Parents discuss bringing creativity into their children’s lives, even in a pandemic
The latest instalment in our Creative Parents series features Es Devlin, Ryan Gander, Meji Alabi, Leonie Bos and more, sharing their personal experiences and tips for making creative exploration part of their kids’ lives.
Lockdown has presented a unique set of challenges (to put it lightly) for parents everywhere. Not only because childcare and school shutdowns mean work and home lives have blended into one big chaotic mush, but also – with many of the usual activities and distractions out the window – there is increased pressure on parents to come up with fun and educational things to do. For parents who are creative practitioners, creativity is embedded in their lives and therefore becomes a prominent element of their children’s lives, but – as all parents know – it’s never in ways you expect, nor can control. Here, an inspiring group of artists: Ryan Gander, Es Devlin, Meji Alabi, Leonie Bos, Emli Bendixen, Vallée Duhamel, Elise Peterson, David Stewart and Hisham Akira Bharoocha, share their stories and advice.
Ryan Gander, artist
The last three months have been less of living through education and more of an education through life. The daily hour-and-a-half of school run and the worry about the speed at which I am travelling through life, as well as the constant feeling that I am about to be overtaken by the rest of civilisation, have been replaced by field recordings in the forest and on the beach, making hotdogs threaded onto spaghetti, camping in the garden, treasure hunts, learning Japanese, learning how to DJ, shucking oysters, sitting outside around a fire in the evening, washing our hands, cutting each other’s hair, planting pea tents, waking up early to watch the sun rise, sending letters to people, learning to program, building a website for a fictional nail salon, writing songs, giving each other tattoos, designing menus for each meal, washing our hands again, making extravagantly produced videos for the grandparents, having water fights, making home cinemas in the garden, making badges of every single family friend, making pancakes on an upside down baked bean cans, archery, writing love letters, hiding treasure under the floorboards, having discos, painting the floors, making clothes and learning to cook the most perfect omelette. One of us has learnt to walk and speak and others of us have learnt to listen. This is the era of small things, we have lived in a state of stasis, not growth. This could be our lesson in humility. We have learnt and taught each other in equal measures. Life and education have merged seamlessly and we’ve still not done our homework...
1 of 4
Ryan Gander: We make the animals, they bring the jungle (2018)
Emli Bendixen, photographer
I think the joy of life with children is that everything we do takes on a creative element, whether it’s making a Lego airshow to distract him while I brush his teeth or turning his morning oats into nectar and bee pollen (this morning’s examples), we’re constantly challenged to make life more adventurous and stimulating with him, especially now during lockdown when we’re at home almost all the time. We’re privileged in that we can expose our son to different outlets: making music, drawing and painting, reading and watching films, and I find a lot of joy in discovering films we both enjoy (My Neighbour Totoro, Yellow Submarine and The Wizard of Oz are firm favourites at the moment).
My son is two years old so there’s a way to go before I can hand him my camera without flinching but he has helped me set up home studios a few times now and loves looking at pictures. I think creativity is vitally important to your quality of life but creativity in isolation from politics is just escapism. I’ve been photographing other non-conforming families for years and during lockdown, I started documenting my own family. We are a same-sex, mixed-race family which in itself could be seen as political and certainly leaves my son open to discrimination in the future, so I’m aware of the need to bolster his understanding and sense of identity even now.
This means choosing books and films with diverse characters (which is a challenge) and letting him know about the different family structures that exist, for example, Knights Of is a children’s book publisher that focuses on inclusivity and diversity; From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea by Kai Cheng Thom; and Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. My most important job is to guide our son (and his baby sibling due soon) towards knowledge that will inform his decisions and thus creativity in the future.
It’s impossible to write this and not think of current events that really are the result of 400 years of oppression of Black people across the world, so I wanted to highlight The Black Curriculum – an initiative that teaches Black history all year round in the school year, to 8-16 year olds. They deliver their content into schools, using a range of art modes such as drama and poetry. They also provide consultations and training for teachers across the country to teach Black history all year round.
