Experience and Imagination, a School for Experimentation and Trying New Things
Although the season for bright, blooming flowers had already passed, there were still green remnants of spring visible under the spring showers at the edge of Namsan. After finally passing the vast US Army base, I came across a small, quaint village down the road. There were side roads that were barely wide enough for a single car, and along these roads were shops and houses that served as a snapshot of life in this area. Located within the small buildings was the Dalggott Creative Center, whose neon sign hanging from the glass façade was barely visible behind a near-wall of posters. Just as I was thinking about all the meaningful work being done here, I was greeted by two dogs, who are secretly known as part of Dalggott’s external cooperation team.
Education Makes the Man
The Dalggott Creative Center is a youth arts education organization operating in Huam-dong. It first began as a weekend meetup for children in the area, eventually transforming into the research and educational institute that it is today. Perhaps that explains why it appeared rather unorganized when I visited, with its educational materials and the students’ projects spread out all over the place; however, this did not detract from its lively atmosphere. I was curious to find out what inspired CEO Choi Gyu-seong to move to Huam-dong and pursue educational activities in 2013 Summer after visiting the Namsan area to enjoy the cherry blossoms and the sight of the moon.
“When I was in graduate school, I came to the realization that the lessons I learned when I was younger had a big impact on my values later on in life. There always comes a time when one has to express his or her opinion. I tried to find the reason for those times when I would witness discussions where the evidence behind people’s ideas or opinions were not clear. In most cases, this happened when people tried to discuss things that they had learned or heard from adults or their teachers when they were younger, and this came as a huge shock to me. That’s when I realized that education is important in how an individual develops, and it was not until I moved to Huam-dong in Yongsan-gu that I put this realization into action.
Experiments That Lead to Change and Experiences, the Fruit of Trying
Dalggott Creative Center did not always have a space to call its own when it first started. Every Saturday, in an effort to meet with youth in the town, it would use an empty architecture office to hold its meetings. Chair of the Women’s Association would introduce children to the group and they would all gather to cook and eat together and go visit exhibits. What started off as just a simple Saturday meeting for fun changed when local artists showed interest in conducting programs for the children. And so, Dalggott soon began to grow into a more developed, richer Saturday school. Although it had previously used empty spaces in local offices, churches, and temples, it finally created a much-needed space in 2015. What changes did Dalggott go through once it had a place to call its own?
“After creating our own space, Dalggott’s programs went through a lot of changes. There were efforts made to create a more structured system. Before programs, big and small, were held throughout the week, on both weekdays and weekends, and many students stopped by after school to spend some time before going home. Now that we had a space to use, it was easier to collaborate with local resources and handicraft workshops to offer new classes, particularly with schools, which showed great interest in operating their extracurricular programs at Dalggott. At this point, our identity shifted to also include that of a research institute in order to develop the necessary skills and activities to accommodate with all the changes. From the outside, although our center appeared to be nothing more than a Saturday cultural school, a lot of trial and error was going on from the inside. (Laughs.) Trying out different things, even the mistakes along the way, were all important in Dalggott’s development.
There was a time when you were swamped with class preparations and cleaning up after each class, to the point that you had worked together with five other people. This was a time when you were operating public projects and just experimenting in educational contents. Now, thanks to collaborative efforts with local institutes, you are creating more abundant contents while, at the same, expending the limited energy there is between you and designer Hong Yeon-suh at greater capacities.
Dalggott is defined as a youth arts and culture school and NPO, and it is also a research institute that explores content creation from new perspectives. Mr. Choi, you have explained how one’s thoughts arise from one’s experiences, and how one’s perspectives come from there. According to philosopher John Dewey on education, getting students interest and maintaining that interest are of utmost importance. When developing a class plan, it is important to observe first in order to determine how to spark that interest. It is clear that you consider getting students interested to be the most important factor in education, which is perhaps why you have taken such a leading role in helping children discover and better understand themselves. What would you consider to be the important components of Dalggott in arts and culture education and what values have you come across in the process?
