How Do I Paint God?

12 May 2023

When children ask questions bigger than themselves
T here was a time when I enjoyed my career as a teacher. There was a stretch of five years where I refused any promotion or leadership position so I could focus on pedagogy. I
just wanted to teach and explore classroom teaching and learning.

To my friends and family, those five years were the quietest and boring years of my life. They hardly saw me, hardly heard from me. They were even worried I had dropped myself into a personal void, shutting the world away as I reeled from a painful divorce. An episode of my life I was not quite ready to openly discuss with them as I was struggling to make sense of my existential upheaval. I pulled down the blinds and left a Do Not Disturb sign to the life I once led.

While I allowed the world to view me as they see fit, I had other things on my mind. I wanted a break from myself. No pity party, no eating salads of sadness, no melancholy martinis. I'm going to be The Other, outside looking in. Focusing on the lives of my students, I thought
hopefully, they (being at the cusp of their youth) could teach me how to live again.

The kernel of my truth was I was 37, on my knees, rejected by a love, re- placed by a younger woman. Some days I was on the floor in a fetal po- sition, not showered and unkept for days, skin stained with salty tears and emotionally soaked in bottles of red wine. And those were the good days. On bad days, I felt alone, discarded, unwanted. A spectrum of emotions I hate but need to feel out, says the therapist.

D espite my head of department's frustration, she agreed that what I did in my classes teaching architecture and design students Creative Communications, were inspiring. Well, they were different, that's for sure.
As a teacher, I was guided by the belief that children are all gifted. No exception. Each child had a set of buttons. We just needed to know what to press, and when. In be- tween lies the wisdom of patience and a genuine interest to anticipate surprises. I see the role of a teacher much like a facilitator at a design thinking workshop - it's important to be there to support, encourage and never dictate.

Looking back, perhaps those were what I wanted and yearned for myself.

The mistake, I often pointed out to educators at workshops

I conducted, is when we expect our students to think like us. The recommended serving, I tell them, is to allow them to teach us. We are no smarter than our students espe- cially when it comes to understand
ing intergenerational shifts. There are times, we need to take a step back and allow them to permit us into their world. A world not even their parents are aware of, being teenagers and secretive.

Again, that was me with my blinds against the world.

Of course, I'm referring to my subjects per se. Teaching human communication through art is not the same as engineering or medicine. Allowing creative space is prescribed in the course outline but that all depends on the educator. Many don't understand what it means to provide "creative space". How much is enough?

Even among the educators, the old generation and the young, don't see eye to eye when it comes to boundaries and mental health support.
Again, I always place emphasis, it doesn't hurt to take a step back and learn from the students. I'm referring to how they perceive the knowledge given. Their apprehen- sion accepting the knowledge, their objection, their version to a story, and their supposition. How does it feel to be on their end looking at ours? What makes sense and what doesn't?

As an educator, I find it more re- warding to listen than to speak. To observe than to impose. To nudge than to push.

This was not always accepted well by traditionalists, namely in ivory towers bloated in their ancient days of glory with a cemented dichotomy of "I say, you follow; I'm right, you follow",

Journals after journals they publish,

yet often during intellectual dis-cussions, I find them most terrified of learning anything new inside their own classroom. So much for peer review. So much for education being the expansion of minds.

The idea of disruption was cele- brated in the corporate world but not in academia. Here, it's status quo. Don't fix what doesn't need fixing. Then where do we put progress?

But people, as I learn through life, get broken now and then. We do need fixing. Why can't we admit to that? Who taught us to say we are okay when we are not okay? Where and when do we begin to miseducate ourselves?

Not in my classroom. My classroom

is to be the creative safe space for

fixing. This includes myself.
had a class of 14 design students day was for them to draw their perception of fear. A session was typically five hours long so there was plenty of time and room for iterations.

The challenge was for them to put into shape, to visualize, an abstract concept. This is a powerful exercise in visual and emotional dexterity. It's based on the simple premise: when we are able to see our demons, know how they look, we know how best to fight them, what tools to use. It's about shifting focus as much as control in our lives, tap- ping into what seems complicated but can actually be simplified.

If we feel our challenge is bigger than ourselves, visualizing it could help to reduce the size of it. For example, when a student tells me she is afraid of a cockroach, I ask
her to draw them. One in actual size and one in her imagined, terrifying version. Then, I ask her to review the images and explain what exactly about cockroaches frightens her.

As we assess together, she touches the image. Feeling its texture helps to combat against her words, shapeshifting images in her head, turning negative to positive. The hope and goal is she realizes how insignificant the fear becomes.

