Teach them well and let them lead the way

There have been many notable artistic families throughout the history of art. Growing up alongside artistic parents can be a great observational and experiential learning experience, especially for progeny who are passionate about exploring their own aesthetic interests. Learning by engaging in the artistic process benefits creative and critical thinking, while strengthening emotional intelligence and empowering us to feel efficacious. Furthermore, art has the ability to raise awareness around contemporary issues and facilitate a dialogue about social, cultural, political and environmental experiences throughout history. In a world facing major ongoing concerns like climate change and political oppression, it is important for the next generations (who will inherit an even harsher political and environmental reality) to cultivate engaging and empathetic expressions that inspire hope and transformative action.

Beñat Iglesias López & Teo Iglesias-Toda, ThAnK YoU, 2020, Mixed media, acrylic, plaster, wood, fabric; Gift of Iglesias-Toda Family. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

The sculpture, ThAnK YoU (2020), by Beñat Iglesias López and his four-year-old son Teo Iglesias-Toda, is a timely example of a work of intergenerational art that was influenced by selfless and powerful responses to the global COVID-19 pandemic. ThAnK YoU, is a mixed-media plaster sculpture, conceptualized by both father and son as a tribute to the healthcare workers and other essential laborers who are working to alleviate the physical toll of the health crisis. The sculpture reflects the yearning that the young artist had to defeat the virus in a manner similar to how superheroes quash villains. The elder artist described the phases of the duo’s artistic process in an article in The National by Taylor Heyman (2020), explaining that the initial idea came about while Teo was role-playing in the park and “wanted to fight the coronavirus but couldn’t quite figure out how, neither could he put a face to it.” Like a seasoned art teacher, Iglesias López prompted the creative project with a brainstorming session about tangible ways to combat the coronavirus. In addition to discussing mitigation efforts we all need to take in order to stay safer from the virus, they identified the people who were on the frontlines helping the community at large cope with the threats from the virus (Heyman, 2020). Doctors, nurses and EMTs assume the role of real-life superheroes.

The next step was the visualization of the artwork. Adhering to the superhero theme, the artists created an image that represents an archetypal image of what many viewers would recognize to be a superhero; a young boy wearing a Spider Man eye mask and a cape. The subject in the sculpture also wears a blue face mask and holds a sign with the word “Thank You,” which was written by Teo. We may not have fantastical superpowers to end a pandemic, but by exhibiting empathy for others (i.e. wearing masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated) we have the agency to significantly weaken it. That is one part of the meaning behind this sculpture. The other half, as noted earlier, is a heartfelt recognition of the tireless and daunting work that medical professionals are doing on the frontlines. For the latter reason, Teo suggested to his father that they install the sculpture on a bench in a very visibly public place nearby a major hospital. As a work of public art, ThAnK YoU, was seen by all members of the community, especially the personal going to work at Mount Sinai Hospital on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Photographs of the installation show members of the community, especially first responders and medical workers spending a meditative moment with the sculpture. After its de-installation, the sculpture was gifted to the New-York Historical Society, where it will be on view to the public as part of the institution’s #HistoryResponds initiative.

ThAnK You sculpture installed on Fifth Avenue, 2020.
Image courtesy of Beñat Iglesias López

Making art and sharing in artistic engagement is worthwhile for all families, no matter what the prior artistic knowledge or experience is among adults and children. This is why many museums and community-based arts organizations have committed whole departments to family education with programming for parents or caregivers to learn and create art in tandem with children. The benefits of individuals of all ages making art together includes skill building and insightful moments that support positive social and emotional wellbeing. While it is clear that children learn by watching their elders, a similarly transformative educational process transpires when adults collaborate with children (see: Adams, 2020). Artist and educator, Lauren Jost, has years of experience working with adults and children, and attests to the importance of artistic immersion within her multigenerational classes. She states that “Of course babies and toddlers learn through play, but it is often a discovery for the adults in the room that they, too, still have the capacity for fun and play and can learn something from letting go and getting messy with their baby. I hope that these classes can help to establish a routine of play for these families; that they see art not just as a skill or technique which must be mastered, but also as a means of creating community and meaning within their family. And, of course, creating fun” (Jost, 2014).

As evident from Beñat and Teo’s collaboration, the artful collaboration of a father and son has led to a myriad of meaningful experiences, both from a familial and a communal standpoint.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Adams, Lauren, “The Benefits of Intergenerational Arts-Based Experiences for Older Adults: A Review of the Literature” (2020). Expressive Therapies Capstone Theses. 359. https://digitalcommons.lesley.edu/expressive_theses/359

Heyman, Taylor. “Coronavirus: Superhero sculpture ‘thanks’ New York health workers.” The National, 1 May 2020. https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/the-americas/coronavirus-superhero-sculpture-thanks-new-york-health-workers-1.1013417

Jost, Lauren. “Intergenerational Collaboration: Making Meaning Together.” Americans for the Arts Blog, March 2014. https://www.americansforthearts.org/blog-feed/intergenerational-collaboration-making-meaning-together

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