Here are two books about art and horses open on my kitchen table this morning.
The top spread is from Dr. Seuss’s The Horse Museum, which was produced from an undated, unfinished manuscript that Theodore Geisel’s widow found in a box. (In the 1950s, before his children’s books had become popular, Geisel had worked on a television series called Modern Art on Horseback.)
This posthumously published text recently discovered in Ted Geisel’s studio uses horse-focused art pieces to provide historical context to artistic movements. Showing art ranging from the Lascaux cave paintings to an untitled 1994 sculpture by Deborah Butterfield, Joyner’s playful illustrations surround the curated photographs of art pieces. By using horses as the departing point in the artistic journey, Seuss and Joyner are able to introduce diverse perspectives, artifacts, and media, including Harnessed Horse from the northern Wei dynasty, a Navajo pictorial blanket titled Oh, My Beautiful Horses, and photographs by Eadweard Muybridge.
My personal favorite part of the book is the appendix in the back which goes through each individual piece of art featured in the book and its creator’s relationship, if any, to horses.
I got to thinking how interesting it would be to go through the archives of my own favorite artists and compare horse pictures.
Here, for example, are some of Saul Steinberg’s drawings of horses:
The other book on my kitchen table is unlike any book I’ve ever read. Heidi’s Horse, originally published in 1975, is a book by the painter Sylvia Fein, collecting her daughter’s drawings from her very first marks at the age of 2 up until the age of 17. (Fein was inspired by the Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s The Unfolding of Artistic Activity.) It’s a wonderful record of how the visual mind develops over time.
The book can be hard to track down, so here are the sections summarizing Heidi’s progression:
Here’s another page focusing only on Heidi’s horse heads (the title is, admittedly, kind of terrible, at the very least it should be Heidi’s Horses, plural):
In 1985, Sheila Graber animated Heidi’s Horse into this 16-minute film:
And here’s a great video from 2006 of Fein talking about the progression of children’s drawings and Heidi’s Horse:
If you sit down with a kid and watch them draw, it’s the most wonderful experience in the world. You’re seeing transformation right in front of your eyes.
The book has been hugely influential on me as I track the progress of my youngest son’s drawing.
More about kid’s art and art history: “Caveman drawings”
My 4-year-old leaves so many drawings lying around that sometimes I steal them and add my own captions. I made the mistake of showing this batch to him — he was absolutely furious that I added the wrong words to his pictures!
After we put the boys to bed, my wife and I clean up the 3-year-old’s dozens of drawings he leaves all over his drawing space, deciding what to keep and what to recycle. The figures above were all drawn on the same piece of paper and I thought they could tell a story, so I cut them out and had my 5-year-old letter the speech balloons. They’re still too young to (peacefully) jam together, so I like doing these little orchestrated collaborations. (Previously: “What do you know?”)
I’ve been trying to get my 5-year-old interested in collage. Turns out the answer is fart jokes. So now we’re “collaborating” on this very important project. His Bernie Sanders collage is delightful modern dada:
Drawing by my 5-year-old.
My sons draw all the time, but they don’t seem to care one bit about their drawings after they make them (I envy them), so they leave piles of finished and half-finished drawings everywhere. I go through them and find scraps of construction paper that I want to paste in my notebook. Sometimes I’ll make a collage out of them:
And sometimes I’ll actually use one of the drawings as a writing prompt, like this scribble of the digestive system Owen drew:
In a way, the page becomes a collaboration between us, even though I rarely ask their permission. See also: Orchestrated drawings.
Our two-year-old, Jules, our little caveman, started drawing dozens of skeletons a few days ago, and in response to my posts about them, an Instagram follower commented, “They’re like ancient cave drawings.” I immediately thought of the work of Sylvia Fein, a painter who wrote two really interesting books about children’s artwork: Heidi’s Horse, a record of her daughter’s drawings of horses from the ages of 2 to 17, and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking, which compares children’s drawings to the cave paintings and drawings of our ancestors. The books can be hard to track down, so here are a few examples from First Drawings, below:
I love these books because they honor the work of children’s drawing — their play — by paying close attention to it, and they show how the development of children’s visual thinking echoes the development of our species’ visual thinking. Children do the work of developing powers that we have evolved over thousands of years, all in the span of a decade or two.
