Process Art Projects for Mixed Ages

Since the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March, I’ve been home with my kids trying to make the best of a bad situation. For our family, that has meant making things. At first I was energized by the unexpected gift of extra time with them, stepping out of our usual routine and into long, fluid days at home. We went weeks without ever getting in the car. I turned to one of my favorite books a lot during this time, The Arful Parent by Jean Van’t Hul, picking out a handful of projects to try during the week and hunting down any missing supplies in our Buy Nothing group or online.

But as weeks turned into months, and the world bent under the weight of a virus that seems intent on staying a while, our creative pace began to change. In part because my energy began to go toward growing a new tiny human, finishing the school term, and planning a big move– and in part because we are adjusting to a more long-term new pace of life.

Now, for the past week, we have been entirely indoors due to toxic air in Portland. We thank God we did not have to evacuate from the devastating wildfires that have ripped through Oregon forests and communities. The smoke has been terrible. Even with the two indoor air purifiers we are lucky to have, my lungs feel constricted after a week of breathing air that registers off the AQI charts. It has been scary and sad to wake up to skies made white and brown with thick, dense fog and smoke, a reckoning of all that humans have done to bring this on ourselves and a harbinger of the future to come, if we don’t make drastic changes.

We spent a few days in our pajamas watching endless movies and obsessively checking the news. For me, though, what keeps me sane is to pick up our routine again, reduce screen time all around, and try to do things that make us feel good. A simple healthy meal from a recipe we haven’t tried yet. Putting on an old CD and dancing in the living room. Snuggling in the big bed with a pile of books. And making things.

In general, what I’ve noticed is that we are planning less, and finding our own ways to practice simple creativity alongside one another. Making things together has become part of our daily routines, just as I’d hoped it would be, but through a wildly different set of circumstances than I ever could have imagined.

This seems to be the way many things have unfolded this year: unexpected and long-awaited changes, glimmers of hope, taking painful shape alongside worry and fear. Blessings are almost always mixed, and I’ve come to embrace the changes in our family’s daily rhythm even as I mourn the thousand losses, big and small, that have come with them.

Handmade needle book and hand-sewing kit

Before the fires, and before our move, I started a course in mindful sewing, and started bringing my hand-sewing kit out to the backyard in the afternoon, trying to stitch a row or two on a project while my kids ate popsicles and splashed in the wading pool. I set out chalk and paintbrushes, or set up their easel outside with some diluted finger paints, and let them find their way to creating when they felt like it.

And they have. My daughter tends to gravitate toward her special case of gel pens, her colored pencils, and her stash of scratch paper at different times during the day. She has filled a plastic tote with colorful sketches of people, especially mommies with babies in their tummies, and ladies in full skirts and high heels. I gather up her stack of drawings at the end of the day and smile at how her work has progressed, over time, from big monochromatic scrawls to multi-colored scenes with more and more detail. (I often recycle a lot of her sketches because she is drawing more than we can keep!) At first light this morning I heard her tiptoe out of her room and found her sitting in her jammies at her little table, rummaging through her pencil case to draw before anyone else was up. For all that I worry about the impact of this year on my kids, I’m delighted to see the ways in which it is helping her nurture an inner creative life, all on her own.

My son invariably chooses a plastic butter knife, a large plastic yogurt tub of multi-colored homemade playdough, and an assortment of other objects: little cars, rocks, large beads or blocks. His experiments skew heavily toward the sensory. He also knows where our box of Do-a-Dots is kept, and when he sees his sister or me at work on our own projects, he proudly goes to get his own supplies and sets up alongside us. He likes to practice taking the tops on and off these washable paint pens as much as he enjoys making bold, loud splotches of color on paper. Sometimes he combines the two activities and experiments with coloring on the playdough.

Maybe you have small children and are experiencing a bewildering mix of emotions as you move into the school year. My daughter is starting kindergarten, and even though I’m sad she won’t have the experience I had imagined for her, I know I’m incredibly lucky to have the privilege of homeschooling her and her brother. I’ve stopped freelance writing and am taking a year off from school to focus on them and have this baby. I know so many parents who are facing the impossible challenge of trying to work a full-time job while supervising distance-learning. In our own ways, we are all trying to survive. If making things together is part of how you cope, here are some snapshots of some inexpensive creative activities we have liked, some that take a little extra planning and some that just take a few minutes. Use whatever is helpful here and leave the rest.

Glue resist/”batik” painting on muslin superhero capes

Building a recycled village with cereal and milk boxes

Salad spinner art on paper plates

Painted cardboard robots with Make Do cardboard build kit

Painting sugar cookies with frosting “paint” and paintbrushes

Painting with cars and trucks

 

Our Family Art Room

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Making art is a big part of our family rhythm. When Lyle and I met 16 years ago, we connected over a mutual love of making things and celebrating beauty, whether we were reading Robinson Jeffers to each other, putting together elaborate pizza toppings, or collaborating on a handmade book project. When we got married and started imagining a home and how we wanted to raise our kids, we both pictured a big wild garden, and a dedicated area for making art.

So when our youngest graduated from crib to toddler bed this past fall, we decided it was time to move our kids into one bedroom and convert our third bedroom into a family art room. I found inspiration in The Artful Parent, a book I’m turning to frequently as we navigate the stay-at-home order. Our art room is definitely a work in progress, but we are all pleased to have a special space where art supplies are easily accessible– for better or worse. Our two-year-old has his own ideas about what accessibility means!

I thought I’d do a little virtual tour and think through some of the areas that still need improvement.