“Most certainly it would have to be experience, along with relationships and imagination. There is a whole different world within the realm of experience. When I talk to young adults, those who experienced their adolescent years, the thing they tend to remember most from Dalggott is the relationships they had with adults, not the program itself. They regard the relationships made through arts and culture education as most important than anything else. People have come to use the term “local relationship” when discussing the trust built within a specific region as relations grow closer. We often mention how, thanks to the relationships created through arts and culture education, there will be a time 10 years or even 20 years from now when we will meet again. Also, I think it is important that we touch upon imagination as well. Imagination is an invaluable process and desire of our lives, not only allowing us, but also pushing us to transcend the ordinary. Taking that into consideration, I think that imagination is an important asset to our youth in allowing them to approach every situation with curiosity and explore new things without losing sight of who they are even in times of uncertainty. Equipped with this powerful tool, youth can overcome any obstacle they encounter, which is why it is so important during one’s adolescent years.
The emphasis that Mr. Choi places on “imagination” is the first of the nine educational areas that Dalggott has focused on throughout its nine years of activity. When considering our educational concept of “expressions that imagine and imaginations that express themselves,” creating a world of imagination is, in essence, an active means of expression. To express is to show one’s inner thoughts and emotions in a very personal and unique way. At the same time, it is a way of taking those inner aspects of one’s self and showing them to the outside world. By doing so, this builds a sense of perspective on the world, which is why expression is so important. In order to express one’s self, one needs some level of imagination, and in following through with such expression, one inevitably shares his or her values and perspectives with the world. In other words, our expressions overshadow what we tend to show on the surface, revealing how we view, understand, and reflect upon the world around us.
Education and Dialogue for the Individual
In order to ensure that children grow, Mr. Choi believes that a highly detailed program is necessary. Even if children are unable to empathize with others from the beginning, over time, through various experiences, they will build the emotional intelligence necessary to communicate effectively. This is why Mr. Choi emphasizes how emotional development is important in that it leads to experiences based on communication. What exactly are the characteristics of a youth education program that focuses on communication?
“When working with adolescents, there are many instances when educators find themselves talking one on one with a student. It is important that educators assess the situation when communicating and build their educational strategies accordingly as they learn more about their students. This is one reason why I am skeptical about TV or online educational programs. It is not exactly easy for children and adults to communicate with each other, but education can be used as a tool to facilitate such communication.
I once created a shirt designing program for a friend. As someone who works in third party education, I firmly believe that it is necessary to take interest in even the smallest of demands, even if they are part of the minority. I have come to the realization that there is very little experience to be gained from partaking in education designed for the masses, lacking any sort of unique characteristics in advertising to audiences. This is because it is unclear what the goals or points of interest in the entire process are. I believe that there is more meaning and more room for assessing progress when working on programs whose scopes are comparatively narrow but much denser. Granted, no matter how much you reduce the breadth of your audience, it is hard to create a program that is designed for a single individual. And yet, we also conduct classes on a one on one bases. (Laughs).”
The conversation that was initiated between teachers and students soon expanded to reach collaborators as well. There was a thick folder on top of the desk with materials on a program that was being planned in collaboration with an architect’s office that had never worked in adolescent education before. It was clear that this was a strong collaboration with extensive efforts, from creating the classes to considering what would be necessary to effectively conduct them. Despite the lack of prior experience working with children, the evidence of hard work in preparations showed an undeniable desire to provide a sort of user’s guide to approaching youth education and facilitate a healthy relationship between coordinator and students.
Local Headquarters, Trust Built Over Time “School teachers learn about Dalggott from the students.”
Since three years ago, teachers have been increasingly interested in Dalggott after hearing about it from students who experienced Dalggott’s programs first-hand. Many educators who visit inform us that they are preparing to create new classrooms and want to benchmark our center. Others, in the process of creating alternative classes, ask us to take charge of arts classes, and we have successfully started these programs with some schools. Through cooperative agreements with schools, Dalggott has been able to more actively show the potential for change. Now has come the time when children who were once in middle school are completing their military service and coming back to visit. Educators at Dalggott feel a sense of pride and reward in watching students grow in different ways. The signs of change are most felt at the local level, which is why our teachers can see it so clearly.
