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The Art of Pill-Popping, Dancing and Sliding

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Isomeric Slides

 

My boys like to touch.  And when it comes to art, they’re too often told they can look, but not touch.  I get it – art needs to be intact and preserved so its owner can protect his financial investment or sentimental chattel, or so future generations can have an opportunity to observe the piece as its creator likely intended.  I personally think there is beauty, there is historical reference or, at the very least, there is an intriguing story, to fragmented art pieces.  Consider Kintsugi or the Parthenon sculptures.  Or maybe Rembrandt’s Danae and Night Watch, or Duchamp’s Fountain.  There are tales of sieges, of madness and obsession, of acceptance and change, of vandalism.  But I imagine I’m in the minority with my affection for the broken.  And the account of an energetic, curious, possibly rambunctious child damaging an art piece may not be as fascinating as the narrative of a demented geologist attacking a work with a hammer while yelling “I am Jesus Christ” a laPieta”.

For the most part, my little fellas understand they can’t touch.  They’ve been to countless museums and galleries, and when those moments occur when they can barely resist the temptation to glide their fingers over a texture, climb on a sculpture, or make hand shadow puppets to interrupt a film projection, there are usually cordons, invigilators and their mama to help them practice self-control.

So when an exhibition like Carsten Höller’s “Decision” at Hayward Gallery comes along, I am a happy (read: more relaxed) mama.  Touching is allowed, even encouraged.  There’s interactivity, there’s physicality.  And very appealing to me, there is the observation of my children and others intermingling with the works, sometimes laughing, sometimes embarrassing themselves, sometimes suffering negligible injuries, and most times questioning.  Questioning what they are supposed to do or whether this is art.

Right before entering the exhibition, we were handed guidelines highlighting the physical and experimental nature of the show.  One piece has a minimum height and maximum weight requirement, another requires you leave all bags, coats and loose items in the cloakroom or locker, and for some of the works, visitors are urged to refrain from “using” them if they have an existing condition which might be exacerbated.

 

Decision Corridors (lightened for viewing purposes)

Decision Corridors (lightened for viewing purposes)

There are two alternative entrances.  We – two mothers, two seven-year-old boys, and one two-year-old boy – chose the risqué one, a work called Decision Corridors.  It is a pitch-black (except for miniscule lights which take time for your eyes to actually see once they become used to the darkness), confined corridor that twists and turns.  Höller describes this work as an architectural intervention which “delays the entrance to the exhibition and prolongs the transition from the world outside the gallery to the topsy-turvy world within.”  I was somewhat nervous because, truth be told, I was carrying my strong, heavy, autistic two-year-old son Lumen whose reaction to different scenarios cannot always be predicted.  I was wrong to be nervous.  Lumen loved the piece.  In my arms, he glided his fingers across the walls of the corridors, laughing.  He didn’t wriggle, he didn’t try to jump out of my arms.  The other two boys were justifiably disoriented, nervous but pretending not to be, bumping into each other, and shouting each other’s names when they became separated.  This was my favourite piece in the show, this indoor, covered, inky hedge maze which does not cater to claustrophobics.  It asks one to lose his reliance on sight and instead engage his senses of hearing and touch.

 

Pill Clock

Pill Clock

The second work to stir our imaginations was the timepiece, Pill Clock.  A single red-and-white capsule drops from the ceiling to the gallery floor every three seconds, the interval of time Höller suggests is the “length of time in which it is possible to create the impression of presence”.  Amassing in a rising pile, the pills provide a visual indicator of the passage of time.  All of this was lost on the boys.  They saw a pile of pills they were allowed to touch, pills which they could put in their mouth and swallow should they choose.  A water fountain is conveniently provided on the wall next to the pile for those who choose to ingest.  My older son Enlai asked what was in it, what the flavour was, what its effect would be, whether it would hurt him now or damage him later, whether I would be trying a pill.  I told him that I would not be trying a pill.  He asked if I was scared, and I responded that fear was not a factor, but that I was not a pill-popper, and that I wasn’t keen to swallow something whose exact makeup I wasn’t aware of.  We then discussed hallucinogenics, addiction, pharmaceutical companies, headaches and vitamins.  And he decided he would take a pill.  My mom friend decided she would, too.  Her son didn’t.  For us, this piece was more about decision than time.

 

The Forests

We then happened upon a large room, a small portion of  which was used to offer a long bench, the entire length of which was used to supply about 10 seats with corresponding headsets and earphones.  In these headsets and earphones was The Forests, a 3D, dual-screen video piece which splits our vision in two as one eye is guided to the right around a tree along a path, and the other eye to the left.  Höller intends for the work to be an experiment in seeing double, in looking at two things simultaneously.  My mom friend and Enlai commented that the soundtrack was haunting and the images confusing.  My little fella Lumen had no interest in engaging with the piece, but he and I both appreciated that he was allowed to run around the sizeable space without interrupting anyone’s experience of the art as they all had headsets and earphones on.  The invigilator smiled at me, perhaps sensing that this boy gives his ol’ ma a good workout chasing him around.

