Process Art’s Pesky Problem

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Mousetrap paper holder. Or, as I see it, surreal assemblage.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot in this space about the value of process art (see for example Doing Food Coloring and Permission to Play: Toddler Paint Bomber). My interest started when I was an undergraduate and developed an intense appreciation for the Abstract Expressionists. Learning about their work and the questions they engaged with in their studios – exploring the inherent nature of the materials they worked with – became an obsession. I developed my own color field experiments and filled huge sheets of paper with marks based on systems I devised. It was visually engaging in an allover sort of way, but I knew it wasn’t nearly as interesting for others to look at as it was for me, with my embodied knowledge of the actions I took to make it.

In the years since, I have continued to develop my relationship with questions like: What is art for? and Why art? I have carried these into explorations of art criticism, visual culture, environmental and installation art, relational aesthetics, and creative placemaking.

This interest also manifests in my advocacy for process art in the playful learning of young children. Really, I believe children of all ages looking for new ways to connect with creative activity ought to focus on process (see for example, Permission to Play: Birthday Parties and Grandma Joyce’s Beautiful Stuff!).

And so it was with a heavy heart that I set about cleaning Cora’s desk yesterday. Stacked on top were the traces of two weeks of summer camps and a few final school projects.

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(Note: I took this photo AFTER I had cleaned the desk and decided to blog about it. I stacked the artwork back up in an approximation of how it had been. But absent are the dolls, rocks and sticks, books, and other random crap that had been there too.)

As Dan has observed, all horizontal surfaces in our house quickly become repositories for junk and this desk is no different. In the three years since it has been in this location, I can count on one hand the times that it has been clear and Cora has sat at it to do anything. I have a plan for it in my head related to a pen pal project we’ve been working on (fodder for a future post), so I told her it was time to clean up.

Of course Cora wanted to save EVERYTHING.

The art camp she attended last week at a neighborhood studio (Paper Moon Art Studio – Columbus, OH) was a great process art experience for Cora. She got to work with a range of media from paper mache to assemblage (complete with hot glue, see the top image on this post), and sand painting to watercolor. She was only there three mornings, but she made a ton of stuff. We had trouble carrying it all home! I was so happy to see this evidence of experimentation but what to do with all that stuff? I live in constant battle against clutter – mostly this involves shoving piles into drawers and cabinets when guests are due – but point being, I don’t like to have a lot of stuff sitting around on horizontal surfaces.

I also struggle, personally, with the hidden curriculum we are teaching kids when we give them access to unlimited supplies and let them make things that will ultimately, at least in my house, wind up in the trash. I has this same feeling while attending TASK parties run by Oliver Herring (see A Task, But Not a Chore). I love the energy that Herring creates and the collaborative experimentation I see at these events, But at the end of the day, there are piles and piles of materials left in a jumble on the floor. A few ideas for combating this issue come immediately to my mind.

Art educators will see the immediate irony in this. Many of us have felt the pain of watching students put their artwork in the trash bin on their way out the door at the end of a term. All that time and effort? Don’t they care at all about what they made here? And, by extension, don’t they value me and our time together? Some educators even use this as a litmus test for a successful lesson — Do the kids express desire to hold onto what they made? to share pictures of it in Instagram? to hang it up at home, or give it to someone as a gift?

So now I’m left holding this evidence of creative activity, all of which Cora insists on calling Art (capital A intended) in an effort to use what I value against me. And I’m wondering,

How can we simultaneously teach people that some things they make are precious and others are not? That some creative experiences are about the process of making, and some about the product that results?

 

 

 

 

 

Passing the time playing pass the drawing

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When Cora first started music classes, her wise teacher who was always able to teach to the parents while simultaneously teaching our kids, recommended we “sing through our days.” I came to know the value of this, especially after 3 years and 9 collections of music. We had learned nearly 200 songs, and it was easy to find one for just about any occasion. I quickly learned that singing was an antidote to many childhood woes – boredom, stubbornness, sleepy, hungry, sad, mad. A good living example of “fake it ’til you make it.”

This past weekend I stumbled on an example of drawing through the day, an idea I’d like to develop in future posts. Sitting through her third band concert in three weeks, Cora was having trouble sitting still for all four Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra groups. I pulled out some paper and suggested we play “pass the drawing,” our family’s version of exquisite corpse.

In case this is an unfamiliar concept, in this simple drawing game someone draws something then passes it to the next person to add something and so on. You can set rules like, only lines and shapes and no recognizable objects or not and let folks determine what adding something means for themselves.

Dan and I have played this with the kids for over ten years together–waiting for food at a restaurant, on a long car ride, at a party. We hadn’t played with Cora in awhile and it was great to see her thinking and expressing her ideas in pictures. I haven’t written much about her representational development lately, but it seems time (follow-up to come).

We made three drawing in total, I don’t know where the final one is hiding. She assigned us each one to keep and hers must be hiding someplace secret. I’ll ask her if she can find it tomorrow.

A Fire Dragon Bed for Azari

Cora would like to share a Lego idea she created. She said,

“I got inspired by the dragon’s foot pieces to put them on beds. I put those on just for decoration. So the original elf beds only had a pillow but my bed has a claw as part of the pillow and foot piece for the Elf’s feet to catch onto. These help them stay on the dragon but can also help them lay down without falling.”   

Cora is prepping other ideas to submit to Lego Ideas like the dragon trap below. She wants them to make her toys so other kids can play with them, and she can get free Legos.

