How Do Kids Connect to Art?
A young person's guide to the Art Fair
by David Stringer with assistance from Reilly McDonald
From the July, 2013 issue
Note: All children were interviewed and photographed with permission from their parents. And in a healthy moment, one artist, Yos Belchatovski, stopped us from taking their pictures until he verified that.
"I just like it," says Katherine Wys, age eleven. One of five girls enrolled in a camp at the Ann Arbor Art Center and briefly touring the Michigan Guild's Summer Art Fair on Main Street last year, she's stopped briefly at the booth of June and Dennis Tressler to admire a painting of a cute shaggy cat amidst cute shaggy dogs.
"It looks a little like Bubbles [the Wys family dog] without a haircut," her friend Thea Rowe elaborates. Their classmate Grace Evans-Golden adds that she likes "any of the cats--I'm a cat person." The girls were also drawn to paintings of a squirrel and a kingfisher "because they are pretty."
"We both love squirrels," Katherine and Thea say together.
All the kids under the age of twelve that we talked to liked artwork that features animals. "I love dragonflies," Xailia Claunch, eleven, explains while standing in front of one piece. Then she continues, while standing in front of another, "I love dragons."
They also favor bright colors and are wowed by the iridescent photographs of Sean and Brian Malone depicting northern lights and other landscapes and sky-scapes of northern Michigan. When asked what they like about the photos, exclamations come from all sides: "These are really cool!" "They're amazing!" "The colors!"
Avery Lumeng, thirteen, who forgot her glasses and has trouble seeing the art, nevertheless admires the color in a work by Kathleen Yano Lapso, "how the red, black, and gold go together." And Katherine Wys, enjoying a large woven copper piece by Lapso, notes, "It has rainbow and copper color at the same time," and she asks the artist how she made it.
In Diane Hawkey's booth, the girls immerse their hands in a bowl of beads for ten minutes, handling and playing with them but not taking the next
step of creating a bracelet or necklace. They say they like the color and feel of the clay beads ("they feel different"). Xailia summarizes: "They're cool."
At times, however, the responses of the kids are more sophisticated. When looking at the delicate wildlife etchings of Marina Terauds, Grace Evans-Golden explains, "I like the intricate detail." And Katherine Wys is drawn to a large photograph by Chelsea's Paul Christopher James showing a stream flowing through the woods. She points out how the photographer caught the blurred movement of running water, plus all the soft green moss on the shore. James responds by explaining how he created the time exposure, setting the lens and aperture to capture the blur of the stream, and, in another photo, how he achieved the depth of field of a cityscape. Katherine appears to understand what he is saying.
At the State Street Area fair, Roman Tustanivsky, age thirteen and visiting from Mission Viejo, California, is drawn to a piggy bank by sculptor Brian Moore. Why does he like it? "It's realistic," he states, a dubious claim, unless he means that it looks like a piggy bank. Then, after another look, he adds, "It's lazy--just like me!"
His sister Lesia, a year older, points to a large photograph depicting one black and two white wolves. She says she likes it because black wolves, she thinks, are rare. Her brother suggests a metaphorical racial theme, but she disagrees.
Twelve-year old Kate Pelz from Brighton is drawn to the pottery of Scott Gamble: "I like the color and the way one color moves into other colors." Kate says that her home features photographs taken by her fifteen-year-old brother, who, according to their mom, couldn't be bothered to come to the art fair--he's on the couch at home.
Enzo Wallin, age five, is enjoying the spray blowing off the Ingalls Mall fountain in the middle of the "Original" Street Art Fair. He says he enjoys the glass art, and his brother Rex echoes his vote, elaborating that he especially enjoys the glass creatures from the sea and animals sculpted from wood, which he described as "kinda realistic-looking and kinda fake." You could say the same about Carl Milles's sculpture of Triton at the heart of the fountain, but the brothers don't mention it. They do like the cool mist.
Madelyn Zang of Dearborn says she likes paintings of houses and cats with cool flowerpots, "how the colors sort of popped out and sort of the creativeness to it." She can't recall the name of the artist, though. Her eight-year old brother, Jack, is less enthusiastic. When asked about his favorites, he says, "I barely looked. I had to come." The best part of his day, he says, is the snow cone he's eating.
Nakshatr Gupta, at four, is clear about what he likes: "Star Wars." Asked to explain, he patiently states, "It's a TV show." What does he like about the art fair? "Painting," and "It happens every year."
