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Features / April 14, 2016

Art as Child’s Play: Recent Projects with Kids in Vancouver

We live in an adult-centric world, not to mention an adult-centric artworld. So it's worth reflecting on what it means to produce art with children.
Children make art during Ciara Phillips's project at Western Front, which offers a screen-printing studio space to kids aged six to ten until April 30. Photo: Ciara Phillips. Children make art during Ciara Phillips's project at Western Front, which offers a screen-printing studio space to kids aged six to ten until April 30. Photo: Ciara Phillips.

“What about the children?”

Ciara Phillips, the Turner Prize–nominated Canadian artist, was at a Stockholm symposium last year when she heard those words—and they spoke to her strongly.

Granted, it wasn’t just the words that struck Phillips, but also the legacy of the person who spoke them: Gunilla Lundahl, the senior cultural journalist and author best known in the artworld for helping artist Palle Nielsen transform Stockholm’s Moderna Museet into an adventure playground for children back in 1968.

Both Lundahl’s query and her life-long commitment to youth prompted Phillips to expand the scope of her art practice to include a group she had never considered focusing on before: namely, kids.

“That [question] made me think about myself, as well as about the work that I’ve been doing collaboratively, and how it has really been focused on adult artists and designers, and sometimes community groups,” Phillips says. “That just sort of sparked a thought for me of what I might do in Vancouver.”

Indeed, for her current project at the Western Front in Vancouver, Phillips is, in many ways, continuing her usual interests—as a part of her ongoing series Workshop, begun in 2010, she is setting up a screenprinting studio in the gallery and inviting others in for collaborative printing sessions.

But this time, Phillips’s printing facilities are only open to children aged six to 10 years old.

So far, Phillips is enthused by the results.

“I guess what is coming out is that kids are extremely imaginative and extremely uninhibited in terms of expressing what they want,” Phillips says. “That’s different—very different—than working with adults.”

Interestingly, Phillips’s Workshop is not the only contemporary-art project in Vancouver right now that involves children.

Cindy Mochizuki’s Things on the Shoreline—an installation produced in partnership with students from Lord Strathcona Elementary and the Vancouver Japanese Language School—has been on exhibit at Access Gallery since February, with a related book launch taking place this Saturday, April 16, the final day of the exhibition.

Elsewhere, artists Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed have been conducting a long-term art project in a Vancouver school through the organization Other Sights for Artists’ Projects. The project, titled Big Rock Candy Mountain, comes on the heels of other works they have made with children in Toronto and elsewhere.

Concurrently, Jickling and Reed are compiling insights they have gleaned from engaging in art practice with children, to be released in the book Multiple Elementary this summer.

So what’s behind some of this recent activity around children and contemporary art in Vancouver? What are some of the opportunities and challenges for artists engaging in this type of practice? And what might the adults-only art sphere be missing out on?

While definitive answers to these questions are few and far between—these are only three projects, after all, and three quite different ones at that—chatting with Phillips, Mochizuki, Jickling and Reed yields some interesting observations around the way art works (or doesn’t) for people of all ages.

Lesson One: Art Made With Children Can Still Be Capital-A Art

“One thing I’ve noticed is that when I say I’m doing this project and I’m working with children, a lot of people just glaze over,” Phillips says. “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we get that, that’s community art,’ and ‘Oh yeah, I get it, it’s workshops for kids,” or whatever.”

When asked why she thinks that happens, Phillips says, “I just think [art made with children] is not considered that serious or intellectually challenging.”

Jickling and Reed know this type of reaction quite well, too.

“I think [our art practice] is very often interpreted as art education, something that happens apart from the space of what an art practice is,” Reed says. “And yes, we are interested in models of education and different kinds of educational structures, but we are very much trying to locate the project in the space of art. It’s not about educating children about contemporary-art practices, but producing projects together.”

For instance, some of the projects Reed and Jickling are producing with students at their current school include a postcard multiple based on the historical tall-tale postcard model. In past projects (just as they are planning to eventually do in their current environs) they have produced chocolate multiples—a sly nod to the question of desire and subversion in the elementary-school context. In an earlier eight-week engagement with a Grade 6 class, the group reconfigured discarded funeral-home flowers into awards given to overlooked spaces.

Jickling first became aware of the potential of working with children roughly a decade ago when she had a summer job leading art camps with kids through the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in the Yukon.

“People think that working with kids, often, is this kind of watered-down version of what adults are capable of, and it became very clear to me that that wasn’t the case,” says Jickling.

Mochizuki says she was reminded of the fact that children can create, or co-create, strong contemporary art well before she took on the project that became Things by the Shoreline.

