Take a look at this picture. Apparently it is viewable on one of the many subway trains in New York City, and painted by well known artist Sophie Blackall (parents may recognize her work on Ivy & Bean book covers). It’s called Missed Connections.
Click here or on the image to enlarge (which will open in a new window)
New York subway riders probably spend at most a minute looking at it, and many perhaps never think of it as anything more than a drawing of people riding the subway and go about their day never thinking anything more about it.
Now watch this short video about the artist, and glean some insight as to the story behind the picture. It’s only a few minutes long.
Click here if you cannot see video above
The picture all of a sudden becomes a lot more interesting when you’re able to hear the story about the journey that led to the final piece. To read more about the artist and story of the picture, click here.
The Old Cardboard Box
This got me thinking about a personal experience last year at my 9-year old’s school. If you have an elementary school aged child, you probably have experienced a similar thing. Near the end of the year, your teacher sends home all of the artwork created by your child in a giant bag or box. You spend a few minutes oohing & ahhing at each piece as you flip through them, perhaps registering in your mind nothing more than “great job, kid”… especially if you have dozens and dozens of these art projects to sift through (and please tell me that I’m human by agreeing that while you’re plowing your way through them, you’re thinking to yourself, “Holy crap, what are we going to do with all this stuff at home???”).
Just as with the subway picture above, I didn’t spend more than a moment on each piece, as I was only looking at the final result, and not paying attention to the journey that led to the creation of any particular piece.
The Journey Versus the Destination
Last year I was volunteering in my daughter’s art class, where I was there to simply help the art teacher in any way possible: help kids cut different types of fabric, thread yarn through a needle, or just clean up after they’re done, so that the next class can be ready to go with a clean room.
On this particular day, the art teacher had the kids working on a project where she asked the kids to make foam animals. Kids were given scrap pieces of packing foam, and they were to cut out shapes and hot glue them together to make an animal. They could create any type of animal, real or made up, the only rule was that your creation had to include 4 legs and a body. That’s it.
She started the project by making a sample animal so that the kids could see how it was done, but other than that, there were no rules. As the kids started working away at their animals, the teacher told me that this particular art project was specifically designed to help develop the children’s executorial skills. With only one simple rule to adhere to, the kids had free reign to make decisions throughout their project that apparently were similar to those of a business executive: working with a limited set of supplies and materials, making a creature too tall would cause it to be too wobbly to stand up, while making an animal such as an elephant or bear required that a child recreate in foam what they have seen a million times in pictures or at the zoo. At the conclusion of the project, the kids displayed their final creations on a table where the art teacher made comments about each one. I was fascinated that there were no two creations that were alike: some had created elephants or bears, and some had created made-up animals that were super tall with wiry legs, while others made boxy robots that looked like they came from a sci-fi movie.
I am sure that when parents sifted through that art pile at the end of the year, that the foam animal got perhaps a minute of attention. And it might have found the round file when it made its way home. But the cool thing about it was that there was a real purpose for the project, and the art teacher planned that project with that in mind. And that’s the wonderful thing about art: the beauty in art is as much about the journey as it is about the final piece.
So the next time you are looking at an art project that your kid brings home, try to build a complete picture in your mind by getting a sense of why the art project was assigned, and what was your child thinking about when they made it. It would be great if we could see a slick video like the one above about Sophie Blackall to help us understand it, but a simple narrative from your child about the journey of the project will tell you everything you need to know about the piece, which might cause you to think differently about the other stuff in that cardboard box.
Note: I was inspired to write this piece because I am so grateful that my kids’ school district employs accredited art teachers (as well as science, music, phys ed and library) to instruct our children (through the amazing funding support of our local families and community via our District Foundation). It’s sometime easy to cast aside the importance of art when you compare it to other important subjects such as math or English, but you might not truly appreciate what you have until you no longer have it. So support art and music in your schools!