Photographic artist Alina Kisina: “Creativity is incredibly useful for children”

I met Alina Kisina, a British-Ukrainian photographic artist, at Arsenal of Ideas IV, an educational festival where her inclusive project, Children of Vision, is being exhibited. Children of Vision is the product of long-standing cooperation between Kisina, the Kiev Special Residential School No. 11 for Children with Visual Impairments and the Mystetskyi Arsenal Charitable Foundation.

In the first part of the interview, we discussed creativity, children, education, fulfilling your potential and how to raise happy children and create a healthy society.

How do you feel about the exhibition? How did it go – it’s not your first time here?

It was fantastic. I love the technical solution we used for the exhibition. As an artist, it was amazing to be able to print my work in that size (5x7 metres). Especially when the image shows a tiny little creature, a 7-year-old kid, immersed in a huge armchair. (Kisina laughs). We were able to print the images quickly and use them to really get the message across.

Photo by: James Travis

Photo by: James Travis

I really enjoy working with the Mystetskyi Arsenal Charitable Foundation. What they do represents progress and brings people together. It’s important work.

Some of the kids from the residential school visited the exhibition. It was interesting to watch them looking at images of themselves. They enjoyed it and found it flattering – they looked for themselves in the images and kept trying to work out which one of them featured the most!

What made you choose this subject?

This is important to me. It matters that this project is useful for the children and that it gives them something. It’s a form of emotional support when someone shows an interest in them, takes pictures of them, discusses them and when people come to see an exhibition about them.

During the exhibition, many people asked me about the school and how they can help. Now the school has new friends and supporters.

The exhibition was also the birthplace of another idea which we’ve already implemented. It started when I was working with pupils from the residential school. I realised that visually communicating a child’s creative energy and inner world is quite difficult. But then the solution came to me, which is how the Children of Vision.Together Instagram project was born. We created a platform where young people can show off their unique view of the world. It’s also a great opportunity have a go at photography.

Taking part is easy, you just have to upload your images with the #COVtogether hashtag (the account has to be public for me to see the images). Everyone who takes part gets feedback from me: helpful advice and words of encouragement. The best images are used on the project’s Instagram page and may even be included in the exhibition!

We invited anyone who wants to take part to join in with this Instagram project. There are no restrictions in terms of ability, subject matter or location. We had kids send in images from all over the world. All images were used in an installation which we created together with festival attendees. Adults and kids chose images they liked and stuck them onto a wall – together we created an exhibition called Children and Creativity.

Photo by: James Travis

Photo by: James Travis

It’s wonderful to have had such a great response. That’s the whole point – to get people involved, to inspire and encourage them to express themselves.

How do you organise your work process? How do you choose who to photograph, the subject matter, the idea, the frame? How do you decide what to focus on?

I don’t plan the content of my work. I don’t choose people, subjects or ideas. I observe the world and the people in it and try to capture moments which I think have creative value. The image calls to me and my job is not to miss it!

You exhibited Children of Vision in the UK as well. How was a project about Ukrainian children received abroad?

The response is always extremely positive and full of curiosity. Children of Vision was one of the opening exhibitions for London Photomonth 2016. I remember being mobbed with people asking me about the school, the pupils, creativity and education in Ukraine!

Photo by: Alina Kisina Creative pursuits encourage social interaction and help pupils discover their potential. This Children of Vision image shows a pupil at the school during a singing lesson

People were also very interested in the kids themselves and the art they produce. When I show this project about Ukrainian kids in the UK, I always include Petrykivka paintings made by the kids and they invariably inspire respect and admiration.

Is it hard to get art the recognition it deserves in a country like Ukraine which is at war?

There are eternal subjects which remain relevant no matter the situation. We have to talk about identity and how to overcome the obstacles life throws at you today. We have to talk about the development of children which is impossible without creativity and a good education.

Photo by: Olya Kushik

Photo by: Olya Kushik

You actively engage children in creative work. Why do children need art?

I think that even the Instagram project is useful for everyone. It’s useful for adults to remember how to view the world through children’s eyes. When you look at a photo taken by a 5-year-old, it takes you back to a pure state of being which is free of the prejudices and limitations we take on as we grow.