“At first, I never thought of creating local headquarters. I felt that it appeared unprofessional and small, somewhat minimizing Dalggott’s potential. That is also why there is no mention of the local level in Dalggott’s introduction. However, I came to notice that relationships are not lost but, rather, built in greater numbers over time. On a similar note, at the local level, the more time that passes the stronger the impact there is on trust. There were certain instances when representatives from schools sought our advice regarding students who wanted to drop out or who were not having positive academic experiences. We helped them carefully consider their options and encouraged them to sign up for classes at Dalggott, culminating in an unprecedented case of collaboration. There were a total of five students who came to our center in this way, and it was certainly an amazing level of collaboration on the students’ part. Thankfully, all of the students returned to school and either ended up graduating or are currently attending under much better circumstances.”
During the process of growing together with the local population and sharing experiences, there came a point when high school students began to express the stress and pressure of worrying about future employment. In response to this, Dalggott, in living up to its calling of helping youth in need, is investing its time and resources to provide students with career counseling.
“Adolescents really want to figure out what they want to do in the future. Although many adults feel as though today’s youth do not have such concerns, more often than not they are actively struggling to find their path in life. I believe that it is important to guide them in finding an appropriate career path and exposing them to options that they might not have even known existed. So, I introduced the program “The People’s Book,” which mixes arts and culture education with career counseling. This program, along with other various programs that offer students opportunities to meet adults from different fields, are all being offered to help today’s youth better prepare for their futures.”
The magazine Other Education aims to identify and develop different types of education through research. By fostering creativity and imagination, it broadens students’ perspectives to new options and possibilities and stresses that they should never stop dreaming or trying out new things. It is clear that they represent the common goals of educators and educational program coordinators alike in stressing the importance of experience.
Young adults gather at the Dalggott, which now celebrates its seven-year anniversary since its founding. Preparations are in place to create a new space and work together with these individuals, who had attended the institution when they were younger, in creating the “2030 Monster Workshop” and the “Monster Parade”. Although the exact time is uncertain, sometime in the future there are plans to create a space that adolescents and young adults can operate and manage autonomously. I hope that Dalggott’s developmental experiences will come to include creating this empty space where adolescents and young adults can gather, work together, capitalize on their synergy, and move together by their own, mutual accord.
Following the interview, it felt as if I had participated in “The People’s Book” program myself. It made me realize once again that dialogue is similar to friendship, and I will surely keep everything I learned during this exchange with Dalggott close to my heart.
Choi Gyu-seong completed his undergraduate studies at Hongik University School of Art, where he also received his MA in Arts Studies. In 2013, after coming to see the cherry blossoms, he fell in love with the Namsan area and moved there, later starting the Dalggott Creative Center. Since then, he has served as CEO of the institution, as well as Operations Director of the NPO People of Yongsan. He was officially merited in 2012 by Gangwon Province for contribution in hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in 2014 by the Metropolitan City of Seoul for community efforts in villages, and in 2018 by Yongsan District Office for his efforts as chair of the working level meetings for the Yongsan Innovative Education District.
Dialogues that Spark Interest and Curiosity
On May 20th and 21st, in welcoming International Arts Education Week (May 20th-25th), Tonko House arts director Mike Dutton held an arts workshop for children under the theme of taking a trip filled with curiosity and imagination around the world. Tonko House is a creative studio that was founded by artists and art directors who had previously worked at Pixar Studios. It is an interdisciplinary media group that does animation work, publications, exhibitions, and education in various arenas. Mr. Dutton directly designed and coordinated the “Kids Art Education Program,” which he introduced for the first time at the International Arts Education Week in Korea this year at the Tonko House Exhibition Hall.
Mr. Dutton has an impressive background as an arts director, education coordinator, and picture book illustrator, having worked on Google Doodler and YouTube kids programs. I had the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss his approach to work as an artist, his perspective on arts education, and the values that he hopes to share through both the arts and arts education. Through this interview, I got a better sense of Mr. Dutton and what goes through his mind when it comes to creating fun and creative educational programs for children around the world. In short, his philosophy in work can be likened to writing a secret love letter that is meant for only one person to see.
