The Story, As It Happened
A few months back, I met an empty seltzer box in the kitchen. It was intriguingly green and not to be recklessly discarded. I just didn’t know what it was yet. So here’s what happened, one thing at a time:
My daughters thought it was pretty, and therefore to be cut up with scissors. I watched little bright shapes happen. Green was what? Grass, lawn, meadow. We glued green pieces to the rest of the box to make little lawns or rolling hills. Such a place needs a cozy abode in it. Return to the scrap pile and retrieve a toilet paper roll and an egg carton, because there’s a cozy abode in there somehow. Cut out an egg cup and make it a roof. Toilet paper rolls with egg carton roofs are obviously some kind of rustic hut. But now it needs walls the way stone soup needs potatoes. Otherwise it is just lame, and lame is not acceptable. What do we have for walls?
We go outside and heartlessly raid nature for sticks, pine needles, anything that looks like rustic-hut-wall material. But this is just a pile of messy nature stuff. Organization required! We now have a pile of sticks and a pile of pine needles. This is two huts, not one, so go get another toilet paper roll. Fortunately we use toilet paper, otherwise where would all these magical resources come from? We pause to offer a prayer of thanks for our toilet-paper using habits, and the gluing recommences. We now have a stick hut, and a pine needle hut, and AHA! We’re two-thirds of the way to The Three Little Pigs! Third hut to be painted in a brick pattern. We divide our labor and soon have our houses of straw, sticks, and bricks ready to be placed on our green landscape. The story also needs a road going between the houses, and roads are made of dirt, so we need some dirt. Someone remembers seeing some dirt lying around on the ground outside, and goes to get it. The dirt turns out to be sand, but we’re ok with that. More glue assures us of an immovable sand road. We get a drink of water and stare at the beautiful thing that sprang from a seltzer box.
Obviously this was awesome, and I wish I could just stop there, but I’m supposed to turn ineffable events into super smart ideas, so here goes. Socrates, apart from his predilection for hemlock, was a super smart guy, so let’s follow his lead and ask a bunch of questions in no particular order. What made this happen? What drove us? What got in the way and what made it work? Why was it fun instead of a waste of time? Why, in the end, was it good?
Two things made this happen: age and youth, unevenly distributed. I knew it was good to do things together, and they knew a beautiful color when they saw one.
What drove us?
We all instinctively saw potential and were drawn by it. One thing it has taken me far too long to realize is that instinct, while inherently spontaneous, still can be encouraged and cultivated, and our common human vocation is to cultivate. So we cultivated ourselves with a seltzer box.
What got in the way?
In this blessed and rare case, nothing really got in the way except occasional frustration with the stringy stuff that won’t detach itself from the end of a glue gun. But I did notice things that were about to get in the way. One is the evil of advertising, which insists that you must purchase a wide array of very specific art supplies in order to be able to make something. This is nonsense. We lucked out with the glue and the paint. But all you really need is something in the “chunk of stuff” category and something in the “keep-it-together” category. My eldest just made a scarecrow out of sticks, rags, buttons, and a newfound love of sewing. Another more pernicious evil is the Pinterest mentality, which dictates that everything must be without flaw. If you go into a random art project with this mentality, the imperfect stuff you’re working with will rebel, and the houses (on and off the seltzer box) will descend into mayhem and general distress. So Pinterest is not allowed. Neatness is defeatness, so be messy, and know ahead of time you’ll have to clean up the mess. We almost failed that test, by the way, but inspiration descended, as it will when you call upon it, and the scraps of mess on the table became “birds” flying to their new “nest” (the kitchen trash can). Away flew our vices and neuroses.
What made it work?
Having a tradition of stories to reference certainly helps, because you already have a whole world of meaning built into any mess you make. Looking to the future also helps. See the potential before the project starts. Don’t throw away the toilet paper rolls, or at least not all of them. Keep a good proportion between your art project habits and your toilet-using habits. Another thing that made it work was joy. We threw ourselves into it without questioning it and took delight in each new discovery. “To enjoy” is to act, not sit back and demand. En-joying is putting joy into something. Waiting around for something to satiate you results in restlessness and unhappiness. One other thing that made it work was spontaneity. Creation is urgent: let there be art!
Why, in the end, was it good?
Because seeing the unexpected journeys a young imagination will embark on is a revelation, and don’t be surprised if that young imagination turns out to be your own. Don’t be surprised if what you make is more than a random art project. What you’re really making isn’t a miniature hut with no one inside it; you’re making a home full of people. What you’re really making is the little selves awkwardly working through the glue and the colors of their lives. They won’t remember random art projects, but they’re learning to put joy and love into their lives, and learning how one can turn dirt into a pathway to discovery.