Intrigued by the sound of music, we walked a short distance to another room and were now immersed within Fara Fara, Lumen’s favourite piece.  It was a dark room, with visitors sat on the floor between the two screens which, seemingly in unison, depicted the music scene in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Fara Fara means “face to face” in Lingala – a Bantu language with over 10 million speakers – and is a musical competition which was formerly used as a means of resolving disputes.  Congolese music, according to Höller, is “very different in structure” from Western music, zigzagging between different styles.  For me, there is something about percussion and its infiltration into one’s bones.  Lumen danced the entire time.  He held his hands up to me, and I picked him up, and we danced together.  My mom friend danced, and the two older boys were embarrassed by the three of us.  I imagine Höller was only trying to share the Fara Fara world, but in so doing, he opened some of our ears, and awakened our hips and shoulders.

After walking upstairs, we had to make the decision whether we wanted to wait in an hour queue to experience Two Flying Machines, a simulate flight offering the opportunity to soar above the traffic of Waterloo Bridge while those in the queue, those looking out the window, and those below, look on.  The machines, described as a “combination of carousel, paraglider and motorbike” were designed by Höller to allow contemplation.  The “rider” contemplates his surroundings, but the observer of the rider contemplates the rider and his reactions to his surroundings, as well as other observers’ opinions of and comments on the rider.  The boys had neither the patience to queue or to wait for their moms to queue, so we made ourselves content watching the other adventurers in the air.

Instead, we played around with The Pinocchio Effect, a combination of vibrating devices and drawings which guide you to hold your nose with your fingers on one hand while using the other hand to place the vibrating device on one of your upper arms.  Höller based this piece on an experiment by a psychologist who discovered that it was possible to modify the way we perceive the size of our  nose by rousing certain muscles.  The artist says his own device works by influencing proprioception, a fancy word for body awareness.  Proprioception, considered one of the seven senses, is an unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation which allows us to locate our bodies in space, and to be aware of where our limbs are in relation to one another.  When you are the mother of an autistic child, you know a thing or two about proprioception as many people with autism have difficulty processing everyday sensory information and tend to be hyposensitive or hypersensitive, meaning they may stand too close to others or bump into things, or in the case of the latter, have difficulty with manipulating small objects, such as buttons.  Yes, my little Lumen liked this artwork.

 

Dice (White Body, Black Dots)

Body parts still feeling as though they were vibrating, we then opted to experience Half Mirror Room and Dice (White Body, Black Dots).  Reminiscent of a ballet studio sans the barre, the mirror was designed to create a double of the gallery and everything in it.  It has a certain appeal to the narcissist and the voyeur.  While Lumen jumped in front of and made faces in the mirror, checking to see if his reflection would follow, the older boys writhed through the holes in Dice.  As if a jungle gym created by a Yatzhee aficionado, Dice fulfilled the older boys’ need to climb, squirm, and hide.  Only two are allowed in Dice at a time, and the boys took full advantage of this, saying they may just camp out overnight in this square tent with circular windows.  I recall seeing this piece at Frieze 2014, and just as it seemed there, it is a component of a distinctive playground, one in which Höller is “using other people’s kids in order to fill the sculpture with life”.

 

Experiencing the Upside Down Goggles

A few steps away, we grabbed a pair of goggles hanging on a wall and listened to the invigilator’s directions before being lead to the outside terrace.  This piece, Upside Down Goggles, was the older boys’ favourite.  Goggles on and perplexed as to which was the right way up, they attempted to reach out to one another, to high five each other, to walk around the terrace without hesitation.  I told Enlai to look up at Höller’s  Adjusted Hayward Sign, and because the sign depicts the words “Hayward Gallery” upside down – which would mean it was displayed right side up when viewed through the goggles – he said he thought his goggles weren’t working.  I watched one woman walk around the terrace with such uncertainty, she only took about three steps.  I watched one grown man fall over another.  This was some Laurel and Hardy stuff, and I was enjoying laughing at the expense of others trying to make sense of an upturned world.

 

Adjusted Hayward Sign

And then, ladies and gentlemen, came what many consider the pièce de résistance of the exhibition – the Isomeric Slides.  Not dissimilar to his Test site in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall some years back, Höller constructs slides which ask us to look at them as both artworks and functional objects, and then to consider whether we’d like to take advantage of their functionality as a means to exit the exhibition.  Höller says the spiralling transporters introduce “a moment of playfulness” to the gallery’s brutalist architecture.  We all decided that we did indeed want to indulge in a bit of play.  The little munchkin didn’t meet the height requirement so he wasn’t allowed, even on my lap.  My mom friend and the two older boys went ahead, my son running excitedly up the stairs, which are visible to everyone in the room.  I could hear shouting and nervous laughter, from the top of the stairs all the way down the slide.  As soon as I knew they reached the bottom, Lumen and I took the lift down to meet them.  On the way out, I may have done some begging to a couple of different invigilators to please let me back in the gallery to take a ride down the slide myself once I put my son in the care of my friend.  When I saw the three slide-riders, they were laughing and seemed energised.  I enthusiastically ran back in, and the begging paid off as I was let through.  Up the stairs, and the slide minders told me to slip my legs through a potato sack-like cloth appendage, cross my arms over my chest, grab the top of the slide and catapult myself down.  Heading south, my belly tickled and, unexpectedly, screams and laughter came from my mouth.