Daniel Huang, seven, when asked if he's seen any art that he likes, answers with a simple, "no." A possible exception is the art that he and his sister, Catherine, aged four, have created and are wearing: butterfly and dragonfly costumes.
Kate Lindstrom, seven, is having her face painted at the Art Activity Zone on Ingalls Mall. She says she has no favorite part of the fair, except perhaps talking on television (at the Community TV booth). While she has paintings in her home of bunnies, a bear, and Burton Tower, she has not yet made a purchase this year--though she has brought money from the Tooth Fairy's recent visit to spend.
Also at the Activity Zone, kids are learning to make pottery on a wheel. The shaping is free, and if they want their pots fired they can keep them for $10. Emily, who lives in Chicago but is visiting her aunt in Ann Arbor to attend the Fair, reports that shaping the wet clay pot is fun. Though she likes her organic asymmetrical result, the family decision is not to keep it. Her favorite activities at the fair? "This, and looking at glass sculpture," which she likes "because it is different from clay." Emily's brother and sister are also hard at work turning pots of their own.
Katie Moore, age nine, is making a delicate bubble wand by stringing beads on a wire with a loop bent at the end. She especially enjoys choosing the colors of the beads and, of course, blowing bubbles. Katie identifies herself as an artist, and, when asked what kind of art she creates, replies "pastels." She acknowledges that her mom helps her, and "my aunt," she adds with pride, "is an artist." She doesn't know what she's enjoyed seeing at the Art Fair, but in general she likes "paintings," though none of the artists she has seen, she declares, paints the way she does.
Yossi Berkowicz, nine, also creating a bubble wand, is not sure whether to call himself an artist, though his home features artwork by him and his sister, Rena, age seven. His favorite activity at the Art Fair is spinning the wheel at the Channel 62 booth. When asked her favorite part of the fairs, Rena only shrugs, but she clearly enjoys the mask she just colored.
Julia Fossum, a young visitor from Milwaukee, mentions that she likes to draw, and her two cousins nod in agreement, saying they draw pictures at school. When asked what artists she enjoys, instead of mentioning animals and bright colors, Julia reels off a list of her special favorites: "Wassily Kandinsky, Georgia O'Keeffe, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso ..."
Her proud grandmother confirms her age: five.
The connections run both ways. "Since I'm a child at heart," says June Tressler, "my work is full of whimsy and has always appealed to the child in all of us. It's usually kind of silly and makes you laugh." She continues: "Kids of all ages, girls and boys, big or little, are drawn to my booth. And I always say my work appeals to people from nine to ninety-nine years. Anyone who likes to smile."
When asked how kids influence family purchases, she says, "Children usually know what they like and want. A parent might try to get their child to change their choice, but that rarely happens."
Diane Hawkey is very aware that making her work touchable appeals to kids: "My most popular items are my beads. I get kids as young as four as my customers, all the way to teens and adults. Although they are not specifically for kids, I invite the children to touch and hold them, and there is not a lot of art that is really kid friendly at the fair, which makes my booth very popular with kids and their parents. They can make a necklace right there at the Art Fair. It gives the kids a hands-on experience that makes them feel really special. A lot of times the whole family will buy beads, and everyone makes a necklace to wear at the fair. I think the parents are also happy that they can include the children in something they enjoy. There are many bored hot and tired children that suddenly get a good attitude when they get to do something that is meaningful to them and there is something that they are actually encouraged to touch."
Hawkey also tells a story that reveals some of the magic that is part of kids' relationship with art and artists: "I had a small house sculpture that hadn't turned out exactly as I intended it to. I didn't want to put it for sale because it wasn't quite right in my eyes. A mom came in my booth with a pair of twin girls about four or five years old. They were intrigued by all my work and were really quite sweet.
"I asked them if they were twins, and then I asked them if they shared a room together. They said they did. So I asked them if they would want my tiny house to put in their room. They were so excited, so I wrapped it up and gave it to them, and I could hear them talking about the tiny house as they walked out of my both, saying excitedly, 'Mommy, maybe we will get fairies in our room!' "
Royal Oak potter Doug Spalding recalls a similar experience: "Kids do like my booth. My art includes a lot of robots. This year  I had a boy that looked to be about four years old. He handed me fifty cents. It took me a minute, and then I realized he wanted to buy something. I remembered a piece that had a slight flaw. I took his fifty cents and gave him that tile, and he jumped up and down like he was on a pogo stick."