1 of 5
Meji Alabi, director and photographer
Like many other parents in this creative industry, I struggle with the balance of spending recreational time with the kids as well as nurturing a budding career, so during the pandemic, we’ve definitely taken advantage of the time to become closer as a family. I have a three-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl who are at very different stages of development, but of course, my boy just wants to do everything his big sister does, so he’s benefitting a lot from the close proximity. My daughter just seems to be the opposite of myself at her age. Whilst I was into sports and academics, finding creativity later in life, she seems to despise athletics with her parents and opts for painting, drawing picture after picture, and of course, Roblox… which I’m not sure how to feel about yet. Time will tell.
Being a director myself I’ve noticed my daughter taking an interest in making her own “slime” videos, which we’ve attempted, but we’re still in the editing stages. She’s very inspired by YouTubers Ronald and Karina and wants to record her own videos, once asking me how famous I am on YouTube…. a question which I couldn’t answer straight. Her mother is a godsend when it comes to keeping the creative juices flowing. From jigsaw puzzles to watercolour painting to gardening, we try to keep the kids active with their hands. Although raised in the UK, I come from a very African upbringing which focused mainly on education, so while I understand the importance of education and academics I feel I may have missed out a little bit on creative elements, but that was just the way things were. I think it’s important especially in these early years to instil a creative free-thinking bug in your kids because in a changing world there are so many different paths to success now.
I feel that we must encourage creativity from a young age but in a way that’s tangible. The most recent realisation for me since having kids is that the digital world is taking away the beauty in some of our creativity. Kids love to feel things and watch things come to life. I bought her a cheap digital camera – she snapped a few times with it and eventually, I found it in a corner somewhere collecting dust because it was just so disposable. But I bought a pack of polaroids and I found that she fell in love with the process and also the understanding of: well, I only have so many of these so I need to make sure they count, which also teaches her discipline with the camera and the subject.
1 of 4
Hisham Akira Bharoocha, artist
As an artist, I make a lot of work using drawing, painting, collage and through music and I try to expose my son to all these mediums. As parents, we’ve taken our son to museums and galleries since he was an infant. When the timing works out, we have taken him to music performances as well.
My child absorbs creativity the same way he absorbs any other type of information. I listen to a lot of music and I have a lot of instruments lying around our apartment. When he was a baby he would pick up instruments and we would “jam” together. I had a semi-broken acoustic guitar and I would set it on an open tuning so he could strum it or bang it with a drumstick. One of my favourite games we do now is “band practice” where we play air guitar and drums, singing rock versions of ABCD and other songs he knows. He’s interested in strange sounds so we got him a kid’s synthesiser called the Blipbox.
He goes through phases of enjoying making art. At the moment he is really into pouring paint and other art materials out or into different containers. He finger-paints and loves using brushes but often he just paints his hands till they are totally drenched in paint, squishing the paint around in both hands.
I find if you want your kid to be creative, it’s good to watch them try things out but not push your rules on to them. They need to learn so much by trial and error. I try to add to my son’s ideas instead of constructing a narrative for him.
I feel bringing creativity into a child's life is important so they can imagine outside of the box. Creativity can be applied to life in many ways and with the current political climate and environmental issues escalating I feel that every child should learn to problem solve, and creativity helps lead to that kind of thinking. To create new systems when old ones are failing we need people who can push ideas to a level that has not been imagined yet. Letting a child go wild with their imagination is the best thing for them and for the future of humanity.
1 of 5
Hisham Akira Bharoocha
Es Devlin, designer and artist
I practice art and design for performance, my partner is a costume supervisor and designer. We have two children, aged ten and 13. Our studios are in our house, so there is a porosity between the spaces where we make things and the family space. The children have always treated the studio as their resource; they forage for materials and are wirelessly connected to the printers and scanners. At weekends it often becomes their tie-dye or T-shirt printing or resin-casting studio.
Our children are relatively strong-willed and generally aren’t so interested in projects which we have initiated. We find it works best when we follow their lead. Our daughter has led me to musicians that I would not have heard of, our son has opened our eyes to new phenomena in gaming.
