Since I’ve worked in one capacity or another in the Education Department of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (www.carlemuseum.org) for the past ten years, visits there are commonplace in my family, but they haven’t become stale in the least. With changing exhibitions, new materials and projects to explore in the Studio every few weeks, and thousands of books to read in the Library, The Carle is a place that is both comfortingly familiar and yet fresh and stimulating for us. Best of all, as a mother of five children juggling work and family, I find that taking the time to go to The Carle as a visitor rather than an employee forces me to slow down the pace of our hectic lives for a little while, and a recent visit with two of my daughters, Caroline age 4 and Natayja age 11, reaffirmed for me just how effective art can be as a means of connecting with my children.
The galleries were our primary destination on this particular trip because we hadn’t seen the current exhibition, Eric Carle: A Feast for the Eyes, which was organized in conjunction with Table for 10: The Art, History and Science of Food, a region-wide promotion organized by Museums 10 http://www.museums10.org/tablefor10 . Both of my girls love to help cook at home, and I wondered if this would come into our discussion about the art as we walked through the gallery doors.
Instead of producing such a direct response connecting the art they saw to their own lives, the exhibition sparked a rich associative exchange in which both girls delighted in drawing connections between the pictures they saw in the exhibit. As we walked through the gallery I knew that these connections they were making were also reinforcing the bonds between us as we shared time, space, and ideas together.
The first picture we looked at was actually a photograph.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s Eric Carle,” Caroline responded, and sure enough there was the artist himself, clad chef’s garb.
“What do you see happening in that picture?” I asked, borrowing a question from Visual Thinking Strategies (www.vtshome.org), which is the approach The Carle uses in guided programs in the galleries.
“He’s cooking colors,” she responded with a smile as she looked at the photo of Carle holding a wok filled with his signature painted tissue papers.
“Why do you think he’s doing that?” I asked.
“For the caterpillar to eat, like in the book” she responded.
Now, the caterpillar is not present in this particular photo, but Caroline is familiar enough with The Very Hungry Caterpillar to recall its endpapers, which are covered with rectangular pieces of the same sort of painted tissue paper that Carle has in his wok. Just about every time we read the book she remarks that the caterpillar ate the holes in those endpages—holes that aren’t die-cuts like the ones found on interior pages, but empty white circular spaces in the fields of color that reveal the work as collage. Our visit to the gallery wasn’t making her think of the times we’ve cooked together, but of the times we’ve read together.
The first set of illustrations in the exhibit is from Walter the Baker, a book that Caroline is unfamiliar with even though I am sure we have a copy somewhere on our crowded bookshelves at home. When I started asking her about the pictures she seemed hesitant to engage with them since she didn’t know the book, but Natayja stepped in to try to figure out parts of the story by attending to the narrative content of the illustrations. She described a scene depicting a woman “selling all kinds of bread,” but then she also looked back at a picture in which a large pretzel dominates one side of the page opening as it hangs, suspended in mid-air, in front of the sun.
As Natayja puzzled over why the pretzel was so big, Caroline was doing some looking of her own. She first noticed the fact that the exhibit includes art from different editions of the book, one showing a seemingly bald-headed Walter, and the second depicting him with red hair. “His cat changed too,” she said, noting that the brown cat in the first edition is black in the revision of the book. Looking at the cats drove her to attend to the other animals in the pictures as we made our way around the room, noticing a dog, a cow, and some chickens.
A selection of illustrations from Carle’s Pancakes Pancakes includes one picture of the boy from the story gathering eggs from a chicken coop.
“Not like that other egg,” Caroline said offhandedly.
“What do you mean?” I asked her, unsure of the “other egg” she was referring to.
“That one,” she said pointing across the room to another wall in the gallery. We walked over to see a painting of Humpty Dumpty, sitting, not on a wall, but at a table with a fox, mouse, and a turkey.
“You don’t eat that egg,” Caroline elaborated. “That egg is eating.” Sure enough, in the center of the table sits a bowl of fruit, which Humpty and the animals seem intent on devouring. Caroline got a kick out of the anthropomorphized figures in this painting by artist Leonard Weisgard. Although included in a display of selections from The Carle’s permanent collection, and not officially a part of the Feast for the Eyes exhibit, she made a thematic connection between this picture and the others we’d seen as she laughed about an eating, rather than eaten, egg. Natayja also found something to tickle her funny bone in another part of the exhibit:
“I didn’t know the caterpillar could do that,” she said as she looked at a piece of non-book art by Carle depicting the caterpillar balanced on a tightrope and juggling different foods.
“I think he dropped that ice cream,” added Caroline looking at the bottom of the picture where a melting ice cream cone lies on the ground below the tightrope.
“Poor caterpillar,” I responded.
“Well, it is not easy to do that,” Caroline said, giving props to the caterpillar for his juggling prowess.
Another part of the exhibit containing biographical material on Carle was not yet fully installed on the day we visited, and so we made our way to the central gallery to revisit work a show we’d already seen by Leo Lionni, and we then continued on for a farewell glimpse of Lisbeth Zwerger: An Exquisite Vision, which is set to close on September 26. I could have lingered there a bit longer, but I’ve learned that the best way to ensure a successful visit to an art museum with children is to let them set the pace of the experience. By this time Caroline was ready to make some art in the Studio, and Natayja, an artist to her core, was happy to go there as well.
As the three of us sat painting together, I was so grateful for this morning of relaxed looking, talking and just being together. Our afternoon promised to be a busy one with soccer practice, an event at one of the kids’ schools, mountains of grading looming before me, yet larger mountains of laundry waiting to be folded, and on, and on, and on. But for a couple of hours my daughters and I had art, words, and time together, making it seem like we weren’t just feasting our eyes, but feeding our souls too.