And here’s a drawing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released that year:
Filed under: Kids art
And here’s a drawing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was released that year:
Filed under: Kids art
“All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time,’” begins E.H. Gombrich in his 1936 history book for children, A Little History of the World. “And that’s just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time.”
He then asks his young readers to picture the past as an infinity mirror:
Behind every ‘Once upon a time’ there is always another. Have you ever tried standing between two mirrors? You should. You will see a great long line of shiny mirrors, each one smaller than the one before, stretching away into the distance, getting fainter and fainter, so that you never see the last. But even when you can’t see them any more, the mirrors still go on. They are there, and you know it. And that’s how it is with ‘Once upon a time’. We can’t see where it ends.
At the end of the book, he enlists the aid of another another visual metaphor: a river.
“Imagine time as a river, and that we are flying high above it in an airplane.” He briefly describes all the events that have led to our current moment. “Now let us quickly drop down in our plane towards the river.”
From close up, we can see it is a real river, with rippling waves like the sea. A strong wind is blowing and there are little crests of foam on the waves. Look carefully at the millions of shimmering white bubbles rising and then vanishing with each wave. Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief instant they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that. Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again. We can hardly be seen in the great river of time. New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave.
Compare these visual metaphors to the one that begins Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, another history book for young readers, published a decade and a half before Gombrich’s:
Related reading: Visit the children’s section
Artists and children both need the right combination of time, space, and materials to do their work.
Here’s how Ursula Kolbe puts it in her book Children’s Imagination: Creativity Under Our Noses (emphasis mine):
The elements of time, space and materials make it possible for children to explore, invent and make their ideas visible. Thinking of these elements as invitations gets to the heart of the matter.
It’s the combination of unhurried and uninterrupted time, inviting spaces and materials that guides mind and hands, that invites creative thinking. Seeing, handling, and thinking are inseparable, as Rudolf Arheim, psychologist and scholar of art and ideas, reminds us.
Together, time, space and materials provide ‘invitations to act’.
Those adjectives are extremely important: unhurried and uninterrupted time, and inviting spaces and materials.
Years ago, my friend John T. Unger turned “time, space, and materials” into an equation for producing work. (Only he uses the word resources instead of “materials” — “Resources meaning materials and tools, or the money to get them.”)
Time + Space + Resources = Work
His insight was that you need all three at the same time, otherwise you fall into idleness. Here, in John’s words, are variations on the equation:
T+R-S=Idle: You have time and resources but no work space. Examples: a rock band with close neighbors, a dancer with a no floor space, any visual artist whose space is improperly ventilated, too small, or is not conducive to the use of their proper tools.
T+S-R=Idle: You have time and space but no resources. Example: you quit your job and moved into your parent’s basement, but ran out of paint & canvas. Or you saved up enough cash to rent a big space and take time off, but your welder just blew out it’s coil and there’s not enough cash left to fix it. Or you took a part time job so you’d have
more time to work, but you can’t afford materials after you pay the rent.
R+S-T=Idle: You have resources and space, but all your time is used to maintain them. Example: You have a great job that pays for a huge loft and you’ve purchased everything you need to do a big project. But every night when you come home, you’re just too burned out to get anywhere with the stuff.
“The trouble is,” he says, “it’s almost impossible to get all three at once.”
Time gets used to make money. Money gets used to pay for space. Space is hard to justify unless you have the time and resources to make it pay for itself. The whole equation can easily turn into a vicious circle in which you constantly have to rob Peter to pay Paul.
We can easily see this play out in the lives of children, too.
S + M – T = You provide a nice space and plenty of materials in the classroom, but the bell rings and it’s time to stop for the day, regardless of where the children are in their work.
T + S – M = You provide the time and space for children to work, but all you’ve given them to draw with is crummy old crayons and scrap paper.
M + T – S = You provide great materials and lots of time, but nowhere to spread out.
My question is whether increasing the quality or amount of a variable in the equation can make up for a lack of one the others.
So, for example, you have very little time, but you have a dedicated space and materials ready to go so you can pop in at any opportune moment and work.
Or, you have no space to work, but you get up early when the kids are in bed, and use the kitchen table.
I’m scratching my head thinking about how space and time can make up for a lack of materials, which might reveal something about their importance. I suppose if you have lots of time, you can scrounge around for materials?