  
 

Adventures in the Land of Lego

Parents of every generation spend time reminiscing, comparing memories of their  childhoods to the experiences of their children, worrying that something is missing. Oftentimes my friends and I lament our “good old days” when we ran around the neighborhood without hawk-eyed helicopter parents tracking our every move, when there was just one phone in the house–attached to the wall by a short cord–which everyone in the family shared, and MTV played music videos 24/7.

Like our own kids, we recall playing with Legos. The Legos of our youth consisted of a bunch of bricks in varying shapes and sizes and a few mini figures that we transformed into our own imaginary worlds. Today most kids purchase Legos in kits with themes, often tied to movies and other mass-consumed cultural icons like Harry Potter and Disney Princesses. There were few blueprints for what to do with Legos in the 1980s. Today, kids follow step-by-step instructions for what to make with them, and often that’s as far as they’ll go. They beg for a kit, build it once, and set it on a shelf to be admired like an architectural model.

This isn’t the worst thing in the world. Following printed instructions kids practice literacy skills, learning to read the visual plans and follow directions. In displaying the results of their efforts, they practice the skills of art collectors making choices about where and how to show their work. What they do not do is explore their own ideas.

When my step-son George was younger he was really into Lego Star Wars. He asked for large kits for birthday and Christmas presents. I remember him building the kits according to the directions upon receipt. But he spent more time using Sharpie markers and scotch tape to give each Storm Trooper its own color-coordinated uniform and watching YouTube videos to learn how to transform individual components into various types of weapons his troops could employ. Once, he made me a birthday card out of Lego. I know there’s a photo somewhere…

While I initially tried to keep Cora’s Lego collection to the classics while she begged for some of the Lego Friends kits, made and marketed for girls. She learned to follow the instructions to build the kits as they appear on the box, and she enjoys this so much that she takes some of the kits apart to rebuild them. I think she likes the structure this process provides, as well as the results. I can relate – sometimes it’s nice to follow a recipe, other times I like to throw a bunch of ingredients together to make a new recipe.

Cora seems to enjoy deconstructing the kits, piece by tiny piece, as much as she enjoys putting them together. This takes time and because she’s always been more of a big motor muscle skills kid, I know she’s learning just as much through this process – sitting quietly and separating the small parts with her hands.

She’s also been recombining pieces from the sets to create her own creations – some reflect a narrative in development while others are more like color field experiments in three dimensions.

While this can make it frustrating to find all the pieces when she wants to put a kit back together, that’s part of the Lego Adventure–sifting through the bins, looking for just the right brick. And when you can’t find that one, identifying and settling on a substitute. Problem solved, through creative reinvention.

 

 

 

 

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Drawing Work

(This is a follow-up to my last post about drawing with Cora.)

Cora’s friend sent her a drawing of her baby chickens last week. It was sweet and simple. I suggested she send a drawing of our girls in return.

She dictated a message and I wrote it for her. She proceeded to make marks on the paper with glitter glue talking her way through. In the end, she had a collection of blobs haphazardly scattered around the page. 

After some discussion, I convinced her to give it another try. Afterall, she was trying to communicate an important message to her friend.

“Amelia…If you see a hawk put your hens away in the henhouse.”

We talked about where the chickens would be standing and where the hawk would be flying and she made lines for earth and sky. That seemed to be all she needed.  Something to break through the blank slate. She added a sun, grass, and a few hens. Finally, we talked her way through the hawk – head, beak, body, wings, feet, and her favorite part – super long, sharp talons. 

 I told her, again, how proud I was of her work. I knew she could do it. And I can’t wait for her to do it again.

Drawing Lesson: Home

My last post was about the picturebook Home by Carson Ellis.  At the end I set a plan to engage Cora further with the theme of home through art making. On a sunny day last week I got her to go outside with me for an observation drawing session.

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I have long been a fan of a little book called Observation Drawing with Children. I’m sure I’ve written about it here before. The authors describe observation drawing as a responsive process by which “the viewer become[s] aware of the elusive as well as the obvious qualities of subjects,” (Smith, et al, 1998, p. 6). As such it is easy to understand learning to draw as part of learning to look more closely at and see the world around us. When I had a daily practice of drawing from observation I felt more connected to things around me, more mindful of my surroundings.

Cora hasn’t even shown much interest in making original drawings (realistic or imagined). You can imagine how sad this makes me as an art educator… She has made some incredible drawings over the years but it’s not really her thing. “You like to draw. I like to sing,” she tells me. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was a somewhat reluctant participant in my plans.

We started by looking at the cover of Home and picking the house that most resembled ours (a log cabin).  Then we talked about the shapes and lines that make up our house. Smith, etal write extensively and provide examples of dialogues with children to help readers plan for their own observation drawing sessions with kids. There is something about the back and forth between looking, naming, and drawing that helps make everything more concrete.

Cora had no trouble talking about our house. We named the major shapes we saw. We talked about what rooms are behind each window. But when it came to putting these ideas down on paper, she stalled. She’s afraid of “doing it wrong” and, I think, disappointing me now matter how many times I tell her I’m going to love whatever she does and remind her of the great drawings she has made in the past. I have to remind myself not to push her if she’s not ready for this.

In the end, We worked together on the drawing. I made lots of the big shapes (the fame of the house and windows, for example) and she drew the details (panes of glass and siding).

We’ll try this again soon. Like anything, I believe practice breeds confidence. My hope is that at some point she’ll take off on her own and find a love for drawing all that she sees – at home and abroad.

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Our yellow door is a defining feature of our home.

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Testing greens to find the best match.