Sunday, December 9, 2007

Art and Stories

At this time of year, the chaos of creativity tends to reach some sort of high water mark in our household. There are so many crafts associated with Christmas; baking, cooking, decorating the house, making new decorations, piano playing with carol singing, etc. The kids get out of school and take a deep fresh breath of doing things on their own and not at someone else's beck and call.

One son has an especial aptitude for creating the most amazing things out of the most mundane materials. Last week he made a faux Tazer out of some cardboard, trash wire and black paint (and then spent a fair amount of time threatening his siblings with it.)

It is truly startling to me both how gripped children can be by the visual and how attentive and retentive they can be of what they are seeing. It is also startling just how brimming with native talent they can be. At our children's school there are long halls covered with art work from the earliest grades. Walking down those halls there are many examples of the artwork for which you understand why parents are the appreciative audience. But there seem to be also a disconcerting number of paintings, drawings and crafts that bespeak a level of talent that is astonishing.

Children imbibe their world through all their senses but especially through their eyes.

Growing up, we moved about frequently and therefore my parent's personal library of books was somewhat constrained in number. There was however, one book that I well remember, down on a shelf in the living room. Partly what made it memorable was its sheer size. It covered my whole lap and more, spilling out to the sides, propping against the arms of the overstuffed chair. I don't know exactly what the nature of the book was, History of the World or Archaeology perhaps. What I do remember were the huge and beautiful illustrations of ancient rock art. There were drawings of giraffes from ancient rock cliffs in the middle of the Sahara; paintings, beautifully colored and apparently as fresh as if they were done yesterday, from caves in France and Spain; the peculiarly stylized but fascinating Egyptian paintings, etc. I would sit for what seemed hours at a time, losing myself from the here and now into these magical portals of yesterday and away. It was an exercise in observation, tracing every detail, hue, and shading of the pictures. But it was also an exercise in imagination - who were they that painted these vignettes from another time and place, what were the circumstances under which they were painted, what would it have been like to be there, could I paint something similar?

Barbara Helen Berger mentions something similar in a keynote speech she made to the Mazza Summer Institute in Ohio in the summer of 1999:

As a child, of course, any distinction between fine art and illustration was totally irrelevant. I simply loved looking at pictures. On walls, or in books. Especially in books. We didn't have so many children's picture books then, nothing like nowadays, but there were illustrated books. My mother, a poet, was great at reading out loud. With her voice providing the music of words, I would gaze at every part of every picture on every page. I did the same with my Dad's big art books, which I pulled from the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the living room. No one was reading out loud to me then, and what child would enjoy all that dry art history anyway? None of that mattered to me. I simply loved sitting there on the sofa alone, legs sticking straight out, the heavy book open across my lap, losing myself in the pictures. Most of them had stories in them, I could tell from the faces and gestures of the people. I recognized some: David and Goliath, Mary and her baby, Venus stepping from her shell. But even when I didn't know what the story was, I could still "read" the picture for itself. And that's what I loved.

Having a few big art books around is a wonderful way to begin to expose children to the many experiences of art. Not books that you necessarily want to read with them, but, rather, books they can pick up as the spirit moves them, found art as it were.

Many children's books are in my view, works of art in themselves. But holding that thought in abeyance, there are also many books in which art is some pivotal part of the story. These are great ways for children to not only enjoy but also absorb much knowledge of their wonderful visual heritage. Stories about artists, their works, the process of creating, etc.

Picture Books

Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt Suggested

Linnea in Monet's Garden by Christina Bjork and Claude Monet and illustrated by Lena Anderson Recommended

Tell Me a Picture by Quentin Blake Recommended

Come Look With Me by Gladys S. Blizzard Suggested

The Shape Game by Anthony Browne Recommended

Babar's Museum of Art by Laurent de Brunhoff Suggested

Toulouse-Lautrec: The Moulin Rouge And The City Of Light by Robert Burleigh Suggested

Liang and the Magic Paintbrush by Demi Suggested

The Art Lesson by Tomie dePaola Suggested

Round Trip by Ann Jonas Suggested

Painting the Wind by Patricia MacLachlan & Emily Maclachlan and illustrated by Katy Schneider Recommended

Weaving the Rainbow by George Ella Lyon and illustrated by Stephanie Anderson Suggested

Katie Meets the Impressionists by James Mayhew Recommended

Matie's Sunday Afternoon by James Mayhew Recommended

The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle by Barbara McClintock Suggested

Why Is Blue Dog Blue? by George Rodrigue & Bruce Goldstone Suggested

The Sign Painter by Allen Say Recommended

Look! Zoom in on Art by Gillian Wolfe Suggested

Independent Reader

Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and illustrated by Brett Helquist Recommended

Emily's Art by Peter Catalanotto Suggested

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley and illustratde by Brian Selznick Recommended

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg Recommended

The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle Suggested

A Picnic With Monet by Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober Suggested

I Spy Shapes in Art by Lucy Micklethwait Suggested

A Place in the Sun by Jill Rubalcaba Suggested

Degas and the Dance by Susan Goldman Rubin Suggested

The Magic Paintbrush by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Suling Wang Suggested

You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and illustrated by Robin Preiss-Glasser Suggested

Young Adult

Escher on Escher by M. C. Escher and J. W. Vermeulen Suggested

100 Great Artists by Charlotte Gerlings Suggested

Lust for Life by Irving Stone Suggested

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone Recommended

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