Tuesday 26 November 2013

Our Jesse Tree Journey

Currently caught between a toddler threatening to drop her daytime nap and a cluster feeding newborn, I fear the next few blog posts may be rather a jigsaw of stolen moments and one fingered typing over a feeding infant.

This Sunday as a whole family of four, we ventured out to one of our first local Christmas fairs. I'm not ashamed to say that I absolutely love Christmas and the first sounds of live carols normally tip me into tears, but this year, seeing my toddler's enthralled face as she watched performances as diverse as the Salvation Army band and a teenage choir, promises to be all the more magical. Christmas feels so meaningful with little ones in the house, and as I think it will be the first one that Culturebaby (now just 2) actually remembers, it seems like an important time to begin to think about creating our own family traditions and memories of Christmas. Culturedad and I each have things that we have valued and enjoyed from our own childhood and it is exciting to piece together our favourites, create hybrids and also start some new traditions of our own.

From my side, as a Catholic, something I love is the extremely rich tradition and visual symbolism - a wonderful mine for Christmas ideas. Did you know, for instance, that the wreaths hanging on our doors represent the eternal nature of God; and when we Deck the Halls with boughs of Holly, we are referencing the crown of thorns? As I mentioned in a previous post about a trip to the Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery, the plethora of statues and images found in churches have been a great way to start to talk to Culturebaby about baby Jesus and his mum. She finds them really interesting and has begun to spot them in art - for toddlers the familiar seems to catch their eye the most, and what better than Christmas scenes with their animals, bright colours and joyful imagery?

When Culturebaby was baptised last year, her Godmother bought me a truly inspiring book called The Catholic Home by Meredith Gould. I'm afraid I'm not really one for much theological reading, but this book is practical and brilliant. Taking a parent on a journey through the year, it explains festivals and feast days, gives a background to the symbolism and suggests lots of lovely traditions that can be celebrated as a family in the home. One that really leapt out at me was a section about advent and preparing for the true meaning of Christmas. There's a whole range of ideas in the book, but a particularly brilliant one to do with young children is to create your own Jesse tree. At primary school I remember one year us doing just that - as a giant wall display - and I must have found it so interesting that I can still picture it now. Reminded of this by Gould's book, and excited by the fact that this is actually a centuries old family devotion that is recently making a come-back, last year we created our own Jesse tree. It was such an enjoyable thing to do that we are planning to revive it every year and make it a new tradition that we began as a family. This year it will be so much better too as Culturebaby will be able to be really involved in it.

So what is it?

A Jesse Tree, which is hung with ornaments and symbols representing Old Testament people and events, is based on the passage from Isaiah 11:1 "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." and Matthew Chapter 1. Essentially it represents Jesus's family tree. Apparently these days you can buy sets of ready-made ornaments, but we enjoyed creating our tree from a sturdy branch we found in the park near our house and the symbols from objects we found around the house. This was a great way to use Christmas decorations, old bits of playmobil and rattles through to real apples, musical instruments and coloured-in shapes too (it is rather hard to find a technicolour dreamcoat lying around)...

Here's the list of symbols (one to be added each day like an advent calendar) taken from Meredith Gould's book:

December 1st - The World is Created – Globe – Genesis 1:24-28
December 2nd - Adam and Eve – Snake and Apples – Genesis 3:1-24
December 3rd - Noah and the Flood – Rainbow – Genesis 6:11-22; 8:6-12; 9:11-17
December 4th - Abraham – Camel – Genesis 12:1-7:13:2-18; 18:1
December 5th - Sarah – Baby – Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
December 6th - Isaac – Ram – Genesis 22:1-14
December 7th - Jacob – Ladder – Genesis 27:41-28:22
December 8th - Joseph – Multicolored Coat – Genesis 37:1-36
December 9th - Moses – Burning Bush – Exodus 3:1-10
December 10th - Miriam – Tambourine – Exodus 15:19-21
December 11th - Samuel – Lamp – 1 Samuel 3:1-21
December 12th - Jesse – Branch – Isaiah 11:1
December 13th - David – Harp – 1 Samuel 16:14-23
December 14th - Solomon – Crown – 1 Kings 3:3-28
December 15th - Isaiah – Throne – Isaiah 6:1-8
December 16th - Jeremiah – Tablets of Law – Jeremiah 31:31- 34
December 17th - Angels – Angel – Hebrews 1:1-14
December 18th - Malachi – Trumpet – Malachi 3:1-4
December 19th - Zechariah and Elizabeth – Baby - Luke 1:39- 45
December 20th - Mary – Angel – Luke 1:29-35
December 21st - John the Baptist – River – Matthew 3:1-6
December 22nd - Joseph of Nazareth – Hammer/Saw – Matthew 1:18-25
December 23rd - Bethlehem – Star – Matthew 2:1-12
December 24th - Birth of Christ – Crib – Luke 2:1-7

