Parents, are you your child’s toughest art critic?

1 Mar

What do you do OR have you done with your child’s art work?  Are you hoarding it in boxes and plastic totes, thinking your child will want to see every single piece of paper they marked with a crayon/colored pencil/marker or paint brush? 

Our older daughter, Julia, is now 4 1/2 years old and we have repurposed the “free” rectangular priority shipping USPS boxes to store her art work over the past couple years since she started preschool – but not every single piece of art work.  So yes, we as her parents have made a judgement call on what’s worthy to keep, write her name and date on the back of the art and label the box with the time frame of creations it contains (ie. 1/1/2009-5/31/2009).

But, realistically, with most of the works of art being generated on regular paper, art paper or construction paper, how well will they all hold up over the years/decades?  Well, one way we have memorialized real special pieces (like the first people drawing she made of our family of 4) is by simply taking a photograph of it and printing a photo, keeping the jpeg file, ordering it on a mug, magnet or as a place mat for the dining table!  For current favorite pieces, we hang and loop a rope around a window using clothespins to clip the rope to the blinds and to clip the art to the rope to proudly display Julia’s work.  It’s also nice to see them with the sun beaming in from behind each piece!

Whether you toss (hopefully recycle) every piece of art brought home from school or keep every piece or are somewhere in between (like us), the article “Mom, You’re One Tough Art Critic” by Michael Tortello of The New York Times is one I wanted to share.

Mom, You’re One Tough Art Critic

Darren Higgins for The New York Times

Elisabeth Hanff, 4, with a portrait from her blue period. More Photos »

By MICHAEL TORTORELLO
Published: January 26, 2011

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After careful consideration, Jessica Hanff has found the ideal spot for the art that her 4-year-old daughter, Elisabeth, brings home from preschool: the trash can.

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Multimedia

Robert Wright for The New York Times

Tracy Miller, holding her daughter Alice Shehadi, displays some of her older daughter Josie Shehadi’s portraits of stuffed animals in the kitchen. More Photos »

Stuart Isett for The New York Times

Anne Phyfe Palmer and her daughter Coco, 4, with artwork done by Coco and her older sister, Lily. More Photos »

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“We’re getting two to four pieces of crayon drawing a day,” said Ms. Hanff, a 36-year-old operations manager for an academic research institute. On a recent Tuesday, Ms. Hanff began sorting through a few dozen of Elisabeth’s drawings, stacked in the mudroom of the family’s Washington home.

“These are printouts off the computer, colored in,” she said. “C is for Cat! And she’s scribbled some things on it. This is Dora the Explorer.” Ms. Hanff stopped to observe the purplish rings that Elisabeth had marked around Dora’s eyes. “It looks like someone slapped her in the face. She’s got these big shiners.”

Ms. Hanff is always on the lookout for “exceptional” drawings. But this entire batch would soon be archived in the rubbish bin. “I’m not sentimental about those at all,” she said. “It’s my job to avoid raising a hoarder, and I’m leading by example.”

But Elisabeth has been known to fish her drawings out of the trash and present them to her mother. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, thank you,’ ” Ms. Hanff said. “We’ll have a discussion. I’m not callous. But once she turns away, often I’ll toss it out again.”

Elisabeth’s creative work, it should be noted, can be found all over the house. (At this point, her 2-year-old sister, Charlotte, doesn’t claim as much wall space.) Elisabeth started embroidering last year. And her grandmother gave her a grown-up watercolor set. In a vaguely Dadaist spirit, Elisabeth used a floret of broccoli to paint the pointillist color study that hangs in her bedroom.

“I do think my kids are awesome,” Ms. Hanff said. “I tell them how great they are. But we’re not going to build an addition on the back for every piece of crayon art they’ve ever done.”

We all want our children to be creative. But do they have to be so prolific? Once children enter nursery school, every day produces another masterpiece. Presidents’ Day brings a cotton ball wig; Purim means a bean-box rattle.

