It’s an old cliché that most modern art could easily be produced by a child, that abstract splashes of paint or crude representative shapes are so deeply instinctual as to be effortless. Looking at “A Celebration of Winter,” on display this month at Bernice’s Bakery, the comparison is apparent but the conclusion is not. Nothing in these drawings and collages indicates laziness or lack of thought. Judging from these works, to be compared to the efforts of a child could be a mark of true distinction.
The works here display an instinctual artistic sensibility that actually lies at the root of the self-conscious correlation between modern and children’s art. Modernist artists like Matisse, Picasso and Kadinsky collected children’s art, treasuring what they saw as the expression of universal themes and a lack of inhibition.
While most of the works in “A Celebration” rely on simple shapes and basic patterns, the striking skill in decorative embellishment and unabashed exuberance in both visuality and narrative fulfill this modernist expectation. More importantly, all the drawings exude a joy in creation.
Two major series of works use a basic shape as a foundation for multi-media expansion. The first of these begins with a simple Christmas tree shape cut from red construction paper, underlaid with green tissue paper to create a window effect with the lighter texture. Unfortunately, these works would be better displayed in a window, where natural light could illuminate the contrast. However, the use of cotton balls, feather and glitter sufficiently brightens the works against the brick wall. The artists, kindergartners from the Missoula International School, have produced unfailingly bright scenes of holiday spirit.
The second series, also from the International School kindergartners, uses blue and white construction paper to depict snowmen. Each artist has elaborated on the figure with a range of media. Most use bleach and glitter to suggest snowy skeletal outlines of bare trees, adorning the snowmen themselves with scraps of cloth for scarves, dry beans and beads to make buttons, and sticks for arms. The colors and textures create a surprisingly wide variation within a schematic limitation.
These pieces, structured as they are around predetermined objects and constructed largely with prepared materials, illustrate an innate appreciation for aesthetic harmony. The children overcome the limitation of subject to create interesting and beautiful works that are all remarkably different.
The contributions from Clark Fork School kindergartners, all pencil and marker drawings, are less regularized but also form a series grouped around interpretations of themes such as skiing, sledding and snowmen.
Max Williams, 5 years old, has contributed a ski lift scene, one of several from Clark Fork, which attempts to incorporate action and movement. The lift snakes from the bottom left through the middle of the page, which at its peak holds four passengers and one empty seat. Broken lines lead from this gap to the ground, where a skier lies imbedded in a snowbank. In utilizing perspective to ally the viewer to the image on the ground, the fantasy/nightmare of a tumble from the lift becomes more immediate to the viewer. It becomes a fear one can share.
Interspersed with these submissions by classes, which by being created communally cannot help but address similar themes, hang individual submissions, which tend to use more color and more variation in subject. Benjamin Klempay, 6, entered “Winter Day,” a surrealist snowfall scene in watercolor. Using a limited palette of colors—minty green, black and burnt umber—the work stresses the essence of winter, stretching the snowflakes to looming globes that nearly outsize the sun itself. With a house wedged in the side of the painting, Benjamin’s work tweaks the dimensions of the world to privilege the forces of nature.
Jack Klempay, 8, has contributed an Andy Warhol-esque image with “Hot Chocolate,” which portrays the titular steaming mug in a stark pencil drawing surrounded by melting psychedelic hues. The colors themselves first compel the eye, but the tendrils of steam hold the viewer’s attention. Rather than emitting a wispy vapor, the cocoa steams aggressively, thrusting undispersed through the bright colors around it.
With six trusty reindeer (a few shy of the full nine of legend, though Rudolph clearly leads the pack), Santa swoops through the center of an elaborate line drawing offered by Patrick Kosena, 5. Saint Nick is captured in the midst of a flyby present drop, which appears to be on its way to landing in the flower garden. Meanwhile the reindeer are barely clearing the sharp peak of the house, which only slightly overshadows the Christmas tree. On the other side of the house a young man appears oblivious to the drama surrounding him. The picture also includes a graphic element, with a large “I Love You” hovering dangerously near the reindeer, and an obscure reference to the popular animated film Toy Story 2 on the left-hand side, just above the human figure. The drawing wants to make every aspect visible and known, but in doing so leaves much to intrigue.
These are only a few of the many bright and imaginative works displayed at “A Celebration of Winter.” It is difficult, when reviewing anything created by children, to approach anything even resembling criticism. However, unquestioning approval only devalues the effort that kids put into their art. They take it seriously, and so should we. That said, not much in this exhibit calls for reproach. While many of the drawings here are crude and some are inscrutable, as a whole the works displayed are both interesting and reassuring. Children’s art has often been seen as a barometer of trauma: Missoula is fortunate to have such light-hearted offerings to enjoy.