Artful Conversations || Harvey Shows the Way: Narrative in Children's Art

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    Harvey Shows the Way: Narrative in Children's ArtAuthor(s): Julia KellmanSource: Art Education, Vol. 48, No. 2, Artful Conversations (Mar., 1995), pp. 18-22Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 21:57

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  • Harvey Shows the Way:


    Abigail and Amber.

    YT J he function of narrative as a method of thinking, of shar- ing experience, and of assigning meaning is as

    important in the lives of children as it is in those of adults (Bruner, 1986; Coles, 1989). Children, in their art, make this clear. By examining the drawings of chil- dren and listening to what they have to say, it is possible to see the importance of narrative in their art making and to see the many roles stories play in chil- dren's various engagements with experi- ence. According to Lopez (1981), "Everything is held together with stories ... That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion" (p. 62). This is true for people of all ages in all places, in their art and in their lives.

    Narrative is a profound business. It enlarges one's world at the same time as it expresses how it is to be one's self. It provides a place to negotiate and come to terms with life's many difficulties. Lopez (1990) has Badger tell Crow and Weasel,

    I would ask you to remember only this one thing. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories have

    come to you, care forthem. And learn to give them away when needed. Sometimes a person needs a good story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put stories in one another's memory. This is how people careforthemselves. (p. 48)

    By examining a story or narrative in children's art as invention, communica- tion, and as a method of solving prob- lems, it is possible to account for its importance in their lives.

    NARRATIVE AS INVENTION Children and adults alike use narra-

    tive as a means of constructing their inte- rior, psychological worlds (Goodman in Bruner, 1986). Agood example of this may be found in NellyToll's memoir, Behind the Secret Window (1993). Toll writes of her own experience as a Jewish child in Czechoslovakia during World War II and especially of her eighth year in 1943, which she spent in hiding from the Nazis with her mother in the apart- ment of a Christian couple. By that time, several family members including her little brother, aunt, and cousin had been taken away by the Nazis. Her father, active in the resistance, also disappeared during her hidden year. As a means of

    dealing with that terrifying period and the long hours of close confinement, boredom, and stress, Nelly played games with her mother, did lessons, kept a written journal detailing her life since the arrival of the Nazis, and paint- ed little books of her own invention, full of happy adventures and interesting experiences, which she stitched into several small folios. The insights and images in her work help us to see through the eyes of the little girl as she reflects on her life and constructs a bet- terworld.

    Nelly used watercolors, brushes, and paints provided by a neighbor who care- fully shopped in several stores to avoid suspicion, since she had no children and no excuse for her purchases. The woman also gave Nelly a journal, ink, and a pen as a special surprise. As an adult, Toll writes about her early art work, "One I started to paint, a new world opened up for me. Itwas as if the little box of watercolors made a path straight through the apartnentwalls to the outdoors" (p. 94). She usually wrote stories to go with her pictures or had one in mind before she began to draw,


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  • in Children's Art "tales of birthdays, school, dogs, visits with father, or just walks with friends" (p. 94). She painted places where she had been happy and where she could be part of all the things that had defined her life in the past. She explored ideas, recalled pleasures, and created a world as she painted what made sense and had value and meaning for an eight-year-old girl. Some of her favorites were, "Growing Up from Kindergarten On," "One Week in the Country," and "Happy Gentleman Farmer." In one of her jour- nal entries Nelly wrote, "I draw my pic- tures, and make up my little stories, which I enjoy a lot Because when I paint I forget to be afraid about Papa and Janek" [her little brother] (p. 97).

    Bruner (1986) writes of two modes of thought: the paradigmatic, which "attempts to fulfill the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation," (p. 12) and the narrative, which "deals in human or human-like intention and action, and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless mira- cles into the particulars of experience in time and place" (p. 13). Art making takes place in the narrative mode (Bruner, 1986). Thus, Nelly engaged in the narra- tive act as she placed herparticular mem- ories and dreams in her little books, giving them concrete form and physical substance.

