Expressing our inner childlike nature…again

Christina Freeman, digital film still from this is not a home movie, 2009-2020, film stills and audio. Courtesy of the artist.

“Do we possess an “inner child,” our supposed original or true self? Are we the same person we were as a child? Do we carry our child selves around with us, or is childhood left at the door upon entering the adult world? The work in this show contemplates aspects of youth, transformation and regression, exploring themes of the childish and childlike.”

Those are the essential questions that artist/curators Jenn Dierdorf and Robert Goldkind and a group of 11 additional artists would like us to consider as we experience the multidisciplinary works of art in the exhibition Regress at ABC No Rio’s Bullet Space/292 Gallery.

Growing up is a desirable trait, because it grants us a particular sense of autonomy, which we didn’t have while we were young children and adolescents. Being independent and developing self-confidence and awareness, is paramount to developing as a whole person. We learn a great deal via experience, so the more of it we have, the more knowledge we are likely gaining. We apply this knowledge to our multifaceted backgrounds/identities and other social, emotional and cognitive qualities, in order to build cultural understandings and exhibit expressive responses to the world around us. Experiential learning is a lifetime-based process that begins during our earliest stages of development. Unfortunately, one of the notable changes in our journey from youth to adulthood is the decline of playful learning and untutored creativity…and sometimes memory too.

I have written several prior posts (see: No Room to Play, If you’re bored, try living artfully and Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art) concerning the necessity of maintaining a playful attitude and approach to living and learning. I hope that through these posts, it has been made apparent that the arts are beneficial to our minds, bodies and spirits, as a result of unfettered exploration, discovery and play. In addition to play, memory is another important process that can be harnessed for artful production. Making art is a great way to recall our memories and express them to others. Good motivating questions to inspire the creative process include: “when was a time when you felt proud?” “when was there a moment that you felt strong?” “who would like to tell us about a time you helped someone in need,” and “what is one thing that you can’t live without?” These questions open the door for personalized reflections that are rooted in each student’s memory. The results will be empowering because recalling specific memories enables deep connections to be made in relation to the students lives (see more in an earlier Artfully Learning post: Expressing Memory Through Art – Experiential Living/Learning). This art pedagogical methodology is highly beneficial for people of all ages. For individuals with Alzheimer’s, artistic immersion (both viewing and creating art) has noted success in increasing mood and (in some cases) stimulating memory (see: Chancellor, Duncan and Chatterjee, 2014; and Neighmond, 2019).

Memory is a hot topic among artists in general. We often re-create and re-present imagery that has familiarity to us. Our understanding of pictorial and symbolic issues transform through time and personal artistic development, as we seek ways to present our experiences and background insights to others. As we get older, our recollection of the past, especially childhood/adolescence, becomes a reflective process that helps us understand our complex (and transformative) personalities.

One of the artists in Regress is Christina Freeman (previously featured on Artfully Learning in the post #$^& Censorship), whose project this is not a home movie addresses themes of childhood memories, and how certain events in our timeline are carefully curated through the lens of the camera (ex. home movies and snapshots in photo albums). Freeman, who often utilizes archives and repositories in her work, synthesized footage from her family’s home videos as a source to access and assess information about her childhood. this is not a home movie is concerned with documenting a familial experience via both a lineal and abstract relationship to memory. While the footage that is edited together is representative of Freeman between ages 2 and 7, she has conflated the original audio and video with contemporary audio, consisting of interviews of her parents who reflect upon their memories of her childhood, as well as their impressions of documenting that time period. The expressive way that Freeman splices and re-presents past documentary footage with current recollections from the documentarians, is indicative of the variability of our memory. Freeman shows us how the experience of an original event is transformed when re-examined years later. This is because we add layers and layers of new experiences and assign additional values and meaning to past events in order to continue relating them to our lives. A voice in one of the clips exclaims “you’re going to see this forever and ever,” but the real intriguing notion is how will our associations of this event (its imagery, meaning, social or emotional context) change over time?

Ianthe Jackson, Wood Pile, 2019, sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

Ianthe Jackson’s art also investigates childhood memory and her work in the exhibition, titled Wood Pile (2019), signifies her upbringing in Buffalo, New York. A pile of cut wood logs is a common thing to see outside and inside of houses up north, where the winters can be snow-filled, long and harsh. Many of the city’s historic houses are drafty, which means that heating them takes a lot of money and energy. Jackson recalls, “my family decided to heat our house with a wood stove to save money, and every year we would have these humongous wood deliveries on our lawn right in the city! We would invite friends over to haul and stack wood in trade for hot chocolate and it would often take 2 to 3 days to finish. It was such a strong memory and an experience that really shaped me.”

