Monday, January 30, 2012

Do You Want to Learn More About Art?

Docent Mollie 
Don't we all want to learn more about art?  One way to do so is to visit an art gallery and take a tour given by a docent.  Most museums have docents that give regularly scheduled tours to visitors.  Free tours!  A docent is usually a volunteer at the museum, but don't let that deter you, because most docent programs have an intensive training period, and most docents are interested in learning all they can about the works shown in their museum.  I currently know a docent at the Baltimore Museum of Art really well and I decided to interview her for the blog because I think this feature is overlooked by many people when they visit a museum.  She also has some good ideas for talking with children about art once you are in a gallery.

Taking a docent led tour is a great way to learn new things about the art you'll see in a museum and a great chance to talk to other people who like looking at art. The next time you head to your local art museum look into it!
Hi, thanks for talking with me about this.  When did you become a docent?
In 1998, so I've been a docent for about 14 years.

What does a docent do?
Well, they are involved in the museum education department and they conduct interactive tours for guests of the museum.

Why did you decide to become a docent?
I wanted to find volunteer work to do and was aware of volunteer work in hospitals but didn’t want to do that.  I found a section in the Baltimore Sun about volunteer opportunities that I'd periodically check, and when this came up I thought it sounded interesting, because I like going to art galleries and I like public contact, and I wanted to learn more about art.

Do you have a background in art or art history?
No, I don’t, which was one reason I wanted to do it.  I’ve always felt that I was deficient in art and art history and that was one reason I wanted to do it, to learn more about art.

Had you ever taken a tour from a docent before?
Yes, but not in an art gallery.  But yes at various historical museums, Williamsburg, that kind of thing.

And what was your training like?
We met one Wednesday a week from September to June for two hours.  We got some training on the mechanics of giving a tour, and a lot of training on the collection itself.  Basically the training the BMA gives and the tours they like are interactive, to get people to engage with you in talking about the art, rather than the docent just lecturing. 

How often do you give tours?
A couple times a month.

Can you describe a typical tour?
They can vary but the general tour we give is called “The Treasures of the BMA.”  I go to five pieces for a 45 minute to one hour tour.  I try to cover some of the content of the painting, what it’s about, where it fits historically, a little bit about the artist.  Then we talk about the technique of the painting, how it’s composed, what type of brushwork the artist used, how representative it is, and then I try to get people’s reactions to the work.

Van Dyck
Do you have any tips or tricks about getting people to talk about the work?
I always explain I want it to be a discussion and that there are no wrong answers.  That anyone’s reaction to the painting is valid and they don’t have to “know” what to say.  If you ask, “what do you think is going on here,” whatever they see is what they see, it’s valid.  I usually start with Van Dyck’s Rinaldo and Armida, which is an illustration of an epic poem having to do with the liberation of Jerusalem (during the Crusades).  I will explain that it illustrates a story, then we will look at the painting and I ask people to tell me who they think the people are and what they might have done.  It’s interesting how close people come to the story once they really look at the painting.  Then I talk about how the artist composed the painting, how there is a diagonal that attracts your eye to the people, how Van Dyck used light to direct the eye to the people.  I always try to pick something when I go painting to painting that I can compare one to the other.  Light, color, how thick paint is on the canvas, how those change or stay the same, how artists do it differently from one painting to another.

Have you given any tours to children?
Yes, and they are different.  The first thing I do if I have small children is have them sit down rather than stand, and I don’t cover nearly as much or get as technical and I try to involve the children somehow.  There are a lot of ways to do that.  If I have children old enough to make a list and we are looking at a landscape for instance, I’ll have them make a list of the colors in the sky since kids think of sky as blue but usually many colors make up the sky in a painting. 

Or I’ll ask, “Where do you see red in this painting, and why did the painter use it there?”  There are also “gallery games.”  One is where we look at a portrait of a woman that includes velvet and satin and lace, and I will have little swatches of those fabrics and have the children feel them behind their back and tell me if the fabric is in the woman’s dress or cape etc….  I had a colleague who would look at a Matisse that included a table with angles that didn’t match and she’d tell the children to take out their finger and pretend it was their “magic paintbrush” and trace around the table and notice that the perspective was different.

If I have older children and we are in a gallery that has three or four different artists with distinct techniques, it’s fun to have postcards of different paintings those artists have done and have the children try to match the postcards to their artist by comparing the techniques. 

So what would be your main suggestions when a person takes their small child to an art museum?
Try to prepare your child and try to prepare yourself.  Your children need to know what to expect they will see. 

But I’m wondering if are there any shorthand tips to help engage kids in a painting without even any preparation?

