Introduction to a small virtual exhibition of child art in the time of coronavirus
A small virtual exhibition of children’s artworks consists of only ten photographs with child art examples that I managed to get in person during the “time of corona” – complying with the prescribed measures to restrict movement and limit socializing.
I present two drawings made on the ground with a stick, a three-part sidewalk chalk drawing, an outdoor art & maths composition with pebbles, a small “installation” of natural materials on the sandy bank of a river, and two, i.e. three drawings with colour felt-tip pens – a portrait on a balloon made of inflated disposable rubber glove.
Children’s works shown here, accompanied by “art sketch stories”, can be a reminder of children’s need for personal creative expression even in the times and situations with (temporarily) restricted possibilities, and their flexibility in devising solutions to overcome these shortcomings and challenges.
Why do children draw and express visually?
In searching for and providing an answer I shall try to leave aside my previously acquired theoretical expertise and generally accepted expressions that professional art educators normally use, especially those ingrained and ready-made phrases such as “child creativity” and “little creatives”. I will try to look at the question “Why does a child draw?” in a fresh perspective, “from the inside”, as if for the first time, based only on examples from this exhibition. And I will try to do that as closely as possible to a child in his/her first encounter with something interesting, observing it with undisguised curiosity and sincere puzzlement, and trying to grasp the core of its appearance, dimensions, functioning, acting, and possible relation to himself/herself…
Let’s start with Fig. 1, a photograph of a drawing of a bird, clearly specified as “the sea bird”. What made Boy Z, aged 3 years and 10 months, in the time of the first phase of mitigated restriction measures while a ban on using children’s play facilities in parks was still in place, draw his sea bird with a stick on the ground at the entrance to the park? A bird of a very large size, especially compared to his own height?
Fig. 1 Boy Z, 3 yrs. 10 mos., The sea bird, drawing with a stick on the ground, ca. 55 cm (taken on 19. 5. 2020, during the first phase of the mitigation of restrictive measures).
Fig. 2 Boy Z, 3 yrs. 11 mos., This is me, drawing with a stick on the ground, ca. 60 cm (taken on 21. 5. 2020, at the time of strictly controlled return of children to kindergartens).
The initial impulse for drawing is relatively easy to figure out: in a game with a boy, an adult family member draws a large whale in the sea, and then various sea creatures or all sorts of objects that the whale tries to “swallow”, using a long stick-branch found nearby.
However, what happens next?
The moment the boy, instead of using his own stick to “delete” or undo, i.e. to ”swallow” or “reject” chosen drawings-objects, decides to use this stick to make his own drawing, his role in the joint game and general questioning of relationships in nature, that is in his communication with another person, with the “whale” and the nature – becomes much more active and he takes the initiative for the first time.
He is already familiar with the feeling of excitement and joy generated by the power to be able to firmly move the stick on suitable ground and leave a trail that follows his movement in space, or direct this trail in a chosen place with a strong hand movement as he pleases, and shape his own forms.
He spontaneously and silently moves away from the whale and, standing with his back to it, draws his bird in a few strokes on an untouched, uncharted and probably “safe terrain”, providing a short explanation: “The sea bird. This is her beak, these are her wings.”
He can probably express his overall experience of the bird and his amazement with the bird’s “role” in nature and its potential possibilities in the story of the whale more easily and completely, visually and kinaesthetically – by drawing and acting – than by the words themselves.
To be able to, even unconsciously, reshape one’s (invisible) thought or idea into a visible, vivid statement makes a child undoubtedly satisfied and proud of himself/herself. In addition to that, s/he surely experiences that elusive but generally human feeling of joy of creating something, especially if it is “tangible”. At the moment s/he can also show the drawing to somebody, share it with others. However, the process of creation is generally more exciting for both a child and a true artist than the result itself. This is why, for example Boy Z has no need to permanently preserve this drawing as a result of his creation or to mention it later to somebody.
Moreover, a child’s self-motivated, amusing process of creating, for instance, a drawing, is preceded by an extremely interesting exploration of the world in his/her environment and even beyond his/her reach.
At the same time, the child explores possibilities of visual art media by which s/he can create, i.e. produce his/her drawing.
Boy Z, who is still in the art development phase with rare recognizable drawings of people and somewhat more often of animals, draws with (here I exclude painting) pencil, coloured pencils, or felt-tip pens at home and in the kindergarten, on A4 or occasionally A3 paper. But in the natural environment of an urban park, where numerous birds live and which offers (relative) freedom of movement, he creates much more freely an amazing drawing of larger proportions. A long and firm stick-branch as an improvised drawing medium for drawing on an “unlimited” format of a crushed stone base in itself “imposes” or provides its very specific expressive possibilities, which the child, ready to experiment and try a new game, only has to embrace. Boy Z is curious and open towards the new, so he takes on the challenge.
A month later, the same boy (Fig. 2) in another park which offers much better playing conditions, wants to draw anyway. He draws his self-portrait, which he perceives and loudly presents as “This is me”. To the subsequent question in order to check his motif (since children at that age quite often differently identify previously “portrayed” persons) “Did you draw a certain person?” he gives a very precise and linguistically articulated answer: “No, I have portrayed myself (originally in Croatian Ne, crtao sam samoga sebe.).”.
