Off-Color: Fostering kids’ artistic sides (or lack thereof)

Is it artsy if a nonartist fails to produce artistry in her children?

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

As the mother of a preschooler, I’ve noticed more and more how I’m expected to foster my son’s artistic side. Art’s a biggie—bigger than soccer, maybe music, maybe even that elusive second language. (Teach Japanese first, then Mandarin. In a pinch, French will do, for public school.)

And I like art. I like art museums, so much so that I often drive by one and think, I would like to go to that art museum. Just don’t put me in charge of one, unless you’re looking for a lot of well-lit clay snakes and beveled glass laid atop stick figures drawn with the best of intentions.

Now, if my son makes a clay snake, it’s headline news in Aesthetica, or at least it should be because I’m pretty sure his teachers are sending out press releases. My son’s teachers need to get over my son. Especially his art. If there really is a museum for shriveled and graying clay snakes, I know the curator. Her name’s Miss Renee, and her mastery of bubble-letter cubby nametags is exceptional.

It’s hard keeping up my end of the art at home. At the start of the year, I thought we could handle it. I thought, We’ll bring in really artistic things for show-and-tell. So on B week, we staged a paper butterfly on a stick in a jar with a spray of flowers indigenous to the butterfly’s South-American environment. By G, we were digging out old boxes of raisins from the back floor of the car. “They’re grapes,” I told my son. “Don’t you see?” He didn’t. “They’re a gob,” I told him. “You’re taking a gob for show-and-tell today. Walk tall.”

Secretly, I was hoping I could hand the art off on the teachers. That has to do with my old art teacher at my grade school, where she was hands down the coolest. Even my parents thought she was cool. They still do. Sometimes they see her at the Manassas Panera and report it back to me like a celebrity sighting. I absorb it like one.

Miss Potts had short hair and about 62 earrings. She stood taller than my dad and told stories on the first day about all the gory stuff that would happen to you if you touched the paper trimmer or got too close to the hot-glue gun. Kids had gotten hurt before, she would warn us, and then she’d describe the injuries in really disgusting detail.

I’m telling you. Miss Potts was the greatest.

I hope there’s a Miss Potts in my kids’ future. If they’re stuck with me, though, I like to think we can work with it. I am trying. On my son’s first week of school, I drew him a series of little lunchbox doodles. Then Miss Renee made such a big deal over them that I didn’t feel like I could stop. Plus, I’ve had lunch at his school, and it’s hard not to notice the other kids’ heart-cut sandwiches and quinoa balls shaped like zoo animals. I don’t want him feeling left out, and if that sounds like over-parenting, let me tell you the story of the Zipperump-a-Zoo.

Do you know this book? Miss Potts used to read it to us. The idea is this professor is missing a Zipperump-a-Zoo from his collection of rare animals, so he sets off on a hunt around the world to find one. What a Zipperump-a-Zoo looks like, however, is anyone’s guess. Thus was born Miss Potts’ annual Zipperump-a-Zoo art contest, where you came up with a design for your own rare beast and made it out of whatever you liked, then brought it to school to show it off on the cafeteria stage for a week. If you think that might be a thing children like, then you’ve met a single child at least once in your life.

For my first Zipperump-a-Zoo contest, I was 6 years old and deeply in love with Miss Potts. To say I was jazzed as far as her art contest was concerned is putting it mildly. So the night before all of our rare beasts were due, I broke out a paper lunch sack and pasted on two paper wings. I did what I could with a jar of glitter and two crayons. I’m not making it up when I say that, 27 years later, I can still remember exactly what it looked like.

It didn’t look great.

But that’s not how I saw it then. At age 6, I loved my Zipperump-a-Zoo. I just knew Miss Potts would love it, too.

You can guess how this ends. The other kids didn’t get the memo about this being an art contest for young children. They submitted small skyscrapers, working French presses, a copy of Esquire magazine that they’d edited. I think somebody invented the internet in that year’s Zipperump-a-Zoo competition. And what stuck with me isn’t just that I didn’t win but that when I went on stage after the week was up to collect my sad little brown bag, it was crushed underneath the leg of somebody else’s entry, and most of the glitter on mine had come off.

If you’re reading this column, Miss Potts, a heads-up would have been nice. Also, I still love you, and I double-pierced my ears one time just because of you.

Sometimes it all seems like too much, too soon. So for my son, do I hold off on more art? I have a great memory of taking a pottery class with my mom when I was 14 years old. Granted, the only thing we came out of it with were lots and lots of glazed tuna-fish cans, but they were tuna-fish cans made with love.

Or maybe I’ve failed him already. There are art classes for babies, you know. I know because have my 1-year-old in one. My daughter’s art teacher is Miss Linda, another very tall woman. Miss Linda’s kind of spooky. She’s big into Halloween, and she lived for a long time in countries in Europe whose existence is easy to forget. She has a garden where everything—wind chimes, fake Christmas trees, witchy houses—is blue. I would say Miss Linda reminds me of someone, but we won’t know for sure until she tells us about the time somebody severed a finger on her paper trimmer.

It so happens my family and I live close to Miss Linda and take walks past her garden. On a recent one, we spotted a blue statue of the Hindu goddess Ganesha, and I drew it the next day for my son’s lunchbox. Miss Renee admitted to me she couldn’t tell what it was but confessed she found it “intriguing,” which is the first time my art’s ever been called that.

I will take intrigue, happily. Intrigue has legs. If you’re so inclined, it could have a snout and a mane and some claws. I’d go so far as to say that, if anything, intrigue has to be a key component for any Zipperump-a-Zoo worth its salt.

Intrigue first. Staying power second. You can’t buckle alongside the bigger beasts with more muscle.

So to Aesthetica, I proudly submit these fine tuna cans.

(July 2017)