Monday #24: A Fine Mess

Last week I wrote about the stressed-out, over-scheduled kids featured in Vicki Abele’s independent film, Race To Nowhere. One of the saddest things, to me, is how early these kids are forced to conform to this highly compartmentalized, over-achieving lifestyle.  “Robbing them of their childhoods,” is a phrase that often comes to mind when we find that, later in their teen years, these young adults suffer from anxiety induced health problems and depression.  From what I can tell, these trends are put into place so early in their lives that we need to go all the way back to preschool to figure out what is going on.  And, maybe even further.  I’m about to throw a little fit here, readers, and no one is going to be left out of my rant.

If you read last week’s post, you might remember the kids who, while creating hand-painted paper, preferred to paint their hands.  I might be annoyed with this if I didn’t realize what was going on.  You see, kids hardly ever get to use paint anymore and they are often told by the adults in their life not to get messy. Trust me, I could go on and on about what has happened to the disappearing, elementary school art class, but suffice it to say that the class, itself, is brief.  When considering a project, an art teacher must now figure in the lesson, the project itself and then… the clean-up.  Most art classes meet for about 45 minutes per week, so it would be accurate to say that this is hardly enough time to make and clean up a joyous, creative mess.  But, I’m also going to make a generalization here that I hope will be taken in the spirit of CREATIVITY, not blame: art teachers, you have become too neat and too tidy for your own good.  You know who you are, too, and some of you even think this is a cute and ironic quirk.  It’s not!  Making art pretty much has to be messy and if, when your classroom is empty of students, it looks like there hasn’t been art made in it, by children, for a hundred years, you’re not doing it right.  I’m only starting with you, art teachers, because you’re the easiest to bring into my rant on these painty messes.

Kids painting a mural with Dar Hosta in Youngstown, Ohio.

Next, classroom teachers.  I know you don’t have time and I’m actually about to pick on kindergarten teachers here, even though I know you may have even less time because your school might have half-day.  But, late last year I spoke with my longtime friend and longtime kindergarten teacher, Susan.  She told me that, in her district, she was the only kindergarten teacher who still had Learning Centers in her classroom.  I’ve been to her classroom many times and have seen the kids at work in the centers she has created for them.  “Housekeeping” and “Post Office” are hands-down favorites.  They include lots of little parts and pieces, bits of paper to fold and stuff into envelopes, boxes, plates, silverware, art supplies and play food.  Very little direct supervision happens on Susan’s behalf and the kids get really involved in their little scenes, scattering the things all around, interacting with each other and negotiating transactions.  They make a mess. Traditionally speaking, Kindergarten Learning Centers include housekeeping, science and discovery, books and art.  Some smart educators, a long time ago, established the practice of Kindergarten Learning Centers to promote socialization through independent play between children, and creativity and imagination through make-believe.  Now, however, if you google “kindergarten centers,” you will get page after page of instructions and advice for “literacy centers.”  Once the by-product of more imaginative play, literacy is now the ubiquitous objective for these classroom centers, in the instances that they are actually practiced.  Obviously, that is because children should be reading chapter books by first grade, right?  I mean, enough of this baby, make-believe stuff, crayons and play store, enough of these silly picture books with only a few, simple words.  Right?  Put them in their seats and get them to read!

Speaking of reading, these days librarians are some of my favorite people, so you’re next. You are one of the only school staff members who have yet to be completely neutered by NCLB and you usually work in a big, open room that is appointed with nice, big work tables and full of artfully illustrated books.  This is, to me, a situation that begs for creative projects inspired by children’s literature!  I mean, what better way to appreciate fun words and beautiful pictures than to mimic them, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all, right?   One of the things I try to do when I’m with you, librarians, is to show you what an amazing opportunity you have in the school to foster a really necessary (and educational) creative experience for the children.  This is sometimes easier said than done because libraries are generally known for a sense of orderliness and a lot of hush-hush (creativity is messy but, did I mention it is also not always very quiet?).  I had a run in a few years ago with a librarian that nearly had two heart attacks when I and about 50 third graders made cut-paper collages, working on the floor, from one side of the library to the other.  And, though I insisted that every piece of paper would be picked up off the floor (which it was!), she wasn’t going to have it and our hands-on workshop, for the next round of kids, turned into a much more organized and less messy affair that oddly and unfortunately resembled those corralled, zig-zaggy lines at a crowded airport, except way quieter.  I so wished that she’d seen each and every one of those first 50 kids who left the scene of the messy crime proudly holding up their masterpieces, saying “look what I made!” to anyone they encountered in the hall as they returned to their classrooms.

Making a mess on the floor.

I’d be remiss if I did not also mention the fact that all teachers I know have a deep respect for their school’s custodial team.  As do I, I might add, although I often only half-jokingly say that most school’s custodial teams don’t like me too much because, in my wake, there is often a little bit more of a mess than usual and I have come to understand that sometimes this little bit of extra mess leads to a little extra aggravation in some people in the cleaning profession.  You know, I work hard to get kids to help with clean-up, and they do, but, let’s face it, little scraps of paper are tricky to pick up and some 8-year-olds aren’t all that great with sponges yet.  I guess all I have to say here is how grateful we all are that schools have professional, full-time custodial staff whose, a-hem!, goal it is to look after these types of situations on the occasions where the mess is a little bit more than usual.  So, custodial teams, please be less mad about joyous messes.