I’ll think about it some more, but until then, remember the equation:
Time + Space + Materials = Work
“Curious, this child-love of stones! Stones are the toys not only of the children of the poor, but of all children at one period of existence: no matter how well supplied with other playthings, every Japanese child wants sometimes to play with stones. To the child-mind a stone is a marvelous thing, and ought so to be, since even to the understanding of the mathematician there can be nothing more wonderful than a common stone. The tiny urchin suspects the stone to be much more than it seems, which is an excellent suspicion; and if stupid grown-up folk did not untruthfully tell him that his plaything is not worth thinking about, he would never tire of it, and would always be finding something new and extraordinary in it.”
— Lafcadio Hearn, “In Cholera Time,” Japanese Ghost Stories
Filed under: stones
“Aren’t you all about sharing?”
But no, I don’t want to instruct step-by-step how the collages are done, because:
1) I’m still exploring the technique myself and I don’t want to codify it or make any rules or make it boring
2) I am certain that if curious commenters sat down and tried to approximate my technique with their own tools and materials, they would come up with something of their own.
I might rewrite it for adults:
YOU ARE FINE WITHOUT ADVICE AND SUGGESTIONS.
I learned so much about art from watching a kid draw. I taught at the grade-school level. Kids don’t call it art when they’re throwing things around, drawing—they’re just doing stuff.
When I talk to artists who are “stuck” I often think they should be prescribed a session with some four-year-olds. (Borrow a kid!) Four-year-olds are the most “unstuck” creatures around. To watch a four-year-old draw is to watch some kind of magic happen, magic that, even in two or three years, will not come naturally, but will need to be conjured, somehow.
Lynda Barry does this at the University of Wisconsin:
“When I came to the university… one thing that struck me was how miserable the grad students were. I thought, I wonder if I could pair them up with four-year-olds?” She started a program called Draw Bridge that did just that. “What I hoped would happen was my students would learn to borrow the kids’ state of mind and learn to approach problems in a way that was less tight and focused, a way that was happier and set the conditions for discovery.”
If you follow Lynda on Instagram, she often posts her collaborations with four-year-olds:
Here’s one about drawing Batman:
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Four year old realizes he can draw Batman. I watch him draw this and he shouts “I just drew Batman! I did not know I could draw Batman!” Then he draws a lot of them. Everyone wants one. I come back the next week and ask if he will draw me a Batman. He says “I don’t draw Batman anymore.”
A post shared by Lynda Barry (@thenearsightedmonkey) on
And here are some 4-year-olds doing a copying exercise:
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A post shared by Lynda Barry (@thenearsightedmonkey) on
I’m lucky right now because I live with a four-year-old and I get to spend a lot of time with him, watching him draw. (Although, I’m telling you: it’s a lot easier to just borrow one and hand them back!) If you came to one of the Keep Going tour dates, you saw this slide of Jules drawing when he was three:
(I write more about his drawing in the “Your Work is Play” section of the book.)
This is my second time around living with a four-year-old. This one is a little more introverted than the first one. I did a lot more collaborating with the first. I remember transcribing some of his wild monologues:
He was basically an ecstatic poet!
I have two daughters that could both draw like Albrecht Durer when they were about seven years old, before the teachers got ahold of them.
I’m also reminded now of illustrator Mica Angela Hendricks and her collaborations with her 4-year-old daughter, which started out when her daughter saw her sketchbook and asked if she could draw, too. She eventually started draw unfinished heads at night so her daughter could finish them in the morning. “Do you have any heads for me today?” her daughter would ask.
My niece, Winona, contributes the voice of little Emily. She was 4 when I recorded her. You can’t direct a 4-year-old, I learned that really fast. I couldn’t even get her to repeat lines for me. So I just recorded audio as we drew pictures together, played with stuff, talked about the world. I was pretty aware that if the recordings produced nothing, the film would have been dead before it even began. She lives in Scotland and I am in Austin, so I usually only get to see her about once a year. After a weeklong visit, recording five minutes here and there, I had about an hour or so of total recorded time with her. So the first step was finding all of her best reactions and questions, and I began to figure out what her character could be talking about here, or looking at there.
“You can’t direct a 4-year-old…” Truer words never spoken! All you can do is set them up and hit record. And hang on for the ride…
Yesterday, I was looking at this Stairway to Nowhere in my hotel — the kind of “luxury” hotel with lots of fancy finishes and no ice in the ice machine — and I was thinking about the news, and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” came to mind, as it often does these days:
Many years ago there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on being well dressed. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, going to the theatre, or going for a ride in his carriage, except to show off his new clothes…
“It’s strange people think they need Arendt or Orwell to figure things out,” Jeet Heer tweeted not long ago, “when everything was spelled out in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’”
“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.
