When my youngest child was two, she received for her birthday an art book that organized masterpieces into kid-friendly categories such as animals, families, weather and so on. She gravitated toward specific pictures like the early 17th c. painting depicting two peasants making a big deal over a baby with a smelly diaper. Frances thought that was hilarious as we pinched our noses, made faces and shouted “pee yew” at the page. I was struck by the fact that in addition to never really having considered baby poop as a subject in 17th c. Dutch painting, or the logistics of changing diapers at that time in history, there was this thing in this really old painting my two year old could completely relate to. It was not removed from her in any way like, say, in a museum where she couldn’t run around or be loud disrupting the serious art patrons. She could enjoy that painting completely on her own terms.
Looking at that book together also gave us a chance to cuddle up and discuss other matters of great importance like “where is that girl going with her watering can?” “what is making those clocks melt?”, “why does that man have an apple for a face?” We traced the path of the alien insects marching up and down stairs in an Escher lithograph with our fingers, and pretended we were sleeping dramatically in a chair like Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June. We counted chickens in barnyard scenes and patted the doggies and kitties in paintings with pets.
For my own selfish part, I thought it was a clever parlor trick to quiz her on the identity of the artists. There was something about a two year old saying the name “Toulouse-Lautrec” that cracked me up. It also gave me a secret weird pride that I could somehow make my kid prodigious. But mostly, it was just an incredibly special time together for all sorts of really right reasons. We read that book together every day – sometimes twice a day. It was the type of book that could make dinner and laundry wait. It was the type of book that Frances would trip over as she ran to me with it because it was so big and exciting. It was the type of book that gave you a window of comprehension into the undecipherable ramblings of a toddler. I loved that book.
But here’s another thing about the book: There was a completely unexpected outcome to our daily art ritual. Over time, her parlor tricks weren’t just a precocious recitation of names and paintings I had drilled into her freshly forming brain. One day, on a visit to her aunt’s farm, she pointed to a little grey pony in a field and said, “Look Mommy, there’s Picasso”. Pablo Picasso’s Paul on a Donkey, 1923 is on page 12. Another time, on a visit to the National Gallery, she looked at Roy Lichetenstein’s Bedroom at Arles and announced, “Van Gogh sleeps there”. Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, 1889 is on page 8. Once, she identified Auguste Renoir as the artist of a painting in an ad on the side of a bus – a painting that wasn’t in the book. Somewhere along the line, mimicking art facts started informing how she made sense of her world. I never really fully appreciated art as a way and a reflection of life in this way until I had a daughter who made those connections for me.
Obviously, kids with their sponge like minds and natural curiosity absorb more than we can possibly know or control. But nurturing that curiosity through art is something we as parents can do a little something about if we open ourselves up to it too. We have to believe that artistic literacy is as important as reading and writing literacy. Our kids don’t need to be prodigies, they need the freedom and tools to think and create for themselves, and they need to be good citizens about it.
Really engaging in art with your kids – even if you don’t feel like you know what you are doing (an all too familiar feeling in the world of parenting) – is precisely how they get the freedom and tools because you are there making connections between art and life with them in a way that no other teacher can. Observing and playing with art and artistic things together provides a platform for fresh and refreshing conversation, context for understanding beauty and strife, and a framework for tackling tough subjects at every age. Developing an early ease about and around fine art enables kids to access language, relationships, empathy, detail and about a zillion other things that I don’t think are readily available to them otherwise.
A Child’s Book of Art: Great Pictures, First Words selected by Lucy Micklethwait, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London. 1993.
Amy Moore, CHAW Education Director