Written for Dollhouse:Art as Serious Play exhibition at ARC Gallery
Dollhouse: Art as Serious Play has deep personal resonance for me. I wrote this article for the exhibition catalog, as well as creating a new dollhouse for the exhibit at ARC Gallery Jan 15-Feb 19, 2022.
Conventional wisdom has it that play is the stuff of childhood, When we grow up, we are supposed to leave it all behind. But, artists don’t have to abandon play for “real life.” In fact, artists have the tenacity to take play to a finely tuned level, using their observation and world making skills to create exquisite works of art.
As a child, your job is to figure out the world. The word given to this is “play.” With imagination, the tools at hand (crayons, leaves, rocks, a bit of fabric, a toilet paper tube, a feather, a lego set, an ipad or whatever strikes your fancy), you make worlds. You observe and experiment, you put things together and make up stories. If you are lucky, you spend lots of time in the land of make believe.
Remember the feeling? Working with the curators on this exhibition, I had the good fortune to rediscover my earliest love of making dollhouses. It was exhilarating. I realized—emerging from hours of resurrecting long-buried skills and nascent ideas—that the process called “play” when children do it is intimately related to the feeling adults relish as “flow.” Also known as “being in the zone,” flow is the state of being fully engaged and focused. Ideas coalesce, problems untangle, solutions unfold, and there is (maybe) a triumphant resolution. Children at play are similarly engaged and focused while creating worlds, learning to express themselves, communicating their vision to others … It’s like making art.
I’d like to take a time out here to acknowledge that many children do not have access to art supplies, toys, or enrichments like music, dance and theater. Family strife, environmental violence, societal upheaval, bullying, deprivation, and loneliness cruelly interrupt this crucial developmental time. But for all kids, those experiencing trauma as well as those more fortunate, even limited access to art can be the catalyst for great feats of imagination that provide order and comfort. As David Bayles and Ted Orland, authors of the influential book on the process of making art, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Making Art (2001), explain “artists make a world so that they will have a place to belong.” Whatever the circumstance, these childhood experiences may generate eager artists.
Of course, not every child is going to choose to pursue art. But early access to the arts has been proven to improve outcomes in school and life, providing avenues of focus and problem solving that expand into other fields of knowledge and abilities. Teaching artist Eric Booth explains in The Everyday Work of Art (2001) that the same processes that fuel art propel every life path. An accountant or a computer programmer can enter “the zone” just as well as any painter and derive just as much satisfaction from their pursuits. The distinction is that when someone chooses art as a vocation, they persist in the land of play, devoting their energy and expertise towards expressing their views in original works of art.
“Dollhouse: Art as Serious Play” curators Priscilla Otani and Tanya Wilkinson invited artists to reach back into their own way-back machines to the roots of their own creative lives. Fascinatingly diverse works have emerged featuring not only icons of childhood—tricycles, cereal boxes, dolls, costumes—but also sensory memories and evocative images of wholly individual experiences of childhood.
I am delighted to have a small part in this important exhibition that connects the dots between art, flow, and play. It is especially wonderful to see how the artists here have artfully channeled play into serious work. Art is serious play. They knew it all along!