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Snapshot on Suzy Flood

Having been exposed to the work of photographer Suzy Flood and thinking it something very special – beautiful, sublime, haunting, timeless – I found myself asking her to photograph my son Enlai.

Her photographs of young children stayed on my mind days after looking at them.  I could see these children’s faces everywhere I looked.  Their gazes seemed to be fixed, and collectively, it seemed as though the children were amongst a group that perhaps lived in the woods, laughing, playing, singing, running around barefoot and climbing trees.  And they only stopped long enough to take a photo for Suzy.  Because of this, I imagined she had some sort of magical power over them.

Of course the children she has photographed are not Children of the Woods, nor is Suzy a magician.  What she is is a photographer who knows what she’s doing and, upon meeting the child, realises the image she wants.  She gets a feel for the child, allows him/her to reveal themselves and is patient for that revelation.  I asked Suzy if I could interview her to gain insight into her and her practice.  Below is an excerpt from this interview.

Despite W. C. Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children, you have chosen to.  What made you decide to start photographing children?  Crazy, I know but I think that’s the draw for me.  The challenge, the unpredictability and the amazing little people I discover during the process.  Kids are just incredible.

Can you remember what initially made you decide to try your hand in photography?  My mother had an old brownie camera and I was completely fascinated by it.  Most photographers say it was the magic of the image but for me it was all about the machine, the rest came later.

Do you think having a child had an impact on your approach to photography and the subjects that you chose to photograph?  Completely.  If you showed me a crystal ball ten years ago (my daughter is now six) I wouldn’t have believed what I saw — me photographing children?  Life is very funny.

Were you exposed to art and/or photography as a child?  Yes.  Mostly film and some photography, again from my mother.  Lots of Italian and art house stuff.

When I first saw your photographs, I thought of Julia Margaret Cameron photographs.  What or who inspires your photography?  Where do I begin? August Sander and Rineke Dijkstra for their direct formal approach to portraiture.  The many anonymous Victorian photographers for their romance.  Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange and Sebastião Salgado for their heart and dedication.  Many more but I won’t bore you.

While working for Condé Nast, Hearst, Time Inc. and The New  York Times Magazine Group, did you ever run into difficult situations over creative differences?  Nothing major, although I remember once I had a camera malfunction while shooting Joanne Woodward at her home.  I was gutted and they couldn’t use any of it.  And she was so lovely she brought me sandwiches!

Do you prefer to photograph in a studio or outdoors?  Definitely outdoors.  There’s something about children in nature that I find really compelling.  And those grey London skies couldn’t be matched by the most expensive studio light made — although it gets a bit tricky for me when the sun comes out!

What camera(s) do you shoot with?  I miss my film cameras greatly but when they stopped making the films and papers I liked I spent many hours perfecting a digital process that would meet my vision and quality standards.  I now happily use a Canon 5D Mark II mostly with a beautiful 50mm 1.2 lens.

What do you require, if anything, children to bring to one of your shoots?  Bring themselves and some patience, maybe a small treat to “make the magic happen”.  Sometimes a prop, a toy, hat, or costume can add a little something.  I generally tell parents to keep clothing simple and not too dark (no stripes please).

How much input do parents have during a shoot?  It varies.  Most parents are pretty hands off, which seems to work well with most kids.  Sometimes I have them hold the reflector, which keeps them on the scene but busy.  My best pictures happen when it’s a collaboration between me and the child.  Having said that, some parents have proved incredibly helpful and artistic.

Why do you think parents would opt for you to photograph their child(ren) as opposed to a more commercial photographer?  That’s hard for me to answer without embarrassing myself but some clients have said they liked the timeless quality of my pictures and could see them hanging in their homes beside ancestral photographs.  I’ve also been told that they look more like something you might see in a gallery and that really appeals to some families.  I don’t know, I guess they’re just different.

Suzy will have a booth at Cabbages & Frocks Market in London this Saturday, 26 October from 11am to 5pm.  She is offering 20% off her session fee for all November bookings.

Brain Frieze: The Art Edit

It’s no big secret that I love art.  I’ve put pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – about a variety of art-related topics, about how my father exposed me to art from a very young age, about exhibitions my sons and I have been to, about teaching art to little ones.

So it comes as no surprise that come October every year, as a Londoner, I get this giddy feeling in my belly.  I anticipate all the works that I will be able to see, all the art my sons’ pretty little eyes will be able to take in.