Forget about organizing the pieces in a storage bin. This is a job for a shipping container.

All this art may or may not tell us something about the nature of the child. But it reveals plenty about the parents. Do they lavish praise on every piece or barely glance up from the iPhone? Do they frame art for the grandparents or turn it into wrapping paper? In the plainest sense, is the parent a keeper or a chucker?

No one has quantified just how much art children create at school, said David Burton, a professor of art education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. But having worked in the field for more than 40 years, Dr. Burton refutes the notion that present-day parents have coddled and attaboy-ed their children into overproducing.

Art classrooms of the 1960s and ’70s followed “a philosophy of make and take,” Dr. Burton said. That is, at the end of every 40-minute class, an art project would be ready for Mom and Dad. Art educators today have been trained to encourage a deeper exploration of material, process and theory.

At the same time, Dr. Burton said, tots now start scribbling with ergonomic crayons by the age of 18 months: “Years and years ago, people — even art educators — believed that children would just waste materials when they were really toddlers.”

Art can be valuable to the development of even the youngest children, Dr. Burton said. Drawing, for instance, helps build cognitive and fine motor skills. And it teaches children to observe and discriminate when it comes to color, shape and form. Young children can sometimes draw emotions that go beyond their words, he added.

But how much does a 4-year-old boy really care about his 50th portrait of Thomas the Tank Engine? “Once they’re through with it, they may lose interest in it very quickly,” Dr. Burton said. “The process is more important than the product for the child.”

Still, the curator of the refrigerator door can’t be too ruthless. When Dad de-accessions a new finger painting overnight, Dr. Burton said, “the child quickly learns that this art that they’re making is very ephemeral.” In other words, worthless.

TRACY MILLER, a 44-year-old mother of two, hardly needs to be sold on the value of art. She is a painter herself, with a solo show this month at the Feature Inc gallery on the Lower East Side. The basement studio of her family’s 1,400-square-foot row house in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn is stuffed with 6-by-6-foot canvases.

Yet however challenging it can be to edit her own work, Ms. Miller finds it even harder to pare down the yield of her kindergartner, Josie. The 5-year-old seldom leaves home without a sketchbook. She can easily create a dozen pictures a day. While Ms. Miller took measure of her daughter’s art, in fact, Josie was finishing up a life drawing of the school rabbit, her houseguest for the weekend.

Ms. Miller has framed the watercolors Josie made of her dearest stuffed animals. And she stores the pieces that Josie has crafted on buck-a-page art paper. But the collection is reaching unmanageable levels.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with it,” Ms. Miller said. Some 20 paper grocery bags full of Josie’s art already occupy the storage room, the basement and the closet. “Logically, if we kept everything, there just wouldn’t be room in the house.”

Meanwhile, Josie has made it clear that she does not care to part with her pictures. “Throwing things away has to be done without her knowing about it,” Ms. Miller said, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial register.

“I’m getting better about not recycling” the paper, which leaves Josie’s art sitting out where it can be discovered and retrieved, she said. These days, “it goes into the garbage.”

Ms. Miller has heard of mothers who document their children’s art with a digital camera or a scanner, then shed the bulky originals. She can almost imagine doing that herself when she has a spare moment — five years from now, maybe, when the family moves.

In this fashion, Dr. Burton conceded, “You could save every scrap of paper that the child ever made.” But don’t. A better plan, he said, is to store a child’s art in two boxes.

The first one is a temporary file for recent creations. The second is a kind of permanent vault, which holds a few selected works, spanning the course of 5 to 10 years. Each piece can include a makeshift museum card. Write the title of the piece, the age of the artist and the date. While parents are at it, they may want to add the story behind the picture in a sentence or two.

In his 2006 book “Exhibiting Student Art,” Dr. Burton discusses an annual fifth-grade art show in Concord, Mass., that features a chronological sampling from each young artist. At the exhibition, he said, a child can look and say, “This horse is much better than my horse from three years ago.”