Whether you can call the pieces in this exhibition art or not I think is irrelevant.  Call them what you will if you desire a label, and while searching for that label, enjoy yourself and enjoy your children.  Keep an open mind.  Engage your senses and your curiosities.  Experiment and laugh.  And be grateful that artists like Carsten Höller exist.

The exhibition is open until 6 September.  For more information on the exhibition, click here.

Lasering in on Lorraine Avanessian

I’ve had the good fortune to know Lorraine Avanessian since our sons could not even sit up on their own, with dribble running down their chins as they cut their first teeth, and often a bit smelly.  Babies poo a lot.  We met at story time at a local library, and here we are, seven years and two additional sons later.

Like many mothers, Lorraine had a career pre-children.  I am often surprised when fellow moms are in the midst of a conversation about sleepless nights, tantrums, and never-ending laundry, when something about their former occupation crops up.  I remember asking Lorraine something about my son’s teeth, and she responded in a way that wasn’t typical of a mom.  She responded as someone who knew teeth.  I mean really knew teeth.  It is then that I found out she had worked in the dental field for the last 20 years.

Having taken time out to raise her two sons, Lorraine is now back in the saddle, albeit a different saddle.  After spending several years in the world of dentistry, Lorraine has expanded her passion for aesthetics.  Always fascinated by skin, she decided to embark on a “skin journey” by enrolling in various skin health and management and laser treatment courses.  She is now a certified laser lady, or as my son likes to say, “She could be in Star Wars like Anakin and Darth Vader.”  Well, sort of.

I asked Lorraine if I could interview her to find out what exactly she does and why she does it.  Below is an excerpt from this interview.

From enamel, dentine and pulp cavity to unwanted hair, thread veins and stretch marks – what made you decide to transition from a career in the dental field to one in laser treatments and cosmetic dermatology?  I have always been fascinated with skin, and like most people, battled with a problematic complexion in my younger years.  Having already a clinical background and plenty of experience with people in a medical environment, it was a natural step to learn about skin health and treatments.

We all have heard about laser treatments, but what exactly are they?  Laser treatments are just part of what I do.  Whether laser or IPL (intense pulse light), it is basically a light that applies heat energy at different intensities and different depths.  This allows the clinician to target specific areas of the body.  Therefore it is possible to reduce or eliminate hair follicles, spider veins or pigmentation.  It can also cause heating of the deeper layers of the skin resulting in tightening and skin rejuvenation.  All of these treatments are virtually pain-free and non-invasive.

I assume it’s not a one size fits all practice?  Not at all.  Each treatment is tailored to the individual client because we are all different, and some clients are not suitable for certain treatments.

Is there a consultation first or do patients receive treatment during the first visit?  A full detailed consultation will always be carried out first.  Otherwise the correct treatment cannot be carried out efficiently and safely.  This involves obtaining as much information as possible about the client’s lifestyle, medical history, diet, current skin care regime, previous treatments, past and present skin issues, and most importantly, the client’s expectations of the outcome of the proposed treatment.  By the end of the consultation, the client should have a clear understanding of how the skin works in relationship to the treatment.

Are there any guidelines patients have to follow before starting treatment?  When dealing with skin rejuvenation, a good daily skin care regime must be established first.  A change in diet, reduction in alcohol intake, stopping or moderating smoking, and protecting the skin from UV rays and pollution with the use of antioxidants will make a huge difference to the skin for starters.  And any rejuvenation treatment following this will produce much better results.

What sort of skin issues benefit from laser or IPL treatment?  There is a wide variety of treatments, including permanent reduction of unwanted hair, thread veins, rosacea, ageing skin and pigmentation.  As well as laser and IPL, my Sharplight Ominmax system also provides infrared and radio frequency, and these applications provide treatments for skin laxity, cellulite and stretch marks with great results.

Thus far, what have the majority of patients come to you for?  Hair reduction is a very common treatment among both men and women, as well as skin tightening, but the majority of clients are interested in improving the health of their skin.

Why would a patient come to you rather than opting for Botox, fillers or cosmetic surgery?  People are more aware now of the side effects and complications that these invasive treatments can produce.  The treatments that I provide work with the natural potential of the skin to repair and rejuvenate itself, resulting in a more harmonious and natural looking outcome.

About how long could a patient expect to see results after treatment?  It depends on each client and how unhealthy or sun damaged the skin is.  Treatment is carried out over a course of several visits but even after completion it carries on improving.

Will patients look like Samantha a la Sex in the City after her “freshening” peel when they leave your office?  I can’t remember what she looked like, was it good or bad?  In any case, I hope she applied her sun factor 50 soon after.  Strongly recommended!

As it’s becoming more popular for male clients to enjoy skin treatments these days, Lorraine Avanessian is offering a Father’s Day treat at a promotional rate of £65 (normal price £95) for a skin assessment consultation which includes a city recovery facial – perfect for the city dwelling man.

 

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.] 

Bibliofeelia

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.