It’s not all about that miniscule art fair in Regent’s Park every tenth month of every year.  Frieze, I think it’s called.  It’s about the air in London for those whole 31 days.  It’s autumn and chilly but the sun still comes out.  There’s rain, but there’s a crisp day not too far away.  There’s half-term and Halloween, but above all, there is art.  It’s everywhere, hiding under burnt-orange and red-yellow leaves, beneath the tyres of black cabs, ebbing and flowing with the Thames, splashing on brollies, lurking in old stairwells and inside gargoyles’ mouths, and hovering in Turner skies.

The Frieze Art Fair is like the patriarch who invites his entire family of galleries – the distant cousin in Bogota, the grandchildren in New York, the aunt in Beijing and the nephews in Paris – to come to town wearing their best garb and showcase themselves as if they were Prince Harry’s “crown jewels”.

And like patriarch Michael Corleone, Frieze can be intimidating.  Especially if you’re a parent with a child whose attention span is…oh, did someone say pizza?  Or if your child is having a tantrum and in so doing, about to knock over an £8,000 sculpture.  This year, while I would like to take my boys to Frieze, I think that for health and safety reasons – my health, their safety – I’ll opt to take them to the Frieze Sculpture Park, as well as expose them to art at different white cubes around town, on alternate days.

It’s good for their being, this art stuff.  While at the “Photography, Motherhood and Identity” exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery (which runs until 5 January 2014), my six-year-old Enlai asked a lot of questions and made a lot of comments, including noting that Ana Casas Broda’s body was different than mine.  We talked about female bodies and how they may change after giving birth, and I reminded him that this is often how humans learn and make sense of the world around them – by comparing and contrasting.  And this led to a conversation about balance, about responsibility, about unconditional love.  All this from looking at one photographer’s project.

Here are some local exhibitions I think my and your youngins might enjoy:

Some sweeties for your sweeties

Pop over to Blain Southern on Hanover Square to see Candy, a show highlighting Damien Hirst’s Visual Candy series alongside Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy sculptures.  Children will likely appreciate Gonzalez-Torres’ candy spills made of candies individually wrapped in coloured cellophane.  They are allowed to “interact” with these candy sculptures, choosing to touch, take or eat the candy.  Hirst’s colourful paintings, two entitled “Some Fun” and “Dippy Dappy Dabby”, set out to question the implication that aesthetically pleasing art is inherently insignificant.  This, from an artist who said “…art is about life – there isn’t anything else.”

Lots of flashing lights

I took my 14-month-old Lumen to see Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima’s I-Model at Lisson Gallery, and he seemed completely fascinated.  Perhaps it’s because light itself is his namesake, but it was as though he was hypnotised by the glittering panels of coloured LED numbers and the connected wires that were sculptures in themselves.  We stepped into the domed “Life Palace (Tea House)” structure after taking our shoes off and sat – mesmerised – by the constellation of blue lights, with numbers glowing and blinking in the dark space.  The fact that it is highly unlikely that Lumen understood the concepts and years of research behind these pieces is no matter; he was intrigued by what was in front of him, and this is always enough for me.

A sort of anti-painting which includes painting

In all honesty, I’m eager to take my little fellas to this show, The Show is Over at Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, for the sheer amount of artists exhibited, several of whom are some of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century, including Willem de Kooning, Yves Klein, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol.  While I imagine Enlai and Lumen might welcome the diversity of works on display, I am fascinated with the concept of the negation of painting.  These works show punctures and slashes, monochromatic planes, and anarchistic symbols, all of which aim to confront the limits of painting.

Ashy phones and radios

Similar to the relics our children may have witnessed at the British Museum, Daniel Arsham’s ash- and glass-cast treasures – Polaroid camera, film projector, radio, Mickey Mouse telephone, microphone, and locks – provide an entry to conversations with our precious little people about history, civilisations, technology, and materials.  A relatively small exhibition by Arsham, who is a sculptor, painter, filmmaker and architect, #recollections at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery also includes a life-size cast of broken glass and resin of himself.  He looks like a contemporary version of a petrified Pompeian who is shielding his eyes from something.  I will ask Enlai if he thinks he was shielding his eyes because he was appalled by the threat of technology, was he making a gesture of denial about what was happening around him, was he trying to pause for a moment to make a mental note of all his surroundings, or was the sun too bright that day and he forgot his sunglasses.