“I was in residency in Japan in 2014 at the Mori Art Museum, and saw a project by Takayuki Yamamoto,” Mochizuki explains. “He worked with kids, and they created small installations that depicted what hell was…there were 20 really wonderful concepts, a really deep thinking through of what hell is. Seeing that broke something open for me.”

When she set to work on Things on the Shoreline, Mochizuki introduced the children not to the typically basic art-ed routines of playdough and construction paper.

Rather, Mochizuki engaged them in a process that she herself uses in the studio when she is feeling stuck—mixing drops of water and ink on paper, sometimes using salt or other materials to dry it up, then considering what those shapes might become.

“Working with Things on the Shoreline, I thought it was really important for kids to come into the space to dialogue about how to make meaning,” Mochizuki says. “It was about how they think through ideas—partly because it points to a different way of thinking we maybe wouldn’t consider ourselves.”

Lesson Two: Collaboration Doesn’t Mean the Same Thing to Everyone

The use of the word “collaboration” can vary in many instances of participatory artmaking, and in art made with child participants it is no different.

Phillips is quite comfortable using the term in connection to her Workshop series in Vancouver; in fact, the meaning of the term was opened up for her during Workshop’s run in Stockholm last year.

“I work with many different collaborative groupings, and I suppose for a long time I’ve held onto the idea that a collaboration is when all decisions are made together, more or less,” Phillips says, in particular noting her association to the Glasgow Poster Club group, which uses that model. “But when I was in Stockholm, there was a woman in the group one day printing with me who was a dancer, and she said, ‘Can’t we consider it a collaboration even if we are simply in the same space making things at the same time?’ I would have said no before, but in a way that question made me think about widening my conception of what is possible under that frame.”

Jickling and Reed, by contrast, prefer not to use the term “collaboration” in relation to Big Rock Candy Mountain and other projects that use school as space.

“I think the way that the word collaboration is used, there is often an assumption that each participant has an equal voice and say,” says Reed, “But because we are working in a school structure, there is a system we are working within that has preestablished power dynamics…. I don’t think that within that preexisting power structure things could be an equal collaboration.”

And despite the fact that Access Gallery frames Things on the Shoreline as a “collaborative project,” Mochizuki thinks the word “facilitation” fits best in relation to this work with children—same as for projects she has done with elders, like the coordination of a Japanese bento box cooking initiative called Shako Club.

“In this instance [Things on the Shoreline], I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the word collaboration, because the final artwork wasn’t created between the two of us in that sense,” says Mochizuki. “The exhibition was their [the children’s] work, though facilitated by me.” And the resulting book, launching Saturday, features exclusively Mochizuki’s work.

“I think facilitation might be the better word,” says Mochizuki. “I would facilitate being in the space, and work beside the children.”

Lesson Three: Making Art with Children is More Complex Than One Might Think

Each of the projects presented in this article has different levels of temporal engagement with children—Phillips’s Workshop is being presented for five weeks, while Mochizuki’s process with students unfolded weekly over a period of three months, and Jickling and Reed’s project is extending over more than a year.

Each timescale and each project presents its own challenges in terms of complexity.

Jickling and Reed, for instance—despite the aforementioned power imbalances of working in a school structure—try to pay close attention to the way those imbalances are challenged and complicated.

“The inequality is not a stable inequality,” Jickling notes. “Part of what we’ve learned to do is try to pay attention to this, to the subtle manipulations that kids are brokering in these kinds of situations; the way they subvert our invitations or in some cases present full-on confrontations of what we are proposing.”

One example of a “full-on confrontation,” for instance, took place during the making of a chocolate multiple with a group of Toronto children.

Seeing as how the children had researched the different labour practices around cocoa production and had visited a local fair-trade chocolate enterprise, Reed and Jickling assumed chocolate for the multiple would come from the local fair-trade provider specializing in dark chocolate.

“When the kids got wind of this, they basically said no way,” Reed recalls. The argument was, “If you do that [use dark chocolate], this will not have currency in our culture and our community—in our kid-based, school-based culture. And the idea was to put the multiples into circulation, so it was really essential it have currency.”

In the end, she says, “we totally had to reorient and find a fair-trade distributor of milk chocolate.”

On a more subtle level, Reed and Jickling say, subversions can come in the form of student monoprints that attempt to sneak in Internet memes.

But even aside from those power imbalances, their project seeks to address, rather than gloss over, complex readings. For instance, when they realized many historical tall-tale postcards had a connection to colonialism, they organized a class visit to Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s studio to gain insight into how those legacies can be critiqued and resisted.

Things on the Shoreline also had aspects that many grown-ups likely wouldn’t expect.

For instance, Access Gallery director/curator Kimberley Phillips did small studio visits—or “desk visits”—with the children as they worked on their projects, which eventually morphed from drawings into mini-sets for fantastical creatures. Phillips also led them on a field trip to the gallery, offering a presentation about artist-run culture.

