SULFIATI HARRIS ON THE ART OF TEACHING ART
Sulfiati with campers at Camp Badger in California
Melinda Wallis: Will you share your “creative self” and also give us a little bio of yourself?
Sulfiati Harris: The Harris’ lived in San Diego for many years, as our family of three children grew up. For many years, I ran the child care program at national and California regional congresses and met so many Subud families there. I’ve been in Subud for 44 years. I’m currently living in Miramonte, California, 30 miles east of Fresno, up in the mountains at 4000 ft. I live with my husband Sharif. Living with us right now is our daughter and family of six! We’re with the Subud San Joaquin Valley group.
If you had to choose an “art hat,” what would it be called? Art Educator?
I consider myself a Youth Activities Director. Yes, an Art Educator.
Did you do art as a child?
My Mom was an art major, and she raised us doing art projects — clay, mosaics, painting, you name it. So for me, it’s a lifelong habit to do art
What type of art are you doing now?
I feel that right now I am an art educator. Later, in another phase of my life, I will do my own art, when I have space, physically and psychologically.
It seems to me that being an art educator is an art in itself. You can bring the creativity out in people, yes?
Yes! I run the after school program at a local elementary school: kindergarten through 8th grade. There are about 123 kids a day in the program, from 3-4:30 pm.
What is the effect on the kids when you do art with them?
I can see kids come alive when they do art. I plan activities so that there is an excitement to it, so that there is a “hook” in the beginning to get the kids to buy into the experience. At our After School Program, they have a choice every three weeks of what they would like to do – what "club” to join. This is one of the few times they have a choice during their school day. These clubs include such fun as video making, chess, cooking and sewing, and a variety of sports. We also have clubs in the various arts, including beading, theater games and productions, going on field trips to see plays, fabric dyeing, drawing, artist trading cards, etc.
I feel very lucky that I am able to run a program like this in a beautiful public school facility, with nine staff members and a good budget for training and materials. All paid for by the State of California. Amazing! I also run a summer camp, Camp Badger, with many of the same staff. This is a further development of that philosophy. The camp is an exciting adventure for the kids and full of absorbing art experiences (clay sculpture, drama production, dyeing, candle-making, etc). It is a Susila Dharma USA project and through their help and through other fundraising we are able to offer the camp experience at a price that is half to a third of what other local camps charge. It is held at Seven Circles Retreat, a Subud project. The camp is an exciting adventure for the kids, and full of really interesting art experiences. And FUN is an important part of all this.
What do you feel is special about the camp?
One great thing is that the teachers at the camp are experts in their fields. One of the drama teachers is a working actress. The ceramics teacher is a professional. I am a professional at tie-dye.
Speaking of tie-dye, let’s go back in time. Please tell us about your tie-dye business! I think you did that several decades ago!
Yes, I wanted to sell something that was an open-ended kind of art activity that would give people a unique and successful art experience. The content was an easy-to-use technique that anyone could do. It was important to me that people could create something that could be part of daily life. A deeper meaning is that wearing your own art is a daily reminder of “who you are as a person” — a creative person!
Rainbow Rock was the name of the tie-dye kit business. I had it for ten years, started out in my garage. The business sold in 1999. It’s called TULIP now and it's still helping spread art!
On the subject of art education. People talk about the "instrumental" value of art education — higher tests scores, things like that. But what do you think is the deeper value?
To me, doing art activities is about “no more wasted lives.”
The goal is to help kids find their true nature and
discover what makes them happy.
It’s like mining for gold.
For instance, there’s a kid, call him Jimmy. His parents are not home much, he has a nanny, and he’s in 4th grade. He looks lost most of the time, kind of uncared for. He started coming to the tie-dye class and got so excited. He came alive. Then he came to a water color class and came alive again! He doesn’t know where he belongs, generally, but doing art gives him a feeling of who he is because he is experiencing something that makes him happy. It opens a window. If he can come to Camp Badger, that could be developed further.
Clearly you thoroughly enjoy teaching art! Has that always been the case?
It took me about four years to get comfortable teaching art. The junior high kids are still a challenge! For one thing they are taller than me! Now I also enjoy teaching beading, cake decorating, origami, of course tie-dye and all kinds of other dye techniques, sewing, decorative painting, candle-making, and so on.
After you joined Subud, did you experience a change in your relationship to art and teaching?
I joined Subud at age 23. At that time I was teaching high school English. The latihan was so strong, I went into crisis, andI couldn’t go on teaching at that point. I was a true space cadet! Also I was doing a kind of teaching that wasn’t appropriate for who I was at the time.
Later, after having three kids — and observing the fast of Ramadan many times, which was always a nudge — I started teaching drawing in people’s homes to small groups. This felt good. After that I started Rainbow Rock.
When you are teaching, does something new emerge? Is there that “aha!” moment?
I get that that "aha!" moment when I see kids light up. Something is really happening in them. So my teaching experience over time lets it work smoothly.
Do you have any advice you would like to give to budding artists?
Be patient. Love yourself. It’s hard work to do art. You have to put yourself out on the line. It takes courage to go for it. An artist has to expose his/her inner self in the art work and put it right out there for the world to see.
What would you say to someone who wants to teach art?
Start in a do-able way. Start small. Start with small groups. Notice what works and what doesn’t work, what shuts kids down or not. Be brave in your teaching methods. See what works!
Bottom line, why do you like your work?
Because this is FUN. It feels light inner-directed.This comes from the latihan!
You are doing good, deep and meaningful work! Thanks for sharing yourself with us.