The Secret Lives of Children: What Children’s Art Tells Us

From 2007 to 2019, the open-mic series “Adults Read What They Wrote As Children” thrilled audiences across the country by delivering exactly what its title promised: adults adopting, mostly , a serious and direct style, reading the writings they produced. as children, a broad category ranging from six years old to about 20 years old.

“Mimi was perfect. She was perfect for me,” Remina read in Toronto. “She wasn’t whimsical, or a rabbit who didn’t care what other people cared about her.”

The audience laughed, but Remina’s voice shook a little as she neared the end, a sort of obituary for her pet, composed as an entry in a “literary diary” she was to keep for the ‘school. The distance between who she is now and herself – the kid who also found her despised bus driver Jeff “an interesting topic, something everyone can think about” – has collapsed. In this note of grief, still palpable today, the diary suddenly becomes less absurd, even the passages where one wonders if his mother was an extraterrestrial.

Why is it so difficult to understand childhood, even our own, even when we remember what happened? Humans don’t remember their experiences until they’re about two years old, but after that things start to stick: the emotional moments, the big firsts, the disappointments, and the humiliations. By the age of eight, we can retain volumes of experience, field trips, and friendships in the days and weeks following an encounter with real disaster or loss.

Yet there is a difference between remembering an event and remembering its singularly subjective reality for the children that we were. Childhood has its own logic, its own concerns, even its own morality. This is what makes “Adults read things” funny. The adults who read are not the children who write, even if they do.

Now perhaps more than ever, we are surrounded by childhood portraits that promise to bridge that disconnect. School-aged YouTubers make their childhood consumable for us (or their parents do), aptly posing in brand-provided outfits, unboxing countless boxes of toys for elated fans. They walk, jump, jump answers to every parenting advice column you’ve ever read.

“C’mon C’mon,” the 2021 film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a radio producer caring for his nine-year-old nephew, featured real-life interviews with ordinary kids talking about their hopes and fears . The Disney Plus series “Obi-wan Kenobi” gave us a 10-year-old Princess Leia who moved through scenes with a precision hard to imagine in a child who didn’t follow an adult’s instructions. When she looked at the camera, it was the child actor’s professionalism that shone through, ‘Las meninas’ with a lightsaber.

They are children as adults see them: precocious, articulate, competent. The “Evidence” exhibition, presented at Mercer Union until August 20, takes a different path. Curator Amy Zion has assembled a group of artists who take children’s art in their own way, treating it seriously enough to make it the basis of their own work.

The pieces in the show span decades. Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, in her first film, “Christmas at Moose Factory” (1971), had children draw pictures of what Christmas meant to them, then recorded their voices explaining their pictures, telling the story of their perspective as images fill the screen themselves. Contemporary artist Ulrike Müller’s murals of large animal-like figures in pastel shades watch over a selection of children’s drawings from the 1930s, while Brian Belott painstakingly copies drawings from other archives, transforming marker scribbles and stick figures on inexpensive kraft paper in canvas paint.

Desk graffiti is the preoccupation of Oscar Murillo, who has collaborated since 2013 with political scientist Clara Dublanc on “Frequencies”, a project that covers school desks with canvas and asks students around the world to draw on them as they wish. wish. A catalog details past participants, and Murillo and Dublanc have begun working with Canadian schools as part of the exhibit at Mercer. Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj’s fine metal sculptures of “Abetare” reproduce graffiti drawn and engraved on desks salvaged from his old school. The apple resting on the floor of the gallery would make even the tallest adult viewer feel like a child again.

There is an underlying stream of trauma that runs through many of these works. The Cree children in Obomsawin’s film describe adventures with parents and siblings, but were interviewed at the residential school they attended. Those who created the images that Müller’s animals seem to protect were refugees from the Spanish Civil War; many were orphans or separated from their parents. Halilaj’s school in Kosovo was later demolished. The art, in all cases, is remarkably similar.