I believe art and creativity have an extremely high practical value for children. Creative kids are not only able to apply those skills to practical problems, creativity also helps them develop abstract thinking, memory, communication skills and express themselves. It also helps them see below the surface of things. For example, kids photograph the rain, reflections, abstract compositions such as the handle of a tea cup, the shadow cast by a piece of cutlery and so on. This teaches them to be attentive, notice the details and trains the eye to look out for interesting and unusual things. These are crucial practical skills that everyone needs.

Photo by: James Travis

Photo by: James Travis

The focus of the exhibition is on pupils from the residential school. The kids have visual impairments and other disabilities. Some have several disabilities. The school allows them to try their hand in different art forms, including theatre, music, ikebana, pottery, pyrography, Petrykivka painting and dance. Every child can have a go at everything in order to find themselves. To understand what they want and don’t want to do. It’s an amazing opportunity. It’s so important for your emotional stability to know that you’re good at something and nobody can ever take it away from you. It’s extremely important, especially for children who are vulnerable in other, physical areas of their lives.

Photo by: James Travis

Photo by: James Travis

My favourite example is that when pupils from the school graduate and go to university with healthy kids, the first year is often difficult. At the school, they have special infrastructure, support, magnifying glasses, lamps and other equipment that helps them process information which isn’t always available at their university. They have to solve a lot of new problems without any support. It’s hard. But, on the other hand, they can make beautiful posters. They can perform on stage, dance, sing or even draw a Petrykivka painting for the faculty. (Kisina laughs). So they come to uni with a wide range of creative and practical skills that help them socialise, become an expert in a particular field and earn the respect of their peers before they even start to study, get a diploma or land a job.

I was told that there is a trend in Ukraine to spend less time teaching kids creative subjects and I was devastated, to be honest with you. Because over the last few years, European and British teachers I’ve spoken to are distraught. Apparently, music spaces are closing down with instruments collecting dust. It’s a mistake. And an expensive one that will have long-lasting repercussions. I was hoping Ukraine wouldn’t go down this path. It’s not a good example to follow.

Photo by: Olya Kushik

Photo by: Olya Kushik

Maybe they just want to separate art schools from regular schools?

There has to be balance. Each child should be able to do at least a few hours of music and painting. Art frees up the mind and helps you process information at a different level. Maths visualisation is a good example: if you really understand the beauty of mathematics you can visualise it. And from there, music, rhythm, colours are just a step away. In reality, all the disciplines describe the world around us – they just do it in different ways. That’s why creative subjects aren’t just fun, they’re tools used to build different mental muscles.

I know from my own experience that my child doesn’t like being forced to draw at school. As a result, the drawing happens at home with the grandmother. Is this the wrong way to organise the creative process?

Yes. When I went to different art schools as a kid, they often focused on rules, which I couldn’t understand or remember. There was a photography club next to my house when I was a kid and I assumed that it must be extremely boring and very difficult to understand, more difficult than physics, for example. In other words, I had opportunities to engage in photography as a kid but I didn’t, even though it’s obvious that the visual language comes naturally to me. I didn’t start doing photography until I was 19. How creative subjects are taught is very important. When I teach or work with kids I don’t focus on the rules, I focus on what the rules are for. The main thing is visual literacy: being able to notice the details, understanding light and becoming one with the object you’re looking at. There’s a meditative quality to it. It requires you to pay extra attention to the world around you instead of running the same mental process over and over. If a child has the experience with creative subjects you described at school that means that either he is not interested in it right now (in which case you shouldn't force him) or the teaching method needs to be adjusted. If you let a child choose for themselves, they will make a better choice.

Photo by: Alina Kisina Former pupil Ilya Sinev returns to Kiev Residential School No. 11 to teach music to the next generation

Photo by: Alina Kisina Former pupil Ilya Sinev returns to Kiev Residential School No. 11 to teach music to the next generation

But the choice has to be available in the school for that to happen.

Yes! For example, the residential school has incredible teachers who love their job and find a creative, individual approach to every child. It’s important because otherwise any class will become boring and frustrating if it’s just about rules and exams and devoid of inspiration.

You mentioned that the kids enjoy being photographed yet I know plenty of children who don’t like having their picture taken and run away when the camera comes out. Why?

