Teaching your kids to appreciate art: my trip to RISD museum with my daughter

It looks like I might finally have a cool story to tell about my daughter.

I have looked at my daughter, and scratched my head because, like, whose child is she, really?  Can’t be mine.  She so athletic and grippy, like I never was and never will be.  And she is all about the pink and the glitter, and the princess, and the nails and the hair – this, when I tried so hard to be neutral in her infancy.  Pink was basically banned.  But she just came to it herself.  I had no choice but to buy her multiple frilly cartoon pink princess dresses and fake gaudy jewelry, because that is what she likes, and feminism is about choices, and I will support my daughter’s choices, even if it’s a ridiculous pink dress.

She is also the child who doesn’t seem to care about learning anything.  We sit there with the ABC jigsaw puzzle, and we get through A is for apple, and B is for ball, possibly C is for cat, and then you’ll turn around wondering why she won’t tell you what D is for, to find her dancing the Polonaise with her shadow, or planning a wedding for her ponies.  If you show her a shape and say, “This is a pink triangle.  What shape is this pink triangle?”  she’s very likely to answer, “Ummmm pink!”  Or even, “Ummmm two!”

It’s not that she doesn’t get it, it’s that she doesn’t care to get it.  We whisper that she might just not be that bright–we can say that because it’s ok, we love her like crazy anyway, and not everyone can be a genius–but I insist that isn’t true.  I personally think she is actually very very bright, but just sees the world in a completely different context.  She lives in a different plane than the rest of us.  I think her world is alive and breathing, and she is so curious to meet everything around her, that she can’t be bothered with structure, and things like the alphabet jigsaw puzzle, or a stupid pink triangle.

That’s what I think, but I have never had the chance to prove it… until this weekend.  This weekend we went to the RISD museum, saw priceless articles and works of art, and, if I do say so myself, I was killing it as a mom.  I don’t often kill it as a mom, but that day, I was feeling like a mom rock star as I held her little monkey hand, and we walked from display to display, and she was super fascinated, and I made an awesome learning experience out of it.

We started easy, with this one.

RISDM 1994-086
Nancy Selvage Alice Neel American, 1900-1984 Nancy Selvage, 1967 Oil on canvas 96.8 x 61.3 cm (38 1/8 x 24 1/8 inches) Gift of Richard and Hartley Neel 1994.086

I said to her: “Do you think this girl looks sad or happy?”
“Sad,” she said.
“Me too.  What makes you think she is sad?”
Small pause.
“Her eyes.”
Another small pause.
“They’re purple on the bottom.”
They ARE purple on the bottom.  She has under eye circles, like she hasn’t slept, or maybe like she’s been crying.  I agree.  But the 4 year old honed in on that?

Since that was going so well, we moved on to this one.

RISDM 1995-043
Mountaineers Attacked by Bears Henri Victor Gabriel Le Fauconnier French, 1881-1946 Mountaineers Attacked by Bears, 1910-1912 Oil on canvas 239.6 x 305.4 x 4.4 cm (94 5/16 x 120 1/4 x 1 3/4 inches) Gift of the Peau de L’Ours II Society in celebration of Daniel Robbins 1995.043

We stood in front of it for a bit, and without looking at the title, I asked her what she sees.
“I see a fat baby,” she said.  “And a bear.”
(there is a fat baby slightly left of center, and a bear way on the left, just in case you need help)
My mom chimed in, “I see a gun or rifle being fired…”
(the rifle is in the middle, being shot)
Princess then said, “It’s all a big MESS.”
Then we read the title, “The Mountaneers attacked by a bear,” and wouldn’t you know it, it IS a big mess, and there IS a fat baby (or baby-faced mountaneer) AND a bear.  I swear I didn’t even see the bear until the 4 year old pointed it out.

When we got to this one, she got excited, and said, “Is this Moana?”

RISDM 81-178
Carlos Mérida Guatemalan, 1891-1985 The Race, 1932 Watercolor over graphite on paper 26 x 33 cm (10 5/16 x 13 inches) Anonymous gift 81.178

And I’m thinking, Moana?  Fairly certain Moana wasn’t even a glint in Disney’s eye in 1932 when this painting was created, but why is she thinking Moana?  So I read the caption and the story behind this work, and it turns out that, and I quote:

“Mérida studied Mayan art in his native Guatemala and modern European and Mexican art abroad. He absorbed these influences and channeled them into a passion for abstraction. Mérida described a related series as “the most formal; the most lyrical, the one which I have painted with Mayan themes. I believe that rooted in it, is … the idea of establishing a link between past and present.”

