The Fein Art of Artistic Development

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Sylvia Fein, The Painting Told Me What to Do, 2012.

Sylvia Fein has had the type of career most artists would covet, and she is still going strong at age 100. Her artwork has been exhibited widely since the mid-1940s, and she is considered a key figure in the American Surrealist movement, although she personally doesn’t identify with the artistic mode. Fein’s art combines historical and mythological imagery that reference her lived experiences in a fantastical and profound manner. One of her many compelling paintings is The Painting Told Me What to Do (2012), which portrays a forest where the wispy forms and textures of the trees are rendered as roaring flames. This imagined composition is an all too familiar scene in light of the epidemic of worldwide forest fires. Fein has lived in California, which is an epicenter for some of the worst fires, so this is evidently a very personal expression, made by channeling her experience and emotions through the medium of the paint.

Despite all of her achievements, Fein remains under-recognized. Although she has received some acknowledgement for her vision and talent, her notoriety has paled in comparison to her male counterparts and even other women artists who are often associated with Surrealism. I admit that I had only recently heard of her through an informative post on The Women’s Studio (see: Probst, 2020). Beyond Fein’s incredibly imaginative and genre bending imagery, I am drawn to her ongoing interests in documenting artistic development. In her decades long career, there is plenty of evidence depicting her manifestation of ideas, exploration of materials and evolving painterly style.

In addition to her own artful trajectory, Fein is renowned for her insightful contribution to the research of children’s artistic development. She actually took a long hiatus from painting to dedicate her time, energy and creativity to studying and advancing the field of art education. She attended Berkley and studied with the acclaimed –albeit under-recognized– art teacher Henry Schaefer-Simmern, whose theories on art education are as influential as more widely known educators like Viktor Lowenfeld (see: Abrahamson, 1980). Schaefer-Simmern’s ‘visual conceiving’ theory that people possess an inherent ability to transform their perceptions into holistic formations expressed as works of art (Abrahamson, 1987), inspired Fein to study the way children utilize the kinesthetics of drawing to find and express their place within the world. Over the course of 18 years, Fein collected and catalogued her daughter Heidi’s drawings. The culmination of her documentation can be seen in two essential art education themed books she published: Heidi’s Horse (1976), which observed her daughter’s art from age two through fifteen; and Drawings: Genesis Visual Thinking (1992). The latter book expounds upon her mentor’s work in connecting the earliest known art forms (cave paintings) with the evolution of pictorial communication strategies. It gives examples of motifs and patterns that appear in art that spans time and geographical locations. Through her research and writing, Fein attempts to posit answers as to why seemingly disparate forms of art including children’s art and prehistoric art have common ground in regards to elements of art (shape, space, value, form, texture and color) and principles of design.

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Still from “Sylvia Fein, Heidi’s Horse, and children’s first drawings” via YouTube.

Drawing is how children work out significant visual problems and learn to communicate symbolically in conjunction with other forms of language (i.e. written and oral). The documentation of children’s drawings over time is important in helping educators understand and scaffold how children develop cognitive and skill based approaches to pictorial communication. Theories by Schaefer-Simmern, Lowenfeld and others have evolved over time, as we collectively realize more about cognition and epistemology. Thanks to the tangible explorations by Fein et al, further advances have been made in the field of art education, which provide new ideas about how children’s image making influences their use of art materials and media in an artful manner. For example, Linda Louis has been studying how young children’s changing understanding of symbolic graphic representation leads them to use paint in ways that might be designated as being “artistic.” Louis has observed that children’s desire to communicate, is supported by a multidimensional model of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005), which identifies how they learn through an experiential and parallel movement throughout three independent realms: representational intention, mastery of visual/graphic concepts and the expressive use of the mediating properties of materials. Louis’ model recognizes that children do not fit neatly into preconditioned stages as Lowenfeld (1947) previously asserted (for a more detailed description of Lowenfeld and Louis’ theories, see: Attention to Details: Noticing Deeply Through Art).

The beautiful and confounding thing about education is that it is always in flux. It is a work in progress that changes gradually over time. As Sylvia Fein’s decades long work has proven, taking the time and making the commitment to be flexible and keep learning is a worthwhile endeavor.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern: His Life and Works.” Art Education, vol. 33, no. 8, 1980, pp. 12–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3192404. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Abrahamson, Roy E. “Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s Concept of Gestalt Artistic Forms and Cultural Interferences with the Clear Expression of Such Forms.” Visual Arts Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 1987, pp. 45–62. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20715638?seq=1. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25475761. Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Lowenfeld, Viktor. Creative and Mental Growth. Macmillan Co., New York, 1947.

Probst, Kate. “Sylvia Fein.” The Women’s Studio, 12 Jan. 2020. https://thewomensstudio.net/2020/01/12/sylvia-fein/

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