Tutankhamen’s tomb and cloth sculptures

There are not one, but two exhibitions worth taking the munchkins to at Annely Juda Fine Art just off New Bond Street.  Yuko Shiraishi’s Signal show features eight paintings and the installation “Netherworld”, the latter of which I’m most enthusiastic to expose my boys to.  Inspired by the thought that death and stars are related, and influenced by the structural design of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the cycle of a star’s life, she created the installation – placed in a closed off section of the gallery, which is tinged in blue to resemble the night sky – to depict the numerous layers in an Egyptian tomb.  The early works of Japanese artist Katsuhiro Yamaguchi are on display in Imaginarium, his first show in London.  A member of Experimental Workshop, whose philosophy was to treat experiment as if it were as important in art as it is in science, he wants viewers to interact, even involuntarily, with his works, which in this show include light sculptures, cloth sculptures, vitrines, drawings, photographs and videos.

Human and computer collaboration on abstract paintings

In a space between analogue and digital lives Jeff Elrod’s art practice.  His show at Simon Lee Gallery, which includes large-scale abstract paintings, explores late 20th century abstraction and the emergence of sophisticated software and print technology.  His pieces, with such titles as “Sock in the Eye”, “Orange Julius” (oh, the memories of having an Orange Julius at the local shopping mall are rushing back to me!) and “I Can’t See Neon” include blotches, scribbles, doodles, spots, flecks, streaks, sprays, and frazzled lines.  I imagine my boys will be inspired to create their own versions of Jeff Elrod pieces, minus any help from technology.

An electric alphabet soup

My sons will have no idea of the history, the three years behind Shannon Ebner’s The Electric Comma show on at Sadie Coles HQ and a parallel project Black Box Collision A which is on view at the gallery’s mews location, but they don’t need to.  While my little guy is being exposed to letters in books and my older guy is busy studying for spelling tests, I think they’ll both appreciate and feel a sense of familiarity with Ebner’s letters and words.  The show features six black-and-white photographs depicting portions of The Electric Comma, which began as a 13-line poem, as well as a video that animates photographs of the portable changeable message sign (usually used to inform of accidents, road closures or detours) the artist rented, taken in 15 different positions over the course of one day.  Black Box Collision A is made up of 13 large-scale photographs of the letter ‘A’ which were found on walls, vehicles, electronic surfaces and building façades.  I think Enlai and I will attempt to come up with words or cities or countries that begin with the letter “A” for each of the 13 photographs.

Pop goes the art show

There’s something in this exhibition – Pop Imagery at Waddington Custot Galleries – for every child.  The group exhibition of painting and sculptures by such artists as Patrick Caulfield, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Rauschenberg includes objects easily recognisable to children, including flags, targets, maps, colour pyramids, robots and a giant meatball on a spoon.  I’m guessing it might be a bit tricky to keep small hands off of some of these pieces.

The Mother Load of Art

While I have no burning desire for my four-year-old son or the sweet pea in my belly to be artists, I want them to know art, to feel art, to rely on art if they need to, to trust art when they feel they can’t trust humans, to mistrust art when their instincts tell them to, to crave art – more than salty or spicy thises or thats, more than chocolate – to find art and to allow it find them, to look for the chords, the dissonance, the obsession, the adoration and the repulsion, and the constriction and the breath in art.  I want my children to have the intelligence which will help them decide when an artist is being true.

My son Enlai and I have been to exhibitions aplenty.  There was the time we went to see Sigrid Holmwood at Annely Juda Fine Art, when Enlai in his baby carrier kicked his legs feverishly in front of one particular piece with fluorescent lemon yellow and lead antimonite among other media as I considered Van Gogh’s influence and started thumbing around my bag to find my sunglasses.  It was bright in the gallery during Holmwood’s occupation.

While we’re on Mr. Vincent V.G., there was the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters”.  Upon walking into the first room, with wall-to-wall paintings, drawings and letters, Enlai surveyed the space and in the same shouting voice he uses at the playground to get my attention when he is competing with the volume that accompanies after-school energy he declared, “Oh, great, I love Picasso!”  The gentleman a few feet away was not amused.  I was.

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I Scream, You Scream

Thrifty’s Mint n Chip ice cream.  Knee-high to a grasshopper, I remember it being all of 15 cents (9 pence) for a single scoop.  Each lick of the green and brown stuff was like arctic euphoria, and this flavour remained my favoured frosty friend for years.  That is, until I sampled butter pecan and green tea flavours.  And then those two fellas from Vermont had me hooked on their Vanilla Toffee Crunch.  I could easily eat a whole pint in one go.  Ditto for Haagen Dazs’ Pralines and Cream, which has served as my glacial gratifier for the last handful of years.  But above all the aforementioned flavours, there is only one which sent my gustatory cells into a shivery tizzy – Haagen Dazs’ Limited Edition Mascarpone, Passion Fruit & Truffles.  Nobody could talk to me while I ate it.  The lights in the room had to be dim.  And I had to have a blanket on me.

