By Joe Lugara

On the Wings of Imagination

  |  Theater & Performances  

On page 11 of “The Bird of Imagining”, there's a marvelously expressive pastel drawing by a kindergarten student, identified only as Klay, from the Children's Workshop School. Klay's drawing is less literal in its evocation of a bird than the other 20-plus illustrations that appear in the book; feathery but completely abstract, it suggests, through the wonderful happenstance of youthful art making, a dawning awareness of imaginative energy. Based on a poem by New York poet and educator Richard Lewis, the images in the book, all executed in pastel on black construction paper, were drawn by New York City public school children ranging in age from Pre-K to sixth grade. Lewis' words have inspired the images, and the images, as if in gratitude, give further lift to the author's words. Lewis is the founder of the non-profit arts and education organization, The Touchstone Center. (The Bird of Imagining is one of the Center's publications, and its second publication overall). Since its founding in 1969, Touchstone has dedicated its energies and resources to assisting children in understanding and expressing the nature of their creative power, with funding coming from organizations as diverse as the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, and Con Edison. "The poetic abilities of children have always fascinated me," says Lewis, formerly a fifth-grade classroom teacher and the author/compiler of more than 20 books on the poetic and imaginative life. "But as adults we often lose them, even as we're moving and growing. If kids can have it, why does it get crushed in the process of education, and how do we keep it alive? With Touchstone, we wanted to follow through on this — we want to discover ways in which children can't lose their imaginations in the course of education." The images in The Bird of Imagining resulted from a series of workshops called "The Flight of the Imagination" in the Touchstone Center Thematic Residency Program. The workshops were first given at the Central Park East School #1 and #2 and the River East School, from the fall of 1989 through the spring of 1990, and again at the Children's Workshop School in the spring of 1996. "We try to open up a variety of questions about what the imagination is, and we use, as part of this process, a series of thematic images from year to year. The Bird of Imagining is one of those," explains Lewis. "We try to go in depth with a variety of art forms — with the fine arts, movement or whatever — to explore these questions." Held once a week for eight weeks, the workshop began with a reading, by Lewis, of his poem, together with a movement/puppet performance of portions of the work by one of Touchstone's teacher-artists, Gigi Alvare. A strong proponent of the use of metaphor, Lewis selected the bird image for its relationship to the idea of the imagination taking flight. "We wanted to find an image that spoke of the imagination, and of the sense of a child's own imagination," he says. "The bird is a very strong image in its movement, with the quality of flight having so much to do with the way the imagination itself might move." Lewis considers the metaphor the "impetus" for the workshop's subsequent creative activities, but says that metaphor, as a term, is never specifically defined for the students. "We just go into it," he stresses. "We simply become the Bird of Imagining. The poem was just meant to begin the process. We don't go into a discussion of what metaphor is." Throughout the years, Lewis has worked with a number of themes, all of which relate to aspects of the natural world. "We've used the realms of the sea, the sky, and the earth, because we consider the imagination to be part of the natural world, not separate from it. Human knowing, and the knowing of things that exist outside of us, are one and the same." A current project, one that Lewis says Touchstone will be working with for the next couple of years, is "The Tree of Knowing". A tree, he says, "experiences a life process that we're only privy to when we use our imaginations, and part of our learning process here, as it is with the bird, is to become that tree. That way we can understand what a tree lives through in its own cycle of living and growing." Living, and growing, and an implicit sense of understanding, are three qualities communicated clearly in the pages of The Bird of Imagining. All the birds are fantastic, unlike anything in ornithology, but in their own way, each is realer than real. The 7 x 10-inch book is as intimate as a sketchbook; and as any artist would declare, a sketchbook, like a diary, contains the most personal of all impressions. The images here don't illustrate Lewis' text, but more importantly, express their own genuine reactions to it. Although two of Lewis' three children are now grown, his third, Sarah, is only 9, giving the educator concern for the continued emphasis on testing in the schools. "I'm still concerned that imaginative learning will be placed on the sidelines because of the strong emphasis on tests," he says. "There seems to be almost an anxiety among teachers and administrators — which gets passed on to the children — about the imaginative and the poetic. There's an idea that the imaginative and poetic are peripheral to learning. Well, I feel that they're crucial to learning; that if we stifle that type of learning, we stifle the role learning can play throughout our lives." For more information, go to