“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”
“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.
After I finished the story again, I thought of 16-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg, whose autism informs her approach: “I don’t fall for lies as easily as regular people, I can see through things.”
To the politicians, she says: “You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in the answers that will allow you to carry on as if nothing has happened.”
But will anybody listen? Will anybody change? “Is my microphone on?” she asks.
Children are able to see through our bullshit, but if we don’t respect them and listen to them, we learn nothing from them, and nothing changes. The Emperor is allowed to proceed, because “the procession has got to go on.”
“Your kids… They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”
“Attitudes are caught, not taught.”
Fiona Apple once admitted that she doesn’t want kids, but she spends a lot of time buying and reading parenting books. The interviewer said, “So you’re the parent and the child.” Apple replied, “Well, I mean, you always have to be.”
Every time I read a piece like Pamela Paul’s “Let Children Get Bored Again,” I want to cross out the word “children” and write “us.”
The problem with parenting tips is that the best way to help your children become the kind of person you want them to be is by surrounding them with the kinds of people you want them to be. This includes you.
You can’t tell kids anything. Kids want to be like adults. They want to do what the adults are doing. You have to let them see adults behaving like the whole, human beings you’d like them to be.
If we want to raise whole human beings, we have to become whole human beings ourselves.
This is the really, really hard work.
Want your kids to read more? Let them see you reading every day.
Want your kids to practice an instrument? Let them see you practicing an instrument.
Want your kids to spend more time outside? Let them see you without your phone.
There’s no guarantee that your kids will copy your modeling, but they’ll get a glimpse of an engaged human. As my twitter pal, Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, tweeted a few years ago:
parents keep trying to push their kids toward certain interests when it works so much better to just dig into those interests yourself
oh, wait .. those aren’t YOUR interests? so you don’t want to dig into them? they aren’t your child’s interests either; why would THEY?
joyfully dig into your own interests and share all the ensuing wins, frustrations, struggles, successes
let your kids love what they love
when you share your learning and doing, you don’t make them also love (whatever); you DO show them how great it is to do meaningful work
If you spend more time in your life doing the things that you love and that you feel are worthwhile, the kids in your life will get hip to what that looks like.
“If adults can show what they love in front of kids, there’ll be some child who says, ‘I’d like to be like that!’ or ‘I’d like to do that!’” said Fred Rogers. He told a story about a sculptor in a nursery school he was working in when he was getting his master’s degree in child development:
There was a man who would come every week to sculpt in front of the kids. The director said, “I don’t want you to teach sculpting, I want you to do what you do and love it in front of the children.” During that year, clay was never used more imaginatively, before or after…. A great gift of any adult to a child, it seems to me, is to love what you do in front of the child. I mean, if you love to bicycle, if you love to repair things, do that in front of the children. Let them catch the attitude that that’s fun. Because you know, attitudes are caught, not taught.”
We took the 5-year-old docent and his brother back to the Blanton Museum this afternoon. My favorite piece was Lenka Clayton’s The Distance I Can Be From My Son (2013). In three short videos, Clayton films her son walking away from her until she can’t stand it anymore and runs after him. The videos were part of Clayton’s “Artist Residency in Motherhood:” an attempt to “allow [motherhood] to shape the direction of my work, rather than try to work ‘despite it’.”
In Hannah Gadsby’s devastating Netflix special, Nanette, she deconstructs how jokes work on a system of tension and release — the setup is “artificially inseminated with tension” and the punchline releases it. Each of these videos is structured like a joke: You see the son toddling away, and at the very end of the video, the mother bolts after him. Tension and release. Setup and punchline.
There are interesting layers here: Clayton is setting herself up to see how far she can let her son go, and she’s setting us up, too. (Gadsby points out that her job as a comedian is to build tension and release it and do that over and over again. “This is an abusive relationship!”) We watched the videos with our kids after spending an exhausting 30 minutes in the museum trying to keep them close, my wife restraining the 3-year-old from leaping onto the paintings. (Unfortunately, art museums do require “helicopter parenting.”) The joke, I think, is not on the kid, or the kid viewers: my sons laughed out loud during the videos — I think they were rooting for him to get away!