I dunno about you, but I was pretty darn impressed.  I understand that Guatemalan and Mexican art aren’t exactly the same as Pacific Islander art, and that is not to say they’re totally different cultures, but still, they’re both forms of indigenous art, and please turn your attention to where it says, “establishing a link between past and present.”  If that’s not what Moana is about, I don’t what it is.  Plus the figure looks like one of Maui’s tattoos.  Bottom line, there is a common link I didn’t even think of, but she saw instantly.

maui's tattoo
An example of some of the imagery from the Disney movie Moana. I see similarity…

She saw a Degas statue of a ballerina – this one without a tutu – and commented, passing by, “I can see her butt.”  I said, “Yes, Degas paid attention to detail when it came to people’s bodies, he really liked wrinkles, muscles, and butt cracks, too.”  Where is the lie?  Where?  It’s all true.

RISDM 23-315
Grand Arabesque, Second Time Edgar Degas French, 1834-1917 A.A. Hebrard, foundry or carver Grand Arabesque, Second Time, ca. 1885-1890 (cast ca. 1919–1922) Bronze 42.2 x 60.6 x 27 cm (16 5/8 x 23 7/8 x 10 5/8 inches) Gift of Stephen O. Metcalf, George Pierce Metcalf and Houghton P. Metcalf 23.315

You can’t tell here, but trust me, you could definitely see her butt crack.

Then, we went to the part of the museum where they have rooms furnished in the old fashioned style of colonial New England.
“Do you like this room?” I asked her.
“I like that lamp,” she said.
I should mention, her room is the only room in the entire house that has a chandelier.
Pendleton house

So, there you have it folk.  I now feel vindicated in my conviction that she has a creative mind that sees things differently.  We may have found her strength, aside from swinging on the monkey bars and eating chocolate, that is.  Can’t wait to pay exorbitant tuition for Mass College of Art, or as we used to lovingly call it Mass College O’fart, so she can be a freelance bird photographer and sharpen pencils for extra money… or whatever…

Anyway, the crown moment of our visit was when the museum worker was explaining to us that the portrait we see on the wall was painted by the same artist as the portrait of George Washington on the dollar bill, and we noticed that my daughter was standing on the stairs, which put her at his eye level; she was murmuring something, and looking at the floor, and overall seemed to be simultaneously trying to get the gentleman’s attention and displaying shyness.
“She’s trying to say something,” the museum worker said, “But I think she’s shy.”
“What is it, Princess?” I asked.
And continuing to stare coyly at the floor and shuffle one pink sneakered foot, twirling one pigtail, she said, “I was him to go out with me.”
“She wants to go out with you,” I dutifully repeated.

Like I said, I don’t know whose child she is.  So glad we’re allowed to live with her, though!

andwhynotshesaid.com (2)

So here are my tips to you about teaching your kids about art:

1.  Start young

Is your child a fetus?? Still not too young.  Go when you’re pregnant, and take them when they’re tiny.  They won’t understand, but it’ll soak in by osmosis.

2.  Keep attainable goals

You’re not going to spend 8 hours at the Louvre with a child.  It’s just not happening, so keep attainable goals.  Plan on about an hour, and a few selected rooms or works.  If you’re wise to it, you can organize trips by time periods, or artists.  Bring snacks.

3.  Think like a kid

I think kids respond best to decorative arts, bright colors, large patterns.  I don’t think they’d appreciate religious iconography, for example, but I remember I LOVED Picasso, Matisse, and the Impressionists, and my absolute favorite was the giant peacock shaped clock that squawked and danced at noon.  Not high art, but even taking your kid to a museum to see cool dresses from the 1900s gets them in the habit, and gets them used to the atmosphere.

4.  Ask, don’t tell

If you’re wise to it, you’ll probably want to lecture the kid, but don’t do it, their eyes will gloss over and they’ll miss everything.  Too much like school.  Ask questions instead, and very specific ones.  “What’s your favorite thing in this painting?”  “Do you think this is morning or night?”  You can get a glimpse of what’s in their heads this way too, bonus!

5.  Let the kid lead you

Don’t come with an agenda.  They will tell you what they want to see.

6.  Make a scavenger hunt

5 paintings of flowers – check.  A ballerina statue – check.  A butt crack – check.  2 portraits of ladies – check.   Kids love that stuff.

Okay, I think that’s good.  Good luck!

One thought on “Teaching your kids to appreciate art: my trip to RISD museum with my daughter

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