Monday, November 26, 2012

Art of Life

I grew up surrounded by art.

My mother is an accomplished artist whose work is moving in ever more interesting directions.  My father is an artist and a poet.  The two of them ran their own art gallery in Michigan for exactly 40 years.  (If you want to fall in love with my parents just click that last link for a short film my brother made.)  The art gallery spilled over into our home and we were always surrounded by unusual and beautiful things.  When you are young you assume there is nothing unique about your own experience.  So for us that's what life was supposed to be like--bursting at the seams with art.

It was years before I realized other people didn't hang and rehang original work all over their homes like a gallery.  That maybe it was special to have your own childish work framed with acid free mats and mounted on the wall in the same room as a print by Picasso or Whistler.  We even had a press for printing etchings in our basement that my brothers and I mostly found amusing for crushing broken crayons with in the gears.  We had frame samples to play with and professional quality colored pencils to use.  Sure, occasionally a painting we liked that had been hanging over the bed for years might get sold and go away, but there was always something new to enjoy.  Art was just part of life.

Milwaukee Art Museum by moonlight tonight as we were leaving
But that isn't true for everyone, or even many, and I wish that weren't the case.  I know firsthand what it means to expect there to be art around.  Drawing in our house wasn't just something you could do, it was something you simply did.  Surrounding yourself with beauty was a necessity, not an afterthought.  Art was built into everything and was integral to how we viewed the world.

Quinn at the museum
My own children are also surrounded by art.  Not to the explosive degree that I was, but we keep the craft area of our house well stocked with supplies that they indulge in often, and we have some wonderful things on our walls, including pieces by artists we know (such as their grandma).  They recognize a Hundertwasser when they see it, and if you asked them to create something in the style of van Gogh or O'Keefe they would know how to give it a shot.

So even though I don't fear for my own children's art education I'm still distressed that funding for art was cut from their school a couple of years ago.  Fernwood Montessori has a high level of parental involvement, however, so despite budget cuts to the public schools there have been volunteers to keep some kind of art program running for our kids.  But what does it say about our priorities when we provide so few resources for education that they feel they must cut art?

Art is not expendable.  Art is life.

Art is about history, and invention, and discovery, and imagination.  Learning about art is about learning how to see.  Looking at art is about being able to interpret the world around you.  To be able to control shapes and images at your fingertips and translate something from your mind into a tangible form that others can appreciate is a powerful thing.  How is this something we are so quick to dismiss for certain children just because of the tax base their school is in?  All children deserve access to art.  And even though this isn't an area where my own children are deprived, I don't like the message it sends to them when the school system they are in puts art education on the chopping block.  I want them in an environment where art is valued.

Mona, Quinn, and Aden with art rocks
Today I was reminded of what a great resource our local art museum is.  A family membership is only $75 for the year, but even if we couldn't afford that the museum is free the first Thursday of every month.  It has a large and varied permanent collection, including this installation of hanging rocks that my kids particularly like:

Plus an impressive number of hands-on activities, including crafts and drawing.
(Not to mention this truly brilliant piece of animation Quinn and I did together that we were able to have emailed to us so we can enjoy it forever.)

We actually hadn't spent time together at the museum in a while.  The girls have been for field trips and I've performed there a couple of times in the past year, but my parents decided while they were in town for Thanksgiving weekend they wanted to see the current show of Rembrandt, Van Dyke, and Gainsborough paintings on display.  It was lovely.

For anyone who thinks their children may get bored in an art museum, you'd be surprised how interested they can get, especially when you start discussing everything around you and you give them a chance to teach you something.  Aden pointed out to me a sculpture I've walked past a million times was entirely constructed out of buttons, which was something I'd never noticed.  Quinn couldn't get over how old the Greek urns were.  Mona liked the armor.  But if we ever planned to spend a long enough day in the museum that I thought they would lose interest I would draw them up a checklist of things to find, where they could tally up everything from mummies to nipples and I'm sure they would stay quite entertained.  (Last trip to the zoo I made them bingo cards for spotting lions, squirrels, and bathrooms and it made them very happy.)

There are so many ways to explore how we see through art.  My mom recently made my kids 'color kits' with different colored boards and mats so they could experiment with how different things look when juxtaposed with various colors.  She hand made beautiful little books to teach them all about color theory through history and show them new ways to think about the things they see.

Even without that kind of personal resource, there are endless beautiful books available at the library, and in some places even reproductions of famous paintings to hang on your wall for a little bit before exchanging them for something new.

Nobody has to love all kinds of art.  Even at the extraordinary show we saw today there were paintings we didn't like and would not choose to live with.  But the things that were beautiful were so beautiful they will stay with me.  Aden has told me some things she's seen at our museum have even entered her dreams they left such a large impression.  I like that.

I don't know if my children understand yet how much of their experience in our home is not universal.  There are days I worry that I allow them to be more sheltered than is healthy in the long run, but we'll see.  In the meantime I'm glad that at least art is not something rare or distant for them.  It is part of their everyday world and something they feel included in.  Art is around us like family.  Art is part of our lives.


