Well, What Do You Know?

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On a recent visit to the library, I stumbled upon a book called “13 American Artists Children Should Know.” Titles which include the words “children should know” automatically trigger a response in the minds of mothers. I will immediately pick up a “should know” book and flip through it to see whether: a) my children know what they should, and b) if I even know the information.

It’s like a quiz to see what holes are in my knowledge base. In this case, do I know these 13 American artists that my kids should know?

I felt pretty good. Georgia O’Keeffe – check, Andy Warhol – check, Mary Cassat – check. After I continued a few more mental checks, I decided to check the book out. Although I recognized some other paintings, I knew nothing about the painters.

I pulled the book out last night as bedtime reading for my third grader and kindergartener.

Featured in the book was a short description of the artist’s life and type of art, and samples of his or her work. Children’s books are the best way to learn a nutshell verision about anything. Little digestible pieces of information that spark a curiosity to know more.

It turned out we spent more than an hour pouring over the 43-page book. It opened a discussion about the artists and their works that was much more in-depth than I had anticipated.

“Which painter do you like the best?” I asked.

Sally went first. She flipped through the pages we had just read. I guessed she would pick Mary Cassat, with the paintings of mother and child. I was wrong.

It surprised me when she stopped at Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist who is known for moving all over his large canvases, splattering paint.

Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm (No. 30).”

Then she began to explain why she liked Pollock best.

“Because he was different. He tried a new things. He tried and had fun with it because he didn’t want to be perfect or rich – he did it because it was fun for him. He painted new shapes and surprises and dots. Just by having fun he made a masterpiece.”

Spoken from the creative and pure soul of an 8 year old.

A child’s natural inclination to value process over product. To understand the importance of movement, energy, expression. The lure of breaking “rules.” The desire to see what would happen if. Pollock embodied all of this.

Wyatt agreed and parroted what his big sister said.

I never really got Jackson Pollock before that moment. In theory I did, but really, it never moved me. My kids opened my eyes and helped me appreciate his work in a new light.

We stared at the centerfold picture in the book – the painting “Autumn Rhythm (No. 30)” – for a very long time. Pointing out what we saw. I saw a big white squiggle in the shape of an S for Sally. And I noticed a black dot especially bigger than all the rest in the upper left hand corner. They pointed to the different shapes they liked. What initially looked like useless scribble suddenly became the center of our discussion – and a very thought-provoking discussion, to boot.

One day, my kids will learn that Jackson Pollock had a tragic side. He battled alcoholism, was killed at 44 in an alcohol related car accident. But for now, it is enough to know that Pollock wasn’t afraid to find his own style.

Maybe one day we will make it to the Metroplotin Museum of Art in New York to see the real “Autumn Rhythm No. 30” together. Until then, it’s enough to hope that each of our kids finds his or her own style.

And isn’t that really what kids should know?


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