By Denise Trull
My Dad's office was a mysterious kind of place. This is where he read his books, paid his bills at the oak desk, and did all those mysterious things dads do that I was not quite sure about as a child, but that I counted on as part of the particular atmosphere I called home. I was granted entry to his ‘sanctum’ many times as I always gave him the first fruits of my chocolate chip cookies which I was perfecting down in the kitchen. He was my greatest fan.
On one of those days, I found myself setting down the plate of cookies and catching a glimpse of red and gold on the bookshelf. The only word that comes to mind is warmth. They were beautifully warm in color and design. My Dad saw me looking and took them down. He let me page through them. And I was enchanted....really enchanted...this was my first taste of artistic beauty. They were old books with frayed ribbons from long use. One was a Bible, the other a Lives of Saints. They smelled of age. I knew instinctively to be careful without being told. I pored over the illuminations and wondered at the colors, the vines, the way the people were painted. What is this world I am seeing? What are these books? It was, looking back now, an incredible experience. It was one of my first tastes of the aesthetic served up to me by my father.
A long time after, my Dad bequeathed them to me. Maybe he remembered that afternoon. Maybe he had some inkling that I needed to have them. I don't know. But I never look at them now without feeling I belong to a Church both ancient and beautiful in its truths and tradition, its liturgy and its art.
I begin with this story as an illustration of how art and music should be introduced to your children. Art must be a part of the very fabric of your home -- not introduced from without as something foreign or cerebral. Art deals with feelings, emotional responses, a desire for beauty. It is not math, grammar, or spelling. Art needs atmosphere in which to land and plant itself. Our role as parents and teachers is to provide it. Conjuring up that atmosphere need not be an esoteric mystery.
Atmosphere can be created as simply as reading a gorgeous picture book to your child as they sit under an afghan with you, preferably near an open window filled with the waving branches of trees. As you read the words, your child will look at the pictures. He might be filled with a kind of wonder that the illustrations give him a sense of the story even though he cannot read the words -- that pictures tell stories. Your reading must be equal to the illustrations. You must create an atmosphere with your voice. Later, when you go off to make dinner, you might find your little one flipping the pages over and over, leaning in to look at the illustrations, and mimicking the way you read it to him. You have created an atmosphere. He wants to prolong the feeling. This is a child’s first taste of art appreciation. The illustrations then must be beautiful. Artists like Arthur Rackham, Jan Brett, Michael Haeg, Beatrix Potter, Jessica Wilcox and so many others come to mind. They all speak the language of children effortlessly.
As your children get older, find art books at the local bookstore filled with large pages of color and close ups of paintings. Leave these books all over the house. On tables, near chairs. Make time to look at them yourself when you pour your afternoon coffee in a pretty cup. Page through them slowly and enjoy them. Let your children see you laughing at one, looking intently at another, sighing at the last. Your children will do likewise. They will want to partake of your atmosphere.
Bring your children, perhaps one by one, at an early age on an outing to the art museum and just let them walk around the rooms with you. Show them by your quiet respect that this is a place where genius resides and we must carefully tread. That these pictures and sculptures are gifts that artists have given to us. Stand them very close to the larger paintings and show them the brush strokes and see if they can find the artists signature anywhere. Go through maybe one or two rooms only. That is enough. We always ended every outing to the museum with a visit to the Egyptian mummies on the 3rd floor. This appealed to a sense of adventure and mystery as nothing else could. That too is creating an atmosphere. Art is adventurous and filled with mystery. Afterwards, take your child out for an ice cream or a spot of tea at a pretty coffee shop to which they have never been. In this way you are creating in your child the idea that art comes with an atmosphere they will want to experience again and again. Pleasant, warm, and personal.
You will have children who respond to this atmosphere like moths to a flame. That is how you know you might have an artist in the making. Not all your children will be this way. But some of them will be. If you see them trying to imitate an artist they saw in a book, make sure they have pens, paper, markers, and paints ready at hand. Just leave them there and wait. They will come.
My son Ben immersed himself in a book of paintings by Michelangelo when he first discovered him at around the age of eight. I decided to show Ben the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy -- an old Charlton Heston film about the making of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Ben was totally enchanted by it. He watched it about 2,605 times in a row. Soon, his own drawings of angels and saints started showing the cracks on the plaster walls, to my absolute delight. He was having trouble with the arms and legs, though, so I got him a Bridgman's Drawing Guide to the Human Body and he read it on his own. Soon I was picking up sketches of arms, legs, torsos, and heads scattered all over his bedroom floor. You might say he was hooked.