I think the key thing I have learned is to avoid being misty-eyed about one’s own childhood. I remember spending endless happy hours making gerbil runs out of cardboard boxes on rainy Sunday afternoons, but when I have tried to recreate these experiences with our children, it’s generally become a lone reenactment, as they quietly depart to do something they are more interested in.
The more successful creative collaborations with our children have been those which grafted onto the child’s intuition and supported their ideas. I think the most important thing is to try to look at the world through their eyes and to try to learn the grammar and vocabulary of the things that fascinate them so you can meet them creatively on their terms.
It’s easy as parents to get concerned about the amount of time kids spend on their screens. For our generation screen engagement was generally more passive, while for them it’s equally likely to be active. I think it’s important to remember that, particularly during this lockdown period, the screens are portals for the children into any number of worlds: to their friends and also to new creative techniques.
My daughter is ruthlessly scathing about most of our suggestions for creative projects, but she finds infinite tutorials online and follows her own course of creative practice. Generally, if we suggest an idea for a project, it’s rejected out of hand. Weirdly, my daughter independently discovered resin-casting through Instagram, which we used to practice as children in the 1980s, and she’s been suspending flowers in resin, just as we did circa 1981. I’m actually really glad I didn’t think of suggesting it. She is also very much into making gifts for her friends: printing T-shirts, tie-dye, hair dye, nail art. Children’s bedrooms are also an important source of self-expression: give them free rein to decorate, print and stick posters.
Above all, I suggest that whatever your kids are into, try to tune into their perspective, try to learn to find it interesting yourself, even if everything about it repels you on the first encounter, and encourage them to take it further and to teach you as they go.
Julien Vallée and Eve Duhamel, directors
First off, let’s skip the part where having kids totally flips your little world and routine upside down, and shift to the idea that your artistic career is not the only thing that will be at the centre of your life from now on. And forever. Five to six years later, you start to have deeper conversations with your kids about the meaning of your art, what inspires you, and initiate them to the fact that this is also what we do to provide and ensure the wellbeing of the family financially.
In 2018-19, we decided to homeschool our nine-year-old girl and seven-year-old boy and split the school year into two parts; the first half was meant to introduce them to our job as directors, and we brought them on set in Los Angeles, NYC and locally in Montreal. The second part of the school year, we took off to Costa Rica for three months, focusing mostly on the education that only travelling can provide through learning another culture, new language, and a way of life outside the city.
During those three months, we guided and supported them to create their own artistic project. That was such an unforgettable experience. At home, in Montreal, we got all the supplies needed for them to create, but at the same time, there is so much other distraction. We left for Costa Rica with only two bags filled with very few arts and craft supplies, clothes, and camera equipment. This has been such a life-changing experience for the four of us. We witnessed the level of creativity of our kids at its highest, and it was so inspiring. As they had so much less, they created so much more. They both had their own little project going on which we had the opportunity to mentor, and it marked a very specific moment in time where we witnessed the beginning of a new phase of the human brain that has forged their creativity ever since. This dragged us back to the beginning of our professional career and the empty, fertile canvas we had in front of us. We made some decisions and tackled projects that led us to where we are now. Seeing the first conscientious mature sparks of creativity from Matilde and Éli these last years brought us a lot of discussions about what we’ve done as a creative duo in the last 15 years. This also came with a lot of reflection on where we want to go next, and the sense that there is always a way to make the opportunities to get there; and we realised that thanks to the kids. Since then, we have decided to be more mindful of fulfilling our creative needs, and thinking more about what our personal objectives are for now and the next years to come.
