Yesterday, my boy started work on a new painting – acrylic on canvas. When he started to paint interlocking rectangles, I praised his work and expected him to be proud. Instead he sounded discouraged, “But it was your idea first.”
It’s true, I had made a canvas of rectangles some months ago, but I was surprised that he remembered and even more surprised that he thought this mattered. Since when do four year-olds worry about their work being derivative? I found this passion for authenticity very sweet, given that this tiny fellow still clings to the illusion that he can beat his tall, athletic, 8 year-old brother in a race.
He carried on painting, repairing the bits he didn’t like. As I watched his lovely face, deep in thought and the careful, slow movements of his hand over his blobs and dashes, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago, in England. My friend Stephanie and I were looking at a piece of naïve art by a famous artist, when I made the even more naïve observation that “a child could have done it.” Being more mature and much better educated than me, Steph replied, “Well, he didn’t.”
All these years later, I think of that pejorative comment, “a child could have done it,” and see that the comparison – and my judgment – need to be stood on their heads. Rather than observing with a sneer that the art of an adult looks childish, we might look instead at how we, as adults, can strive to make our art more childlike.
And here’s why: when Joel can’t execute a painting the way he’d like it done, he directs my hands and I do the work. I come up with suggestions, and often have to start another piece that’s all my own, owing to our artistic differences.
Then I compare the two pieces and acknowledge that his is better. Always.
You see, while my four year-old loves order in his physical world, his art is ruled by cartoon physics: there is no gravity here. There is no up, no down, no limit. Symmetry is irrelevant, colours run amok and there is altogether a randomness about it, a gaiety, a sense of freedom which is extraordinarily beautiful. And which is entirely lacking from my own work. My pigs fly but they look as though they’ve been starched and trained to fly in formation. Joel’s flying pigs are eccentric individuals, flying in all directions, with unselfconscious chutzpah (if only pigs could speak Yiddish – now there’s a thought). I wish I could convey a tenth of the excitement he does, on my own canvas.
So yes, as I am his teacher, he is mine and I love him, I love him, I love him and the way he fills his room with art, wants to frame new pieces almost daily, is always on the lookout for anything that could serve as a mould for forming plaster sculptures, is passionately fond of Native Art and Bill Reid in particular, I love him.