In Praise of Messes

by Loretta Slota Marshall with W.E. Marshall

© Loretta and William E. Marshall, Children's Television Workshop, 1982

I just took a bath in a tub covered with an exuberant mural executed in turquoise, violet, and blue crayon. A frieze of train tracks embellishing the tile along the edge of the tub is the work of the same artist, although the delicate filigree on the outside of the tub is the work of his younger brother. As I admired the intricacy of their artwork while I soaked away the day's cares, I couldn't help noticing the resemblance of their style to the subtle paintings of Mark Tobey, the West Coast master. In a day or two, my Marc, who just celebrated his third birthday, and I will scrub the tub. But for now, it is surely one of the most elegant bathing places around.

One might wonder why a sensible mature mother would permit what many would consider a mess. And I must confess that I not only permitted it. I held the basket of crayons while it was being created. We encouraged the creation of this "mess" and a lot of others, because we are raising our sons to be artists, fathers, astronomers, and all of the myriad roles in life that are enhanced by creative thinking and expression.

It's not just that several psychological studies over the years have said that creative people tend to create out of what others might see as chaos and that people who spend a lot of time sharpening their pencils and neatening their supplies don't have a lot of time left to create. It's because I've learned through my own experience as an artist, art teacher, designer, and supervisor of a design studio that a person who worries about staying within the lines or on the paper is restricting his imagination and vision as well. Besides, tubs and tile walls are washable--and so are children.

And if, occasionally, their artistic expressions stray on to more fragile surfaces, I console myself that their freedom to explore and create is more important than any carpet or wall. And then I get out the miracle spray cleaners.

The Sometime "Strange" Face of Creativity
I once served as an artist-in-residence for a small rural town that had no art teachers in the school. It was a brief but very intensive project that included programs for all ages including two or three "art lab" sessions with each of the grade school classes.

I had chosen tissue-paper collage for the creative sessions, since it is a medium that readily adapts to different age groups and can be used to explore the elements of art without the need for prior technical training. For several days, class after class trouped into the gym-turned-art-lab and had a turn transforming the bits and pieces they selected from a small mountain of variously shaped and hued tissue paper into unique works of art.

Among all the budding artists I worked with, I found one fierce-eyed little boy who attacked his collage with the assurance of a Picasso. The young artist built his design into three dimensions, tearing an arch into the center of the composition and pasting ribbons of tissues and pieces of base paper out from both surfaces. I watched at a distance with amazement as he deftly manipulated the real and illusory space in his collage in ways that whole schools of contemporary artist would have admired. In a final stroke of what could be called pure genius, he implied a tree's foliage half again as large as his paper by tearing away a large half circle at the side of his collage. I was astonished by this use of positive/negative space by a seven-year-old child, since it is a concept that my college students had difficulty grasping. Right then, his teacher, who had been watching his unorthodox technique with obvious embarrassment, rushed over and reprimanded him: "Now look what you've done, Charlie, you've ruined it! What a mess!"

I was separated from them by several children and tables, but I all but leapt over the tables getting to Charlie to tell him how exceptional and fine I thought his collage was.

The teacher was perplexed by my praise of this torn and decidedly untidy assemblage of paper and paste. But Charlie wasn't. He knew exactly what he had done, and he was pleased with it and himself.

Afterward the teacher and I discussed what it was that I found so meritorious in his creation. She was eager to understand, because she truly cared about her students and for years worked very hard to encourage their artistic ability. She confided somewhat shyly that upon hearing that I was going to do collages, she had prepared her class--and would I like to see the lovely things that they had made before I arrived? "I told them that they could do anything they wanted, and see how different each one is," she said.

But I really didn't, as I looked at 40 roosters, neatly mimeographed and covered with row after row of small overlapping identical triangles painstakingly (and I suspect, painfully) pasted within the guidelines. "My students always do very neat work," she said proudly.

The neatness had been purchased at a price. I saw reflected in many of her students' work, the long-range effect that overdoses of neatness at a critical age had produced: a sameness, a lack of belief in one's own creativity. It seemed a clear example of the susceptibility of children and the fragility of every child's creative spontaneity.