Today was the first time you held your kids arts education program here in Korea, and the participants appeared to be having a great time. I would love to hear your thoughts about how the program went.
There was a point midway through the program that I thought to myself, “Will the participants be able to create their own stories if we continue on like this?” (Laughs.) Thankfully, all of the teams were successful in the end. Before the program closed, we had each team present their stories, and one of the children shared a story with a fox, snake, and ant as the main characters. I remember thinking, “How could someone come up with such an amazing blend of characters?” It was a reminder to me that children really do possess remarkable imaginations.
What led you to design and coordinate arts education programs for children?
Youth arts and education was always something that Tonko House founder Robert Kondo gave great consideration to. Personally, I came to manage this program because I had designed YouTube kids programs and illustrated children’s picture books. Not only was I already actively involved in working with children, but I am also the father of two young children myself, so I also had and still have a great interest in children’s’ education. Robert proposed this program to me and sought my opinion, not as an educator but as a father and artist. He trusted my instincts enough to put me in charge. Throughout my work on this program, I have communicated a lot not only with Robert, but also with many children. Just as the planning and design for this program was possible through discussions, I wanted the program itself to be conducted with communication as a core principle, as is especially important in arts education for children. I truly believe that all forms of art are forms of communication.
What is it that you hope to share with children through dialogue and communication?
The most important thing is “fun.” Although it might sound simple, it is a realization that all members of Tonko House have come to after extensive thought and deliberation. When fun becomes a priority education program, the impact it has on all other aspects of said program are unequivocal. I think that this is a revolutionary discovery. The next important factor is “curiosity,” and fun has a direct impact on curiosity. When children are presented with an activity that they find fun, they show interest and express the will to do it again. Or, in other cases, they might express that they also want to try something different. Curiosity is the power to approach something that one already knows in a different way or to be attracted to something that one knows nothing about. The third important keyword is “journey.” I believe that every aspect of our lives and our lives themselves are journeys. Fourth is “sharing.” People always look for ways to share their experiences with others.
For example, my sketchbook is a record of my journey. Whenever I go on a trip, I always take my sketchbook with me and draw in it. (Shows his sketchbook.) Drawings are one form of dialogue. Although they might be abstract, drawings can also be very direct. There is a story behind this picture. The first day after arriving in Korea, I stayed at Ganghwa Island. The next morning, as I was looking for something to draw, I caught sight of an older woman in this alleyway. She was cleaning something on the floor, and that image inspired me to draw her. I grew curious about what her daily life looked like and began to sketch her when she noticed and approached me. She saw the sketch I had drawn of her house and recognized it immediately, thanking me. This snapshot was a brief moment of dialogue through art. Later, I showed the drawing to another older woman and she recognized it as her neighbor’s house, proceeding to talk to her on the phone. That night, we all gathered at the first woman’s house and ate ddeok. The point of this story is that arts projects are capable of sparking interest in both children and adults and offer everyone an opportunity to communicate through the arts. Even when there are barriers in spoken language, art can connect people and enable deep human exchange.
As a teaching artist, one of the concerns I have been having recently is how to push the limits of arts education beyond experiences.. Although it is important to build curiosity and creativity, I often find it hard to develop programs that offer diverse perspectives on the world or delve deep into a single topic. When developing the Tonko House program, how did you go about addressing this issue?
That was certainly the most difficult thing we had to consider when designing our program. We tried out a lot of different things to get the right balance between providing participants with what they needed, while also giving them the space and freedom to create things on their own. Thankfully, children have limitless curiosity and remarkable abilities to think about things from different perspectives. As educators, our main task is to create a platform that guides children in expressing the thoughts, ideas, and emotions that they already have. Children tend to draw on the blank spaces of walls or on the edges of pieces of paper; in other words, they want open spaces. I was the same when I was younger and doodled on my test papers or on the edges of books. So when we design exhibitions or education programs, we decided that we would provide children with wide edges so that they could draw to their heart’s content. To accomplish this, we had to teach artists at Tonko House and other teaching artists to forget what they know about art. We placed great faith and trust in this process as a form of dialogue in planning our program; in other words, we emptied a space and trusted that the children would fill that space with their stories. We believed that, through this process, stories would be created. In summary, we aimed to create a program that did not focus on teaching people how to feel but, rather, that created a welcoming space for people to feel and experience things on their own.