We also tried to bring the experience alive by reading a story about each symbol each day. Some of these were harder than others to find, and we had a good few gaps. We'd love to hear about great children's books covering some of the more obscure passages that you have come across too. There are plenty on Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph and Moses, but Miriam and Malachi are rather lesser known! I imagine this will be a work in progress over a few years...

We'll try to write about our advent journey a little more in the coming weeks, but we'd love it if you fancy joining us in creating a Jesse tree too and sharing your experience of it with us. It is such a fantastic tradition (absolutely not just for Catholics), and so easy and fun to do, that it would be brilliant to revive it in the home once more.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Animal Magnetism: Art Appreciation for Toddlers

In our recent trip to National Gallery, it was clear that yet again Culturebaby was most attracted to the paintings of animals. This has become a real theme in recent months. It is fascinating to watch how toddlers are drawn to the familiar, and now at just two with Culturebaby walking, talking and expressing preferences, I love following her and seeing what catches her eye. In our last post (read it here) I wrote a little about some of the art appreciation resources that seem to work well for Culturebaby's age, including collecting postcards of works that she has loved and using these as flashcards, and having a painting of the week. 

We have also found that a number of national and local museums have worked in really creative ways to capitalise on this interest and help toddlers to explore animal themes in art. A number of these activities could equally be designed by parents, either with a little advance planning, or as an impromptu game of I spy. Some of the best we have recently experienced have included:
  1. The Ashmolean Museum's under 5's Egyptology session last spring, which culminated in a really engaging animal-themed tour of their Egyptian collection. We also had our own impromptu hunt through the British Museum Egyptian galleries for animals we recognised too (read about these here);  
  2. I was really impressed to hear that the V and A, no doubt aware that parts of their collection might be a little tricky for young ones to explore, have produced a number of backpacks to aid children in their explorations. While Culturebump and I were snuggled up in bed having a rest, Culturebaby was transformed into Agent Animal, searching the Japan, China and South Asia Galleries to find 6 animals hiding there. The pack she was given contained audio buttons with animal noises and four fabric sensory jigsaw cubes.
  3.  At the Portland Basin Museum in Ashton-Under-Lyne, we were lucky to stumble across a local artist, Juliette Hamilton, fashioning a horse from willow as part of their War Horse Project, to create Joey from the novel “War Horse” by Michael Morpurgo;
  4.  We were also impressed by a new series of toddler sessions, Tots Tales, aimed at 2-4 year olds at one of our local museums, St Albans Museum. Due to the aforemoaned builder induced exile, we've only made it to one session so far, but Culturebaby was so impressed with it, she has been talking about it ever since. The session started with two cat themed stories and a simple craft session where the Tots made a cat from pre-prepared materials. They were then sent on a trail to find a number of postcards depicting a print of Louis Wain's cat hiding around the museum - culminating with the work itself at the end. Culturebaby and her friend enjoyed this activity so much we had to do it at least twice. They loved helping each other to find the images and equally enjoyed retracing their steps to find them again and again. The power of postcards as prompts for memories really became clear with this exercise. Culturebaby was given a picture of the cat to take away with her and regularly points at it, mentions her friend and the fact they wanted to do the trail again... "more!"
  5.  Finally, one of Culturebaby's favourite places is the fantastic collection of animals gathered by Lionel Rothchild at the Natural History Museum in Tring. I shall rave about this museum properly another day, but it is worth noting that some of these Natural History museums also do brilliant creativity sessions for toddlers to bring the collections alive. Culturebaby and her friend were recently involved in a workshop, tied in with the current exhibition theme of nocturnal animals, to create a fox mask. The session was short and well run, and the crafts were easy enough for a (nearly) two year old to handle. Some of the other upcoming activities are here.