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Art cabinet

We love this little cupboard! It’s a 20s-era sideboard we found on Facebook Marketplace. For many months, it lived in our living room/kitchen area, since we tend to do many of our messier, supervised projects at the kitchen table. What we love:  It’s beautiful and functional. We wanted a way to store our art supplies that would be easy for our kids to navigate independently, yet also had a few inaccessible drawers for things like scissors, glue, and small beads. We also wanted it to work with our living room furniture, and it does because it’s petite! There are four of us living in our home– a modest 1,050 square feet, with no garage and minimal storage– and that’s small considering the average American home is 2,435 sq ft! I also love the handprint ceramic plates above it. These are Lyle’s, Sky’s, and my handprints when we were each two years old! We just need to add Robin’s little hand. Things to improve: Because of its small size, we really need to stay on top of what supplies we use often, what needs to be refreshed, and what can be stored elsewhere. I find myself doing most of that invisible labor. Recently I did a big clean-out, recycled some items we’ve pretty much used up, and kept only the most-used items in the cupboard. I stored extra supplies and things like the glue gun and salad spinner (for spin art!) on a rolling cart in the closet. I’m hoping that my most recent clean-out will make it easy for the kids to do clean-up. To be continued!

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Kids’ art table

This was an IKEA purchase we’re happy with, a craft table that can grow with the kids and comes with a dowel for butcher paper rolls. The bench is just wide enough for both kids to sit at, but that usually comes with a lot of shoving. We tend to have the kids stand to share the space when working on a group project. More often than that, I like to set it up with a few supplies (what unschoolers would call “strewing”) for one child to discover in between activities. I might set out the bin of playdough and tools, or some interesting bits of paper and a basket of crayons and tape. I like that Sky can come in and draw during quiet time, while I’m sewing or cutting out a pattern. As much as I had hoped it would become our main crafting area, we often still set up at the kitchen table, because it’s easier for Lyle and I to supervise their work.

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Gallery wall

Lyle hung two pieces of picture hanging wire from bolts. I bought some inexpensive binder clips at Target, which we keep in a little can on the cabinet.
What we love: It’s easy to hang up finger-paintings to dry, and displaying our kids’ art helps them feel proud of their work.
Things to improve: We just had a family discussion about how to preserve our artwork. I’m happy that Sky was very enthusiastic about the idea of photographing her favorites and having them bound into a special book she can look at– then recycling most of the originals. Lyle did the photographs recently so now I just need to upload them into a Shutterfly book. Then we can recycle most of the originals (we’re keeping some special things like Sky’s first finger painting and first stick figure drawing.)

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Sewing table

When my grandmother moved into assisted living earlier last year, my parents brought up her sewing table and 1960s Kenmore sewing machine. I felt a little sad that my grandma’s sewing days are over. I have so many memories of the table and machine, and sleeping in Grandma’s sewing room in her Gilroy home when I was a little kid. I remember its specific scent: a blend of her perfume, machine oil, and the pervasive undertone of garlic that’s inescapable in the Garlic Capital of the World. I remember her neat little sewing table set up along one wall, beneath a print of Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, and an impossibly-beautiful wall rack of thread in every color of the rainbow. (#goals). I dreamed of having a sewing room like hers one day and being able to make whatever I wanted.

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What I love: I’m so happy to finally have that space! I love feeling connected to my grandma and my mom when I work at the table. It even smells like my grandma’s perfume! While her Kenmore machine has been restored, and I recently bought a new foot pedal for it, I’m still more comfortable with the simple, user-friendly Janome Home machine Lyle bought me for Christmas 6 years ago. Maybe as I gain experience in sewing, I’ll be able to put her machine to better use.
Things to improve: Nothing! I’m thrilled with the table, being able to sew under the window for natural light, and the extra storage in her sewing bench. I am thinking of finding a little postcard print of The Lacemaker to hang above the table and remind me of Grandma.

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Bookcase/ironing station

This giant wood bookcase has been with us for years. It was a $20 score at one of my favorite local thrift stores. This year, we added a hinging desk to one shelf to try to maximize space. We also cut holes in the back for wires. I had planned to use this as my “office,” but found that it was too cramped for writing or studying. Instead, I set up a card table in a corner of my bedroom, where the light is better and I can spread my books out. I’m now using the fold-out bookshelf desk for ironing. Things I love: It’s a handy place to store the iron when not in use, and keep sharp tools safely out of reach of curious little hands. Things to improve: I’m liking this alternative use so far, but still finding it a little cramped/less than ideal. I can imagine bringing in a larger table for cutting and ironing, with some wall-mounted shelves above for fabric, tools, and books.

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Closet and fabric storage

This was the area most in need of help, and in writing this post I had a burst of energy one night and reorganized it. All of our closets are designed terribly, with most of the space shadowy and hard to reach. We stick most of our deep-storage items in these “black hole” areas, and that leaves just a small area for frequently-used things like our filing cabinet, food dehydrator, gift-wrap, and all of my fabric. I was storing extra fabric and scrap bag in the rolling cart, but I repurposed that for art storage. We also went through the deep-storage items and relocated them to Lyle’s shop, which serves as our  extra storage facility. What I love: I hung my fabric on hangers and I love how easy it is now to see what I have and keep it pressed. Things to improve: I’d like to build some shelves above the rolling cart.

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Dress-up corner

This little corner is left over from when the space was the nursery, with a Montessori-style floor mirror (currently covered in Crayola window marker.) We are using it as a dress-up area for our fashion-obsessed 5-year-old. I bought this inexpensive cardboard-and-fabric chest at Target, and it juuuust fits our growing collection of dress-up clothes.

That’s the tour! I’m so grateful we have an art room, especially as we’ve adjusted to the stay-at-home order. Making things together keeps us active and connected, even when the process is messy or frustrating or the finished thing doesn’t quite match our expectations (most of the time.) I’m looking forward to sharing some of our favorite projects in future posts.