One normal Sunday morning in our small town of Griffith, New South Wales, when I was 3 and my sister Sandra 5, our daily routine was interrupted by a terribly exciting event.
Without warning, a car pulled up outside our humble fibro house and two men got out, one with a fancy camera. They spoke to our parents and soon, with the photographer snapping away, Sandra was striking the very odd pose of standing at an easel painting a painting, in our front yard.
The next Sunday she was in the big city newspaper, Sydney’s Sun-Herald. It wasn’t just the most exciting thing to happen to our family – it was the most exciting thing to happen to our town.
The reason behind her sudden stardom was down to a statewide art prize. A painting of hers had won a local competition, had then been entered at a higher level and was eventually declared ‘Best-in-State.’
My two older brothers and I promptly declared the work “a load of rubbish.” We were brothers. It’s what we do.
But the statewide judge positively shot through his beret in excitement about Sandra’s piece, which may or may not have been called ‘Woman with Triangular Body and Dress.’ According to the judge, it showed “a rare level perception, a breathtaking honesty and an age-defying sense of neo-cubist bravado.” I’m embellishing a little, but he definitely said it was “honest.” Hell, he might have said the painting was truth itself. Good to see my sister hadn’t yet learnt to lie through her paintings, aged 5.
We didn’t care. We were just agog that Sandra had clearly become our family’s ticket out of the working classes. There would be no starving in garrets for us. For the rest of her childhood, with our zealous backing, she was encouraged to pursue her rare gift for painting. And then, once she finished school – like so many others whose junior artworks are so heavily lauded – she dropped it like a hot potato.
It’s a funny thing, art. There can be few other pursuits we so eagerly encourage in our youngsters which are so widely abandoned in adulthood. There’s calculus, of course, and the recorder, but who misses those when they’ve been given up/snapped over your knee?
Children simply must paint paintings, make sculptures, glue collages and stick raw pasta onto paper. It’s as if, like dressing yourself or getting food into your mouth, these are skills you can’t get through life without. But how many of us find ourselves as adults saying, “Oh, I must pick up a new paintbrush,” or “Hey mate, fancy coming round for some beers and papier-mâché?”
It will, however, be slightly sad if our offspring join the 99 percent who stop doing art when they stop being kids. While it’s easy to get carried away with our critiquing, it’s a fun thing to do, even if it comes under my mother’s headline of ‘Things to occupy your kids until bedtime.’
Of course there is one defining characteristic of children’s art. No, it’s not honesty. It’s mess. The art gets everywhere. Because of this, there is one vital component every spoiled expat parent needs – an ayi.
Other than that, we once bought a large shower curtain. It gets spread on the kitchen floor, then the kids put brush to paper on top of that.
Now, I’m no art expert, but our kitchen has spawned one unquestionable masterpiece: the shower curtain is an artistic tour de force to rival anything of Jackson Pollock’s (whose name fittingly lives on in the world of Cockney rhyming slang to describe anything which is ‘bollocks’). No matter how hard he tried, the spills and splodges of a couple of kids put Pollock’s work in the shade. He just couldn’t match their honesty.
The kids’ paintings themselves are a mixed bag, like most children’s. Some have made it onto the wall. Many have made it into the bin – a sad martyrdom for their efforts in filling a rainy afternoon. Many started off well but were abandoned halfway through when something else took the artist’s fancy, like an ice-cream or an iPad.
Of course, some kids have a natural gift for it. They’ll go on to be famous artists. Others, sadly, will have no talent whatsoever. They may also go on to be famous artists.
I love the absurdity of children’s art. I love huge heads on little bodies, fingerless hands on elbow-less arms – all on 2-D people rendered in the pre-Renaissance or ‘Flat Stanley’ style. Some more serious art critics could really go to town with it. And it’s all done without a hint of hallucinogens, save perhaps for red food coloring.
There are some downsides. Some art makes it onto the wall without the involvement of a piece of paper. And occasionally a child can get worked up and miserable if their painting doesn’t turn out the way they’d hoped.
For this eventuality I have two action plans. First, I’ll quote them no less an artist than Salvador Dali: “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.”
If this fails, I’ll show them a Jackson Pollock and tell them it sold for millions.
// Trevor Marshallsea was a foreign correspondent in Beijing in the 1990s and returned a decade later. This time around he stays at home to grow the kids. Read more of his domestic adventures at www.thetigerfather.com