Another example is when students tell me their fear of ghosts. I asked them, have you seen one to begin with?


"Then why are you afraid of some- thing you haven't encountered? How is that possible? When did it start?"

I see puzzled looks on the students'
faces. I got them in a cerebral



raw me your most

frightening image of a

ghost." I instructed them.

This is the part I blame Hollywood, the South Korean, Thai and In- donesian filmmakers. The images they draw are portrayals, social constructs. Their fear, fabricated by their media they feed themselves with. They are images of ghosts I've seen in movies.

I tape all their drawings on the wall like a mini exhibition. We stare at them like a tour group staring at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre waiting to see that infamous sfumato smile.

Soon, we started cracking up. The horrors on the wall were supposed to be ghastly, but it became a show case of the absurd. "Are you sure
you guys want to be designers?" I teased my students. "These are more terrible than terrifying."

There were several drawings of a woman with long black hair cover- ing her face. She wore a white dress that covered her feet. Feet that had never seen the light of a pedicure in her life. Some had red eyes, sunken cheeks and blood as tears streamed down her cheeks. They all looked sad and deranged. There was a nun or two, but not a single beautiful woman.

"Alright guys, why are you drawing pictures of me on my bad days?"

Everyone laughed. It was actually the truth. I saw myself in those drawings sans bottles of my Malbec, Shiraz and Merlot. Those were me ugly and at my worst. Who could possibly put up with that? Not even me.


everyone must ask a

question. Challenge what

we know about ghosts and the

supernatural world we don't even

know exist."

My students pondered and scrib- bled on pieces of post-its and stuck them on the wall.

Why are ghosts always female with long hair and long talons? Why can't they have short hair? What happened to the men? Why must they crawl? Can't they dance or look incredibly healthy? If Lucifer can be handsome, why can't ghosts? Why must they suffer? Why can't they be here haunting in joy? Why can't we say they refused heaven or hell because they want to hang out on earth? Is it wrong to want to be with their loved ones? Why is it when they're nice they have to look cute, like Casper? Must we go to heaven?
Where is God when a demon


I made them draw again. This time of what could save them should they encounter those ghastly ghouls, poltergeists and Miss Natasha on her bad days.

The students drew pictures of

god, crosses, Jesus, hearts, and an

assortment of symbols.

Two students in hijab sat staring at

their sketchbooks. They wore a look

of worry.

"What's wrong?" I asked them as 1 leaned in to their head level.

"Miss Nat, we can't draw God. It's forbidden in Islam because God cannot have a physical form."

"Okay. This is a safe space. But aren't you curious about what God would
We do. Just that our parents would be pissed if they knew."

"Okay. Let's reframe this. You're a design student. I need you to think like a design student for a moment. This is considered abstract art. A form of expression. Your religion is a part of who you are. It's inside you, in your heart. So is that feeling of devotion, your submission to a Higher Power. If you were to de- scribe that feeling to someone, what words would you choose? If you had to choose colors, what would they be? If it had a sound or a smell, what would they be? Describing them is one step to visualizing them, and could you see that as sin- ful? Also remember, not everything needs to have a face or a body. Ab- stract is not about personification, it's about expression."

The two girls looked more relaxed,
as if a weight had been uplifted

from their small shoulders.

"I feel love combined with strength."

One of them opened up. "My god is

about feeling warm inside."

Her friend chimed in, "For me God has no shape but it's bright like the sun. It can scare anything away that is dark and evil."

"God is like Pharell's song Happy" Both girls giggled. They picked up their pencils and started sketching.

Later, excitedly, they approached me to share their artwork.

"Miss, this is my idea of God. Like a burst of light in the sky. There are mountains all around and there are rivers flowing between them. It's always daytime." The other student showed me a picture of a golden crown in the sky cushioned by two fluffy clouds like cotton wools.
"But Miss Nat, promise you won't tell our parents we drew these, that we drew God."

"Pinky promise." I showed them my pinky finger and hooked it to theirs.

L ater as we wrapped up the session, the students asked me what my biggest fear was.

I looked out through the glass walls and saw the sun shining on the campus lake. Seeing the leaves on the surrounding trees moving, I could imagine the rustling of dry leaves as I stroll past later after class. It was a beautiful day and a cup of Americano awaits me at the campus Starbucks. I could smell it already hitting my nostrils.

I look at the faces of my students in front of me, wide-eyed, earnest and filled with hope and anxiety of

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