Then, you remember the news and the fact that our government has split thousands of families apart at the border. Suddenly, The Distance I Can Be From My Son takes on a completely different meaning. You laughed and now you want to scream.
I read about this 1966 LEGO ad in Alexandra Lange’s The Design of Childhood. In case you can’t read the copy:
Let somebody else’s child get his kicks tracking a little kid through a gun sight. Let somebody else’s child build a bomb shelter in the hollow of an old tree. Remember when the hollow of an old tree was just fun? Heck, war isn’t very adventurous anymore. We think there’s lots more adventure in a medical lab, or at the U.N.
A half century later, it seems remarkably progressive . I was reminded of this pamphlet from a 1974 LEGO set:
The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls.
It’s the imagination that counts. Not skill. You build whatever comes into your head, the way you want it. A bed or a truck. A dolls house or a spaceship.
A lot of boys like dolls houses. They’re more human than spaceships. A lot of girls prefer spaceships. They’re more exciting than dolls houses.
The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.
Again, it seems remarkably progressive, as does this 1981 ad, written by creative director Judy Lotas, who was inspired by the Equal Rights Amendment and her own daughters:
Have you ever seen anything like it? Not just what she’s made, but how proud it’s made her. It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves. No matter what they’ve created.
That ad went viral in 2012 when LEGO started marketing LEGO Friends.
The response, when we see these ads, is often, “Why on Earth don’t they do it like this anymore?”
Many parents, including myself, lament the fact that there used to be more emphasis on free play and building from imagination, rather than pre-determined kits. Here’s Raul Gutierrez, of Tiny Bop:
The best toys — Tinkertoys, Lego, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs — allowed us to build and rebuild almost endlessly. With my kids, I noticed that these kinds of toys have become increasingly rare. Lego bricks are sold primarily as branded kits. Instead of a pile of blocks that could become anything, they are now essentially disassembled toys. Instead of starting with a child’s imagination of what could be, play is now fixed on a single endpoint, predetermined by Lego’s designers.
But Lange points out that this golden age that we think of was actually just that: a golden age, a product of the specific time:
Today, the LEGO Group is often criticized for stoking the cycle of consumer desire, sequestering LEGO bricks in individual branded universes, and launching new sets on a fashion cycle, but this has been part of the company’s sales strategy for longer than people realize. The free play celebrated in their ads of the 1970s and early 1980s reflects a brief moment in American culture when the kindergarten values — embedded in wooden blocks — returned to the forefront…
We also lament the loss of that wonderful gender-neutral tone, which, according to this NYTimes article on how Disney has branded Frozen, was way more prevalent in the 1970s than today:
Princesses may seem like a permanent feature of the toyscape, but they were less common before the 1990s. “The idea that pink princess fantasy dream dolls have always been a part of girlhood is false,” says Elizabeth Sweet, a lecturer at the University of California, Davis, who studies the cultural history of toys. Sweet has found that the popularity of gender-neutral toys reached a peak in the mid-1970s. Since then, toy makers have embraced the market-doubling effect of pushing certain toys to boys and other toys to girls. Sweet says the level of gender segregation has never been higher. A typical big-box store might have four aisles of blue toys and four aisles of pink toys with an aisle of yellow toys in between. “Separate but equal,” she says. Legos, for example, evolved from simple packs of building blocks into play sets mostly sold to boys, often with brand tie-ins. In 2012, the company introduced Lego Friends, which are basically Legos for girls.
Here’s another NYTimes article from 2012 on gender-based toy marketing:
Gender was remarkably absent from the toy ads at the turn of the 20th century but played a much more prominent role in toy marketing during the pre- and post-World War II years. However, by the early 1970s, the split between “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys” seemed to be eroding…
But by 1995, the gendered advertising of toys had crept back to midcentury levels, and it’s even more extreme today. In fact, finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.
There are several reasons gender-based marketing has become so prevalent. On a practical level, toy makers know that by segmenting the market into narrow demographic groups, they can sell more versions of the same toy.
We want, so badly, for companies to stand for something good, and some companies do, but at the end of the day, advertising is about moving product, and while it can be idealistic and a force for good, is always the product of people trying to sell things to other people in a particular time and place. If you want better, more progressive advertising, build a better, more progressive world. Best not to get too caught up in nostalgia, but look back, see what’s worth stealing, and more forward.
A note on the post title, from Lange’s book: “LEGO” is a contraction of the Danish leg godt, or “play well.”
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