    Paul Goodman explains in his philos- ophy that the world we live in is created by the mind (Goodman in Bruner, 1986). 'The worlds we create," he says, "may

    arise from the cognitive activity of the artist... or in the sciences ..., or in ordi- nary life ... but always out of other worlds, created by others, which we have taken for given" (p. 96). So it was with Nelly, taking what she remem- bered and what she learned from her mother and those around her, knitting it all into what she hoped, structuring it into that which she dreamed in a way that stepped outside the limits of logic into a world where life could again be meaningfully sustained. Toll writes of that time,

    In my pictures there was no war, no danger, no police, and no tears. Everyone liked each other in my make-believe land, and all the people were as free as kites in the sky or butterflies in the field. They were newfound companions to me in my loneli- ness, and I couldn't wait to take my next walk on paper with my watercolorfriends. (P. 94)

    Nelly Toll clearly engaged in making real a world that was a satisfying and safe place for her to live. It included people who were important to her, experiences that gave her pleasure, friends, and, most of all, provided space to be free of the difficult situation in which she lived. For Nelly, art making was a means of inventing, a method of thinking, a way of giving life to hopes and dreams.

    NARRATIVE AS DESCRIPTION Art making and its narrative descrip-

    tion of the here and now allows children

    to share the day-to-day details of their lives with others. Images of homes, fami- lies, pets, and friends enable children to illustrate the specifics of their lives and the particulars of time and place. These images, by their description, of a child's world, make clear the preoccupations and life circumstances of the child artist

    An example of art making and its descriptive, narrative purpose can be seen in many of the drawings, paintings, and collages created by children in Terezin, the "model" concentration camp outside Prague (Volavkova, 1993). Under the direction of their teacher, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis, a former stu- dent at the Bauhaus in Weimar, who brought art supplies and a desire to pro- vide therapy for the children with her to the camp, the young inhabitants created works of great power and insight (Volavkova, 1993). Though the children were never told of their impending deportation to Auschwitz, the conditions around them make themselves felt in the wistful tones and painful images in their art Many of the narratives are clear- eyed descriptions of the ways things were in Terezin. Others speak of hope for the future. Nonetheless, all express the children's disquiet and discomfort For example, in one image, a small, lone- ly, bent-back bird trudges across an empty plain under a distant sun (pp. 82- 83). In another, Terezin itself appears in a dense sepia hue under a cold sky (p. 2). Several describe the camp itself- cramped communal sleeping quarters,


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  • close packed dormitory buildings, muddy lanes, guards, residents with prominent yellow stars on the clothes.

    Not only do these creations provide the last traces of many of the children themselves, but they also offer specif- ic, descriptive images in pencil and paint of life inside the wire fences of Terezin. They are a means of sharing, in a small but significant way, some of the experiences of the young artists.

    A similar careful description of real- ity, in a quite different context, can be seen in the work of four-year-old Abigail from the Midwestern United States. Abigail used her scissors, crayons, and tape to describe her fami- ly as tiny paper dolls. Using her col- ored markers first, Abigail drew four spreading dots to serve as the eyes, nose, and mouth. Two vertical lines below the dots formed legs; each of the five family members was yellow, except for a pink "mother." Abigail

    then cut each of her images in a rough oval shape. Using yards of scotch tape to wind them together, Abigail slightly overlapped her tiny, close-knit family. Finally, she fringed the bottoms with scissors, "to make them shiny." Special? Shimmery with fringe?

    RIGHT: Harvey and

    Daddy in Heaven.

    BELOW: Abigail's


    Abigail did not elaborate her remark. She simply was pleased (Kellman, unpublished paper).

    Abigail's paper dolls describe in gay colors, tight grouping, complicated tape, and fringes, her image of her own

    warm, loving family, so sustaining and central to her life. In Abigail's art we can see what she values, how she feels, and what she has to say about her secure and nourishing world. She tells her own story in the materials she knows best-cut paper, yards of tape, and bright markers.

    The descriptive, communicative purpose in the art of the children of Terezin and of Abigail is there for all to see-foreboding and distress, security and love-all presented in images that describe the young artists' experi- ences to those who encounter their work. Other children's art provides a similar opportunity-a chance to share in the life of the child artist in the images of his or her particular daily experience.

    NARRATIVE AS NEGOTIATION Stories as records of the develop-

    ment of meaning or as ways to come to


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  • terms, can be seen as narratives of nego- tiation. The exploration of moves and counter-moves, of growth or failure to grow, and of final disaster or satisfying solution form part of the essential struc- ture of many stories. It is not by accident that many stories explore negotiation and its relationship to character, since life itself requires navigation through familiar issues of engagement, with- drawal, compromise, commitment, and resolution. Negotiation, or coming to terms, underlies, in one form or another, each adventure, journey, experience, and human interaction. Thus, in the story of Crow and Weasel (Lopez, 1990), these two friends undertake a journey into unknown lands at the same time that they move into uncharted territory within themselves on their path from childhood to adulthood.