1 of 4
Elise Peterson, illustrator and artist
Sargent was immersed in creativity from the beginning. I illustrated two children’s books between being pregnant and his first birthday: How Mams Love Their Babies and The Nightlife of Jacuzzi Gasket. When we moved from New York to LA, I came upon a huge studio space. I would bring him with me almost every day. He’d get into everything. I was working with foam and chairs, so I’d have lots of wood pieces lying around (it was dangerous only some of the time). He especially loved to pick those up, bang them, rebuild them, whatever. I’d have friends come and create, and as long as he had a snack he’d hang out with me and friends during our creative processes. Sargent also loves music (dad is a musician) so I’ll play music in the studio, to start off, and wind down our day. Watching music videos ended up being our great compromise between kid and adult shows. We started collecting different musical instruments from guitars to drums. There was a time where Sargent was especially into Steve Lacey and he’d play along on his guitar while we watched his music vids. He’s a wild drummer! As he grew older, he became more interested in working with crayons, paint, and anything he can construct, like blocks or clay. Time outside has been crucial. It’s where we investigate colour in nature, grounding ourselves, and having fun exploring. Unfortunately, we are not always in a park, or studio, or even have time to set up a creative activity. I’ve found that simply asking him questions, really taking a full moment to consider and respond has led to the most robust and very very silly moments between us. He keeps me curious. I created Jug’s World because of that shared curiosity. Jug’s World is about honouring the earth and creating your reality. I started off with free downloadable colouring pages and will continue to release more original, kids content through the seasons.
1 of 2
Elise Peterson: Jug’s World
David Stewart, photographer
There was no intention that my three children, now all adults, would end up working in the creative industry, it just turned out that way. I can only conclude that as they were brought up by parents who worked in the industry (my wife has a background in textiles), this somehow influenced them to take art subjects at school and university. They were encouraged to do what they felt was right for them, and to follow their instincts and individual interests.
When they were around ten, 12 and 15 years old, my photography was much more about what I observed going on around me (for example my book Thrice Removed). Consequently, they became models in some of the images, witnessing firsthand what I did. They were interested enough to discuss the project and contribute to the ideas. A few years later, when they were all teenagers, my next project was Teenage Pre-Occupation which looked specifically at their age group. They contributed to this by helping to organise some of the shots of their friends, and also with discussions of what it was like to be a teenager at this time. My daughter Alice also wrote some words which appeared in the resulting book.
To them, being involved may have seemed a bit of a nuisance at the time, but looking back now, they like the images. They view them as a marker in time of a bigger story, not just family snaps. I sometimes think they understand my work better than I do, but then they do have a better art education and recognise many references I am totally unaware of.
As they have grown older, they have been a constant help to me, discussing various topics for future projects and encouraging me to do things. It has turned around from me encouraging them. This shared experience has probably been rewarding to all of us.
As for something other to share with your children, I have found music and films are really important and become influential points of reference as you look back in time.
1 of 4
David Stewart: Guitar Heroes in Full Swing
Leonie Bos, illustrator
I became a mother when I was 25. I had just graduated from art school and moved to Amsterdam. With a friend, I squatted in a burned-down apartment which we used as a studio. Here we painted for our upcoming admission to a prestigious postgraduate programme. Needless to say, unplanned motherhood was not part of my plan of action! It had quite an impact on my sense of responsibility, on my purpose and consequently on my strategy. I decided to swap fine arts for a profession with a more likely chance of success. Since I had been passionately drawing all my life, illustrating felt like an obvious and more lucrative direction.
The first ten years I didn’t have a studio. I worked from home, at my kitchen table, so the kids experienced my process up close. I met many a deadline with one of them on my lap, drawing simultaneously. I often asked them what they thought of an illustration when I wasn’t sure of its effect. Children are very sharp-eyed, this makes them perfect testbeds. So, you would imagine that they are quite indoctrinated, and yes, they certainly love drawing and crafting, but preferably in a... supervising way. With most of our little DIY projects, we start off all kumbaya but somewhere along the way they always quietly pull out and lean back. Expectantly watching me turning toilet paper rolls into TNT dynamite bars, tea boxes into Minecraft blocks, PET bottles into rocket launchers. Often I just get too carried away to notice I’m doing most of it by myself. Which in itself isn’t bad. I sense the calming effect it has on them, almost like they’re being hypnotised, but it does make me wonder; maybe the whole process, to them, is just a means to an end. They only care about a satisfying result. Or worse, could I make them feel slightly discouraged? I’m sure this is pedagogically questionable. I should think this over while I’m cutting-and-pasting this week’s cardboard sniper rifle...
1 of 5
Leonie Bos for The New Yorker