I also love these books because they are about intense looking and observation, and they explore their arguments through simple juxtaposition. I know of at least two other books — both favorites of mine — that use this method: David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, which compares post-photography painting to medieval pre-optics paintings, and Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten, which compares the art of kindergarteners to the art of modernist artists and architects.
Sylvia Fein is a terrific painter who, to my knowledge, is still working at the age of 98. Here’s a 2014 documentary about her life and work. There’s a wonderful moment when she speaks of discovering working in miniature when her daughter was very little: “I was just in heaven. Everything seemed to go together: my life and my painting.” I’m inspired by the way Fein was able to integrate motherhood and art-making. (Above is my favorite painting of hers, obviously a self-portrait, from 1947, called “Lady With Her Baby.”)
The only thing remotely similar to Fein’s book Heidi’s Horse that I can think of is a 1939 exhibit at the MoMA, Creative Growth, Childhood to Maturity, which showcased the work of Dahlov Ipcar, from the age 3 to 22. (She was, by the way, the first woman with a solo exhibition at MoMA.) Ipcar’s parents, William Zorach and Marguerite Zorach, were both artists, and they saved much of the artwork she made as a young child. The press release of the show outlines a goal very similar to Heidi’s Horse: “it shows the creative growth from infancy to adulthood of an individual who is neither a genius nor a prodigy.”
Ipcar wrote about her unique upbringing in her essay, “My Family, My Life, My Art”:
My parents had always encouraged me to develop my own style of art. They both had undergone conventional art school training, but when they became involved in the modern art movement, they found they had to unlearn everything they had been taught…. They had deliberately left me unschooled in art, wanting to see what would happen if I were left alone to develop in my own way.
Ipcar and Fein share another connection: they both found a way to integrate their life and art-making. It came naturally to Ipcar, who recalled painting in the studio alongside her mother, and later, painting with her own children:
People always ask me how I managed to paint when my two boys were small. My children were a joy to me, and there was no problem working with them around — I just let them play at my feet as I painted. They would even run toy fire engines up and down my easel, but it didn’t bother me.
This is very much what I am attempting here, at the kitchen table, at this very moment, while the two boys draw quietly beside me, long enough for me to press “Publish.”
Several times a day since October, ever since the Halloween decorations went up, my two-year-old son Jules has asked my wife or me to draw him an “x-ray.” (That’s his word for skeleton.) When you draw for him, he hunches over so close to the drawing that you can’t even see your hand. You finish a drawing, then he turns the paper over to the blank side and says, “X-ray?” We’ve drawn hundreds of skeletons for him, over and over and over again. He flat-out refuses to attempt drawing one for himself. Sometimes we’ll be finishing dinner, and he’ll say, “X-ray?” and we’ll shout, “No! No more x-rays! We’re eating!” and he’ll throw a complete fit until one of us relents and draws the skeleton.
Then, yesterday — Christmas morning — totally out of the blue, I look over, and there’s Jules, with a piece of construction paper and his new Slick Stix from his stocking, drawing freaking x-rays like he’s been doing it his whole life:
I was so shocked I just sat there next to him for 15 minutes, watching him draw. And we’re not talking just a few x-rays, we’re talking dozens of x-rays. He’s drawn for hours since Christmas morning, as if seized by some kind of hypergraphia. X-rays, x-rays, x-rays. Here’s a picture of the whole stack of drawings he’s done so far:
What happened? What convinced him it was time? The construction paper and the markers have been there at his disposal for months. Was it that we had visitors in the house for Christmas? I can’t come up with any convincing external factor that might have caused him to finally pick up the marker. He just decided he was ready.
As is so often the case with parenting, you do the same Sisyphean, seemingly meaningless task over and over again, wondering when the heck it will add up to anything. And then, one day, often without warning or fanfare, the meaning arrives, and you still can’t believe it.