I think they almost react to contemporary art better than they do to “old masters.”  They seem to give more of a response to something that might even bamboozle adults.  They will come up with amazing answers.  It’s a good idea to give a child some paper and a pen and let them draw in the gallery.  

We have a work, a Susan Rothenberg called "Siena Dos Equis," which is an example of the artist using her imagination to express her idea of a horse. We will show the children a piece of paper with an outline of the horse and ask them questions like, “how many legs does the horse have,” and then give them the outline and ask them to finish it if it looks like it needs to be finished, if it looks to them like something is missing.  

We have another work called “Entry to the Ark,” by Jacopo Bassano about events related to Noah’s Ark.  First we have the children look at the painting and tell us what they see.  Then we tell them the story of Noah and give them each a plastic animal.  We then have the children tell us about their animal; where the animal lives, what it eats, what sounds they make, and then we have the child find the animal in the painting.  This really gets the children to look at the painting.
 With little ones, like a four year old, if you were in a room say, “how many paintings have a dog or a cat or flowers,” or anything to encourage their observational skills, anything that gets them really looking.  If they are looking for something they will look longer.

Do you have favorite works at the museum you like to talk about?
I really kind of like to do the contemporary art; some of the Jasper Johns or a Motherwell because I’ll get more open ended responses.  People will say more if you just ask, “what do you think of this?”  They feel more constrained when they are looking at old masters or more representational paintings.

An example of Ellsworth Kelly
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because the contemporary art is more open to viewer response.  If you have an Ellsworth Kelly and it’s just a matte grey curved piece, people feel open to say what they think about it. 

Do people usually respond positively to that work?
Often I’ll start out and their response is a little derogatory, in that they think it’s simple and pointless, but then when we get to talking about it and I may not convince them of anything, but they do see more into it. 

Do you have a favorite piece of art in the museum?
Not really, we just have things that are so different one from the other. 

How do you talk to kids about pieces that may have difficult subject matter?
Well it depends on the age.  Often times I’ll point out, and a docent wouldn’t be doing this with small children, if something comes up that a lot of the point of art is to encourage dialogue, particularly when it’s art about difficult subjects.  It’s not telling you that this is right or this is wrong, but it’s to encourage dialogue. 

Has being a docent been a positive experience?
Yes!  I enjoy it thoroughly. 

Thanks mom!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Playing Games at the Easel

I'm starting to see a new benefit of having a double sided easel as the girls get older; they can paint/draw at the same time and have started making a game out of it!  Their most recent game was inspired by a funny and silly art book they have called, "When Pigasso Met Mootisse," by Nina Laden.  This cute book is about a pig and a bull named Pigasso and Mootisse.  They are modeled after, uh, Picasso and Matisse, and they move out of Paris to get away from the hustle and bustle and end up out in the country across the street from one another.  At first they get along, but then Pigasso criticizes Mootisse's work (or maybe it's the other way around) and they start feuding.  It gets so bad that they build a giant fence to separate their houses. Eventually though they start to miss each other and quietly go out and paint on either side of the fence.  This is the part of the book that influenced the girls in their game.  Tess stood on one side of the easel, and Jo on the other, and they very seriously assumed the roles of "Jo-asso, and Tess-tisse."  Laugh. Out. Loud.  Jo not only insisted on being called Jo-asso but she actually told us we could call her "asso" for short. Never ones to argue with the truly important work of children's play, we agreed!

The game was very cute and it inspired both of them to work for a long time on either side of the easel/"fence". This made me think of all sorts of fun things we could do once Tess gets a little older.  It was so interesting to see how different their works were (Tess-tisse painted and Jo-asso used crayon and markers) that I think it would be great to have them both draw a line (for instance), and then see the divergent paths their work would take.  Or to have them both use the same color paint, or crayons, or marker and see what they each came up with.  There are lots of possibilities for sisterly game playing at the easel as they both get a little older!
Jo-asso's work
Tess-tisse's work
In the end of the book Pigasso and Mootisse end up friendly again and all the critics love the paintings they made on the fence.  Over here we loved the works Jo-asso and Tess-tisse came up with, although Josephine, ever dedicated to a role, still insists she didn't do the painting, but rather credits "asso" with the work.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Guest Blog on The Artful Parent

Please go check out my guest blog on The Artful Parent about drawing to music with children. Find out why I tried to teach my two and four year old to say, "synaesthesia!"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Making a Crystal Garden

We had to do at least one more crystal project before the girls got tired of ammonia and liquid bluing concoctions, so we made a crystal garden.  I think people must buy the liquid bluing (look here) as much to make salt crystal gardens as they do to make their whites whiter nowadays because the bottle came with the instructions looped around the lid.  It is super easy too!  We used the same proportions as before (except for the ammonia), but made more solution: 4 TBS water, 4 TBS salt, 4 TBS bluing, 4 TBS ammonia.

