My kid waxes poetic on ArtPrize

by Stacy Walsh

Now that the buzz surrounding ArtPrize is winding down, I wanted to take a moment to share my reflections.  This year was my first ArtPrize, and taking my kids to look at art (especially now that one of them is talking/communicative) was a new experience as well.

Knowing I may want to write about both experiences after the fact, I took my little notebook with me as my husband and I carted our children—our three-year-old son, and one-and-half-year-old daughter around downtown Grand Rapids. I had no idea what to expect– from the kids, the art, the venues, the hoopla.

While I took copious notes about specific pieces, what Eli said about each of them, what I had to say about them, how I could juxtapose those two experiences… I have to admit, I am ArtPrized out.  Meaning: I have little interest in talking at length about the artwork, or any other conversations relating specifically to ArtPrize. What I will hold with me, long after the event has passed, long after the memory of specific pieces fade from my mind, is the simple joy of looking at art with my kids.

It’s really the best.  Kids go in with no expectations, no concept of what makes “good” or “bad” art, what should or should not be appreciated more than anything else.  And yet, they are art critics.  Some pieces held their interest.  Others did not.

Eli was petrified of Mike Simi’s Mr. Weekend.  We almost had to leave the building he was so worked up about “that bird.”  We couldn’t go anywhere near it. He clearly didn’t like it, and yet, it was his constant topic of conversation the rest of the day.  The critical discussions that could arise out of that observation alone are endless.  Plus, had I made a wager prior, I would have put money on him loving that piece.  It’s a huge, talking sock puppet.  I figured any kid would love it.  I was wrong.

Even when Eli lingered at a piece I would have never glanced at, I could at least stand there and appreciate what drew his attention to the piece: bright colors, a pink dog, a shiny surface, sticks. His approach is a reminder I need on occasion, not only when I am looking at art, but in my day-to-day life as well: Take the time to stop and appreciate the visceral response your body is having to what you see/hear/taste/feel/smell.  Don’t taint the experience with what you think you know, or are expecting, or think others would expect from your reaction.

It all becomes very complicated.  This makes it easy to ignore what our pure response is to just about anything. Cut to Eli.  He makes any of these considerations seem pointless, at least on a very basic level, a level of enjoying what is in front of you in that moment. His questions and comments were so grounded in a natural curiosity and wonder, those traits we seem to lose hold of as we age and get “smarter.”

That being said, the effects of adult logic on him are already evident.  “What is that suppose to be?” he asked of a wooden sculpture.  The best part was that I couldn’t vocalize what it was we were looking at.  This was a moment when I could make something up, tell him what he was “suppose” to be seeing, or I could let his imagination take flight with the myriad possibilities available.  I chose the latter and threw the question back to him.

His response: “It looks like a bird. It’s a shark?  A lion?  It has shark teeth.  It’s huge!”  I would love to be in his mind most days, to experience his childlike curiosity from an adult perspective. What comes out of his mouth  is pure poetry.  When looking at Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus No 18 his response was: “It’s too much colors… It’s pretty.”

I love Eli poetry.  It happens all the time, which I had started to forget until this excursion to look at art, until I whipped out the little notebook and furiously jotted down all his poetic-sounding gems.

The afternoon culminated in our viewing of Martijn van Wagtendonk’s Song of Lift .  This was, by far, Eli’s favorite piece of the day (mine, too).  No, we didn’t ask him what he liked best.  We didn’t have to.  He stood for over ten minutes (yes, this is a long time for a small child), transfixed, in awe.

The poetry came pouring out of his mouth:

I can talk to them.  
They might hear me.
They might wake up.
They might cry with me.
I want to touch them.

The more I learned of this particular piece, the source of the music, etc., the more Eli’s words moved me.  He seemed awake to a response that I feel any one of us had while experiencing “Song of Lift.” Only, he put it into words far more succinctly than I ever could. This was my joy in experiencing ArtPrize.  Not the voting or debate or controversy or winning art, though surely I do enjoy those aspects, enjoy seeing our city come alive with a frenetic vibrancy that is palpable during the time known as ArtPrize. My joy was seeing my son put a voice to his experience, and I feel honored to have shared that with him.

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