Although accounts of how I licked the life out of my favourite flavours could easily make up the bulk of my creamy chronicles, the chronicles could not be complete without the chase scene.  My childhood involved not one chase scene, but several.  Ice cream trucks frequently drove up and down my granny’s street, and upon hearing that first note of the truck’s melodic chime, I worked myself into a frenzy.  The truck was usually a mile away, but due to my keen sense of hearing when it came to all things ice cream, I would dart inside the house to beg my granny for change.  My granny was usually occupied doing things that grannies do, but because ice cream was the top priority, I always expected her to stop everything in order to get her coin purse and give me some change.  My poor granny was arthritic so it would take her what seemed years to a seven-year-old to shuffle to her room to get her coin purse and shuffle back to the front door to give me some coins.  I usually ended up having to chase the ice cream truck, which had since driven past my granny’s house.  I always bought the same ice cream – Strawberry Shortcake.

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Five Favourite iPad Apps for Munchkins at the Mo

I used to travel heavy.  By heavy, I mean when my son and I travelled to the US last year, three of the carry-ons were full of his toys, books, markers, stickers, and puzzles.  It wasn’t that I thought he actually needed all of this for the 11-hour flight, but I was concerned for the welfare of our fellow passengers.  I didn’t want any of them to be privy to a meltdown in the skies.

On the way to the flight gate – a beast of burden carrying my son and these huge bags (so colossal that they didn’t fit in the handy “check if your carry-ons are small enough to be considered carry-ons” guide near the check-in counter, but I winked and smiled at the counter attendant and managed to finagle my way through) – I vowed to find the toy of all toys.  I was on a quest for the ultimate all-in-one little darling’s doodah that didn’t require me carrying half our home, the toy that came complete with bells, whistles and foghorns, with cry-proof gadgetry (for the little guy and me), with harm-proof gadgetry (for passers-by and passengers in the seats near us), and with educational gallimaufry.

A few months after this trip, my son was in hospital and a friend of his let him borrow her iPad.  Complete with games, books and movies, this little rectangular piece of technology became the Apple of his eye (amusing myself with that pun, I am).  This book-sized piece of modern machinery was the toy I had been searching for, the holy grail of playthings.  This extraordinary curio eliminated the need for me to carry 30lbs worth of child amusement accoutrement.

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Wherefore art?

“Let’s go back to the other art project, let’s go back to the snow,” my little guy said over and over.  While some parents dread hearing “Are we there yet, are we there yet?” I was starting to develop pleadstoreturntothisparticularartpiecephobia.  The “art project” he was referring to was Oliver Guy-Watkins’ installation entitled “Technicolour Process”, created with wood, resin, wax, reclaimed furniture, salt, Dacron, shredded poly, rockwall, spray frost and LED lights.  I could understand his desire to continually go back to view this work; he was afforded his own mini winter wonderland.  I too was intrigued by what I saw to be a slice of our modern age viewed through an apocalyptic filter.

For sale at the bargain price of £22,500, this piece was one of over 400 pieces on display from nearly 80 students at the Central Saint Martins MA Fine Art degree show.  It was especially important for me to view this exhibition as it is the last show to take place at the historical Charing Cross site.  So long Soho, hello King’s Cross and Archway, the two locations to which the programme is moving.

When my son was not even a week old, I took him to see a previous degree show there.  Well, I didn’t really take him to “see” the show as his eyes were barely open.  And I may or may not have had my own yearning to see the exhibition.  I think I secretly hoped that all the energy and creativity in the works would  somehow affect my breast milk production, and by some osmosis-like process find their way to my son’s psyche and bones when I gave him the boob.  High hopes, you say?  Okay, I’ll give you that.  Delusional, freakish mom?  Fine.  You can have that, too.

The institution that is Central Saint Martins holds a distinctive place in my ticker.  More important than it being the establishment from which I received my degree, it represents a wish I had that I was determined to fulfill, and it represents the mother of all psychological experiments.

