Monday, October 29, 2012

The Arts and Childhood

Recently I was interviewed for the Blog of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. One of the questions for Sandra Jordan and me had to do with our childhood experiences with art. Sandra, whose mother was an artist, grew up surrounded by painting. She said, "I took studio art in high school and art history classes in college, worked as an editor on many picture books and photographed a few of my own.”

In the introduction to my book Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by 20th Century American Art, I wrote, “I can still see myself at age ten, racing through The Great Hall of the St. Louis Art Museum with my mother close behind saying, ‘Slow down.’ My pulse would quicken when I saw her –Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, a bronze sculpture with a net tutu by the French artist Edward Degas. Chin up with a peevish expression, she exuded frustration and painful effort. Not surprisingly the tales I invented about her echoed my own misadventures in ballet class. My mother, a writer, encouraged me to write these ideas down on paper.”

I‘d spoken about this experience many times in visits to classrooms and conferences. For the Blog, I wanted to say something new. As with most memories, my mind first conjured up a visual image. Suddenly I could picture myself as a seven year old riding in the front seat of my mother’s big Buick on the way to her office. In the Blog I wrote, “My mother was head of advertising at a department store in St. Louis. As a little girl, I loved going to her studio, where the advertising illustrators would give me my own desk with colored ink and paper. I would copy pictures out of magazines, just like young Andy Warhol did when he spent months in bed with St. Vitus Dance. I can still draw shoes and dresses but, alas, not as well as Andy did!"

When we interview artists, Sandra and I always ask, “What was your first experience with art?” Not surprisingly we often discovered there was a direct connection between their childhood experiences with art and the art they create as adults. For example, the painter Wayne Thiebaud, who is well-known for his lush paintings of food, such as lolly pops, cakes, and ice-cream cones, told us, “I started drawing cartoons because I loved them so much. It was a way of expressing myself. I expect my teachers noticed. I spent more time doing that than schoolwork. When I broke my back, I was bedridden and had no distractions. I spent my time drawing for many hours every day. I suddenly realized something…the more I drew, the more I improved. Before that, I always thought drawing was a talent.”

Martha Graham was sixteen when she saw her first dance performance. She convinced her doting father to take buy tickets. “He pinned a corsage of violets to my gray dress and that night my fate was sealed.”
What does this tell us? One of the answers might be how important exposure to art in childhood can be, not only by attending performances, going to museums, etc., but also by engaging in the art-making process, itself. On a personal level, as a writer about the arts, I believe that nonfiction books that tell stories about the early years of artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and actors, along with photos, reproductions of artworks, or original illustrations, can have a strong impact on our young readers. The key, of-course, is showing how these childhood experiences resonate with the artists’ mature artworks.

I would love to hear some stories from our I.N.K. bloggers about their childhood experiences with the arts – poetry, painting, dance etc – that influenced their creativity as adults.


Unknown said...

My influence is easy to spot - My mother, Margery Facklam, was a children's nonfiction writer. I tagged along on research trips, sat quietly listening to her interview experts and learned early on that I could be a perpetual student if I became a nonfiction writer too.

Jan Greenberg said...

My mother, as you read, was a great influence, as well.In fiction, teachers always say,"Write about what you know." In nonfiction, perhaps the opposite advice may be true, as long as the subject sparks interest.

Mindy Hardwick said...

Both my parents were journalists, and had a strong love for story and reading. I can't help but think this was a strong early model that set me on the path of writing both fiction and non-fiction for kids.