Armed with this newfound and heady knowledge he actually approached our Pastor, Father Rice by name, who had a very fine wit. Father had announced one Sunday that the Church was going to be repainted and repaired in the next months. Ben was very confident that he could paint the ceiling of the Church and told him so. “Tell me more. How would you do that?" Father asked without skipping a beat. "Well, I have my Bridgman's guide and I saw the Agony and the Ecstasy." Of course! Any fool knows that if you have your Bridgman's Guide to the Human Body, you can paint the Church ceiling. Father Rice responded quite seriously, “Well, I will keep you in mind.” I loved Father Rice!
Ben went on to draw all the time after that. He drew science fiction scenes of planets and space machines, he drew rockets, he drew his own creations of Aragorn, Bilbo, and Arwyn. I marveled at them all. But my favorite time of all is still what we now refer to as Ben’s “Michelangelo Period.” This all came out of an atmosphere that beckoned creativity. Ben simply followed.
All my children had to try their hand at drawing. We had Bible books, natural history drawing binders, and poetry books. They would dictate stories back to me, I would type them out, and they were asked to illustrate them. The results were priceless. Not all children are called to be Rembrandts, not all of them relish the idea of sitting down to draw, but you will find the personality of your child in every single drawing. You will discover what is important to them, what they see the most clearly in the world, and always their sense of humor seeping out of even stick figures sporting massive, white, English barrister wigs. I have saved all these books from over the years and once in a while on a rainy, blue day I page through them and laugh myself silly. They are treasures more precious than gold.
You will have other memories as well that make you chuckle loudly at the fact that you never really quite know what kids are thinking and that sometimes a guided picture study might be a good idea. I am reminded of this fact every October when St. Denis's feast rolls around. I've had a copy of this picture of St. Denis in my various apartments and homes throughout the years. It was given to me by a college friend and I dearly love it. It is part of a larger painting, which depicts Christ bringing Holy Communion to St. Denis in prison before he is to be beheaded. But what adults see in a painting and what little children see can be vastly different. I found this out when my very literal sons told me in his later teens, "Yeh, I never really ‘got' that painting as a little kid. I was always puzzled why St. Denis would be in a washing machine." Once I saw it, I could not unsee it. I still laugh loudly to this day when I pass it. And I am sure St. Denis had a chuckle himself. It's just interesting to see how children interpret the world around them, even the great works of the masters.
It is also an intriguing phenomenon that a child can have a great taste for one art form and not another. My oldest son David is a logical, analytical sort like his father. He is not all that affected by artistic aesthetic in painting. But give him a slide guitar and he ascends somewhere into the realms where I cannot follow. Music is his art. Music is his atmosphere. He found a music jam night at a local bar and grill and asked if he might try it. The leader was an old blues musician who had a band. David was welcomed into their midst as a brother and he did not disappoint. He held his own as they all jammed along. This was David’s atmosphere. I have never seen him more happy than when he is in the middle of musical creation.
Art might come in the form of creating costumes for a play. Or imagining that one of a kind dress for a dance. Art might come at an open window filled with falling rain as your child suddenly is inspired to write poetry or moved to learn calligraphy like the monks of old. Give them time and space to find their atmosphere. Make your home a place to find it. Listen to them carefully and try to supply each child with the opportunities to find the answer to the questions they ask about art, music, and dance -- either through you or another artistic adult you may know. Explore your own tastes in art. Learn new things about the artists you love. Share it with your kids over cookies. Let it all flow in an unforced atmosphere. It will grow.
Sometimes one art form will inspire another. A piece of music might inspire a child to draw or to dance. I know that every time I looked at paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites I felt the urge to write poetry as a teen. The arts all flow one into the other. They are all catalysts in cahoots for beauty to enter the human soul. Give them all free rein in your home.
These are just my own personal thoughts on art and children. You will have your own. But I promise that you will discover new facets you never thought existed in your child’s personality when you bring art, music, dance, and poetry into your home. You will always be glad you took the time to create an atmosphere in which it was welcomed to grow. Don’t let it get lost among the math facts and the grammar. It is just as necessary to your children’s education as these. Beauty always is.