Why do Children draw themselves?
A person drawing, “the artist”, the observer, on the one side, and the object of observation and drawing, “the model”, on the other side – are in this case one and the same person.
Boy Z, like children in general, explores on and on as he grows up, questioning the knowledge of himself, of his manifestation (which is far more than mere appearance) and examines his place in his immediate surroundings and in a broader environment which he gets acquainted with indirectly.
For a child, the world is a place of amazement and joy of discovering and learning. S/he is (still :) in harmony with the world, so his self-portrait in these surroundings could be his joyful message of consent to that interrelation “Here I am!”
Boy Z draws again with a long firm rod on the ground, in an earthy-sandy surface, in an open space, free from limitations of a defined format, such as a piece of paper, which makes his artistic activity more like a free play and exploring “adventure”.
However, he is focused only on the essential – to express his perception of himself.
He presents himself based on gained experience of daily observance and studying himself in a large wall mirror in the entrance hall of his home. But also taking into account his total empirical knowledge of himself.
This is why “this is me” has to be “approximately” a life-size representation (in any case much larger size than on paper at home or in the kindergarten!)? And his perception of himself is of someone big and important anyway.
On the other hand, there is no need for him to further explore his joyful integration in the world through an extended drawing since the park, the family and the city are around him as it is?
Children’s street art, sidewalk chalk drawing
We can take a look at the drawings of older children in a drawing medium in which, in addition to the line, colour plays a significant role.
Fig. 3a/b (Unknown) Children’s sidewalk chalk drawing(s): A bus, a tram and a plane, Prečko, city bus stop, Zagreb (photo taken on 21. 3. 2020, the last day before most citizens’ self-isolation due to the implementation of strict measures for social distancing and restriction of movement).
At an empty bus stop in the deserted town, on the eve of a general lock-down and implementation of severe restrictions on movement and assembly, I came upon a child’s/children’s drawing(s) in coloured chalk on the pavement. Most likely, three children of different young ages draw the means of transport, each creating one, that they can see and hear every day in that part of the city. The transport means are accompanied by their names (bus, tram, plane), written with typical children’s spelling mistakes. It is highly possible that the children were prompted by a remark of an accompanying adult, such as “Maybe no bus will pass/come again” or “Beginning tomorrow, there will be no tram, bus or plane service…”. So the children expressed spontaneously their fascination and payed respect to these important transport vehicles. The role of a stimulating communication with a caring adult who makes sure that the children have enough chalk with them to draw, is of crucial importance for this “engaged street art” of the youngest (in contrast with not in the least creative copying of commercial figures from the cartoons at home).
By the way, it is interesting to observe the perspective in this group drawing, children’s way of observing and showing the spatial relations of road and air traffic.
Natural materials from the environment in interdisciplinary games in the open
Children who spend a lot of time with their families (or nursery and school teachers) in the open are fond of natural forms (stones, twigs, fruits, snail houses…), and use them for play, visual expression or even cross-curricular outdoor games that combine contents of, for instance, science, maths and visual art.
Fig. 4–5 (Unknown) Children’s “writing” numerals with pebbles, found in the Jarun Lake city park, Zagreb, on 19. 3. 2020, three days before most citizens’ self-isolation due to the implementation of strict measures for social distancing and restriction of movement
I came across the result of such a game by Jarun lake. In a maths & art game with elements of science – (counting, number series, and) 3D relief-writing, that is, constructing numerals with river pebbles – by a younger child (numbers 1–10) and an older child or an adult (numbers 10–20). The visual language of the game is composed with different shapes, colours, textures and sizes of pebbles, the rhythm of stringing pebbles to form a single sign-numeral, rhythm of the sequence of numerals, contrasts, harmony…
This kind of game can, cheerfully, appropriate to children’s age and in a way that is natural in children’s acquisition of knowledge and skills, successfully complement the teaching contents within distance teaching and learning and “school at home” modes.
Natural materials from the environment in child art
Discovery of a small art “installation” made with natural materials from the immediate environment on the embankment of the river Sava made me very happy, since it was in such a place that made it very unlikely for somebody to discover. What’s more, it was built from the materials and in a way that fit perfectly into the environment, and was not easy to spot. In addition to that, it was destined to go back to its original look quite soon – grass and sand – due to drying out and crumbling of materials used for its construction. That’s why it seemed to me an excellent example of completely ecological land art form tailored to children for some of their tiny toys.
Fig. 6–7 Small “installation” of natural materials/Tiny children’s land art on the banks of the River Sava: A sandy hill with spears made of twigs and flags made of leaves?, ø ca. 25 cm, ht. ca. 30 cm, found on 11. 4. 2020 at 11:43, in the period of strictest measures of social distancing.
Where in this “art sketch story” is the child himself/herself (or maybe even two of them)?
