What do you do with your poet and painter of the month? Do you introduce one new work a week? One a day? Who chooses the featured artist and do you have a grand plan?
Our approach to art appreciation is very, very simple. We look at paintings and sculptures, and we talk about them. That’s really it. Jane and I might discuss (briefly) the historical context of the artist—what time and place he or she was from, what else was going on in the world, that sort of thing. It’s informal and conversational.
Many of our encounters with artists have been “accidental,” chosen by chance. When we were reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, it was only natural to look up pictures of some of Michelangelo’s works. Usually, when a particular artist comes across our radar, I will download seven or eight of his works into a rotating wallpaper file on our computer. The family computer (as opposed to the office computer that Scott and I share) occupies a corner of my favorite room, the one with the cozy couch from which I do most of my reading-aloud. The paintings on the computer screen are a welcome addition to the room. Often I’ll find one of the children standing in from of the computer studying a painting on the screen.
We chat about the paintings and sculptures. The girls are full of opinions and speculative background stories. Beanie especially likes to ponder what’s going on in the picture. About the Manet piece I posted the other day, she wondered why the mother isn’t watching the little girl—nor reading her book—nor petting her dog. “Maybe she isn’t the mommy,” she mused. “She could be a big sister.” Big sisters, apparently, are cut more slack when it comes to gazing off into space. Mothers, I gather, are supposed to pay attention.
This month it was I who chose Manet (rather than Manet who chose us, as has so often happened), primarily because some friends at 4 Real Learning are studying Manet this month, and the task of tracking down links to his paintings had already been done for me by someone else. (Thanks, Amy!)
In this casual manner, my family becomes acquainted with a new artist every month or two—during the indoor months of the year, that is. We seldom seem to spend much time poring over paintings during swimming-pool season.
I don’t have a master plan or a schedule, though I do harbor a fantasy (as yet unrealized) of purchasing a nice framed print of one painting from each artist we encounter in our family rambles. For now I make do with postcards and computer print-outs. My hope is that the kids will grow up enjoying art, enjoying talking about art, enjoying thinking about how an artist’s work reflects—or does not reflect—his cultural and historical context. I love the spark of connection when one of the children recognizes a print somewhere. “Mommy, that’s a Van Gogh!”
Karen Andreola mentions that important connection moment in this article on picture study:
…first and foremost we want our children to really “connect” with the artist’s work.
Here lies the difficulty. The grown-up who arranges the lesson is an all-important middleman, but like other middlemen, you must be lost in the background. Many pictures make their own independent appeal. Your must judge when a helping word is needed, or when—as it is especially the case with older children—too much speaking or too much enthusiasm may raise a barrier.
I completely agree: really the only mistake I can make here is to get in the way. So I try simply to put great works of art in the children’s path and then—quick—jump out of the road. But I’m here to listen to opinions (and they have many) and to provide access to more of what anyone wants to explore. I suppose Beanie’s reaction to Manet’s Railway painting establishes my role pretty clearly: all I have to do is pay attention.