How Can Parents Make a Difference
Fortunately, almost all teachers recognize the value of a free reign of expression for children. In fact, some teachers complain that children arrive at school already timid about venturing "outside the lines." No parents wants to be the one who dims the fire of creativity in her child, but what can a parent do to nurture that divine spark?

1. Encourage and appreciate your child's experimentation. Allow your child the free exploration of things that make images (and sometimes messes): crayons, marking pens, paint, dyes, colored and textured materials of all kinds (mud, clay, etc.). The images needn't be permanent--half of an hour with food-dye-tinted cups of water, a little vegetable oil, and a sink of water can be an unparalleled adventure in color theory. And it's seldom expensive; a 75-cent box of colored chalk can make porches, patio, and sidewalks into "canvases" suitable for the most ambitious budding Michelangelo.

Lots of household things from eggs and bags to pans and windows are fun to paint. Mirrors are especially nice because the child gets to be part of the image. And few surfaces are as much fun as faces and bodies (a used lipstick is good for this).

2. Provide some quality material. Though the end result is almost incidental, take a tip from a professional artist: along with lots of salvaged materials and objects, give your children some quality supplies worthy of their efforts. A good box of watercolors can be had for a few dollars, and the biggest box of crayons with a "Zillion Beautiful Colors!" costs a lot less than a small box of disposable diapers. In theory, you can make any color with red, blue, and yellow, but have you ever tried it with crayons? With a zillion colors, you can make a hundred zillion.

The surface worked on is highly important, too. Preschools are fond of recycling paper such as computer printouts (which if you are interested, might reveal all sort of financial secrets), but these papers weren't made to take the luxurious washes of a young master or the weight of a half-a-pound-of-pasta collage. A sheet of high-quality 25% cotton bond paper costs about two cents, and a ream will keep the most prolific little painter supplied for years. There are bargains to be had in artists' sketchbooks, pads of colored paper, and lightweight illustration boards, too. Part of the reason professional artists' work looks professional is because they use high quality materials.

3. Remember the purpose of art play. Keep in mind the contemporary art axiom that it is the process that counts, not the product. This is certainly true of the value of art to small children. They are painting, not making paintings. If they like the end result, you should try to appreciate it, too--but that's not what it's about, any more than eating is about caloric intake.

If you are not a connoisseur of non-objective art, you may need to remind yourself that an artwork doesn't have to be anything. If your child thinks his masterpiece looks like Grover spilling chocolate milk, of course you should try and see the resemblance. But in the end, you can best appreciate your child's artwork if you view it as you would a sunset--something beautiful and unique, needing no meaning to be valued highly.

The Payoff of "Messes"
It would be nice to think that the trail of chaos that follows so naturally in the wake of children has a lifelong positive benefit. My favorite story is about an extraordinary American artist, Lilly Martin Spencer, who, in an age where there were few professional women artists, led a prodigiously creative and productive life. She died at work in her studio when she was almost 80, having mothered 13 children and painted about a thousand paintings. She had the respect of her fellow artists, prestigious clientele, and national popularity--nearly a million prints of her paintings were sold.

Lilly was a tiny woman with large visions. She had undertaken an oil painting 10 by 20 feet when she was only 18. By that time, she was used to working on huge surfaces because when she was a child growing up in Marietta, Ohio, in the 1830s, she had covered all the walls of her family's house with charcoal drawings. They became a feature of much pride for the town, and important visitors were taken to see her "unique works of genius." No one is quite sure how these remarkable murals began and perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that her parents allowed them to stay. The Martins, not artists themselves, must have had a vision to match that of their gifted daughter. And one can't help but believe that their decision to tolerate--and, yes, even encourage--her "messes" made the difference between their daughter and a lot of other talented little girls in the nineteenth century. At least I like to think so.

This essay was first published by the Children's Television Workshop as the cover feature, "Your Artist-in-Residence: How to Unleash Your Child's Creativity," in the June 1982 Sesame Street Parents' Newsletter, reprinted as the cover feature, "A Fine Mess," in the April 1991 Sesame Street Magazine Parents' Guide; and used in the original 1983 CBS and AT&T Videotext feasibility study. .

The Marshalls two sons are currently studying astrophysics and art at the university level.

Mother's Garden Index

Main Page

Questions and comments can be sent here.
Page last updated 5/18/99.