Alison Jay in her book 1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book encourages children to really look at things. With all of the details she includes in her pictures, she asks them to examine each scene carefully. What’s going on in that picture of the three bears? How does that connect to other images in the book that come before and after it? At the same time, she challenges them to draw upon their experiences, what they know already about the three bears, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk. They begin to feel that they already know so much, because the clues they find in front of them connect to a larger body of knowledge they’ve been building all along.
In my interview with Kate DiCamillo, in which she discussed her latest book, The Magician’s Elephant, she talked about art as a way of looking at our world closely. I’ve been thinking about that a lot as the first signs of fall have set in--the shorter days, the crisper temperatures, the quicker step in the already purposeful pace of my fellow New Yorkers. Yesterday I found myself in midtown Manhattan with an hour between appointments. So I walked to the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street and up the stairs to the second floor where an intimate collection of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies are on exhibit. I say “intimate” because there are less than a dozen paintings, and yet I felt enveloped by them (which was Monet’s wish with his larger “decorations,” according to one caption). At various points in the room, I felt as if I were standing on Monet’s Japanese footbridge, or coming upon the pond at the heart of his garden in Giverny.
The paintings in this exhibit were all created toward the end of Monet’s life, and in one I’d never seen, he painted a fiery rendering of the Japanese Footbridge (1920-1922) in mad brushstrokes that look more like pastels than oils, so forcefully and spontaneously is the paint applied. I wondered if he were angry when he did it – almost like it was too soon for autumn to arrive and to have to say goodbye to his garden. Was I projecting?
It is an amazing experience, to be enveloped by art, to be so deep in a story that we feel as if we know the characters, to be taken in by a piece of music until it becomes the soundtrack to an episode in our own lives, to be so completely surrounded by a painting that it transports us to another place and time. And I was, in that moment, standing in Monet’s garden in Giverny, watching my parents cross the Japanese footbridge a decade ago, watching the way the sun and clouds reflected back in that pond. I was inhabiting both past and present, mindful of the person I am because of where I’ve been. And I also felt connected to the here and now, to the strangers in the room beside me, each of us sharing this experience, yet having our own private and unique response to the beauty around us.
Children are so awake to the world, so naturally curious and observant. It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to them—and to each other—is to encourage that wakefulness, that appreciation, that curiosity about the people and places on this planet of ours.