    Children who are engaged in the dif- ficult experience of coming to terms with life's demands often examine their dialogue with various circumstances in their art Richard, a special needs stu- dent in James Hemdon's (1971) middle school class, and something of a loner, found himself faced with the two-sided problem of orienting himself to the classroom as well as struggling to make meaningful contact with his peers. One of Richard's special pleasures was draw- ing maps, locating and fixing addresses and streets in careful, correct spatial relationships, marking out distances, noting numbers, ordering his interior world as he ordered the external. In the end, his 15-foot butcher paper map of San Francisco knit together more than actual streets, freeways, bus routes, and Richard's interior dialogue. Attracted by the "real" map Richard was creating (Hemdon, p. 170), his classmates joined him with pencils and markers, drawing in their own images of the community

    they knew. The class worked for a week drawing a map that had,

    A Fillmore District with soul food and dance halls and it had a Chinatown with opium dens and curio shops and it had a museum and movies andAquatic Park with bongo drummers and naked lady sunbathers and it had a Haight-Ashbury with poster shops and drug emporiums and it had suburbs with shopping centers and houses with kid's [sic] names on them andpolice stations (p. 171).

    During the shared drawing of the map, Richard became an accepted mem- ber of the class, no longer an outsider or annoyance. Richard was the director and creator of the map. Richard was to be consulted on every addition. Richard knew the bus routes and jitney numbers and could locate every address. In the interwoven space created by their mutu- al art making and in time spent working together, the children were able to come to terms with Richard and his differ- ences. The map served as the record of their complex negotiations; it told the story of their coming to terms with one another.

    Another example of art as a means of coming to terms can be seen in the nar- rative of six- year-old Tania, describing her efforts to deal with the problems life had presented her in the death that morning of her goldfish Harvey, as well as that of her father some years before.

    Using markers, Tania first drew a large frontal view of Harvey in his fish bowl, a snarl of orange lines inside a larger snarl of blue covering the center of her page, as she wondered aloud about Harvey. Tania next painted herself holding a pike-sized, shapeless Harvey in her hand as she talked further about how much she missed her bright orange fish. Where had he gone? What had become of him? Who would take care of him now? Her final image took some time to complete and she worked with

    great concentration with her markers. In this image, Harvey appears as a small orange speck (unlike his previous large scale) floating just below the fingerless hand of an enormous, short haired fig- ure dressed in blue pants. 'That's Daddy," she said. "He is watching out for Harvey in heaven. He will help him get used to it" (Kellman, unpublished data).

    Tania's questioning, worrying, and finally resolving (at least for the moment) form the substance of her three drawings. Her examination of diffi- cult life issues allows us to share in her love and concern for her father and for Harvey, the little orange fish.

    In drawing Richard's map, not only was he coming to terms with the reality of the classroom and the ordering of his world, but his classmates were coming to terms with Richard as an accepted class member at the same time. The arena and simultaneous record of nego- tiations was the map itself. The bright colors, complex details, and careful numbering knit together both the map and the children who made it. The map was both outcome and process, described on brown paper for all to see, a perfect record of "stories and compas- sion" (Lopez, 1981, p. 62).

    Similarly, Tania's series of Harvey images are the record of her negotiation with the fact of her fish's death. In her first image, Tania simply drew an enor- mous Harvey in his bowl, a statement of his important presence in her life. Next, Tania painted an image of a huge Harvey in her hand, perhaps musing on the close and valuable bond she had with the fish. Last, she drew a tiny Harvey in heaven with Daddy, a final statement showing a now distant Harvey under the care of her also distant father. As she worked, Tania came to terms with the physical loss of her fish and constructed


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  • a suitable solution for his care and con- tinued existence. Like Richard's map, Tania's art provides an arena for the res- olution of a painful experience as well as documentation of the process.

    CONCLUSION Harvey serves as our guide to the

    importance of narrative or story in chil- dren's art Not only does he provide an excellent example of a child's coming to terms with life experience, but he also serves as an exemplar of the use of nar- rative to both describe and invent cir- cumstances. He leads us with a flick of his tail into a world constructed by Tania-where heaven is a place contain- ing goldfish who need care, where the problem of Daddy and Harvey's location is solved, and within which boundaries Tania can share with others the love of her fish and her concern for his welfare. In Tania's images, narrative serves as the method by which she is able to con- struct a new interior landscape capable of including both loss and death.

