Streetlight Stories 1: Art and Soul

Welcome to Streetlight Stories! We're so grateful to everyone who has helped make the Streetlight dream a reality and wanted to share some of the magic of our time here, so we'll be starting a new series of stories from various members of the community. The first story is from our CEO and founder, Melanie Smuts, about a very special learner and member of the Streetlight family.

Art and Soul

Samkelo is different: you can tell by just one look at him. He wears his hair long, sometimes in braids, sometimes in a full afro. His bearing is a bit out of the ordinary: the way he walks, the way he talks. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be allowed in a regular South African primary school, but at Streetlight we’re happy to see him be himself.

Samkelo is also a genuine artistic prodigy. At Streetlight, we do all kinds of creativity concept exercises with the kids where we give them incomplete drawing to finish: you give them a triangle, for example, and a normal response might be to make it into the roof of a house. One of the best known creativity exercises is called the Circle Drawing Exercise; it’s just six blank circles that you have to fill in. Have a look––what would you draw?

The Creative Mind

Normal creativity, the kind you would see in the average adult, would be to take those circles and make 2D circular drawings on each: maybe a clock on the first circle, half an orange on the second, a tyre on the third. Simple and literal. A slightly more creative adult might go outside the lines and make a three-dimensional can. A super talented adult might take two circles and connect them to make bicycle wheels.

You won’t be surprised to hear that kids are naturally better at these drawings than adults. Below is a typical drawing from one of Samkelo's classmates; it's charming and happy and delightful, a drawing to be proud of, but the artist is still thinking fundamentally inside the (circular) box:

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Then, on occasion, you get a superstar like Samkelo. He takes these creativity exercises and fills an entire page with three-dimensional scenes of cars in space and new creatures entering different worlds. So when we gave him the circle drawing exercise, Samkelo flipped the page horizontally and designed an entire underwater submarine. Each of the circles had a scene from inside the submarine that you could look into, with a crew of birds and mice and magical creatures, and a snake with a periscope looking up at the land and the trees.

More than just being creative, Samkelo is a true artist. Recently at Streetlight we’ve been doing an art and self-transformation project, with the overarching theme being “Who am I?” Samkelo did a painting called The Lightning of the Two Eyes; it’s a deep conceptual piece with stripes of colours and flashes of an eye painted on a massive piece of paper. It’s one of the most striking pieces of art that I’ve ever seen, and it was created by a seven year old.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been thinking for some time now about how we can get Samkelo into art school, where he could focus his attention fully on his art. But here’s the thing: recently the kids wrote an essay about their hopes and dreams for the future, and Samkelo –– to my surprise –– doesn’t want to be an artist.

Samkelo wants to be a scientist.

From Paint to Particles

Samkelo would be a brilliant scientist because he’s a brilliant artist. Einstein once said that “the greatest scientists are artists as well.” The curiosity, patience, exploration, and creativity that fine art requires are also the bedrocks of modern science.

Looking at Samkelo, I realised how deeply our understandings of the world are shaped by our school environment. In the school system I grew up with, like most of us, I had very narrowly defined subjects. It’s not a surprise that when I see a talented young artist it doesn’t automatically occur to me that he would also be a wonderful scientist. At Streetlight, by contrast, we integrate science and art as joint subjects. For Samkelo, it’s natural to see them as brightly-coloured sides of the same beautiful coin; in his mind, creative enquiry and scientific enquiry are part of the same journey. When Samkelo draws a rainbow, he thinks both of the beautiful colours and the scientific process that allows the rainbow to burst into being. Science and art, creativity and exploration––whatever he does, Samkelo will always colour joyfully outside the lines.

When we opened Streetlight, we didn’t care what kids wanted to become; our goal was just to provide quality education to each child that came through our door. But when you encounter a child like Samkelo, it’s a powerful reminder: schools can unlock genius. Thank you for allowing us to do that.