Writing and drawings can be both abstract and direct, at times. You have an incredible gift at connecting these two to create a single story. I think that contributes greatly to how important your education program is.
Our goal is to create educational programs that boost creativity. A single piece of paper has the potential to serve as a platform for children to express themselves. By providing such platforms, we grant children the power of self-expression. That is a power that children always possess within themselves. Helping children express their thoughts and emotions is the same as giving them self-confidence. This ultimately leads to interactions with others as they attempt to understand, respect, and empathize with each other.
Is it correct to understand that your program is developed on the basis of trust in participating children and focused on promoting communication by providing them with an open space for each of their unique stories to grow?
When I first began working at Tonko House, I drew in the same style as Pixar or any other animation artists did. However, I soon realized that the reason Tonko House chose me was because they wanted my own perspective and style. I believe that this same concept can be applied to arts education. Instead of asking broad questions like, “What is arts education?” or “What type of arts education does this world need?”, we developed this program by focusing on creating a program that children would enjoy and would want to keep participating in. This approach is directly linked to the philosophy with which I approach my own artwork as well.
Could you please explain more about how your personal artwork and the arts education program are linked to each other?
I call all of my artwork “secret love letters.” Whenever I am drawing, I think of a specific person and draw it in a way that he or she knows it is for them upon seeing it. For example, when I illustrated the picture book Food Truck Fest, it was a time when my mother was scheduled to have surgery. She had received word from her doctors that she would not be able to eat food anymore. Although this book is for children, I hid little pieces of my parents here and there, with them dancing around throughout the book’s pages. These pictures are a secret message to my mother that the procedure would go well and that she would be able to eat again. This was my way of making it through a difficult time in my life. When planning this educational program, I once again thought hard about who the recipient of this love letter would be. During that process, I remember how much I enjoyed drawing with children, and that helped me in the development process.
When my family goes out to eat, we draw with our kids while waiting for the food. I draw whatever my son Teddy describes, exactly as he explains it. One time, he asked me to draw steam locomotive train. I asked him who would be riding it, and he listed off his grandfather and a cat, so I drew them all for him. Ever since then, when we would go out to eat, Teddy began to draw his own trains. It was fun for him, and he began to draw other things as well, including rockets and cheetahs. I remember looking at him as he drew and telling him that he was a real artist, and he looked at me with a beaming smile that was full of confidence. If I had approached the situation differently and told him that he had to draw well because he is the son of an artist, he most certainly would not have shown any interest. It is in this way that art is a form of sharing and exchanging ideas and new perspectives. There is great value in both creative expression and the perspective of children. Although the development of this program started off as a love letter to Teddy, it ultimately became a program inspired by the time I had shared with him, focusing on giving other children the confidence to creatively express themselves.
Finally, as a creator and teaching artist, what do you want to share with the rest of the world?
Simply put, I want to share fun. Although people live their daily lives with the burden of serious thoughts and concerns, the most important thing is to not lose grasp of having fun. I think it is truly a human phenomenon to have fun, share it with others, feel satisfied with it, and find happiness with others through it. Again, although it is very simple, it is something that artists should never lose sight of.
When we first began this interview, I thought that enlightenment was a more prominent factor in Tonko House’s mission as opposed to fun. However, now that the interview has come to a close, I can see now that a great emphasis needs to be placed on fun in arts education. Thank you so much for this interview.
Mike Dutton is an art director at Tonko House in charge of the Kids Art Education Program. He also works as an illustrator for picture books and is currently preparing to publish his third book, titled Little Green Garage. Before joining Tonko House, he worked as “Doodler” at Google and as a developer for YouTube kids programs. While working as Google Doodler, he created over 200 designs on the search home page.