In my final year as a US college student, I decided to study in London.  While studying abroad – at a school that was a two-minute walk to the British Museum – one of my professors was keen to introduce us to different art schools throughout London, giving us their respective histories, telling us of different alumni, and explaining the schools’ diverse curriculum.  Of all these art schools, Central Saint Martins is the one that stood out for me.  There was an odour of  imagination and authenticity, and a stench of sweat, acrylics, and varnishes that took hold of me and never loosened its grip.  I told myself I would be back in London to attend Central Saint Martins one day.

Fast forward a decade later, and my husband and I were now living in London.  There we were on a lazy Sunday, and out of nowhere, he declared that he was going to apply to get his Master of Laws.  I told him that if it would make him happy to obtain yet another degree – he already had three – and if he thought it would improve his chances of being accepted into the Overachiever Hall of Fame, he should go for it.  And then it happened.  The thought.  The thought of me realising my own dream of going to Central Saint Martins.  I asked my husband what he thought, and he said, “Apply today!”  He suggested I apply to more than one school, to which I responded, “There’s really only one.”  So I sat down, filled out the forms and wrote my statement.  That statement is an assemblage of the most honest words I’ve ever written.  I started to write it, with words, sentiments, and examples pouring out, and I finished it in about ten minutes.  And I felt strongly about not wanting to edit it.

When the letter arrived saying I was accepted into the programme, there may have been some yippeekayaying, some yahooing, some jumping on the bed.  There is a possibility that I may have headed to Cass Art, Cowling & Wilcox and London Graphic Centre that same day to peruse some goodies.  A slight possibility.

I met some exceptionally intelligent and ingenious artists on the course.  I even asked one of my fellow artists to be my son’s godfather.  That said, the experience wasn’t an all together affable one.  In fact – probably because of my emotional makeup – I felt like the course was a psychological experiment of gargantuan proportions.  Freud and his buddies would’ve had a field day, with the egos, screams, crying, grunting, perversity, and other unmentionables I witnessed.  But with art and artists, as with almost any endeavour or occupation, there will be neuroses.

As my little fella and I walked from floor to floor to view this year’s degree show, memories of being there in my pre-mom days surrounded me.  I was  reminded of critiques from tutors and fellow students, of visits to certain exhibitions together, of discussions about Frieze and Art Basel, and of smoking Zhong Nan Hai reds for the first time on the stairwell (not me, of course, but my fellow students).  Nicotine is bad, I tell ya, bad, bad, bad.

There were several pieces that both Enlai and I were captivated by, among them Pallas Citroen’s “The ecstasy of Saint Theresa” and Tan Peiling’s “Room with a postcard on floor”.  The latter explores how visual media informs human perception and understanding of reality.  While I was fascinated by how Peiling challenges us to reassess how a visual-biased culture shapes our attention and experience, my little prince wondered what the heck was going on in the space until he saw a portion of the postcard and said, “Ma, it’s a mystery.  Let’s ask Scooby and Shaggy to help us solve it.”

Rock on in your new digs, Central Saint Martins, and if you happen to come across an application years from now from one Enlai Rooney, I can attest – with a tiny bias – that he’s an extraordinary artist, and you’d be crazy to not admit him into the MA Fine Art programme.

It’s A Puzzling Thing, Really

I’m a smidgen of a puzzle geek and have been for as long as I can remember.  When I was in the hospital as a young child, I credit my Cinderella jigsaw puzzle with saving my life.  If I wasn’t running away from doctors and nurses, I was doing this puzzle of the future princess as she climbed into her carriage.  I believe I was doing it for the 941st time when the doctors decided to discharge me.

As an adult, I have done many a jigsaw puzzle with my mom.  The more pieces, the better.  The more complicated, and I could hardly contain my excitement.  I know.  Geek.  Someone told me I might need a little more of something else in my life.  Different blog post entirely, my friend, different blog post entirely.

Not completely sure if it’s down to nature or nurture, but my son seems to share my love of puzzles.  I don’t think he likes the fact that I’m neurotic about my line of attack to puzzle completion, but this dislike of his has taught me a thing or two about self-control and the fact that the journey is often more fulfilling than the destination.

In our puzzle pursuits together – as I hold back from completing the cardboard conundrums and timber toughies in 0.8 seconds – I have to remind myself that the little guy is developing his shape and size recognition, spatial relation skills, logic, and perseverance.  And at my son’s current age, such development often requires minimal interference, so I’m told.