It really is worth keeping an eye out for these sorts of sessions. They have been not only brilliant in engaging Culturebaby with the collections, and providing her with the chance for creativity and her much loved activity of 'finding things', but they also encourage her, and me, to look at items on display in a new way. By focussing on a theme or limited number of items, I've found that we look more at these and notice things we might have passed by in a normal visit.

There is also so much on this theme that you can do at home. There are some really excellent books, perfect for introducing babies and toddlers to art through the theme of animals. Here is our selection of six of the best we have discovered. We'd love to hear about any others you have found inspiring too.
1. Andy Warhol's Colours by Susan Goldman Rubin - this wonderful, colourful American board book, which we discovered online, introduces colours through Warhol's animal art. It is beautifully designed and made, is a perfect size for little fingers, feels shiny and beautiful to touch and has an engaging rhyme throughout. It was one of Culturebaby's first favourite books and came with us everywhere. The minute your baby is out of black and white books, I'd put this top of your to-buy list.

2. One Blue Hippo, An Ancient Egyptian Counting Book by the Metropolitan Museum of Art - Again this was a firm favourite with Culturebaby from a few months old. This inspired book was produced by someone who clearly had their finger on the pulse of the toddler Zeitgeist. One of the very best ways to introduce a toddler to Egyptian collections is through the familiar - animals - and this lovely little book contains photographs from the Met's collection from their iconic one Blue Hippo through cats, cows and horses, up to 10 busy scarab beetles. The fact that we knew this book well in advance of Culturebaby's trip to the British Museum made it so much easier and more exciting for her to point out similar items that had, through this book, become familiar. We picked up our copy from the British Museum shop.

3. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle - This beautifully illustrated book from the much loved author and illustrator Eric Carle takes Franz Marc's Blue Horse I (1911) as its inspiration. Culturebaby went through a phase of reading this over and over again. The book celebrates the freedom of art - that there is no wrong colour, that you don't have to stay within the lines - essentially that children should be able to produce whatever their imagination allows. I love the idea and I love the book. I also discovered a little video of the artist talking about the inspiration for producing it (you can watch this here). He too talks about the importance of introducing both painting and creativity but also museums and art books to young children. As I was writing this post, I had the book out again yesterday and Culturebaby read it four times in a row. This time I noticed that she practically knew it by heart. Is is not only simple but it provides an excellent way of learning animal names and colours.

4. I Spy Animals in Art by Lucy Micklethwait - This is part of a great series of books which take high quality famous paintings and encourage children to spot items along a theme. Containing works from a range of periods and styles, from landscape to portraiture and both Western and some Eastern art, this series could have many lives in a household and is worth investing in. Culturebaby enjoys spotting and naming items in pictures at present and this book is perfect for that, but the high quality images and useful selection of paintings along a theme could be used for project work for older children and even for the aforementioned painting of the week.

5. ABC Damien Hirst - This gorgeous book has just been published and is a work of art in itself. I particularly wanted to get it for Culturebaby because she loved Hirst's exhibition last year at the Tate Modern (see our post about it here). As I wrote at the time, some people see Hirst's work as rather macabre and might question the appropriateness of a children's ABC book containing images of many his iconic works, but I disagree. With some exceptions I find his work uplifting and hopeful, and for Culturebaby it offered a wonderland of bright moving images, live butterflies, bold colours, reflective surfaces and sparkling jewels. For Culturebaby the flies in A Thousand Years 1990 (a life cycle from cow's head, to flies, to fly killer) were merely dynamic and engaging; and the fish, lambs, cows and shark preserved in formaldehyde are (rather serene) characters recognisable from her books rather than images of death. The book isn't all animal themed, but there are a number of striking examples within it.

6. My Art Book: Animals by DK - I found this book last week and I think it has so much potential for the future. It aims to serve as an introduction to art history for young children who love animals but it is also really informative for parents. It covers a number of animal themes, looks at how animals have inspired painters through history and contains ideas for craft projects inspired by this art. It spans art as wide ranging as the Ancient Egyptians' to contemporary sculpture. I just couldn't leave it in the shop...

