. There’s a great elasticity in being creative like a child. Your imagination bends and stretches with you, edges-of-the-paper-be-damned. Who needs lines on every project, anyway? Why can’t there be a cloud castle in every painting? Why can’t my horse have eight legs? Children have no such preset notion of what art must or must not be. Not usually. Not unless someone else has come along and “reset” their default inclinations.

So every time I start an art project with children – be it with paints, potatoes, clay, paper mache, cardboard, or some other medium – I remind myself: Let them make a mess. That’s half the fun and most of the learning. The finished project, then, becomes a recognition of the transforming journey, not necessarily an end in itself.

I’m no Picasso, but I had fun with this.

And of course, as a writer, the same principle of messes applies to my manuscripts. Now on the second week of NaNoWriMo, I find myself looking at my sprawling document that’s more telling than showing, more summary than dialogue, and I must remind myself:

5. Messes are inevitably our foundation for something greater – and as such, it’s often the best part. No success without failure. No courage without fear. Creative messes are a big part of us, bound up in our experiences. They galvanize our latent ability and refine it into something stronger, more dynamic. Something that will last beyond the present moment, and extend our vision to yet-unseen horizons.

So I keep writing. (And teaching. And potato painting. And making pottery. And paper mache…) Mess is part of the journey, yes, but it is also the foundation on which all other successes are built. My manuscript may be a mess right now, but it’s MY mess, and in there, somewhere are the foundational pieces of a well-rendered story. I may have to live out the Steven King quote and muck a bunch of manure from one pile to another to find it, but I’ll get there.

And when that project is ending, I’ll move on to the next creative mess, with open arms.

What about you? What creative messes are you sifting through right now? How have they made you a better person – or given you a clearer vision? Let me know in the comments!

And as always….thanks for reading!