As my husband observed me and my son doing a puzzle together one day, he gave me a somewhat alarmed look, asking why I never disclosed my love of puzzles pre-marriage, to which I responded, “Oh sweetheart, my honey, my snuggle buggle, you do know that puzzles are considered brain-challenging activities, right?  And do you know what such activities do?  Well, my dearest, they build up a reserve of neuron connections.  And do you know what this reserve does, sweetie pie?  Well, let me tell you.  It takes longer for the Alzheimer’s process to destroy enough neurons, which ultimately means that jigsaw puzzles can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, which means I might actually remember that you’re my husband when we’re in our later decades.”  After listening to my response, his look was even more fretful, prompting my son to ask, “What’s wrong with pa?”

Because my affection for interlocking and tessellating pieces of joy is on par with Simon Cowell’s fondness for tight shirts, I was over the moon when Bags of Love asked me to review a personalised photo jigsaw.  Christmas came early in our home this year as I unwrapped the Bags of Love package to reveal a silver tin box which sheltered 96 chunky wooden bits of happiness.

I immediately cleared a space on our dining table, using one forearm to brush away any and all plates, bowls, cutlery, papers, toys and other slab stuff to the floor.  In one fell swoop, broken belongings were scattered on the ground.  Who cares, it was puzzle time. 

My little prince commented on the photo on the hinged lid of the tin box, saying, “That’s me!”  My husband – holding a few pieces in his hand – remarked, “Wow, these are pretty cool.  There’s a nice weight to them.”  Truth be told, the thick, glossy, laminated pieces did make for a posh little puzzle.  And waterproof?  Perfect when the whole family is doing the puzzle together and someone decides they’re thirsty, and…

Although the 14” x 9.5” puzzles are supposed to be ideal for ages six and up, my little guy is three, and he did okay.  He managed to incorrectly connect a few pieces, but such minor mishaps were outweighed by his delight when he finished connecting the pieces that made up his own face.  And when my son accidentally knocked some of the wooden pieces on our hardwood floor, their weight made it easy to hear where they fell.

It has to be said that it felt a tad narcissistic initially to do a jigsaw which included my own photo, but I got over it when I entered the puzzle zone.  It was about completion, and the image became an afterthought. 

A fan of personalised gifts in general, I was excited to find out all the goodies that could be individualised, including Kindle cases, iPad slip cases, wallpaper, and a variety of baby gifts.  With a handful of pregnant friends, I’m eyeing the photo cubes.  And I’m really partial to the photo books, especially the Book of Love.  What better gift could there be for my better half on our swiftly approaching 10-year anniversary than one of these books?  I’ll need to decide which title would be the most appropriate – “Good Lord, I Can’t Believe We’ve Been Together A Whole Decade Without Killing Each Other”, “Haikus For My Darling, From A Master Haikuer”, or “Marriage Is Not Malarkey, It’s Utterly Magnificent”.  Which do you think might work best?

[Disclosure:  We were given the personalised photo jigsaw puzzle from Bags of Love for the purposes of this review.] 


There’s the usual bit of bibliophilia going on in our home.  My little softcover savant and we bookworm begetters have been doing eye and mind gymnastics with our latest nightstand reads.

My husband’s reading a Ford Madox Ford book and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, among a handful of other tomes.  I’m reading a book similar to those I imagine a lot of my fellow parents are reading, a guide to understanding the monsters identified as toddlers.  And when I’ve read a few pages of that and am feeling like I understand a tad better the human being known as my three-year-old son, I move on to either John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts?, Andrew Oldham’s collection of poems Ghosts of a Low Moon or a book a friend recently gave me, Conversations with God.  My most recent conversation with God consisted of my asking him how I can end my husband’s latest fascination with the Brothers Grimm because it really has me spooked, and I don’t know how much longer I can sleep with one eye open.  I’m still waiting for God’s response.

My little guy’s folio fare of late seems to be more of the creative and emotional variety.  These handful of books have quickly become my favourites, and every night I ask him if we can please, please, please read one of these.  Sometimes he indulges me, but last night he said, “Let’s give it a break, ma, it’s pirate book time.”

The first of the five I recommend reading with your munchkins is Zen Ghosts by Jon Muth.  Muth created Stillwater the panda, who features in Zen Shorts, Zen Ties and now Zen Ghosts.  The book is a tale adapted from a writing included in a collection of 48 koans by a Chinese Buddhist monk in the 13th century.  These koans are defined by Muth as questions that one has to answer for himself/herself and which appeal directly to the intuitive part of human consciousness as opposed to the intellect. 

I think the best children’s books are those that strike a chord with both children and adults, and Zen Ghosts certainly fulfills that criteria.  Kids may not understand what Muth is trying to convey, but they will appreciate the characters and the beautiful illustrations throughout the book.   Parents might be pleased that not only is this an intriguing ghost story, but also that their bambinos will learn more about duality – the people they are with their parents, the people they are with their friends, the people they are with their teachers.

