'And I'll tell oo a story,' said Bruno, beginning in a great hurry for fear of Sylvie getting the start of him: 'once there were a Mousea little tiny Mousesuch a tiny little Mouse! Oo never saw such a tiny Mouse'
'Did nothing ever happen to it, Bruno?' I asked. 'Haven't you anything more to tell us, besides its being so tiny?'
'Nothing never happened to it,' Bruno solemnly replied.
'Why did nothing never happen to it?' said Sylvie, who was sitting, with her head on Bruno's shoulder, patiently waiting for a chance of beginning her story.
'It were too tiny,' Bruno explained.
Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Chapter Fourteen
Thankfully, human children are a bit more logical than elves, or my experience with the cultivation of "textual art" here at the South City Open Studio and Gallery might go something like the above quote. And although "It were too tiny" is a fine ending to a story about a mouse, try this in comparison:
In the land of red hills and purple trees
A river flows into a cave
And out the back as a pink and blue rainbow.
The rainbow flows past clouds
With staircases and windmills in them.
That story poem, written by Danielle, the sole student in my "Brain Painting" class, ends with the line
The snake bit him. The end.
The untitled poem was written as part of an exercise I often use in which a student will create a piece of visual art a drawing, a painting, a clay sculpture then translate that idea into another form. Often a written description of the piece comes into play as an intermediate step in this process, before the student creates another drawing, painting, or sculpture. Take, for instance, this charming (if somewhat macabre) story by an eight-year-old open studio artist:
People Who Went to Jail
One day this lady went to jail for 1,000,087,899 years (for three reasons):
- For trying to poison a dragon because he wouldn't help her out of her wheelchair.
- For trying to eat a sea monster because he wouldn't cut her hair and fix her house.
- For trying to be immortal.
Next, the sea monster went to jail for three years because he wouldn't cut the lady's hair and fix her house and for cutting the lady's head off to make her a nearly headless lady.
Then the dragon went to jail for one year because he didn't take the lady out of her wheelchair.
This story, which by the way caused me a slight bit of unfounded worry when he showed it to his mother (I imagined hearing "Why are you letting my kid write this stuff?"), was inspired by three little clay figures Connor had made at the beginning of the session. As I sat and talked with him about them, making suggestions that he took or ignored as he saw fit, a story began to develop out of the disparate lumps and scratch marks he was making. And so, it seemed to me, he was able to harness somewhat the wild and stormy creativity bouncing around in his head. By the time he got to the third and final step in this exercise, he was able to produce a fairly refined drawing of the three characters much more corporeal and thought-out, by way of the story.
Recently, I taught a class called "Signs and Wonders" which, among other projects, culminated in the production of a small self-published "literary journal," which we distributed to Mangia Italiano, MoKaBe's, and around South City. "BOOGA BOGGA: the power of the mind (what's next kitty kat?)", a smashing success if I do say so myself, contained poems, stories, artwork and comics by the class' two students as well as various random young folk. Brooklyn contributed this piece:
If you have an antsy ant problem,
Call the Vacuum!
If you have a buggy bug problem,
Call the Vacuum!
If you have a sticky toe fungus problem,
Sick! Don't call the Vacuum!
The poem was accompanied by a drawing of an anteater.
Her partner in rhyme, Rachel, experimented with the limits of the English language with this bit of prose:
One day this guy called Mr. Dr. Logtip Weirdo made a bird that he called Summententetertetitotut. Mr. Dr. Logtip Weirdo told his bird that its nickname is Keenover. Mr. Dr. Logtip Weirdo told Keenover to find a mouse for an experiment. When Keenover returned it had a grasshopper. Mr. Dr. Logtip Weirdo thought it was a mouse because he is a weirdo, after all. Mr. Dr. Logtip Weirdo used the "mouse" in an experiment but Mr. Dr. Logtip Weirdo exploded.
Part of what I'm trying to do with these writing exercises is to entice my students to explore the joys of the written word on their own terms, without someone telling them that what they're writing doesn't make sense or isn't using proper English. Too numerous are my memories of childhood classmates who would often spout off such tragic remarks as, "I'm stupid!" or, "This sucks!" in reference to reading or writing. As another generation of future leaders of the world turned green and cheese-headed in front of television sets, bored or inept teachers continued to drill them daily with rules of grammar and syntax that seem, to this day, absurd. I'm not saying that knowing proper sentence structure isn't important (at the very least to make an informed attack against it), but there's something very wrong with a process of education that turns kids away from enjoying such a dazzling playground as language and composition.
Jason Wallace Triefenbach has been teaching at the South City Open Studio and Gallery in Tower Grove Park since its founding earlier this year. Before that, he says, he was a beleaguered and wayward soul.