Famous Artists Share Their Childhood Art In Support Of Arts Education

By Priscilla Frank

“My Kid Could Do That” underscores the importance of arts education in under-funded communities.

Arts education is currently in crisis, with over 4 million students around the country receiving no creative schooling whatsoever. Given President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts, including slashing the National Endowment for the Arts, the future forecast for art in schools looks grim.

An exhibition called “My Kid Could Do That” hopes to illuminate the importance of art instruction for all kids by showing the work that famed contemporary artists like Cecily Brown and Sanford Biggers made long before they were art world fixtures.

The show, featuring the work of 24 established contemporary artists, is hosted by ProjectArt, an organization that provides after-school art classes to underfunded communities by turning public libraries into visual art classrooms and studios, offering year-round instruction to students who would not otherwise have access to artistic learning.

ProjectArt was founded by Adarsh Alphons, who moved from India at 18 years old on a scholarship to study art. “In India, I used to draw a lot as a child and got in trouble because it wasn’t supported by the school system,” Alphons told HuffPost. “I was kicked out of school when I was 7 years old.”

The childhood art of Tokyo-born illustrator Osamu Kobayashi.

Eventually, Alphons connected with a supportive teacher who nurtured his artistic talent and encouraged him to delve deeper into his creative practice. The effect this mentor had on Alphons, he expressed, was life-changing. Today ProjectArt holds art classes in 32 public libraries in three cities across the U.S., with plans to expand to eight cities over the next two years.

Through this innovative exhibition, the team at ProjectArt hopes to show that no artist comes out of the womb with their talent and technique fully refined. And yet most artists featured, from a young age, did show incredible curiosity, observation, experimentation and style.

Some of the featured artists created images as kids that, in some way, reflect the work they’re making as adults. Cecily Brown, for example, displayed an aptitude for capturing movement in paint from the age of 8 years old. Her student canvas, filled to the brim with abstract animals and trees, feels continually in flux, a mirage-effect her adult works contain as well.

Of course, most of the featured artists have grown a great deal since their earliest creations, including Will Cotton, known for his hyperrealist paintings of sugar-coated wonderlands. Cotton’s 1972 work, created at the ripe age of 7, depicts his house. In a statement, Cotton expressed that the drawing constitutes an early example of his interest in “observed over symbolic representation.” It also features Cotton’s signature clouds.

What helps an artist like Cotton go from boxy lime green crayon drawings to paintings that rake in over $100,000 at auction? You have one guess. ProjectArt’s show demonstrates in no uncertain terms how crucial art education is to current and future elementary school students. Not only is teaching art in schools proven to yield higher attendance and test scores, and increase likelihood of college attendance, it also ensures that the next generation will be enchanted and challenged by some stellar contemporary art.