While we’re on Buddhist books, another current favourite is Buddha at Bedtime.  Seem as though I’m some sort of ringing endorsement for Buddhism?  I’m not Buddhist, and this is purely coincidental (although in Buddhism, there is no such thing as a pure coincidence, so you can cue in the Twilight Zone theme now).  A friend gave the book to Enlai as a gift, and it really is the gift that keeps on giving – our own little written, illustrated and bound philanthropist.  The subtitle of the book – Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read With Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire – says everything.  Author Dharmachari Nagaraja retells some of the narratives believed to have been told by the Buddha himself – the Jataka Tales – in 20 stories. 

The colourful illustrations depict a particular scene in the tales, and little ones are sure to recognise the images of animals and nature.  While Nagaraja says the stories are aimed at children six to ten years old, my three-year-old enjoys them, particularly The Prince and Sticky Hair, a tale about words being more powerful than weapons, and The Small Bowl of Rice, which teaches that generosity is its own reward.

And travelling from Buddhism to art, another favourite book is Beautiful Oops!.  Author Barney Saltzberg is my hero, teaching children and adults alike that when you think you’ve made a mistake, think of it as an adventure in creativity and an opportunity to make something beautiful.  The very colourful, 28-page board book – complete with flaps, different textures, and an accordion-like pop-up – naysays blunders and instead teaches that spills, smears, smudges and crumbled-up paper can “make magic appear”.

If I had a choice to buy one book for little ones, this would be the one, regardless of whether or not they have an interest in artistic endeavours.  At any age, it’s worth being reminded that a tear in a page can literally be turned into a smile.

Another current favourite book, which happens to be in the same vein as Beautiful Oops! is The Scribble Book issued by Tate Publishing.  Surprise, surprise, the book is about scribbling and allows for freehand drawing by prompting little ones to turn scribbles into blooming flowers, a dinosaur’s breath, snail shells, smoke from chimneys and hair on already-provided faces.  We’ve had so much fun with this book, giving shy scribbles friends with crayon squiggles of our own, colouring in the loops created by scribbles, drawing scribble spaghetti, and sketching trails in the snow left by skiers.

Within the 64-page book, little ones are encouraged to scribble dust (“otherwise the vacuum cleaner will get bored”), scrawl over the Mona Lisa, scribble on monsters as hard as they can, and decide whether their doodles should make calm or choppy seas.  And for parents who may want to borrow their budding artist’s book, it’s worth noting that art therapists have utilised the “scribble technique” as a method to lessen inhibitions and release spontaneous imagery from one’s unconscious.

The final recommendation from our three-member We Feel The Need, The Need to Read Book Club is Oliver Jeffers’ most recent piece of brilliance, The Heart and the Bottle.  With thought-provoking themes of loss, longing and loneliness, the book is admittedly geared more toward adults than children, but the way Jeffers addresses mortality through both his words and his illustrations is honest and poetic regardless of the age of the reader.

In books, I appreciate when the author leaves space for interpretation.  Jeffers does this.  He hasn’t spoon-fed me or my little guy with this book; instead, he has given us a starting point for discussing death and the emptiness that often follows.  I realise I may be different from other parents in that I have not chosen to shield my little prince from unhappy thoughts of loss, but in the same token, I know a three-year-old is, well, a three-year-old.  He won’t understand it all, but I hope he will find some poetry in the story, poetry in how an empty chair doesn’t have to stay an empty chair.  For any poetry buffs, this book brought to mind what I believe is one of the greatest poems ever written, Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, and I think that for a 32-page book to do that says a lot. 

Now then, sashay to your local library or bookshop for your dose of bibliofeelia!  Or, if it’s too chilly outside, check out the Oomphalos Bookworms Bookshop.

Mothers Spinning Out of Control

© Martin Creed, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Martin Creed is my kind of guy.  He’s the intriguing artist whose current exhibition “Mothers” is on at Hauser & Wirth on Savile Row.  I, along with my mom and son, had the fortunate opportunity to behold, chew over and digest the works.  I’m still digesting.

As both a mother and an artist, two works stood out for me, Work No. 1092 (or the work commonly referred to as Mothers) and Work No. 1177.