The idea is that you keep "feeding" the garden (by pouring in more solution every few days) and it continues to grow.  We used charcoal briquettes as our base (the material needs to be porous) in the same container as our previous paper towel roll crystal experiment (a recycled Chinese food container).  We mixed the solution together, dropped a few drops of food coloring on top of the briquettes, and poured the solution over the briquettes.  It appears to be "growing" nicely.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We Like Lists-Kid's Music

I like to say I like to make lists.  Which is true, although I don't make them as often as I should.  If I made them as often as I should I think I'd get more done, or at least feel like I got more done, or perhaps just document how little I got done.  Either way when I make a list I feel more focused and organized.  Oh, organization.  It often seems that for every endeavor in life it is important to be 'detail-oriented' and 'organized.'  For some of us that comes easily and for others less so and I'm not saying what category I'm in, although if you know me you can probably guess.  However we can all override our natural proclivities and this is where I arrive at my list.

We love listening to children's music, which is not something I thought I'd ever say (because I didn't know much about music made for children).  I wanted to compile this list of some of the cool kid's music we've discovered the past few years and add to it as time goes on. This is not an exhaustive list, and I want to talk about some of these artists individually later since we love some of them so much.  Also, since a list of music that may appeal to children but wasn't necessarily written for children would be almost infinite, this list will include music written specifically for children and compilations of music specifically for children.  Finally these are all CD's we have listened to (we either own them or have rented them from the library). What children's music do you like?


Miss Ella's Playhouse (Ella Fitzgerald)
Nicky's Jazz for Kids (compilation of jazz from artists such as Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie etc...)
Nicky's Jazz Lullabies
Jazz Playground, Putumayo
Charlie Parker Played Bee Bop (this is a book, but with the audio CD it sounds like music)

They Make Kid's Music!?

Peter, Paul, and Mommy
David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Not For Kid's Only
Woody Guthrie (has several CD's but Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child is my favorite)
They Might Be Giants (Here Come the 123's is our favorite CD, but there is also Here Come the ABC's, Here Comes Science, and No!)
Pete Seeger 
Ziggy Marley, Family Time
The Johnny Cash Children's Album
Jack Johnson, Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George
Kimya Dawson
Lisa Loeb, Catch the Moon
Buckwheat Zydeco, Choo Choo Boogaloo

Kid's Music, Not Otherwise Specified (meaning, I don't know where else to put it...and also...I got tired making this list)

Elizabeth Mitchell (We love this music and all her kid's CD's are great!  Very lovely folk inspired kid's music.)
Raffi (Raffi is one of Tess's true loves.  But both girls love him.  There are so many CD's I can't pick one in particular.)
Cathy and Marcy
Dan Zanes (folky, rocky music...very infectious!)
Mother Goose Remembers (this is a book with a CD of nursery rhymes.  I learned so many nursery rhymes I didn't know from this book and both girls love it.)
Mrs. Moon, Lullabies for Bedtime (these are Tess's bedtime lullabies and both girls love them and the accompanying book.)
Smithsonian's Folkways Children's Collection

Putumayo CD's

This is a company that makes CD compilations and they have a catalog of CD's for children.  All of them that I've listened to are great.  I'll list some of our favorites, but check out the link because they are all interesting.

Jazz Playground
Sesame Street Playground
New Orleans Playground
African Playground

The Rough Guide also has cool compilations of different types of world music for children.  The one we have checked out was great.

Rough Guide to African Music for Children


Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery (very engaging story about a little girl orphan and the famous musician)
The Composer is Dead, Lemony Snicket (book and CD)
The Nutcracker Tchaikovsky (we really like this book and the CD includes the entire score)
Casey at the Bat (this is a poem with music composed by Stephen Simon and performed by the London Philharmonic. All of the Maestro Classic CDs we've tried have been good.)
The Story of Swan Lake
My Name is Handel
Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev (this is the CD we've listened to that I like best and this is an awesome DVD version)
Beethoven's Wig
The Classical Child at the Opera
A Child's Celebration of Classical Music (this Music for Little People series of CD's has some interesting CD compilations)
Fantasia (not a CD, but full of classical music)
Green Golly and her Golden Flute

Monday, January 23, 2012

Using a Paper Towel Roll to Make Crystals

Round two of our experiment to grow crystals worked out much better.  This time instead of taking the time to cut out a cardboard tree, I decided to try re-purposing a paper towel roll for the "structure" needed to grow the crystals.  The benefit of this is that it's easier and everyone has at least one of these around!  You could also use a toilet paper roll.  I took two paper towel rolls, cut them in two, and let each girl paint them with liquid watercolors.  The crystals did take on some of the color of the paint and it makes the rolls themselves look prettier.  Plus it gave the girls more to do!

