At the Met with the Tiny Art Director

A guest post by Bill Zeman of Tiny Art Director

My wife and I really wanted to see The Milkmaid when it came to the Metropolitan Museum last year but couldn't find a time to go without our kids. Vermeer's paintings have a wonderfully emotional effect on me – they are so still and quiet they come alive in the simple moments they depict. But that quietness that I love is just about the last thing any kid would be interested in, especially my kid, Rosie. Finally in the show's last week we decided to risk it and dragged the kids along, knowing full well what was likely to happen: after a long subway ride we'd arrive, run to the bathrooms, get sidetracked by the Temple of Dendur, then the armor collection, and finally end up in the cafeteria, exhausted and cranky, and never get to see the Vermeers at all.

I've tried a few times to make my kids look at paintings in museums. It usually goes even worse than when I try to get them to look at my own paintings. Rosie, in particular, has always had a very strong reaction to art; generally one of outrage.

You might know her from my blog Tiny Art Director. Since she was two, I have been painting pictures for her, consistently failing to please her with them, and blogging her funny and usually devastating critiques. The result, Tiny Art Director: A Toddler and Her Vision has now been published by Chronicle Books.

If you've read either the blog or the book you'll know that calm scenes of 17th century domestic life would not be to her taste.

Strangely though, she was excited to see the Vermeer show, so we set off eager to experience a moment of the Dutch Master's delicious tranquility, imagining our attentive and sophisticated daughters at our sides. When we entered the dimly lit gallery we understood why Rosie had been willing to come.

"Where's the stage? I thought this was a show. I wanted dancing!"

She was immediately and literally bored to tears, and it looked like, as predicted I was not going to be able to enjoy the art myself. Somehow, The Milkmaid wouldn't come alive for me with Rosie struggling like a cat in my arms.

But soon after she managed to free herself, she discovered Vermeer's Allegory of Faith – a large painting with a snake being crushed by a rock in the bottom corner – right at her eye-level. Awesome! A scary creature being killed! Rosie had found the drama she was looking for – the story in this painting unfolded for her and gave her a rare opportunity to inspect primal forces up close. She was entranced and stood millimeters from the canvas, studying the details for several minutes.

Allegory of Faith by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1670-72)

A guard came over to ask her to step back. "I'm wondering about the blood coming out of its mouth," she explained.

What makes kids so strangely fascinated with gruesome and violent scenes? Is it pure bloodlust? And if that's all they care about in art, why do we bother to pollute their angelic little minds with it? Isn't art supposed to civilize them?

Throughout the Tiny Art Director project, and in after-school art classes I teach, I've noticed that cute, sweet stuff like puppies, ponies, and princesses definitely has a place in kids' hearts and minds, but what really gets them interested is blood, violence, death, and of course, the awesome creatures that cause all that destruction – dinosaurs, dragons, and monsters.

In one class we made a trading card game. The children invented characters including "Evil Death," "Evil Rain," and "Evil Pumpkin" each with creatively deadly powers (Evil Pumpkin rolls around and flattens people, and Evil Death poisons people by licking them). At one point, worrying that the deck was getting a little too murderous I suggested they also do some nice characters. They dutifully produced "Refreshing Raindrops" and "Heart Power (Loves everything and everyone)", but I felt that I had stifled their creativity.

Perhaps they were exploring the dark side in their drawings as a way of safely trying out dangerous ideas and gaining confidence and understanding of their place in the world. By drawing dinosaurs, dragons, and ninjas, they could feel powerful and be in control! By creating evil and deadly characters they could explore and come to terms with their own fears of death and violence.

My own Tiny Art Director often requests gruesome or violent pictures from me, such as the head of a princess poking out of a dragon's mouth, and although I don't always indulge her on these, I think I understand and don't get too disturbed by her morbid intensity. Once she asked me to paint her a duck and a crocodile.

As usual, she was disappointed in the result, but unlike some previous efforts (and despite my obvious intent), it wasn't because it was too scary. Her response was "You have to do it with him killing that bird." The picture failed because it missed the crucial moment and left us with a kind of Schrödinger's Duck – forever trapped in a state between life and death, always swimming away but never escaping or being eaten. Unlike Allegory of Faith this painting wouldn't come alive for her and couldn't teach her anything about life and death or her place in the world.

That day in the museum, after I finally got my moment of peace with The Milkmaid, I watched my daughter stare at the dying snake and tried to answer her questions. Eventually she became aware of the woman in the painting with her hand on her heart.

"What's that girl doing? Is she scared?"

I realized then that she was feeling brave and powerful for looking so closely at this scene, and didn't want to identify with a frightened character. Like with the kids in the after-school class art was lending Rosie its power. It reminded me of her comments about a collaboration that we had done previously featuring a T-Rex trying to eat a girl.

"I want her to be brave. She's not scared of one thing cause that's me and I'm not scared."

NEATOBAMBINO EXCLUSIVE: Want to get something really neat for Father's Day? Bill Zeman has kindly agreed to do a really neat NeatoBambino-exclusive contest, with the Grand Prize of an original sketch for your Father's Day gift and 4 signed copy of the Tiny Art Director book.

To enter leave a comment submitting a picture you'd like Bill to paint with some connection to the theme of fatherhood

One winner chosen by Bill will win the Grand Prize, and four others will win signed copy of the Tiny Art Director book, made out to your father's day gift recipients. Good luck!

Update 6/7/10 - simplified contest rules. UPdate 6/10/10 - contest winners! (Cross-posted at Neatorama)

Hello, Neatoramanauts! Thank you for participating in the Tiny Art Director contest on NeatoBambino earlier this week!

Congratulations to Wendy, CheeseThief, TheRhube and nepomuk who got signed copies of Bill Zeman's book Tiny Art Director.

The Grand Prize of a custom drawing went to Maceo24 who requested "A daddy and baby dragon picking their teeth with a devoured knight's sword. Armor can be laying on the ground and the baby dragon can be playing dress-up with the devoured princess' clothes."

Here's Bill rendition of the drawing:

Don't forget to visit Tiny Art Director - Thanks Bill!

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