And Picasso might be glad to know some of them have found the answer become an artist.
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Helping about 30 street children aged between seven and eighteen get in touch with the artist within themselves is the Music and Painting Project initiated by the Christina Noble Children s Foundation.
Frequently dismissed by uncaring and unsympathetic people as bui doi (dust of life), street children in major cities usually have no time to be children, having to work hard everyday to make ends meet, either for themselves or for their families.
We met the children at a small painting workshop in District 3 s Tu Xuong Street the day before an exhibition of their works was due to open at the HCM City Fine Arts Museum last month.
In the middle of a room whose walls were covered with many paintings obviously done by children, 13-year-old Cao Cam Quyen was putting the finishing touches to his work a child whose parents are taking him to fly a kite in the field.
The happiness on the faces of the people in the painting reflected the deep aspirations of Quyen, whose parents are separated, and who has lived in a boy s shelter run by the foundation since he was quite young.
Several of Quyen s peers in the project, who would not have dreamed of creating paintings of their own, have had the good fortune of discovering an outlet to express all the emotional angst they gather in their daily life on the streets.
As they showed us their half-finished paintings themed on the environment, childhood, family and daily life, they made no mention of their real life situations. They spoke with passion about their art, painting styles, the materials used, a recent auction of their works and future plans.
They spoke like professional, well-trained artists.
Thai Chieu Nhi, a nine-year-old girl, said she loved painting and hoped to become a professional fashion designer.
Life and the world
"Life and the world seem much more beautiful in my eyes after six years of learning to paint," said 15-year-old Le Chau Anh Nguyen, one of the children dedicating a lot of time to their art.
Things she had never noticed previously now moved her, Nguyen said. The beauty of corners, flowers, different sights and even people living around her struck a chord now.
Seventeen-year-old Le Chau Anh Thu said painting is a way to express all of her sadness and happiness on canvas using colours.
She said she used bright shades like yellow, red and pink with gentle brush strokes to express happy emotions and contrasting colours and strokes when she was sad.
"It is also a kind of entertainment," Thu said, adding, "most of my paintings are about happiness.
"I seldom compose any time I am upset."
Another perspective change that the children have acquired along with learning to paint is an appreciation of other people s works. Now they look differently at the work of famous painters, including abstract paintings.
Thu says that every time she goes to an art exhibition she learns a lot from their way of painting including colour application and layout.
"I know I have to learn a lot from them, but I try to keep my own style. It has only been a few years (since she started learning to paint), but I feel that my style is changing," Thu said.
Ciarna Hackett, manager of CNCF s Music and Painting Project, said she was proud of the creative job the children were doing, despite their difficult situations and backgrounds.
Thanks to the art class, the children can realise their own maturity and achieve a lot instead of wandering on the streets. It was a great motivator for them to become good people, Ciarna said.
She said the project was helpful not only in keeping children off the streets, but also in helping them recognize their own talents. Many of the children now want to become professional artists when they grow up, she said.
Learn, earn, help
Several exhibitions of the children s paintings have been held in the country and abroad, including Ireland, Hong Kong and London. Some of these events raised around VND100 million (US$5600).
The most recent one held last month, Sunshine , raised around from 16 paintings sold. The child artists studied and worked hard for several months to present their works at the exhibition held at the HCM City Fine Arts Museum, organized with the help of students from the HCM City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology.
Nineteen paintings were sold during the event, raising VND30 million (US$16,00). The children were not able to hide their happiness at seeing their works sold and were particularly moved when visitors praised their work. The event was the second exhibition by this group of artists in Viet Nam.
Le Chau Anh Nguyen, 13, said she felt proud that she is able to create her own works and contribute to helping other disadvantaged children.
Hong Kong exhibition
Like professionals, just days after the exhibition closed, the children were busy working for an upcoming exhibition in Hong Kong next month.
While the children rightfully soaked up the love, admiration and accolades from visitors at the exhibition, a young man was rushing about, arranging and rearranging some paintings.
Pham Van Duc, who decided to teach painting at the centre as a volunteer when he was finishing his final year at HCM City Fine Arts University in 2001, has not wavered in his commitment 10 years on.
Ciarna says though she is the manager of the project, Duc is really the leader of the programme.
The young teacher faced a lot of trouble during the initial days as he tried to teach the restless children, then very young, to use colours and paints. He himself was not too serious about teaching, it was just something he was doing out of curiosity.
"Before teaching the class, I prepared myself mentally to face the children, but I could not imagine the devastation the children had seen and experienced," Duc recalled.
The workshop and toilets were very dirty and the paints were nearly exhausted when the class was over, and the teacher s voice seemed to be on breaking point from having to shout and maintain order as the children engaged in mischievous activities and tricks. Before teaching them to paint, he had to teach them how to keep the room tidy and save materials like paint.
While there was no criteria for the children to attend the class, many quit after a few weeks or months for various reasons.
At the beginning, the children had to spend one or two months to finish a painting, but several can finish one in a week now. Tran Thanh Hanh, 15, said she doesn t know if she has improved, but every time the teacher shows her what she did in the early days, she feels ashamed.
Duc himself is not able to imagine that he has spent ten years with the centre teaching the children. Nowadays, he rushes to the CNCF campus after finishing his lectures at the HCM City Architecture University, where he holds a full-time position.
Teaching students in the university is a lot different from teaching the children. Duc says he wants the children to be themselves and for the paintings to reflect the child in them. He himself learns from their imagination and free style of painting sometimes, he says.
Duc says proudly that his young students are very intelligent, and learn quickly. He notes that many of them are in their sixth or seventh year of painting classes, which is more than time spent by a university arts student.
The simple act of giving children a venue for self-expression has sparked dreams in their young hearts. Now they wish to become professional painters, architects or fashion designers.
Amidst the harsh realities that these children confront every day on the city streets, the painting class has given them a profound gift the vision, hope and possibility of a brighter future. VNS
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