Portrait of the artist
The last time I walked the black-and-white checkerboard tile floor in our local art gallery, it had been at an opening featuring the work of my neighbor, an accomplished artist. I was thrilled to see his beautiful paintings hanging on the walls, tickled to see him so happy, and proud to be his friend.
But this week’s return visit was even more special. This time, the celebrated artist held my hand tightly in hers, ponytail bobbing as she skipped along, a backpack slung across one shoulder.
A love-themed art exhibit held Valentine’s week stirred a lot of emotions in me. Her crayon creation, which she had dubbed “Love is in the Air,” was an adorable image of a blonde woman and a brunette man holding hands with hearts emanating from the clasped grip.
“Aww, Lizzie! I love it,” I gushed, then, looking closer, added, “Is that you and Dad?”
“No,” she said.
“Oh. Then who IS that with Dad?” I asked, now suspicious. I’m a lot of things, but blonde is not one of them.
She assured me it was not her father in the artwork. And it wasn’t a self-portrait either. Rather it was “two random people.” I was skeptical. Never had she ever been inspired to draw “two random people.” She held her ground and insisted time and time again.
If what she said was true, it had to represent a breakthrough artistically. She had matured. This artwork hanging on the wall as part of a school’s “Love” exhibit would need to be matted, framed and displayed in just the right location in our home. And this raised the age-old question in my mind: What am I going to do with all of these art projects?
My younger, childless self used to marvel at the sheer volume of scribbles and “art” that covered the refrigerators, walls and other surfaces in the homes of family and friends. Coloring book pages, glittery Valentines, math homework, spelling tests and other masterpieces were displayed proudly, I always had believed, by the parents.
Little did I know, this was not the result of excessive pride. Rather, it was something much darker. Sinister, in fact. These displays were, quite frankly, coerced.
“We can’t get rid of anything,” a friend once confessed, sidling up to me and whispering the words out of the side of his mouth, like a hostage fearful of his captors.
Clearly he had noticed I was looking at his kitchen fridge, what I could see of it, with a grotesque fascination like I had just discovered a crazed serial killer’s lair.
“If they SEE us throw anything away, they flip out,” he continued, looking nervously over one shoulder. “It’s getting ridiculous.”
Ah, so there’s the rub.
For years, my sensible sister crowed that she had solved the problem. Her solution was to store the art projects and then, when the time was right, take one out, place it on her kitchen table, sit down and gaze upon it, then begin peeling apples, carrots or potatoes. When she was finished with the task, she would lovingly gather up the corners of the masterpiece so the peelings did not drop to the floor, and deposit it squarely into the kitchen garbage. Brilliant!
“And the kids don’t mind?” I asked.
“No! They love it. They know I can’t keep everything, and at least I get to enjoy it while I do a chore. And it serves a purpose,” she reasoned.
Interesting. It struck me at the time as the type of thing a mother might put over on her offspring when they are too young to truly know better. But it also seemed like the kind of thing that might come back to bite her one day.
Well, reckoning day came sooner than later. Recently her children were on a roll, lovingly roasting their mother and jokingly detailing the many crimes and misdemeanors they felt had been dealt during their youth. Guess what made the Top 10? Yup: potato peel art projects.
They shared in great detail how their collective psyches were damaged by the sight of dirty potato peels covering their art, and then the final crushing blow came when their own mother of all people pushed all of their hard work deep into the garbage can.
Determined not to make the same mistake, I went in the opposite direction, saving almost everything Elizabeth brought home from preschool. Foam gingerbread houses, macaroni necklaces, cottonball and Q-Tip something-or-others, construction paper hats, masks, costumes, picture frames, Christmas ornaments, handprint turkeys...oh, it all was there.
I filled a box, and then another one. Folders started to pile up as she brought home her schoolwork marked with smiley faces and red and gold stars. There were dog-eared programs from school concerts, special events and other activities, school pictures, class pictures, Polaroids from Mom’s Night and Buddy Night, certificates, school pride tickets, progress reports, and on and on.
We lavished our daughter with praise, but in reality, some of the artwork really wasn’t so good. The same goes for some of the schoolwork. I started to toss out a few of the sub-par pieces. This isn’t something that is undertaken lightly. It requires stealth. Cunning. One must be sure the child is not around and then fold the papers in half, so they cannot be identified through the garbage bag once it is removed. (I’ve seen a busted parent dig through coffee grounds to pull out a paper that had “accidentally” gone into the trash.) Take care to push the papers waaay down into the middle.
Next, I started to reclaim my refrigerator, discarding the sticker charts and memory math. Finally, in a stroke of sheer genius, I realized I could photograph the three-dimensional pieces and dispose of the originals. Goodbye, arctic igloo. I was on a roll.
Emboldened by these small steps, I tackled the boxes from the preschool years. Many of the papers I had saved were similar, so I kept about 10 percent and tossed the rest. I realized why art critics have to be so tough.
Thinking back on my own childhood, I tried to think of a single artwork or piece of schoolwork that was saved. There was nothing. Zip, zilch, zero. (OK, there is that marble caterpillar with plastic top hat and googly eyes I made in Brownies, but that’s hardly a work of art.)
A-ha, so this is a new thing. Why are today’s parents fawning over each and every drawing and homework assignment and preserving it for posterity, as if it one day will be displayed in the Smithsonian? It was madness, and it had to stop.
To cope with the rising tide of paper that flows into my house on a weekly basis, I have devised several coping mechanisms. I frame a few things that I adore. I photograph many others, in hopes that one day I will make a photo book. Some go into a folder to be sent to relatives who live far away, and others are turned into cards. More than half hits the trash after I’ve absorbed it.
Time lends perspective, so I continue to cull items from “the collection,” as time passes. Other ideas I’ve heard from friends, and seen in magazines, include making a slideshow of photos of artwork, laminating pieces and using them for placemats, and turning the originals into stickers, actual postage stamps, gift tags, tote bags, wallpaper and wrapping paper. Yes, it’s true. For $100, a child’s doodle can be turned into a piece of custom-made silver jewelry, and for $400, Lizzie’s sketch of an imaginary creature can be made into a stuffed animal that bears an uncanny likeness.
For now, I intend to save the best and sneak my least-favorite projects into the trash. Thank heavens I only have one child. I don’t know how a mom of three can cope. Unless she peels a lot of potatoes.
And the beat goes on.
Kris Ferrazza is a former reporter, assistant editor, copy editor and columnist with the Courier newspapers. She lives in Waldoboro.