I've been pondering about how to explore and talk to my boys about art. While we have our so called "Art Adventures" where we dabble in various crafty pursuits, we've yet to go into any serious exploration on artists and their works of art, save for a few co-op sessions where the kids listened to stories about the lives of various artists, and then did some art activities inspired by the artist's work.
I think part of this reluctance to start stems from my own struggle to understand and appreciate art. I enjoy visiting art museums, I love looking at beautiful works by artists, but I found I sometimes had difficulty comprehending certain art works or art forms. Certain pieces of modern art stumped me: why on earth would people actually pay 43 million for a canvas that was painted predominantly blue, something that my kid could probably easily do?
Then while browsing online, I chanced across this video of a talk by Alain de Botton, on art as therapy:
(I've embedded the video here, but if you do not have the time to watch it, you can read an excellent summary over here.)
The purpose and psychological functions of art are introduced in the talk. While I didn't agree with the premise that art can save our souls, and provide inner wholeness (since we believe only God can do that), the examples he used to illustrate the functions of art were helpful in shaping my approach to viewing a piece of art. And being clear about that helped me to think about how I would explore this area with my own kids.
I find that when it comes to exploring art with children, we have the tendency to be "human doings" rather than "human beings". We lean heavily towards the experiential: we let them play at children's exhibits at the art museum, we teach them to paint "like Monet" or do versions of Van Gogh's "The Starry Night", we do Matisse paper cut-outs of leaves. There is a lot of copying of techniques and styles (which sometimes makes me question if we actually take creativity out of the process of art). These things are totally fine, but I think we sometimes focus too much on the how-tos, and forget to talk about the whys: about learning more about the life of each artist, and why he painted the way he did, and why he chose to paint what he did. I think these are the questions we ideally should discuss with our children, to help them to understand the art around them.
Here are some books which I found were helpful for such discussions:
:: The Art Book for Children (Book One, and Book Two):
Most art books for children tend to introduce art by periods or styles, and tend to include mainly technical details such as when and where the artist lived, and the media he/she used. I found this book's approach quite a refreshing change, since it introduces various works of art mainly through asking questions: What do you think he was feeling? Why do the people look sad? What can you see?
While a little haphazard in its approach (since the works are introduced in no particular order), I thought it was an excellent springboard for discussing works of art with children.
:: The Anholt Artists Series:
We especially love this series, because each book tells of a particular real-life incident in an artist's life that involves children. The books are great, because you get a glimpse into each artist's life, while being introduced to their passions and works of art.
:: Various children's biographies of artists:
Reading more about each artist's life is helpful in understanding their work. Some of the biographies we particularly enjoyed include "A Splash of Red", "Edward Hopper Paints His World", "The Iridescence of Birds", and "Henri's Scissors".
:: Books introducing works of art through make-believe stories:
While I prefer biographies that allow us to know more about the artist's life, sometimes books introducing various art works can also be a platform to spark off further research and discussion. Some books that can be helpful in this aspect include the Katie series, "BaBar's Museum of Art", and "You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum".
We hope these recommendations are helpful, and if you'd like, do check out our recommendations for books on Science and Maths.
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