Portraits of a Young Artist

My six-year-old is at the art table, drawing pictures of sunflowers when the tormented spirit of Van Gogh suddenly swoops in and possesses her body.


I can’t work with these lousy crayons, she yells.


I sit down next to her and explain that it’s the process not the product that matters, that when we slow down and take the time to observe something carefully, we move from passive absorption, as Maria Konnikova tells us, to active awareness.


She tells me she understands, and the next evening I’m preparing dinner when she asks me for my help.


I put some fruit in a bowl and am about to offer some pointers on contour drawing when she starts grilling me with questions. Has your head always been so small? she asks, drawing a tiny circle in middle of the page. And how come Mama’s teeth are so much whiter than yours? she says, reaching for a yellow crayon.


She begins adding gray tones to my hair when I pull her paper away and tell her that she has clearly mastered the art of close observation and is ready to move on to something a bit more expressionistic.


I give her some basic tips about swirling and exaggerated brushstrokes and she gets to work while I chop some onions. And for the first time in weeks a half hour passes by and not a single piece of paper is torn to shreds, not a single marker hurled against the wall.


But when I come over to see what she’s working on, she’s busy scribbling out all of her mistakes. I remind her that to be an artist, as Beckett tells us, is to fail, as no other dare fail.


Those aren’t mistakes, she tells me. Those are drawings of you.


Oh, I say. Why do I look like a plate of thrown up spaghetti?


The aim of art, she says, is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.


I make a mental note to remove all Aristotle quotes from my office wall and explain that as artists we have a moral responsibility to use our imagination in positive ways.


The next day she comes home from school with a picture of all her friends riding unicorns and leaping over rainbows. I’m about to praise her flights of fancy when I notice a second picture in her bag – of me – wearing a jeweled crown and defecating on a bed of flowers.


That’s not moral responsibility, I tell her.


It’s okay, she assures me. You’re helping them grow.


I confiscate all of her markers and explain that I’m the only one in this household allowed to distort family members in the name of art.


When it’s time for dinner, she asks to eat at the art table. Fine, I say, but no drawing while you eat.


She agrees. But the problem with raising a budding artist is that everything becomes an opportunity for self-expression. And when it’s time to clean up, I can’t tell if the uneaten carrots in her lentil stew are a commentary on my cooking or a tribute to Cézanne and a hint of the revolution to come.


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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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