The Art of Childhood

My mother is an artist. If you asked her if she considers herself an artist, she would shift uncomfortably and finally say something like, “Well, I don’t know. What’s an artist? No, not really.”

But she is, and it isn’t because she went back to school for an art degree when my brother, Josh, and I were nearly grown. She was born an artist; it’s in her soul. When I was two, she painted flowers on bread paddles. When I was four, she learned to do stained glass, and she has subsequently filled an entire church with windows and more. When I was about thirteen, she dabbled in watercolors and acrylics. Throughout my life, she has sewn and patched together a life of beauty no matter where she was. If she lived in a log cabin with black tar slopped between the logs that got soft and warm in the summer and stuck to my fingers when I pressed on it, or if she dwelled in an antique Ford van in the middle of a desert, or if her home was in a tent compound surrounded by electric fencing, or if she lived in a camper or a chicken coop—yes, I lived in a chicken coop, but no chickens, thankfully—she was an artist then and is an artist now.

The Art of Life

I’ve been thinking lately about the art of life and the many gifts my mother gave me. I enjoyed many benefits as the child of an artist. My mother gave me pastels when many children received colored pencils. I learned to sew and to cut and piece together colored glass. (My daughter still has the glass jewelry box I constructed when I was ten.) I learned to love color, texture, and pattern. I learned to love drawing, even though I stink at drawing. I learned to decorate cakes well enough to sell them. I can weave wheat into lovely little baskets that hang nicely from a rearview mirror with a few flowers tucked inside. I never did learn to paint flowers on bread paddles, though. But I can embroider, and Mom hates to do that.

These things have enriched my life. They make me handy to have around for a project or if someone is getting married. However, these are not the things I most appreciate learning. I could have learned many of these things from a book. The valuable lesson I took away from the eighteen-year experience as the clay in my artist mother’s hands is the art of crafting a childhood. While I was pressing wildflowers between the pages of old books, artfully dying Easter eggs, stitching doll clothes, boiling onion skins to make dye, trying hard not to be burned by the lye in soapmaking, blistering my finger boiling sugar for homemade lollypops, and gluing goggle eyes on nuts to make people, I never realized that, really, I was the art project.

My mom is sneaky. You probably wouldn’t notice it right away. She seems so “June Cleaver” on the outside, but she has a sneaky side. She never hinted that what she really was doing was crafting a childhood among the mess of glue and glitter and that she was aware that the whole idea was to give me roots, wings, and some extra feathers to start me on my own nest one day. She never breathed a word about how she wanted her grandchildren raised, but she was raising them when she was raising me.

I’ve decided I’m going to be sneaky too. I don’t know if I ever said that when I grew up I wanted to be just like my mom, but I’ve pretty much done that, only I’m louder and less covert in my sneakiness. Now I’m trying hard to grow into the kind of Mom and Grammy she is. No more sneakin’ around. I’m watching her like a hawk.

Multigenerational Art

The best part about being the unwitting victim of the art of childhood is that, until recently, I didn’t even put two and two together. I just moved out, married, had twice as many kids as Mom, and carried on with the art. She so successfully crafted my childhood that it was quite natural for me to do the same. I love that. It gives me hope for her great-grandchildren and mine.

Some of you are inspired by now, and some of you are in despair. Maybe your parents did not artfully construct your childhood, and rather than the blended colors of a masterpiece, you feel as though you have shards of smashed tile. Some of the best art comes out of tragedy. Take the smashed tile and make a mosaic. The most beautiful blue sea glass on the ocean shore was once a horribly sharp piece of broken wine bottle. The same beauty can come from the mess you inherited.

My mom would say that art is not all gifting; you can learn it. She went to loads of art classes and even taught a few in our basement while Dad let Josh and me watch “Magnum P.I.” and munch popcorn, much to her horror. You can learn the art of crafting a childhood. In fact, there is a recipe: one part vision, equal parts patience and perseverance, two parts creativity and one-half part each of white glue and construction paper. Prepare yourself; it’s going to get messy.

Painting on the Canvas of Life

Creating an artful childhood is found in waking up each morning and asking these questions: What can I do this day that will impart wisdom and love to this generation and the next? What can I do that will encourage a love of Truth and Beauty? Then do that thing—one thing every day or even three times a week, if that is all you can manage at first. Before long, your oldest child will be half grown and quite artsy herself.

Almost any daily activity with a little forethought can be part of an artful childhood (see practical ideas in the sidebar). The trick is to be intentional and to think ahead. Learn to view your own life as an artwork in progress and your child as both a canvas and a brush. Dip that kid in the ink of life, and let him have at it. Art in childhood is not happening in front of TV or video games. Probably the best thing my parents did for us was to severely limit TV and outlaw video games.

Summer is a wonderful time to try new things because most of us are finished with formal schooling then and are embarking on a time of rest and diversion. Use this time to begin the process of changing how you look at childhood and intentionally developing the art of life within your home. There is no secret. It is merely a difference in how you choose to think about life and the growth of a child. Then the actions are a natural outgrowth of that thought process.

Next time we see my mom, she will have some wonderful piece of art to add to the lives of the children. It will emerge in the form of ice cream rituals or canoe rides or rubber-stamping with Hannah or building forts beneath the pine trees with the boys. She’ll try to be sneaky, but I’ll be watching.

By Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller is thankful to God for the gift of life and for the joy of sharing it with her knight in shining armor and four delightful kids. The Millers are currently traveling the world on bicycles, living in a tent, and learning to create international art as a family.

  —Originally published in the “God’s Word Does Not Return Void” issue (May/June 2009) of Homeschooling Today magazine

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