I asked Ianthe how her thoughts on childhood have shifted as an adult, and how she personally connects ideas about childhood in her artwork. She replied:  “I think a lot of my work relates to my childhood in various ways. There are so many ways we are conditioned as children and those aspects of who we are live on in our work and adult life and perspective. For me the shift of play and memory changes as we age. I think play for me is creating art and pursuing ideas. As children play they are creating an understanding of the world, synthesizing the senses of their body in the world and imagining things that could be. For many people this is seen as a period of childhood. I think artists and many other people hold on to these aspects and keep the creative mind moving. Some people however, not so much. School and expectations can really squash a person’s wonder.”

Jackson’s statement resonated with me, because a large portion of my childhood involved performing imaginary games with friends. These memories still influence my creative practice and my educator’s philosophy that play is essential for self discovery, socialization and building empathy. However, childhood isn’t all fun and games. There are many rules and structures that we are expected to learn as children, which are traditionally seen as being necessary in preparation for adulthood. Of course, some are and some aren’t. Traditions that are shattering include employing boy-girl formations (sitting or standing in boy-girl-boy-girl order), and reinforcing gender binarisms through ‘teaching’ gender roles. While schools are making an effort to embrace gender fluidity, this is sadly not a universal practice in the educational system.

Rebecca Bird, Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The latter part of Jackson’s quote regarding societal expectations quashing a person’s sense of wonder, is confronted in Regress through two paintings by Rebecca Bird, titled Cohort 1 and Cohort 2. The paintings are from Bird’s Women series, featuring sociocultural scenes of groups of women and girls. In Cohort 1 and Cohort 2, the subjects are kindergarten aged girls in matching uniforms learning to stand in line. According to Bird, she has been contemplating “how we become what we are defined as in society and how such a broad category as ‘female’ describes or assigns a role to me.” An essential part of educating children, is building platforms where they are empowered to express their unique identities, and exhibit empathy for others.

Returning to the theme of play, artist Courtney Childress explores childlike activity as a participatory artwork. Her work in the exhibition, is an interactive combine (painting and sculpture hybrid) that gives viewers permission to add their own mark to the piece. The result is very similar to the scribbles and automatic mark-making of children’s art. How many of us felt the impulse as children to extend our scribbles off the page and onto the wall? Childress’ work invites this seemingly natural and universal behavior, which is refreshing in both an art environment and as a commentary on social, emotional and cognitive development.

Elsewhere Brooklyn. Photo by Luis Nieto Dickens
Courtney Childress’ interactive artwork. Courtesy of the artist.

Childress’ main medium of crayons is also very down-to-earth and reminiscent of youthful creative endeavors. I asked Courtney to recall some memories or moments from her childhood that influenced her current profession in the arts, and she replied: “One I’ve been told about my mom and aunt on a road trip with my grandmother from TX to CO in the summer of 1960. They left crayons in the backseat when they stopped for lunch. These melted into puddles in the back of the rental convertible. My mom laughs when she tells the part about throwing fistfuls of crayon out the window as they drove down the highway.”

About the influence of play in her current art practice, she stated:

“Play and playfulness have always been a part of what I make and the work I am drawn to from other artists. In my work, I amassed a great collection of crayons, that I peeled and melted down, layering colors into painted-desert inspired rock crayons. For this show I have given the audience space to draw and make marks with a hand-sized rock crayons and a large swath of canvas. Giving the viewer permission to do something ‘bad.’”

Through art, we all have the ability to address our uninhibited selves and communicate in a playful, yet poignant manner. The works in Regress suggest diverse viewpoints regarding our creative development, and make thought provoking statements about youth in general. They might even make you feel young again…

Regress is on view through February 23, 2020 at Bullet Space/292 Gallery, 92 East 3rd Street, New York, NY. Exhibited artists: Yasmeen Abdallah, Rebecca Bird, KS Brewer, Courtney Childress, Jenn Dierdorf, Christina Freeman, Robert Goldkind, Kamryn Harmeling, Ianthe Jackson, Will Kaplan, Mark Power, Sarah Schruft and Ashley Yang-Thompson.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Chancellor, Bree, Duncan, Angel and Chatterjee, Anjan. “Art Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementia.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Vol. 39, 2014.

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today, 26 Jan 2010.

Neighmond, Patti. “Her Mom Was Lost In Dementia’s Fog. Singing Christmas Carols Brought Her Back.” NPR, 24 Dec. 2019.



1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on casbah3d's Blog and commented:
    Wanted to share this lovely piece on the importance of play, memory, and creativity. As an artist and recreation therapist, I know play is one of the highest of the arts. Thank you Adam Zucker! (great links at the end fo the article, too.)

    Liked by 1 person

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