We used the same recipe as before, only doubled it, since we used three of the rolls in one container.  2 TBS water (I warmed it a little thinking it would help the salt dissolve), 2 TBS salt, 2 TBS liquid bluing. We mixed that all together before adding the ammonia so that we (Jo) could really stir and stir without me worrying about her breathing in ammonia.  Then we added 1 TBS ammonia and mixed a little more, poured it into an old plastic container, and placed the rolls down in it.

We did this in the evening, so there weren't any crystals when the girls went to bed, but I could see the solution climbing up the paper towel rolls and started to see a few crystals forming a few hours later.  The end result was pretty impressive, and the girls were really excited to see it this morning!  Josephine decided it looked like coral, and I think it does too.  We will be building a charcoal crystal garden next that we can hopefully get to make crystals for a few days.  This was a pretty fun use of two paper towel rolls!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Making Crystals

A week or so ago Josephine and Tess found a pretty rock in our front yard that they noticed was very sparkly.  After admiring it Jo asked me what made it sparkle.  I told her that there were crystals in the rock, but some of her follow up questions were harder for me to answer.  A few weeks prior to this I'd read a blog post here about making a crystal tree. Click on the link, the tree is awesome!  So pretty and cool.  I decided that this would be a good time to try making some crystals, and to read some about what crystals are and how they end up in rocks.  The first thing Jo requested when I told her we'd look up the answers to some of her questions was a Magic School Bus book.  We love these books!  They are so great because they present so many scientific ideas in a way understandable to a preschooler, and feature fun characters.  We chose the most topical Magic School Bus book and a few other books from the library about rocks and crystals.

Then we decided to try making the crystal tree. The ingredients for the crystal tree are pretty straightforward except for one: liquid bluing.  Never heard of it, and even though you are supposed to be able to find it in the laundry aisle at the grocery store none of my local chain grocery stores had it. But one of our local grocery stores did!  As it turns out this liquid bluing stuff is pretty cool!  It's a "colloidal suspension" of flecks of blue iron powder suspended in water.  It is non-toxic, biodegradable, and non-hazardous.  It was designed originally to make your whites whiter in the laundry (read all about this cool stuff here) but it can also be used to grow crystals.

For our crystal tree I used cardboard from the back of an old pack of easel paper, and an x-acto knife to cut out our tree shapes.  Then the girls painted them with liquid watercolors, for decoration, and for some color for the crystals.   The recipe for the crystal tree is: 1 TBS of water, 1 TBS salt (iodized or not), 1 TBS bluing, and 1/2 TBS ammonia (which speeds up the evaporation).  Shake this up well and put your tree right down in the solution.
Then wait, although you should start to see some crystals forming within a few hours.  There isn't actually any reaction taking place, just evaporation.  This is the explanation from the Mrs. Stewart's liquid bluing site: "As the water from the bluing and the clear water which is first added evaporate, two things happen. The blue particles can no longer be supported and the excess salt cannot stay in solution. The salt crystallization process will take place around the blue particles as nuclei, in much the same way as silver iodide cloud seeding accelerates the formation of rain drops."     
I think we made a few mistakes with this, because although we did get some crystals to grow on our tree we didn't have nearly as many as we could.  First, we made our tree a little big.  Second, I don't think we got the salt dissolved in the water, liquid bluing, and ammonia as well as we should have.  Finally, we put the tree in a pan that was a little too shallow. We are currently working on round two and are hoping it will make more showy crystals for the girls to look at.  The crystals book shown above also has some other awesome ideas for making crystals including rock candy, a recipe for walnut shaped crystals using alum, and a crystal garden, all of which we will be trying (at least that's the plan).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Kid's Music-Kimya Dawson

One of my favorite pastimes at this point in my life is finding interesting child appropriate music to listen to during the day, and in the car.  I like having music on all day long, and I really feel like the girls are nicer and more well behaved, and somehow that their play has more focus, when we listen to music.  This is admittedly because I am also nicer and more well behaved when we listen to music.  I mean how can you yell when John and Paul are singing to you about your life of ease, and how you have all you need?  But before I really started looking into it I thought..."kid's" music?  Ugh!"  I was thinking of canned, synthesized, music you might associate with some children's TV shows.  And the girls do like some of that music, but I don't!  Luckily there is plenty of awesome music out there, even music made specifically for kids, not to mention kid friendly music like the Beatles and the Velvet Underground (okay, that one is debatable).