When asked about his thinking behind Mothers, a 12 ½ meters long, 2 ½ meters high steel beam supporting white neon lights which spell out Mothers in capital letters, Creed said in an interview that he thought mothers are probably the most important people.  I momentarily thought of Norman Bates, but after reading Creed’s explanation in a separate interview, I know he’s speaking on a more macro level.  Creed said, “This work made me sick, there were so many times when I felt sick working on it.  I think it has something to do with Mothers… I think families are really difficult.”  Families difficult?  I don’t know anyone who’s ever had difficulties with their family (cue the uproarious laughter).  Creed added, “I think the most powerful and difficult relationship in the whole world is between a mother and child.  That is the one where the baby is literally part of the mother and is not separate, and then you have to come out and be separate.  It is the most difficult thing to do.  I think to actually be a mother is very difficult and to have a mother is difficult.”

And when asked why he wanted the motorised sculpture to spin – orbiting at varying speeds and bringing to mind the different settings of a ceiling fan – Creed replied, “Mothers spinning out of control rang true to me.”  He must know about the Whirling Dervishes Playgroup or the Our Descendants Sometimes Make Us Dizzy Support Group.

Standing in the room, seemingly purpose-built for this enormous sculpture, I considered Creed’s explanation that the size reflects the importance of mothers and how they literally contain us at birth.  He pronounced, “In general we think of something as ‘big’ if it’s bigger than us, so because as babies we are inside the mother, by definition the mother has to be big.”  I also found it curious that while welcomed to, none of the 50 or so fellow observers ventured under the sculpture.  At one point, I felt said observers – whose hair and attire looked a bit windswept while the sculpture moved at its full speed – staring at me and my little guy in his buggy, as if to say, “You’re obviously a mother and as such, this sculpture includes a gyratory halo for you, so go for it, go stand under it.”  Risk my life under this monster?  No thanks, not today (my initial apprehension paralleled that of when I went to see a Damien Hirst piece)  I am aware that, sadly, fine art malfunctions have caused very tragic situations, and the irony of mothers taking this mother’s life was too much to bear.

© Martin Creed, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Using his art to comment on the magnitude of the matriarch in our lives, Creed also graces us with Work No. 1177’s presence.  This black and white, silent 35mm film – which especially when combined with Mothers – alludes to a domineering mama in our friend Freud’s oedipal phase.  The film centers on a woman’s breast, whose nipple goes from its usual state to an erect state after a hand tweaks it.  In his past work, Creed has shown a fascination with how our bodies function and react, often with overt sexual undertones, but this film was different than others in the series.  I thought it was beautiful.  I thought it was persuasive.  And despite having breasts of my own and having breastfed my son, this was the first time I’ve witnessed this sequence in such a manner.  It helps that I’m also a fan of silent films; they leave more space for one’s own interpretation.  My three-year-old watched the film and asked why it wasn’t moving.  He stood watching it for 15 seconds, I’m sure wondering why there wasn’t a caped crusader or scallywag entering the scene.  I asked him if he knew what the image in the film was, and he responded, “Let’s go.”

There are dozens of additional pieces in this exhibition, but these are the only two that spoke to me.  There was a wit, a cheeky little boy at play, and a minimalism – as there was with Creed’s Blu-Tack, lights switching on and off, and balloons pieces – that has enamoured me to the artist.

Is Creed’s own mom as enamoured as his myriad admirers?  He said he thinks his relationship with his mom is quite good.  She’s always been very supportive of his art practice and often comes to his shows.  Aww, bless.  Just in case this isn’t actually the case, I’m sending her an invite to a spinning class I know of whose instructor focuses on using physical exertion to cope with snags in mother-son relationships.

Gift Ideas Ring, Are You Listening?

Here is a transcript of a conversation I overheard at the playground a few days ago:

Mom A:  “I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping yet.  What are you getting little Janey Jane for Christmas?”

Mom B (who is sincerely sweet, always looks amazing, whose children are little angels, and who is apparently very well-organised):  I finished all my shopping, and little Johnny John’s presents are all wrapped and hidden away until Christmas.”

If you lie somewhere between Mom A and Mom B and are looking for gift suggestions for your own or other children, you’re in luck!  Here are some just-waiting-to-be-wrapped-and-put-under-the-tree ideas that might appeal to you.

If they’re toys you’re after, look no further than Petit Chou in London W1, an itsy bitsy toy shop that could’ve been plucked from a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, packed wall-to-wall with wonderful toys.  Some of my favourites in the shop include the life-size abacus, wooden shape and size sorters, and the perfectly tuned xylophone.  For those of you not in London, Petit Chou offers worldwide shipping.  

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