Children generally observe actively their environment and readily spot numerous details. In a natural environment they are often prompted to act themselves – to participate in an exciting natural scene. To contribute to the beauty of nature, her shapes and structures; to add something and create a small personal statement in a lively dialogue with the nature.
The designer(s) of this installation first spotted and then gathered pebbles, twigs, leaves, small white snail shells, (maybe green and yellow blades of grass, dry fruits and seeds, which even a light wind might have scattered or blown away). They used the natural offer of “artistic” means without prejudice, doubts and excessive (self) criticism regarding “proper” techniques and procedures. They selected materials according to shapes, colours, sizes, structures and textures as they pleased. Using sand and water from the river down below or from their water bottle, they made a small hill which in their imagination might be a “magic mountain” or whatever they wished for.
At the time of coronavirus, deprived of various activities and socializing, forced to spend a lot of time in a closed space, children show us all during a lonely and probably short outing with their parents how to create a motivating sustainable relationship with the nature.
Non-artistic materials from the environment in children’s art design
These last three photographs (Fig. 8–10) refer to the „practical“ world of inventive and patient parents and families who enable and further encourage their children to develop their individual and authentic artistic expression as well as inventiveness and skills of ”applied arts“ in everyday life in their homes.
Fig. 8–9 Girl R, 6 yrs 1 mos, A Girl, coloured felt-tip pens, disposable rubber glove inflated like a balloon (taken on 2. 5. 2020, during the second phase of the mitigation of restrictive measures: the first socializing with extended family)
Fig. 10 Boy Z, 3 yrs. 11 mos, I want to draw on a balloon, felt-tip pens, a disposable rubber glove inflated like a balloon (taken on 19. 5. 2020, at the time of strictly controlled return of children to kindergartens).
I am sure that in some other virtual exhibitions in Croatia and in the world, published in a family or wider social media circle, you could find countless genuine children’s drawings and paintings, photographs, sculptures, design and other works in all art techniques not mentioned here. Special emphasis should be placed on art techniques that testify to the inventiveness of parents and children themselves in solving problems, such as lack of art materials or space for work, so that children can express themselves artistically, that is visually, even in such restrictive conditions. Because it has been unquestionably confirmed that the visual arts and visual expression, as well as art in general, have a beneficial effect on mental, emotional and spiritual health.
Children in the time of coronavirus, children in the time of war
Because of the covid-19 pandemic, countless children in the world have been forced for weeks or months to isolate themselves with their families indoors, often in small spaces, living in uncertainty, concern and fear, more or less deprived of children’s needs and the declared rights, not so rarely confronted with the illness or the death of persons close or well known to them.
With these experiences, these children at least partially join the other countless children, present or former, who have been deprived of their childhood due to the war. And in their case, these numerous children’s misfortunes and fears were aggravated by the permanent fear of physical danger of death and loss of their home.
During the Homeland War (The Croatian War of Independence), during the last quarter of 1991 and during 1995, I occasionally addressed such children in the radio shows Ear (originally in Croatian UHO) and About inventions and around them (in Croatian O izumima i oko njih), the Children’s/Educational Programme of the Radio Zagreb 1st Programme, or the Croatian Radio 1st programme.
It is interesting to mention that in the war school year 1991/1992, as a forerunner to the current “Distance School/School for Life” (i.e. distance teaching and learning), that is teaching through television and the Internet, the classes were conducted through radio and television, called “Radio School” and “TV School”.
The two radio shows I collaborated with, characterized by their short, dynamic, and interesting contributions, were specifically targeting children with long stays, or even long-term residents, in basement shelters, whose only external contacts, both entertaining and educational ones, depended on the durability of the transistor batteries.
In my short radio talks, I tried to cheer them up, encourage them and make them interested in relaxing and creative contents. I encouraged child and teens art expression which supported their uniqueness, inventiveness and collaboration, and required only simple and accessible art techniques and the use of improvised art materials that children could find in their immediate environment.
And finally, as I planned to publish this post on 28th May, I have prepared an invitation to Croatian educational and cultural institutions and all educators in the field of arts – to celebrate the UNESCO’s International Arts Education Week from 25th to 31st May 2020.
The call was originally published on the UNESCO‘s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Website as well as on the websites of the umbrella international organizations in the field of arts education,
the WAAE-e (World Alliance for Arts Education) and the InSEA (International Society for Education through Art). The HRV-InSEA (Croatian Council of InSEA) was supposed to join them as usually in the publication of the call, this time on my blog, and the submission of my art work to the Virtual Space.
This year, a common theme of the celebration is the promotion of the importance of the role that arts education „plays in the lives of children and youth, families, and communities during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic – through social media.
As I have been late with the call anyway, this is just an announcement of a topic I will be writing about in one of my future posts.
However, I refer to the exhibition catalogues of my two international projects in collaboration with art educators, members of the InSEA or the HRV-InSEA: BOL/PAIN: Feeling of pain in digital photos of students aged 12–19, and PORUKE/MESS@GES: From: Students aged 12–19.
The first three photographs in the first catalogue express the children’s experience of pain related to the Homeland War.