    The importance of narrative in child art can similarly be seen in the purpose- ful work of Nelly. For Nelly, her books provided many things-something to do under constricting circumstances, something to share with the adults in her life. But most importantly, her art functioned as an alternative reality, a place for Nelly to lead a happy, meaning- ful existence. Narrative as invention impelled her art making and formed the subject of her books, as she herself made clear.

    Unlike Nelly or Tania, many of the children of Terezin, trapped in a dread- ful situation, and four-year-old Abigail, living a nourishing and happy life, used art to record their daily realities. Physical circumstance, literal and clear, was described as unambiguously as pos- sible. Abigail and the children of Terezin

    developed narratives from experiences close at hand, though the children all enriched and elaborated their concrete images with the emotions generated by their circumstances.

    Narrative as negotiation engaged Richard and his classmates in drawing a complicated map of San Francisco. Not only did they involve themselves in the complex issues of spatial location and community structure, but they came to terms with one another as classmates and friends in the space created by their art

    Narrative, by its nature, assumes an observer or reader, a person with whom the story is shared, in addition to the artist, the initial observer, who engages in the act of constructing meaning. All these children shared their work with parents, friends, teachers, or class- mates; their narratives served as means of telling their stories. This particular sharing of a personal narrative can per- haps best be understood in relationship to "sacred space" as described by Fred Rogers (NPR, 1993) during a radio inter- view celebrating the twenty-fifth anniver- sary of his television program for children, Mr. Rogers'Neighborhood. According to Rogers, the small intensely activated space between himself and each child in his audience is, for him, a sacred place of deep purpose, moral responsibility, and intense communica- tion which is constructed through the continuing narrative of the imaginary neighborhood.

    The "sacred space" may have its gen- esis in the artist's use of emotion to achieve cognitive ends (Geertz, 1971). Art provides a place where negotiation between people can take place, where new meaning in relations becomes pos- sible (Bruner, 1986) and worlds can be developed that accommodate everyone. Interaction in that space is interpretive; it is like any other art form, the story peo-

    ple "tell themselves about themselves" (Geertz, 1971, p. 26). Children operate in this narrative space in their art making too. They also have a particular world to imagine, state, investigate, and make real in the images of their art

    "Sacred space," is shared by child artists and the readers of their narra- tives. It arises from involvement in the stories the young artists have to tell and from their own intense engagement with experience, narrative, and art mak- ing. To be present in such space and to see the roles narrative, or story, plays in children's art, is to emerge into that place where the words of Badger sound clear and certain.

    The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories have come to you, carefor them. And learn to give them away when needed. Sometimes a person needs a good story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put stories in one another's memory. This is how people care for themselves. (Lopez, p. 48)

    Julia Kellman is an Assistant Professor, The University ofNorth Carolina at Greensboro.

    REFERENCES Coles, R. (1989). 7he call ofstories. Boston, MA:

    Houghton, Mifflin. Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds.

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Geertz, C. (1971). Myth, symbol, and culture.

    New York, NY: Norton. Hemdon, J. (1971). How to survive in your

    native land. New York, NY: Bantam Books. Kellman, J. (1987). Unpublished paper. The

    University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC.

    Kellman, J. (1991). Unpublished raw data. Lopez, B. (1981). Wintercount. NewYork, NY:

    Scribner. Lopez, B. (1990). Crow and weasel. San

    Francisco, CA: North Point Rogers, F. (National Public Radio). (1993).

    [Radio]. Interview. Toll, N. (1993). Behind the secret window. New

    York, NY: Dial. Volavkova, H. (Ed.). (1993).... I neversaw

    another butterfly. New York, NY: Schocken.


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    Article Contentsp.18p.19p.20p.21p.22

    Issue Table of ContentsArt Education, Vol. 48, No. 2, Artful Conversations (Mar., 1995), pp. 1-54Front Matter [pp.1-3]An EditorialAlchemy 101 [pp.4-5]

    Letters to the Editor [p.5]The Mysterious Lady from Surinam [pp.6-11]Recipe for Assessment: How Arty Cooked His Goose while Grading Art [pp.12-17]Harvey Shows the Way: Narrative in Children's Art [pp.18-22]Animation for Children: David Ehrlich and the Cleveland Museum of Art Workshop [pp.23-36]Instructional Resources: Images of the American West Phoenix Art Museum [pp.25-32]Two Young Interviewers Get a Sense of Heritage from African/American Artist and Educator Dr. J. Eugene Grigsby, Jr. [pp.37-43]Electronic Artstrands: Computer Delivery of Art Instruction [pp.44-51]Back Matter [pp.52-54]