What Do You See? Talking to Kids about Art

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Here in the education department we are often greeted with the familiar refrain of “I’m not sure an Art Museum is the place for my family” or “What will I do with my family in the Art Museum?” when we invite visitors out of the Midwest summer heat and into our wonderfully air-conditioned building. Maybe it’s a misconception about art being stuffy, or that people without art degrees feel unprepared to take their families through an art exhibition, or that art is just plain boring. Whichever one happens to be the case, taking kids through an art exhibit can be easy and fun! All you have to do is ask one simple question:

What do you see?

Kirsty Mitchell’s photography exhibit, entitled Wonderland, is a great place to start an art museum trip with kids! Not only is it the natural first stop because it is located right off the atrium but her scenes provide an already known environment, that of fairy tales and imagination, for kids to begin their adventure into art. Created in honor of her mother whose love for fairy tales and imaginative stories was passed onto her, Mitchell’s scenes are meticulously prepared as she spends months sewing costumes, designing sets, and finding the perfect locations in her hometown of Surrey, England.

What I love about Wonderland is that none of Mitchell’s scenes are direct imitations of a specific story. For example, in The Journey Home, a woman walks through the forest wearing a hood and cloak, reminiscent of a grown up Little Red Riding Hood we never meet in the original fairy tale. Gammelyn’s Daughter, on the other hand, looks like a Sleeping Beauty in her field of heather but holds a ship in place of a bouquet of flowers. When looking at these images with kids start off asking questions you can only answer by looking. If you can’t see it, don’t say it. Questions like: Where was the photo taken? Who is in it? What are they doing? What time of day do you think it was? The goal is to get the viewers to tell you the story of the work of art. Follow up with questions like: Why do you say that? What do you see that makes you say that? This encourages kids to look closely at the image, citing evidence for their observations. Then, once you’ve found out the pieces of the story from looking, you can move on to what you cannot see. Where do you think she might be going? If this was Little Red Riding Hood, she would be going to Grandma’s House. What do you think she might be feeling? She is wearing a heavy coat and there are leaves on the ground. Why would someone be holding a boat when they aren’t by water? By asking simple, open-ended questions like these kids can begin to make sense of what is happening in the image by telling you a story.

Remember to continually gauge their interest, as responses start to get shorter move on to the next image. If you were reading a book with your kids and they weren’t engaged with the story, you would put it down and choose another. You can be that discerning with artworks too!

This exhibition includes a set of videos, played on TV’s in the gallery, which show the process of Mitchell’s photography. Not only does this provide an excellent way to discuss that art is made by people, an often overlooked aspect of creative endeavors, but it shows all of the people and work that it takes for Mitchell to create these fantastical sets. From setting, staging, make-up, costuming, and props the videos show us what we cannot see in the photo on the wall. It’s the backstage pass to the art of storytelling. Take a few minutes to watch some of the videos as they feature the works around them, providing the perfect juxtaposition between process and product. When looking at Gaia, The Birth of an End, ask kids what they think it would feel like to wear that headdress. How long do you think the model had to sit still? How do you think it would feel to have that yellow paint on you? When we are looking at static art we often forget to use all of our senses when examining the piece despite how much it can inform our study. By focusing on open-ended questions (or questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no) like the ones above and approaching artworks like a story to be told we can successfully engage kids with art and spend at least one summer activity out of the sun and in the air conditioning!

The photo is a portrait of Gaia. Her ornate headpiece takes up the majority of the top of the composition, in pieces of gold. Her long, golden hair extends around her and is clasped in her hands.
Kirsty Mitchell, English, b.1976. Gaia, The Birth of an End. Archival pigment print, 2013. Courtesy of the Paine Art Center and Gardens in partnership with the artist. Photo courtesy of Kirsty Mitchell.

Wonderland will be on display at FWMoA through September 2, 2018. Love the photographs and want to see them all? Peruse the Wonderland book on display in the galleries or purchase your own at FWMoA’s Paradigm Gallery!

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