I’ve been working at the residential school for several years and my observation is that it’s an age issue. Kids aged 11-12, especially boys, behave in this way. I respect that. If a child says they don't want their picture taken I put the camera away immediately. But here’s the thing, if that child sees me taking pictures of others, they intentionally walk past as if to say “I’m not in the shot, I’m just chilling here”. Sometimes they hide and peek out from behind something. It’s like they're flirting with the camera. In truth, they really want to be photographed. But if they say “don’t take pictures of me” I stop right away. After that, they follow me everywhere, trying to find their way into the shot!

Photo by: Olya Kushik

Photo by: Olya Kushik

In the Ukrainian education system we have a problem where the kids get an education which doesn’t serve them in later life. There’s the question of how to convert your education into income. Is it possible to make a creative education into a business when you graduate?

Of course. There are many people who think they have no talent. If you ask them why, it’s always the same story: they were seven, they drew a vase, the teacher was horrified by it and the child never drew again. It’s the same with music. People underestimate their creative potential. For example, understanding the logo I need for my business, designing it, designing a website, choosing a soundtrack or promoting a brand are all creative tasks. I don’t tell the kids at the residential school to bin their maths and English textbooks and just draw. Of course not. It’s a regular school. Art is there to help them with additional development. They spend half the day doing regular classes and half the day on Petrykivka painting, choir practice and so on. Only some of the school's pupils go on to work in creative industries - one of them is a jazz musician, another is a tattoo artist and another a designer. But the majority are teachers, financial experts, lawyers, zoologists etc. But the creative skills they picked up in school stay with them. They learned abstract thinking, they’re confident, they pay attention to detail, they’ve got interpersonal skills and know that there are things they’re good at. That’s a great foundation for a successful and fulfilling life.

Photo by: Alina Kisina A singing lesson at the Kiev Residential School No. 11 taught by Victoria Zotova

Photo by: Alina Kisina A singing lesson at the Kiev Residential School No. 11 taught by Victoria Zotova

Music and visual arts are doing pretty well at the moment. Is that because creative lessons weren’t cut before?

I suspect there is a connection. If someone is told they’re tone deaf as a kid, it’s much harder to overcome that and start singing at the age of thirty.  You might but you might not. There are many people who don’t know the extent of their talents and our job as human beings is to engage with those talents to the best of our ability. If you’re in the right place and your work inspires you, you’ll gladly work through the night. And if your job bores you, you will never put in the extra effort it takes to became a master of your craft instead of just someone who struggles along. Our quality of life depends on the work we do and how closely it’s aligned with who we are. We spend most of our life working. If your job matches who you are, you are in harmony with yourself and with others, you are content, decisions are easier to make, you forgive more and treat others with compassion. Your inner world has a huge impact on this. It’s also important for de-stressing. If you’re not in a creative profession but have some experience as a kid, you can pick up your guitar and play a few cords to unwind. It’s relaxing. To me, this is a key element of health alongside physical exercise and personal grooming.

Who or what can help children and adults grow creatively?

It’s important to engage kids, especially kids with disabilities, in the creative process in the way that Mystetskyi Arsenal does. They have the resources and opportunities to organise events accessible to all. Children can come along and try their hand at different activities. When I was growing up, I didn’t know you could be a photographic artist. It’s important for children to see what you can do as a job. For example, if I can draw, I can be a designer or work in advertising – these are real jobs. Information is important. Obviously, it’s essential that teachers understand this and add festivals and events like this to the school programme. I love being involved in these projects. I hope my former teacher brings her current class to the exhibition.

Photo by: Olya Kushik

Photo by: Olya Kushik

What’s your advice to these creative teachers? What should they focus on and how do they engage the kids in art?

In my experience, the first thing you have to do is forget about the rules. They’re necessary but we all think differently. Sometimes, a child who doesn’t understand the rules, i.e. how to draw a vase, will decide that they’re useless at drawing and never try it again. It’s important to observe rather than intervene, allowing the child to find their own way of understanding the world, their own toolkit and only offer help when it’s needed. If you let a child find their own way and only help them find the tools they need to follow it, there is no limit to what they can do. What a child needs is confidence and support. Every person can express themselves creatively. Maybe we need to focus less on rules, lesson plans, tests and exams.

Original article translated from Ukrainian:


Author: Mariana Bozhevich

Photo by: Olya Kushik, James Travis, Alina Kisina