Friday 1 November 2013

A Cock Amongst the Pigeons

In August, at the beginning of our builder-induced exile, when we had high hopes they were on time and it looked like only a month to go (the gods on Mount Olympus must have been chuckling as they played chess with our fate) we moved to the in-laws in Surrey. It was very hot, I was very pregnant and it seemed like one of the best possible activities was to hang out in cool galleries in London. For the first time Culturebaby and I tagged along with some of her slightly older pals, on a trip to the National Gallery.

Personally, I love the National with its fantastic collection of iconic paintings, but I was interested to see how Culturebaby, a seasoned Tate Modern goer, would react to this much more figurative art and rather more formal atmosphere.

We started with Trafalgar Square, the fountains and fourth plinth. The fourth plinth is a great idea. Situated in the North West corner of the square, and contrasting strongly with the masculine and imperialist imagery elsewhere, the vision was to inject some innovative contemporary artwork into the public realm, and raise debate about the role and nature of contemporary art in our public space. Over the last 7 years this has been rather successful, the most entertaining commission perhaps being Anthony Gormley's One and Other (2009), where for 24 hours a day over 100 days, normal members of the public occupied the plinth. The current resident, unveiled to much debate and instagraming in July, is a giant bright aquamarine Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch. As The Telegraph notes in its review "Fritsch is a feminist whose intention with this sculpture, which stands 50ft away from Nelson atop his phallic column, is to mock male posturing – “She said it’s all to do with a woman’s rendition of a man, or something like that,” reported Boris. So she probably wants us to find it daft." All genuinely interesting for mummies. However, for a toddler who is rather into identifying animals at present, this was just taken at face value as a marvellous London-bus sized bright blue rooster. Culturebaby loved it and spent a while pointing and wandering round the base. And just as in our previous post about Egyptology for little ones (here), again images of animals dominated her attention and stole the show throughout the gallery too. It is fascinating to watch how toddlers are drawn to the familiar, and now with Culturebaby walking and beginning to talk and express preferences, it was wonderful to follow her to particular works to see what caught her eye. A few of her particular favourites were:
  1. Uccello's St George and the Dragon (Horses and dragons)
  2. Uccello's The Battle of San Romano (Horses)
  3. George Stubbs' Whistlejacket (Horse)
  4. Edouard Manet's Woman with a Cat (Cat)
  5. The absolute star - Henri Rousseau's Surprised! (Tiger)
And it wasn't only the animal art that attracted her; she and the other children stopped to examine the animals and images in the mosaic floor that I must have tramped over a hundred times without looking at closely enough. (As I've noted before, I LOVE this about toddlers - how their speed and interests make you stop to examine things you may have become blind to over time and get you to appreciate them anew). Culturebaby is also a big fan of vehicles (especially trains) and loved Claude Monet's The Gare St-Lazare and various images of boats. I've also recently seen a really positive and engaging side to the smells, bells and images of our Catholicism, perhaps taken for granted since my own childhood. Culturebaby enjoys looking at the statues, windows and paintings in churches we attend. Because of these, she's on first name terms with baby Jesus and his mum - and she really recognised them in the art, particularly of the Sainsbury Wing (oldest items in the Gallery).

A highlight of the trip for everyone, however, was definitely when, in front of Rousseau's wonderful painting Surprised! my supermummy friend (who comes up with inspiring educational ideas that I'd fail to think of myself) settled down on the floor with our tribe of children and read Katie's Picture Show by James Mayhew. The title is the first in a brilliant series of illustrated children's books about a girl who explores famous paintings by climbing inside them. Culturebaby is still a little young to fully appreciate these inspired books, but as she looked at the images and gazed at the picture above, she pointed and flicked back through the illustrations again and again, clearly very excited that the picture in the story she was listening to was there in the flesh in front of her. The impromptu storytime gathered rather a rabble of other young gallery goers in addition to our own who also enjoyed this experience of bringing the painting to life. We then went on to search out some of the other works which featured in the book, and it was only afterwards we discovered that the Gallery has also used the books for inspiration and has a Katie trail available for children and downloadable resources you can get in advance of your trip. What an excellent idea.

