Drawing Trees and Drawing

Over the past few months, I’ve become enmeshed into the cohort of young artists in the Moffet Arab Arts Program. We begin every Wednesday with snacks and homework and the ideas in the kids’ heads are already apparent through the chaos of doodles and procrastinations from their assignments. Before this energy explodes we move downstairs to the auditorium for class.

Oxford Tree - Ibrahim El Salahi
Oxford Tree, 2001 – Ibrahim El Salahi

Briefly, a bit about myself — I am Palestinian-American and in my final year of undergrad at Temple University where I study History, Arabic, Art (focusing on photography and bookbinding). and I am a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, the Student-Farmworker Alliance, as well as working with city-wide community organizations (mostly on Palestine and anti-gentrification related causes). I live just a few blocks from Moffett Elementary where I work as an assistant with Al-Bustan’s art class.

Back to the auditorium — here are the twenty students in our class. Most of them are in second, third, or fourth grade, but there are a first grader and fifth-grader as well. This variation in ages has been one of the most incredible things about working with the Moffett Arab Arts Program this fall. The difference in perspective and worldview between the youngest and oldest students in the class is huge, and it leads to some great interactions and sharing of ideas and skills. During the free draw period we usually start class with, students often call me over to ask, “How do I draw this?” seemingly expecting a straightforward answer. With just the slightest push in that direction from me, the students start to break down the issue together, exploring shape and line and bridging the page, their hand, and their mind.


Cash and Yoel
Cash (left) and Yoel (right) compare photos

A few weeks ago we began working on a tree-drawing project based on the work of Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi. Drawing from observation did not come easy for most of the students, but seeing the students apply our practice with visual problem-solving filled me with pride.

Ibrahim el Salahi’s work, which I was not familiar with before being introduced, along with the students, by Ms. Lisa Volta in class one Wednesday, comes out of the hurufiyya movement of the mid-20th century. Reclaiming traditional Arabic and Islamic calligraphic forms in a modernist and abstracted context, Salahi’s portraits of trees are incredibly compelling works of design. When we looked at some of Salahi’s images in class, I watched as one-by-one the students starting putting together how the shapes and lines and colors they were seeing are also a real expression of a tree. This project was the first time that I saw some students consciously try to make their drawing look like the trees outside the school we were looking at as opposed to whatever ideal image of a tree they have in mind and intentionally abstract their own work.

Isabela Tree
A tree drawn by 3rd-grader Isabela

El Salahi isn’t the only artist from the hurufiyya movement that we’ve looked to for inspiration in class. We started the year looking at the work of Dia Azzawi for a project that involved painting on silk. We prompted the students to think of something that happened to them, their family, or their neighborhood and draw that scene in whatever way felt right. Walking among and asking the students about their work, I was stunned by the intensity and candidness of their stories. One student drew an armored vehicle circling her family’s block back home in Palestine (“In my country, there’s this army…” is how she started the story). Another told us about the death of his great-grandfather who he had never known because he died in 1977. His story entered our classroom as the student wondered if he and his great grandfather would have been friends. It’s the nonchalance that is most interesting about these moments. Deaths, births, military occupation; these are all things that we learn to talk about in a certain, expected way that young children can subvert without thinking.

I’ve been using “we” to talk about this class with complete intention. Whether teaching a student how to write her name in Arabic or breaking down how to draw from observation or going home after work on Wednesday and spending an hour by myself looking up artworks by Dia Azzawi or Ibrahim el Salahi, I’ve been a part of this experience as teacher and learner. It makes me wonder how I might have found the path I am on now sooner if I had been exposed to a program like this when I was seven years old. I only started to dig deeply into my Palestinian roots in high school, and since then I’ve begun learning Arabic, organizing for Palestinian rights, and diving into the music and art that Al-Bustan has brought to Moffett Elementary, and to me.

Jasper helps Moffet students


You can find more of my writing and thoughts at jaspersaah.com.

Jasper Saah
Temple ’19, Art Assistant
Moffett Elementary, an assistant with Al-Bustan’s art class

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