Yos Belchatovski, who specializes in fountain sculpture, appears to have a special connection with kids, and kids also do with his art: "Kids don't just look at my work--they break it down to see how it works. When you [adults] look, you don't see everything. But for kids," he continues, "it becomes a game, something intellectual. They are fascinated, and then their parents point to me and say, 'Here's the guy who made this.' And they look at me with awe."
He describes how in 2011 a boy maybe twelve or thirteen came into his booth with his mother. "He looked in that careful way kids look, they left, and then an hour later they returned. Mom asked, 'Did you find one you like?' He walked over to one, pointed it out, and said, 'Yes, this one.' She looked at it and said she liked it, too. The mom was looking at it they way adults do--the color, size, the details. But her kid was looking at the intricacies of how it works. Soon I was packing up a $1,200 piece to load into her car.
"You have to be captured by a work of art," he notes. "Kids will touch my work by sticking a finger into the moving water. Adults might try to grasp or lift the whole thing, spilling water all over. So I say it's OK for kids to touch but not adults."
Belchatovski recalls that at a fair in Lubbock, Texas, back in the eighties, a twelve-year-old girl lingered in his booth for about an hour, and she asked for his card. He asked her why she wanted it. She said she would buy something later, when she was older. She tracked him down when she was in her twenties and bought a piece. "All the information on my card had changed," he says, "but she found me with Google."
Glassmaker Chris Belleau started his career when he was only thirteen as an apprentice to a potter. "One of the reasons kids like my work," he thinks, "is that kids love nature, and I use nature as inspiration and model for much of my work. Flowers of all sorts, fruits and vegetables, fish, octopus, turtles, frogs, crabs, and lobsters, glass sculpture of waves and flames."
Though his work draws kids, it's also vulnerable to a careless touch. "About fifteen years ago I was showing at the Art Fair on the Square in Madison, Wisconsin, and a little girl accidentally broke one of my glass pieces. Her parents were furious with her, and she started to cry. I told them 'C'est la verre'--such is glass. I did not expect or accept their offer of compensation. But I resolved that it would never be so easy for a child to break anything in my booth again. I went home and built a display that was on average six inches taller than my old one. Since then, I cannot remember a single incident of a child breaking any piece of glass in my booth."
Courtney Peterson, who's from Pennsylvania and sells in the Guild fair on Main, says her connection with kids began "when I first started doing jewelry featuring animals." While most artists don't think about their price point for selling to kids, she says, "If a kid comes into my booth with $10 to buy something for his mother, I try to have something he can buy.
"Often grownups come in to buy something for a child, and I look at what they select and say, 'Absolutely not.' For girls under ten, select something they might love--a horse, a cat, a heart, a dolphin--for a pendant. They will just lose a ring or outgrow a bracelet. Girls over ten will love bracelets."
Henry Crissman, a potter volunteering at the Art Activity Zone, sees a different kind of connection between kids and artists: "When you are a kid, you expect you are supposed to become something when you are older, and that's frightening. Getting older can be scary. Then you see someone making artwork and making a living doing something that you know is fun. That's a real connecting point between kids and artists.
"With kids," he continues, "success is not making the perfect cup. It's having the experience. Tell them they are allowed to have fun, and tell them, 'You are in charge.'"
Crissman describes a memorable Ann Arbor experience: "One little boy named Jude with wild blond hair--he was about six--waited in a line about fifty kids long. When it was his turn, Crissman recalls, the boy announced, 'I'm a Buddhist,' and he proceeded to explain what that meant. Then he sat down at the wheel, his first time ever, and threw a beautiful vase. It was amazing."
Full-time clown and entertainer David Priest has volunteered as a face painter with the fair for several years. "Most parents," he says, "are out of touch with their kids. The number one thing they do to ruin a kid's experience is to tell them, 'Don't be scared.' He describes parents of a kid screaming in fear saying, 'I'll hold him down and you do the work.' He says that Ann Arbor parents are better than most. They know to let the kids watch what is going on, and sometimes mommy gets her face painted first.
"I specialize in transformations," says Priest. He recalls painting a green monster face on a three- or four-year-old boy. "Kids think of it as the Hulk. When I was done, his body language changed--he was striking poses, bulging his muscles. Kids painted as superheroes leave with their shoulders back, looking people in the eye. 'Wow!' their bodies say. 'I look really cool!'" He described how a mom in her forties, when painted like a cheetah, started to strut as she walked away.
One of Priest's favorite Ann Arbor moments came after he painted the face of a three-year-old girl. "I'm a princess," she announced, and then she started roaring like a monster. "Ann Arbor," Priest concludes, "has a very strong feminist group."
[Originally published in July, 2013.]