  • Will Cotton’s “My House” (1972), made with magic marker, crayon and pencil when he was 7.
    Will Cotton
    An example of his early interest in “observed over symbolic representation,” the work shows how Cotton carefully observed the structure of his childhood home. He stated, “I’ve made a lot of paintings over the last 40 years in which architecture plays the role of the main character in the painting.”
  • Zoe Buckman’s “Help I Work At The Ministry”, made with fabric and mixed media when she was 10.
    Zoe Buckman
    When she was 10 years old, Buckman’s father got a job as a statistician at the Ministry of Defense in London. Imagining her father going to work at such an official building was humorous for her. Having overheard her parents speak of the long process of him receiving security clearance, she wanted to sew him a tie and entrap it in a glass frame. She recounts, “It was my mum’s idea to write the plaque.”
  • Laurie Simmons’ “Self Portrait” (1959), made with pencil and watercolor when she was 10.
    Laurie Simmons
    “I made this drawing when I was 10. It was part of a series of girls from around the world in native dress. My sister had it for years and gave it back to me as a birthday present after I started shooting pictures of Japanese Love Dolls in 2009. The strangest thing about it is that it is actually a self-portrait of my 10-year-old self dressed as a geisha.”
  • Tom Sachs’ untitled 1976 pencil drawing, which he made when he was 10.
    Tom Sachs
    “Not much has changed in the past 40 years since I made this drawing,” said Sachs.
  • Sanford Biggers’ “Grandfather’s Hands” (1986), made with oil on canvas when he was 16.
    Sanford Biggers
    When Biggers was in high school, his grandfather passed away —he made this painting with his grandfather in mind. More than just a portrait, Biggers wanted to represent his grandfather’s presence and his life in Texas, which was a significant contrast to the artist’s own life growing up in Los Angeles.
  • Matthew Ritchie’s “Soldier,” made with colored pencil when he was 5 or 6.
    Matthew Ritchie
    Growing up in London, Ritchie was convinced he would become a soldier. This drawing is probably a self-portrait from around 5 or 6 years old. He states, “I vividly remember going up to horse guards parade and seeing the Royal Artillery in their fabulous 19-century full-dress uniforms. As soldiers tend to be when not in combat, they were very kind to a small boy with lots of questions. I’m not quite sure when I stopped wanting to be a soldier, but I expect it was something to do with finding out the dress uniform was only for special occasions.”
  • Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Untitled (silver mr. Spock)” (1968), made from plasticine when he was 7.
    Rirkrit Tiravanija
    Taken in Addis Ababa in 1968 by their father, the photograph shows the artist and his sister. Tiravanija, 7 years old at the time, is wearing Mr. Spock ears that he sculpted himself from plasticine. He considers these ears his first sculpture and this photo its documentation.
  • Daniel Arsham’s untitled works, which he made when he was 8-10.
    Daniel Arsham
    Made in the late 1980s, Arsham was between eight and ten years old when he completed these works. Most of the drawings in his archive are black and white, as he is colorblind. However, blue is one of the colors that he can see well, and the gradient study is quite interesting in this context.
  • Katherine Bernhardt’s “Self Portrait” (1992), made with watercolor when she was 17.
    Katherine Bernhardt
    Bernhardt used to make her watercolors in her bedroom in the evenings after school. She made this work during her senior year at Clayton High School. High school is when Bernhardt first began experimenting with multiple paint mediums including oil and acrylic. She supplemented her study with painting classes at the St. Louis Art Museum and a ceramic class at the Craft Alliance. This drawing, along with other works that she showed on Portfolio Day at Washington University, granted her admission to the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Urs Fischer’s “Cat” (1981), made from polymer clay when he was 8.
    Urs Fischer
    Urs Fischer’s childhood work, a sculpture of a cat, is an early example of a motif that would recur throughout Fisher’s work from the last two decades. Some of the artist’s 3D forms and installations to date portray similarly loose and bulbous qualities. This is the only sculptural piece in the exhibition.
  • Grimanesa Amorós’ “Snowland” (1972), made with pastel on paper when she was 9.
    Grimanesa Amoros
    Growing up as a child in Lima, Peru, Amorós would often fantasize about the snow she’d only seen in pictures and movies. Unable to physically experience the magic of snow, the only way she could express her fascination was through art. Using pastels, she was able to illustrate a scene of a frigid winter. Her sweet naiveté is found in the pinks and yellows of the painted trees, unaware that they would have been barren.
  • Dustin Yellin’s untitled triptych, made with ballpoint pen when he was 7.
    Dustin Yellin
    Yellin’s profound text is befitting to his adult philosophical outlook. When referencing his childhood work he stated, “My interest in geology has not changed. My feelings for rocks are strong. Death has remained a constant. The direction in which time travels has been a constant source of anxiety. As you get older and decay maybe the glass gets thicker. A certain type of lensing happens. A sediment. The subjective experience changes chemistry. Maybe I’ve since gained hope, and you should too.”
  • Susan Te Kahurangi King’s untitled crayon work, made in 1958-1959 when she was 10.
    Susan Te Kahurangi King
    King’s earliest pieces share the same qualities as other children’s drawings, save for their exceptional precocity. Sometime between the ages of four and nine years, she gradually stopped speaking — not suddenly or abruptly, but over a period when she would still occasionally hum or sing while she drew.
  • Olafur Eliasson’s “Eye” (1982), made from watercolor when he was 15.
    Olafur Eliasson
    This study of an eye is an early example of Olafur Eliasson’s life-long fascination with vision, perception and seeing. The physical appearance of the eye itself is a recurring theme in Eliasson’s work, as is the effort to make the viewer aware that the act of seeing is a subjective process of engagement with the world. By “seeing ourselves seeing,” we become aware of our physical selves within our surroundings.

“My Kid Could Do That” takes place on Saturday, April 29, 2017, at Red Bull Arts New York. Visit ProjectArt’s website for more information on attending or volunteering.