OK, who’s next?  Well, I said we have to go back further, so parents, it’s your turn.  I know how neat you like your children.  I know because I get to talk with them when you’re not around and they tell me how you don’t want them to get paint on their clothes or in their hair or on any of their things.  In fact, some of you have established such a sense of worry in them about getting messy that they sometimes cannot stand to have paint on their hands long enough to finish even one piece of paper with me without running to the sink.  In one classroom I visited, the teacher had so many kids like this that she’d resorted to passing out disposable rubber gloves for a project like mine.  Imagine that for a moment:  an entire class of six-year-olds lining up to put rubber gloves on before they grab a paintbrush or a glue stick!  And, they can be overly concerned about whether the paint will ever come off at the same time that they are completely captivated by the notion of rubbing it all over their hands up to their elbows, which should really tell us something.  I have also spent many hours teaching at community arts centers where, at drop-off and pick-up, parents comically roll their eyes and proudly say “Thank goodness we have a place where they can make a mess!” I guess, thank goodness, indeed, but remember what I said about the art classroom that doesn’t look like a place where art is made?  Yeah, same thing goes for your house.  If you have young children and it looks like a Better Homes photo shoot where kids haven’t made a mess for a hundred years, you’re doing it wrong, too.  And, if you don’t save your kids art work, because you think it amounts to a mess for your would-be photo shoot, shame on you.  Take it from me, they’re gonna want that stuff back some day.

Me?  Well, I definitely have a love-hate relationship with messiness in my home.  I think that’s because I’m both a grownup and an artist.  I come from a house with too much clutter for my personal comfort zone (sorry, Mom and Dad), and, as a grownup, I like a much more Zen kind of environment for living my day to day life.  Truthfully, I’d like to have less day to day life stuff;  why do we need so much stuff?  My home was remodeled a couple of years ago and I found one of the most liberating and exhilarating feelings was putting a whole bunch of unwanted stuff into the dumpster.  The moment where the only thing in my living room was the fresh floors, fresh walls and a single sofa they’d brought back in was really cool.  But, I live with people and animals and having a Better Homes photo shoot is neither possible nor preferable.  So, while I tend toward the clutter-free lifestyle, I have been known to generate some serious piles and my dining room table is often a laundry buffet.  Clean, that is, of course.

My studio?  That’s a different story.  Messes rule in my creative space because I can’t explore what I want to express unless I have all my stuff out to look at, and have stopped worrying about what has fallen, dripped or snipped onto the floor.  I have outfitted my space with a big, junky rug beneath my entire area and anything that falls onto it is A-OK!  About once a month, I go in with a vacuum and suck up all the bits of stuff but the paint on the back of the work chair, on the telephone receiver, on the CD player remote, on the edge of the table, on the clock,  and more, well, that’s all there to stay.  You will also find me out in the world with paint on my hands, on my clothes and in my hair from time to time.  When I cook, my kitchen probably looks very similar but, luckily, tomato sauce is infinitely easier to clean than acrylic paint.

Studio, painting mess.

What’s important, in all this messiness, is not the mess.  It’s what comes out of the mess.  What’s important is the product: the meal, the art, the imagination, and the discovery that goes along with the maybe-messy process, otherwise known as the creative journey. The mess is not the product. It’s just the way you get there.  I’m concerned these days that we are shutting kids out of a really important part of their childhood, stealing it, as it were, by not letting them be the mess-makers they need to be because we, in our neatness, are thinking of the mess as the end result and this annoys us.  So, we either avoid letting those messes happen or freak out these little journeyers by telling them to stay neat like us.  And they do it, you know, because, well they have to, and also because kids actually do want to please us, which I think can part of the problem.  But, to borrow a not so metaphorical metaphor I just heard, can you really paint the picture of your life and fully experience it if you’re wearing rubber gloves and can’t ever get your clothes dirty?  And by the way, being the data maven I love to be, the new research clearly shows that getting dirty is actually good for us.

Perhaps the best part of making messes is that you can always clean them up.  Did you know that?  And, true story, kids are actually washable.

TRY THIS WEEK: Duh, make a mess, of course!

About Dar Hosta James

I am an artist living in New Jersey. I write and illustrate children's books, paint, draw, blog, coach, teach and speak about creativity.
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3 Responses to Monday #24: A Fine Mess

  1. don says:

    Wonderful way to make a mess Dar! One of the delights in my wife Johanna’s kindergarten class are the Learning Centers – a favorite of both the teacher and the children. Independent time to explore and imagine withing given areas where making a mess is the absolute last thing they think of….As an artist I love making a mess (although not on your scale), but I also love cleaning it all up too and readying my space for the work of the day. A mess means I’m getting something done. A clean slate in the morning means I’m excited about letting my mind wander.

  2. Chris says:

    A good challenge! I think I’ll try to make some messes with my three boys this week. Thanks for the reminder that kids need that creative time, free from worry about making a mess. It can be cleaned up. And, as you say, “kids are actually washable.”

  3. Peggy Doyle says:

    Dar – I didn’t have a chance to read your blog until today. Thanks so much for your insight because today I am patting myself on the back! I met with my girl scout troop yesterday (6th grade cadettes) to work on hosting a dance for the other girl scouts in our town. They are learning so many great skills:
    Planning – they came up with a Hollywood Glam theme and dance playlist
    Budgeting – they are working on how to make our party expenses cover 150 girls
    Recycling – they turned used pizza boxes into decorations
    & FUN! they painted decorations for an hour and a half. We had paint and glitter everywhere!
    Thanks again for all your inspiration!
    Still working on locking in May 25th for your workshop – hope you can pencil us in.

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