To create such an anthology at home, Dr. Burton suggests sifting through the boxes with a child, maybe twice a year. Try talking about each piece. Then, together, pick some favorites.

The discarding “has to be done respectfully,” he said with a laugh. “There’s a ritual to disposing of a flag — a formal way to burn it.”

When Julie Wolfson’s two daughters, Vivian, 7, and Sofia, 11, were at their most artistically fruitful, Ms. Wolfson arrived at an even tidier storage solution: skip the in-box. Ms. Wolfson, a 42-year-old freelance journalist and arts educator in Los Angeles, wouldn’t even let her children’s coloring reach the car.

“I was the mom who opened her child’s school folder at school, walked to the office and recycled 9 out of every 10 pieces,” Ms. Wolfson said.

Vivian and Sofia’s samizdat would sometimes manage to reach their father’s “art gallery.” That would be the corkboard that Steven Wolfson, a 44-year-old teacher and writer, uses to map out screenplays.

Mr. Wolfson appreciates his wife’s will to cast off worksheets of long division, he said. But artifacts like the girls’ self-portraits somehow “become sacred” to him.

“I can’t bear to throw that into the garbage,” he said. “From when Sofia was very young, it’s been easier for Julie to let go of stuff.”

Haley Gibson, 26, tries to send home artwork just twice a year from the pre-K classroom she leads at the Barrow Street Nursery School at Greenwich House, in the West Village. As art critics, she observed, New York parents seem to share one criterion: the less glitter the better.

Ms. Gibson’s experience in the classroom has given her the rare ability to answer a question every parent has: Is my child a budding artistic genius or what?

The answer is typically the latter, with a few qualifications. “At this age” — around 4 years old, Ms. Gibson said — “it really depends on the development of their fine motor skills and their ability to draw representationally.”

Still, each class of a dozen students seems to have one standout. This young artist’s work may be elaborately detailed or emotionally complex.

“The parents of these children are definitely very supportive of their children’s artwork,” Ms. Gibson said. Yet she sees “lots of parents who do the same thing, and their children don’t seem to show that gift.”

ULTIMATELY, when parents save the treasures of their little artists, they are stocking a hope chest of the imagination. In less poetic terms, someday Mom and Dad will try to give the junk back.

Anne Phyfe Palmer’s mother stored sheaves of her juvenilia for decades. It wasn’t easy. Ms. Palmer’s mother owned a small house in New Orleans without a basement or an attic. Five years ago, she packed the entire contents of her home into a truck and moved to Seattle. That’s where Ms. Palmer, 40, owns a small chain of yoga studios and lives with her husband and two daughters.

Ms. Palmer knew what was coming. Her mother was a committed “memorabilia collector,” she said. And yet somehow Ms. Palmer still didn’t know what to do with the four giant portfolios she found one afternoon, deposited outside the house.

“They were literally on the porch for a week, leaning over there sadly,” she said.

Eventually, Ms. Palmer sorted through the folders. The drawings were legion, she said: some meaningful, some forgettable and forgotten. But the more intensive projects in the time capsule — like the fishbowl made of plastic wrap — sent her mind gamboling back to elementary school.

Eventually, Ms. Palmer winnowed down her collection to “one plump portfolio, which still needs to be edited,” she said. At this point, she realized, no one else is going to do it.

“There was this thought, ‘Oh, my mom’s not the keeper of my art anymore,’ ” she said.

Apparently, if you want to own your childhood, you have to throw it away.

 A version of this article appeared in print on January 27, 2011, on page D1 of the New York edition.

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One Response to “Parents, are you your child’s toughest art critic?”

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  1. Preschoolers’ drawing | Atlas of Mind - May 25, 2011

    [...] Parents, are you your child’s toughest art crirtic? (declutterorganizerepurpose.wordpress.com) [...]

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