  1. I love this post, Korinthia. I didn't grow up with art exposure, but when I got older it became an important part of my life. We've been taking Nathaniel to museums and art galleries since he was a few weeks old. Now he's two and he gets excited about what he sees. He also gets excited when he sees fluorescent dresses at H&M and stuffed animals at the drugstore, but whatever. :) He loves art time at day care and coloring, drawing, and collaging at home, and we proudly display his art everywhere. Music, art, photography, film, all of it...we want him to grow up surrounded by creativity and encouraged to express himself.

  2. Thanks for this post. I find it really interesting to think about all of this, because I completely agree with you about the value of art int the theoretical sense, but I also am a person that has never been particularly drawn to visual art. I didn't grow up with it much, and I still am not a very "visual" person. Neither is Mike. When we sent Sam to kindergarten, we realized how "behind" he was in drawing and crafts and such, because there are a lot of activities I choose over art when I hang out with my kids (playing outdoors, reading, games, etc.), and Sam hardly knew how to hold a crayon. I know that visual art is valuable, and I can appreciate beautiful art, and I want my kids to be exposed to it and enriched by it, but it has never sunk into my heart the way it has for you and your kids. (Music, on the other hand, was always important to me, and I feel more strongly about connecting my kids to music. We finally started piano last year, and it gives me so much joy to see Sam messing around on the piano in his free time and actually starting to play things that sound pretty.) There are so many things we value that we have trouble fitting in to our life, that it's hard to push for the ones that don't have a particular draw for us personally. I'm curious what you as an art-lover think about this. Are there other things that you know are valuable, but don't focus on as much with your kids because they're not a personal interest for you? (Also - I am exactly why kids need art in school! My kids need to learn about and experience art from people who love it, so they can find out if they might love it too.)

    Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking!

    1. Interesting, Sara! Actually, even if fine art of the type that you associate with museums doesn't move you personally, there is still much to learn from it that is worth exploring, and it has probably seeped into your consciousness more than you realize. Anytime you make decisions about what color to paint a wall or how to dress your kids for a family picture you are relying on your knowledge of the visual world to help you choose. The more you know, the more informed and potentially enjoyable those decisions become.

      Our biggest failing would have to be sports. I offer it to my kids and they decline and I'm always relieved. I know in theory why sports may matter, but I cannot make myself care. That was part of why neighborhood recess struck such a chord with me when you and Mike invited us to join, because that's the closest to sports my kids get.

  3. We still play a game called "Dog" in museums--though my kids no longer need to be distracted, really. In each room, you hunt for the dog (there is, it seems, always at least one.) We played a variation that involved naked rear ends, and another that involved nursing babies. I lament the lack of art education in school--especially music, which I think is sadly neglected. Kids should take music theory, and they should listen to music, and learn to play music, and so on and so forth. I suppose I feel more strongly about music because I lack the expertise, whereas I can blather on about artists...but only because I had really really amazing art history instruction in college....

    1. Oh, I love the idea of "Dog." And as I'm thinking about it, I do remember an awful lot of dogs in that last show....

      I feel very strongly about music education in the schools. So strongly that that has to be a whole other post someday. Technically my kids' public school doesn't currently fund art, gym, or music. It's all done through volunteer efforts or grants or outside efforts. I'll never understand why anyone wants to live in a community with undereducated children. Providing for all children better serves everyone. Apparently that's not as obvious to many as it is to me for some reason.

  4. Oh! So many thoughts are racing through my head I don't know where to begin.

    In a random jumble of words, I'll start by saying I LOVE your mom's work. I'm especially drawn to the bright, bold colors, and the warmth. It's wonderful. What a blessing to grow up surrounded by such beauty!

    When we had children, we made a conscious effort to keep the toy sprawl from happening, for gifts to be given for birthdays and holidays only. I immediately exempted art supplies and books. Lil has run through more boxes of watercolors than any child I've known. We have Aquarelles and pastels (oil and chalk) and markers and crayons and you name it. Art is a MUST in this house.

    We have visited many an art museum, and frequent the National Gallery at least once a year. In fact, one of my favorite memories with Hannah was taking her to a traveling Monet the January before we lost her. She was about five and a half and was enthralled with all she saw. She had an affinity for the Impressionists (I have NO idea where she could have gotten it...:oP) and we spent many an hour looking up works of art and prints and such.

    Which brings me to the crux of your post, the cuts in funding in fine arts programs in schools. It boggles my mind this is the area folks are immediately drawn to when the axe needs to fall (this and gifted education).

    We NEED beauty in our lives. We need art and music and literature and poetry and all those things that may seem unnecessary until we suddenly don't have them.

    1. I'm the same with the art supplies and books. My kids know not to ask for toys when we go into stores together, but yarn, pencils, origami paper or a book? They know I can't say no.

      I don't get why the arts are regarded as a frivolous addendum to education as opposed to an integral part of it. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Stephen King in On Writing where he wrote:

      “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.”