So for this post I'm going to tell you a little about Kimya Dawson.  She usually makes music lumped into a genre called "anti-folk."  I was curious what that meant and discovered that it's kind of anti-60's folk.  Now I love pre-1950's folk music like Woody Guthrie (another super excellent choice for children's music), but I do not (usually) like 1960's folk music (sorry Tim).  So I'm okay with this "anti-folk" designation.

Dawson wrote many of the songs for the soundtrack of Juno, and she used to be in a band called The Moldy Peaches.  The music she plays on Alphabutt is really pared down and simple.  She sings on most of the tracks and plays guitar and she has friends and their children collaborate and they play the xylophone and even a kazoo.  The kazoo really works too, it's funny.  The songs are really catchy and hysterical and some of them are also very sweet.  There is some grousing about corporate greed and a few other adult sentiments, but these songs were written by a woman who named her daughter Panda so you know she has an absolute mandate to sing about corporate greed.  Alphabutt also has some potty humor.  And it's humorous.  How can you resist this for instance:

When you get older your body will grow hair
On your legs, your arm pits and even down there
Some people shave theirs off but I let mine grow
Because I'm an animal, because I'm an animal

Cats and dogs and bunnies and frogs
And donkeys and monkeys and possums and spunkies
And turtles and hippos and bears and horses
And people like you and me and tortoises
(We're all animals)

Sit out in the cold and I sing songs
That hair on my legs is like wearing long johns
I wish that there was hair on my hands and my arms
'Cause I can't wear gloves when I play guitar
No, I can't wear gloves when I play guitar

She also has a song the girls love called, "Pee-Pee in the Potty."  "I Love You Sweet Baby" is a super sweet track, and "Little Monster Babies" is funny and was Jo's favorite for a while.  It's a fun, funny, catchy CD of kid's music that we really enjoy.  You should check it out!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dry Erase Board: Markers or Crayons?

The week is chugging along.  It's chug, chug, chugging along.  Plodding along.  Tess has been sick (she's improving) and the thought of the tasks ahead of me over the next few months alternately exhilarate and tire me out.  And none of it is earth shattering but this is how it's been and I blame it on winter.  You know, winter, ageing, mortality.  It's really one of those days to talk about...dry erase markers!

Since I pulled our easel inside it's really inspired more creativity than just about any one thing I think I could have done.  It makes setting up drawing and painting so easy and accessible for the girls and for me (which is as important, really, because when I've made the set up too arduous for me if often doesn't get done).  It is a bit of an eyesore, but we'll move it back to the sunporch when the President comes over for his visit.

Today I picked up some dry erase markers at the store, and as a comparison I also bought a set of dry erase crayons, something I didn't know existed!  But it does, and as it turns out, they are pretty cool.  Now usually I try to get art supplies at A.C. Moore or from Discount School Supply or the like, but today we purchased them from the grocery store.  For this reason I bought Expo dry erase markers, although something like Melissa and Doug might be nice since they are specifically labelled "non-toxic."  However I won't keep the markers out all the time because Tess has a taste for the markers, and I don't want the girls to forget and use them on paper and the wall.  The crayons are Crayola.  We bought this.

Now, the markers are just what you'd expect.  Jo liked using them, they are really easy to make a mark on the board, and they are easy to erase.  Other than the fact that they smell weird (and of course the health implications of breathing in that chemical cocktail aroma) they are pretty fun to write with on the board.  But!  Jo didn't like coloring in the lines of her drawing with them, because the white shows through and for this the crayons were perfect.  The crayons do flake some, but they make an interesting contrast to the markers.  The color is more saturated and goes on more evenly and thickly.  They are harder to erase, but Jo could do it.  Tess could not, but she drew using the little board that came with the crayons and it was really easy for her to make fun marks with the crayons.  The little set is portable too, which is nice.  

Tess was really too exhausted to fully appreciate this, but Josephine worked on a drawing for a long time and I really liked it!  She said it was baby Tommy at his soccer practice.  Don't know who Tommy is, have no idea why she chose soccer since that sport basically doesn't exist to Jo, but I loved the drawing.  The picture really shows you how the marker is nice for the lines, but the crayons are nice for, er, coloring.  

While doing this activity we listened to the Beatles!