From 2007 until 2019, the open-mic series “Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids” delighted audiences across the country by offering exactly what their title promised: adults adopting, for the most part, an earnest and straightforward style, reading writing they produced as children, a broad category ranging from sixish to 20 or so.
“Mimi was perfect. She was just right for me,” read Remina in Toronto. “She wasn’t fancy, or a rabbit who didn’t care what others cared about her.”
The audience laughed, but Remina’s voice quavered a bit as she neared the end, an obituary of sorts for her pet, composed as an entry in a “literary diary” she had to keep for school. The distance between who she is now and her former self — the kid who also found her despised bus driver Jeff “an interesting subject, collapse something everyone can ponder about” —d. In that note of grief, still palpable today, the diary becomes, suddenly, less absurd, even the parts about wondering whether her mother was an alien.
Why is it so hard to understand childhood, even our own, even when we remember what happened? Humans don’t retain experiences before they’re about two, but after that things start to stick: emotional moments, big firsts, disappointments and humiliations. By the age of eight we can hold onto whole volumes of experience, field trips and friendships, the days and weeks that follow an encounter with disaster or real loss.
Yet there is a difference between remembering an event and remembering its peculiarly subjective reality for the children we were. Childhood has its own logic, its own concerns, even its own morality. This is what makes “Grownups Read Things” funny. The adults who read aren’t the kids who wrote, even if they are.
Now perhaps more than ever we are surrounded by portraits of childhood that promise to bridge this disconnect. School-age YouTubers make their childhoods consumable for us (or their parents do), gamely posing in brand-supplied outfits, unboxing endless boxes of toys for delighted fans. They are walking, skipping, jumping responses to every parenting advice column you’ve ever read.
“C’mon C’mon,” the 2021 movie staring Joaquin Phoenix as a radio producer looking after his nine-year-old nephew, featured real 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 that was hard to imagine in any kid not following adult directions. When she looked into the camera, it was the child actor’s professionalism that shone through, “Las meninas” with a light saber.
These are children as adults see them: precocious, articulate, proficient. The exhibition “Evidence,” on display at Mercer Union until Aug. 20, takes a different track. The curator, Amy Zion, has assembled a group of artists who take art by children on its own terms, treating it seriously enough to make it the basis of their own work.
The pieces in the show span contracts. The Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, in her first film, “Christmas at Moose Factory” (1971), asked children to draw pictures of what Christmas meant to them, then recorded their voices explaining their pictures, narrating the film from their perspective as the images themselves fill the screen. The contemporary artist Ulrike Müller’s murals of large, animal-like figures in pastel shades stand watch over a selection of children’s drawings from the 1930s, while Brian Belott painstakingly copies drawings from a different archive, turning marker scribbles and stick figures on cheap craft paper into paint on canvas.
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 in canvas and asks students around the world to draw on it however they want. A catalog details past participants, and Murillo and Dublanc have begun to work with Canadian schools as part of the exhibition at Mercer. The thin metal sculptures in Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj’s “Abetare,” meanwhile, reproduces graffiti drawn on and etched into desks salvaged from his former school. The apple standing on the gallery floor would make even the tallest adult viewer feel child-sized again.
There is an undercurrent 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 of the Spanish Civil War; many had been orphaned 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 lives of individual children, it does so according to esthetic rules unique to children as a group, the psychologist and early childhood educator Rhoda Kellogg argued in her 1969 book “Analyzing Children’s Art.” Kellogg’s archive of more than two million drawings supplied the originals for Belott’s paintings, which he calls “forgeries” or “failures.” Her view is still carried out.
The schools that have participated in “Frequencies” span classes and continents, and the motifs and styles repeat across the canvasses even when the context of each comes through. (Kids at a school in Chile, for instance — where student protests on educational issues frequently make the news — filled their desk canvases with the same slogans with which they’ve covered classroom walls.) All children are artists of the same school.
The similarities can make it challenging for adults to understand the art of children. Some reject it entirely, seeing only unformed esthetic tastes and motor-skill development. Your kid’s art might be good “for them,” they argue, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. Others, many 20th-century modernist painters among them, romanticize artmaking as a natural behaviour, and children as its only uninhibited practitioners.
Kellogg fell into the latter category, believing that children’s art held insight into a deeper, and universal, human esthetic sense: a pleasure derived from making marks that we learn to ignore or devalue, rather than grow out of. “By respecting and participating in self-initiated art activity,” she wrote, “we may produce more well-being in our own lives. At the same time, we may help to bridge the immense gap between our adult concerns and the mental development of children in art.”
Art doesn’t teach creativity, in the view of 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 doesn’t so much offer a platform to develop motor skills (by learning to color inside the lines, for example, or to trace a stencil, both exercises she strongly discourages) as providing a meaningful way for children to use those skills to their own ends. “(During) these valuable experiences, children can use their imaginations to give form to their fantasies, expressing themselves freely, honestly and spontaneously.”
The conditions of the pandemic gave a particular poignancy to this self-expression. When playgrounds and schools closed in 2020, children disappeared from the world. They left their traces in chalk drawings on sidewalks, or in the paint, marker and pencil crayon pictures taped to the insides of windows — clues to their inner worlds. As the pandemic progressed, kids sometimes appeared in stories about its effects, speaking with remarkable self-possession about friends and family members they couldn’t visit, school closures and the new, dangerous, landscape that surrounded them. “I could spread it to (my sister), which might spread it to my mom, which might spread to my dad, which might spread to my grandpa, which might kill him,” a young boy told the Irish filmmaker Daire Collins for his documentary “For Emergency Use Only.” “So, like, I’m just really worried.”
Children’s art provides the possibility of something else, something less filtered and more accessible, perhaps, to the children themselves. At least two museums, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and the International Museum of Children’s Art in Oslo, Norway, hosted exhibitions of these pandemic creations. Images of masks and viruses dominate many of the submissions, but so do simple figures, boxy cars and pointy-roofed houses, the same ones that appear in the works by children in “Evidence” and in forgotten file folders hidden away in countless childhood homes .
Whether or not they’re drawing their way through a pandemic, children everywhere make art for the same simple reason: to express inner lives they might not yet have the language to describe and to begin to process their environment. That’s why adult carers, other children, nature, animals, and home and other important places all make frequent appearances. Goodman’s book is practical, with helpful tips about materials, subject matter and how to offer encouragement without hemming children in with expectations and adult esthetics. For really little kids, Goodman said you can’t connect explanations and drawings in the way you would for adults; kids draw what they’re feeling, then describe what they see — which might also be what they think adults want to hear.
“Art is not the same for kids 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.”
Leafing through the “Frequencies” The catalog, I found, repeated across a single canvas, the same sharp “S” I turned constantly, for no reason 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.
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