Fourth Plinth commission, Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch was unveiled on 25 July 2013 in London’s Trafalgar Square - See more at: http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/arts-culture/fourth-plinth/katharina-fritsch#sthash.m60uez2A.dpuf
The new Fourth Plinth commission, Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch was unveiled on 25 July 2013 in London’s Trafalgar Square - See more at: http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/arts-culture/fourth-plinth/katharina-fritsch#sthash.m60uez2A.dpuf
Over the past seven years the Fourth Plinth in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square has become home to some of the world’s most innovative artworks. - See more at: http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/arts-culture/fourth-plinth#sthash.fBT96EMR.dp

I've heard mixed reviews from parents about their experience of the National Gallery with young children, and likewise our experience had its high and lows. It looks like they are increasingly making a real effort to produce age appropriate events and trails, and with spray-painting art terrorists around I can see why the staff are very vigilant, but we did find that rather than acting as interpreters or behaving in a welcoming manner the room attendants were more like police than anything else. As I and others have pointed out before, toddlers often need to understand and orient themselves in space before they engage with its contents... and yes this may mean some darting around. The gallery wasn't very busy when we first went in, but we were still watched with suspicion and told to keep away from the tempting toddler-height barriers (practically impossible). For the majority of paintings, it is quite clear that a child couldn't anywhere near reach, let alone damage the art. I originally became a lover of art as a result of a collection of prints and art books my mum introduced to me as a baby, as well as regular trips to Manchester's fabulous galleries. We had a picture of the week and a set of postcards I continually sorted through. Many of these were from the National and other such galleries, and I still find it is these iconic images of my childhood that I am most drawn to when I visit the gallery now. Allowing young children to experience and enjoy the space, and recognise the art they are shown at home, is absolutely crucial and I really hope that the gallery will continue to remind itself that, if not for early education first of all, who is this art ultimately for?

As our gallery trip coincided with a fabulously sunny day, we continued our animal theme as we wandered past Wallinger's White Horse outside the British Council, and across St James's Park on our way to the train. I've walked past it so many times, but was delighted to discover that the little children's sandpit to the Buckingham Palace end that is visible from the path, is in fact a rather wonderful little playground. It was clean and seemingly safe (only adults with children can enter), and has a great selection of equipment, including a giant sandpit. This was a really useful find and an ideal place to stop to let little ones run off steam. It even has toilets just for children.

 This trip to the National really made me think about some of the best and most appropriate resources I've come across for toddlers of Culturebaby's age and I thought I'd share some here. First of all I mentioned that my mother collected postcards of the art she or I most liked and we used these at home to discuss and browse through. I have started to do this myself and plan to be much more organised about using them in the coming months. I've noticed that Culturebaby both loves and treats very differently her selection of flash cards than she does books. She seems to like the size of them and the independence they afford her - she can flick through them, sort and line them up, select her favourites and I've recently observed her going through a pack and naming certain elements. Postcards can of course be used in the same way. If you also wanted to buy a ready made art card pack to start your collection we'd recommend Usborne's Famous Paintings Art Cards produced in association with the National Gallery. They have useful facts for parents and Culturebaby has used them from a young age. 

Secondly, as I say, my mum used to have a picture of the week propped up at our dinner table. This was a great idea I fully intend to start as soon as the builders and their barrels of dust leave the building... We talked about the art as we ate and, as I distinctly remember many of these images now, it must have really worked. You can buy packs of posters and images of paintings, but I also find that cut up calendars and some of the big adult art books you can buy from Taschen, Phaidon and others do the job very well. You just need pages that are occupied by one whole image to make this most effective. 

I also wanted to point you in the direction of a brilliant blog series created by Red Ted Art called Kids Get Arty. Every couple of months they research a particular artist and use this as inspiration for a crafty project. They also provide a link to a range of other bloggers' projects along the same lines. It is a mine of wonderful and inspiring ideas and I can't wait to start some of these projects with Culturebaby in the coming months.

Finally, of course, there are many great introductory art books that are perfect for Culturebaby's age - far too many to mention here - and we'll cover a number of these in various future themed posts. Our next, to follow very shortly, will explore this animal magnetism for little gallery goers...
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