Last week, I bought my son a small Spirograph kit -- the geometric-drawing toy. I had the same toy as a child and have fond memories of colored ballpoint pens and the notched plastic roulettes that create elaborate hypotrochoid curves. I liked to try to predict the shape each hole would make and to understand (by feel) the mathematics of the motion. We left the new kit on the table all week, and on occasion would swirl intricate petaled rings onto a piece of printer paper. Our attempts accumulated into a pretty pile of geometric drawings.
The Spirograph reminded me how much I like to make things and how seldom we create with our hands anymore. When the kids were young, we played with clay and painted using watercolors; there were always crayons or Magic Markers out. But that's no longer the case. My daughter, who draws constantly, does so in her room on a tablet with a stylus on her computer. She colors and models the images digitally, and rarely are they printed. Art has become something that exists within our minds and is represented on our screens. We don't assemble things anymore. There are no longer glue sticks or safety scissors in the school supply cabinet; they have been replaced with graphing calculators, index cards and highlighters.
I miss watching my children make things as well as the excuse to make things myself.
We rarely eat at our kitchen table, enjoying most meals at the counter; we perch on bar stools and pass napkins and glasses of water to each other in a disorganized but friendly fashion. What if, this summer, we used the kitchen table for making things?
My oil paints have been in the basement for a couple of years. I can't remember the last time I stretched a canvas. "It's such a mess to get started," I tell myself and wait for a better time, which may never arrive.
This summer, I want that to change. My plan is to place art supplies on the kitchen table and see what happens. I know better than to try to lead adolescents and teenagers in a guided series of arts and crafts. ("That's lame, Mom.") I'll just place them there and wait.
I'm starting with crow quill pens and bottles of ink. On a childhood trip to Williamsburg, Va., I acquired a turkey feather pen and fell in love with the flow of ink on smooth paper. I drew with pen and ink for years to come. I don't know if my kids ever have. I'll just leave them there, some bottles of ink and a few pens and a heap of paper and see what becomes of it. Will I draw something? Will they?
I've made a list of materials we'll sample: oil pastels, charcoal, watercolor pencils, markers, acrylic paint, and I'll leave myself open to suggestion and art store inspiration.
One summer, before my daughter was born, I had access to my own art studio space. It came complete with canvas and stretchers, gesso and paint and a deep sink in which to wash brushes. I was permitted to paint what I wanted and to use as much material as I desired. The freedom transformed me. It didn't matter if what I painted that day was good. There was always tomorrow. I didn't attempt any long-term projects, but instead played with the materials and brush strokes and ideas. I learned that my work is not that precious. There is always more paint. I will always have more ideas. There are more words that can be arranged differently on another day. There will be more stories. There are other solutions. The lessons we learn in the studio translate to life.
This summer, I will give my children and myself the freedom to create and to explore art materials, not with the intention or desire for any of us to become better artists, but remind ourselves to be creatively flexible. There is something in a tube of paint or a stick of charcoal that encourages creative playfulness.
We spend so much of our time solving problems, creating and working in digital mediums it's easy to forget the tactile feel of paper and brush. And yet, manipulating real life materials leads us to understanding their properties and to connect with them in a physical way. Our bodies, arms, hands and ideas work together to make something real. I love the physical nature of crumpling up and discarding failed attempts and perhaps making something you're pleased with and might decide to keep. And I love the idea of careless creativity and of making things because something in us asks, "What if?"
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.