While children’s art reflects the sensibilities and inner life of each child, it does so under aesthetic rules unique to children as a group, psychologist and early childhood educator Rhoda Kellogg explained in her 1969 book Analyzing Children’s Art. Kellogg’s archive of more than two million drawings provided the originals of Belott’s paintings, which he calls “forgeries” or “failures.” His point of view is always confirmed.

Schools that participated in “Fréquences” span classes and continents, and patterns and styles repeat across the canvases even as the context of each emerges. (Children at a school in Chile, for example — where student protests over education issues often make headlines — filled their office canvases with the same slogans with which they covered classroom walls. ) All children are artists from the same school.

The similarities can make it difficult for adults to understand children’s art. Some reject it entirely, seeing only untrained aesthetic tastes and motor development. Your child’s art may be good “for them,” they say, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Others, including many modernist painters of the 20th century, idealize art as natural behavior, and children as its only uninhibited practitioners.

Kellogg fell into the latter category, believing that children’s art contained a glimpse of a deeper, universal human aesthetic sense: a pleasure derived from making marks that we learn to ignore or devalue, rather than ourselves. go out. “By respecting and participating in self-initiated artistic activity,” she writes, “we can produce more well-being in our own lives. At the same time, we can help bridge the huge gap between our adult concerns and the mental development of children in art.

Art doesn’t teach creativity, according to Marilyn JS Goodman, author of the 2018 book “Children Draw: A Guide to Why, When and How Children Make Art”; it allows innate creativity to flourish. It offers not so much a platform to develop motor skills (learning to color inside lines, for example, or to trace a stencil, the two exercises which she strongly advises against) as a meaningful way to children to use these skills for their own purposes. “(During) these precious experiences, children can use their imaginations to shape their fantasies, expressing themselves freely, honestly and spontaneously.”

The conditions of the pandemic have made this self-expression particularly poignant. When playgrounds and schools closed in 2020, children disappeared from the world. They left their traces in chalk drawings on the sidewalks or in the paint, marker and crayon pictures pasted inside the windows – clues to their inner world. As the pandemic progressed, children sometimes appeared in stories about its effects, speaking with remarkable composure about friends and family they couldn’t visit, school closures and of the dangerous new landscape around them. “I could pass it to (my sister), who could pass it to my mother, who could spread it to my father, who could spread it to my grandfather, who could kill him,” a young boy told the filmmaker Irish Daire Collins for his documentary “For Emergency Use Only”. “So, like, I’m really, really worried.”

Children’s art offers the possibility of something else, something less filtered and more accessible, perhaps, to the children themselves. At least two museums, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the International Museum of Children’s Art in Oslo, Norway, have hosted exhibitions of these pandemic creations. Images of masks and viruses dominate most submissions, but so do simple figures, square cars and pointed-roof houses, the same ones that appear in children’s works in “Evidence” and in forgotten records hidden in countless childhood homes. .

Whether or not they are going through a pandemic, children everywhere are making art for the same simple reason: to express their inner life, they may not yet have the language to describe and to begin to process their environment. That’s why adult caregivers, other children, nature, animals, home, and other important places all make frequent appearances. Goodman’s book is hands-on, with helpful advice on materials, subject matter, and how to offer encouragement without locking children into adult expectations and aesthetics. For very small children, Goodman said, you can’t link explanations and drawings like you would for adults; kids draw what they feel, then describe what they see – which could also be what they think adults want to hear.

“Art is not the same for children as it is for adults,” Goodman reminds us. “For young children in particular, art is not about someone else’s pictures on the wall, but rather what they create themselves.”

Flip through “Frequencies” catalog, I found, repeated on the same canvas, the same pointed “S” that I drew constantly, for no reason that I can remember, when I was 11 years old. And for a minute the drawings on the walls around me ceased to be art and became children again.

Ruth Jones is a Toronto-based writer and editor

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