From the paintbrushes of babes

BEIRUT: “Every child is an artist,” Pablo Picasso famously proclaimed. “The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” Over the past two years, the Beirut Exhibition Center has been running workshops designed to ensure that those who have not forgotten how to be artists as they age inspire a new generation of children. Each Saturday, Ranine Homsy, an interior architect and graduate of Saint Joseph University’s program in art criticism and curatorial studies, takes a group of between six and nine children on a tour of the exhibition center’s current show.

She then leads a two-hour workshop, in which she helps them produce their own artworks inspired by the work of local heroes such as Shafic Abboud, Huguette Caland, Chaouki Chamoun, Paul Guiragossian, Hussein Madi and Jean-Marc Nahas.

After two years of regular workshops, a selection of the pieces produced by the participants is currently on display at Saifi Village’s SV Gallery. The pieces on show display imagination, intelligence and not inconsiderable talent, rather proving Picasso’s point.

Toward the back of the gallery, a crowd of bespectacled men gaze out of their frames with matching expressions of bemusement. Visitors to last year’s Guiragossian retrospective, “The Human Condition,” may recognize the mustachioed face staring back at them as that captured in the artist’s final self-portrait, an oil-on-canvas work left unfinished after his death in 1993.

Reproduced by children aged between 6 and 13, the painting takes on new life. Guiragossian’s colors, composition and visage are revisited in numerous creative interpretations, each instantly recognizable, yet unique. With their evocative expressions and thick, oil paint-like texture, these portraits are each as moving in their own way as the original they emulate.

“For this session the children sat in front of his portrait,” explains Homsy. “We painted it using glue [to create] this texture. Each of them has his own interpretation. I don’t really interfere a lot, because I like them to be happy with their artwork. I do not draw for them. I leave them to work and then give them some tips and direct them.

“For this session I chose the work [they reproduced]. In other sessions maybe there’s a group of portraits and I will ask each one of them to choose the portrait that he likes best. It really depends. We have a variety of approaches – each session is different.”

Homsy explains that each exhibition held at the BEC forms the starting point for a cycle of workshops, in which the children explore what makes each artist’s work unique. They focus on a different aspect of the exhibition each week, whether studying a new technique – from collage to sculpture to painting – or working with a particular color palette, emotion or subject.

Where possible, the artists themselves have given the children and their parents personalized tours of the exhibitions, she says. On other occasions Homsy takes them around and helps to bring the work to life.

Materials are provided, but the L.L.25,000 price tag may deter lower income households. The children produce a new piece each week, which they take home at the end of the two-hour session.

“I thought that if we did art courses in a traditional way it wouldn’t be sufficiently interesting for kids,” Homsy explains, “especially when we have the artworks right in front of us. So the idea is to get the kids closer to the art.

“I went to art school when I was a kid and it created a kind of frustration when I started an artwork and I never finished it, because when you’re a kid you want quick results. What we do here is really different. It’s really very enriching for the kids ... When they see that they can produce something like the artists – and sometimes better – in just two hours, it creates a good ambience and more interest in art.”

Viewers who habitually attend exhibitions at the BEC will enjoy identifying the influence behind each of the works on show. Arianna Sursock and Amalie Zared have revisited a work by Hussein Madi, producing their own drawings using his unusual technique, sketching a series of snaking parallel lines to capture a woman reclining on a chair.

Art is important, 10-year-old Zared says, because it evokes emotion and feeling in the viewer.

Two colorful reproductions of Nahas’ “Woman from Daraa” illustrate her point, capturing a robust figures in a patterned dress with her arms raised skyward, mouth open in a scream. The addition of children’s bright colors to Nahas’ habitually black-and-white palette lends the composition visual impact and increases its pathos.

Another work inspired by Madi, executed by 10-year-old Polly Stokes, echoes the artist’s distinctive collage technique using colorful geometric forms, but sees his favorite subject matter of birds replaced with turtles.

“I have this necklace with a turtle on it and it reminded me of Bali, so I chose to do turtles,” explains Stokes, who says that she believes art is important because it has the power to transmit memories.

“It looks like it comes naturally to them,” she says of the artists exhibited by the BEC. “It doesn’t come naturally to me but I do it in the end.”

“BEC Art Workshops for the Young” is up at the SV Gallery in Saifi Village until June 21. For more information call 01-975-655.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 16, 2014, on page 16.




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