And because the children weren’t able to participate directly in the installation process for Things on the Shoreline, each child artist wrote a letter to the gallery explaining how their piece should be lit and placed, and which works it should be next to. These letters guided Mochizuki and Phillips’s installation process.

Phillips, whose project with children is still in process until April 30, says the participants come up with ideas she wouldn’t have thought of.

“The first day I asked one of the little girls, ‘What are you interested in?’ And she said ‘Monsters.’ And I said, ‘OK, what kind of monsters?’ And she said, ‘Monsters of mixed emotions.’”

At the same time, Phillips says, she ends up having more influence over how such images get extended than when she works with adults.

“They start with a drawing and we translate that drawing into a print, and then thinking, where do we take the print from there? Could that be extended in a way, like made into a costume that becomes a prop for something else? I’m suggesting those things to them rather than us working that out together,” Phillips says.

Lesson Four: Funding Matters

It’s worth noting, in the context of these projects, that the BC Arts Council’s Youth Engagement Program is part of what makes artists’ works with children possible.

And money for the Youth Engagement Program has increased in recent years, with a $2-million boost from the provincial government coming in three years ago.

As Sarah Durno, director of the BC Arts Council, explains, the Youth Engagement Program is “part of the provincial government’s Creative Futures Strategy announced in 2013/14. In the first year, $2 million of new money was allocated to YEP and $1 million was allocated to BCAC’s Early Career Development program.”

Durno explains that the amount of funding “was adjusted in 2014/15 to address increased demand in ECD, but stable demand in YEP. The overall awards through YEP in 2014/15 and 2015/16 totalled $1,750,000 each year.”

Mochizuki’s Things on the Shoreline is one of many projects supported by a BC Arts council Youth Engagement Program grant. When asked if she thought increased funding in this sector might boost artists’ engagement with children-centred practices, Mochizuki was open to the possibility.

“I think you just hit on something there,” Mochizuki says. “There seems to be a lot more funding around community engagement and what that means….and community engagement is not just having community members come into the gallery. There has to be outreach and a look at how the making of contemporary art can enter that space.”

On the flipside, there are certain pressures that can come with funding, or a need for funding—namely, producing something that can bring visibility to the valuable things that might be happening in process.

“It is very rewarding, but also stressful, because we are not at the point where we can be working in schools without some kind of visibility,” says Jickling. “There needs to be some kind of visibility that exists on the outside, otherwise, we don’t get funding, otherwise we can’t continue to work.”

Lesson Five: There Are More Questions Than Answers, and Still Much to Be Learned

It seems that more questions than answers remain about art practices that engage children.

Part of that has to do with the context of this article, which only begins to scratch the surface of what each of these artists is engaged in in Vancouver, both in work with children and otherwise.

This article also fails to explore many other art projects in Canada involving kids of late: the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s “Through The Eyes of a Child,” an exhibition of children’s art on until May 8; Aston Coles and Irene Bindi’s live recording in February at Plug In ICA that invited eight children aged two to four to create “free music” using microphones and pedals, with the result completely shaped by the children; and last but certainly not least, Mammalian Diving Reflex’s longstanding projects with children, the best known of which, Haircuts by Children, continues to tour the world.

And the ethical issues around producing artwork with children could be the subject of a book in itself.

Nonetheless, the projects of Phillips, Mochizuki, Jickling and Reed, overlapping as they do temporally and geographically, still provide much to reflect upon in terms of what it means to live in an adult-centric culture in general, and an adult-centric art subculture in particular. (Need proof of the latter points? UNICEF just ranked Canada low on indexes of children’s well-being relative to similar countries, and the Neue Galerie in New York recently refused to budge on its no-children-under-10 policy.)

Phillips, for her part, says she may continue working with children in some capacity after she returns to her home in Glasgow.

Phillips notes that adults—artists and others, herself included—can be “measured in terms of what you say and how conscious you are about presenting yourself in the world… the lack of that [in children of a certain age] is pretty refreshing… I enjoy that a lot.”

“It feels like there is a lot of potential,” Phillips says. “It doesn’t feel like a one-time thing.”

Mochizuki connects with that thought as well.

“I went into this thinking this could potentially fail,” Mochizuki says. “But it ended up being really rewarding and really engaging…. Now what’s great is I’ve built a relationship with the elementary school and the language school, and there is conversation about doing something down the line with the same group of kids.”

Mochizuki also connects the increasing number of projects with children to “the space of the studio becoming more and more permeable” to all types of untraditional art audiences.

And as artists engaged long-term with putting art made with children “at the centre of our practice,” Jickling and Reed still have many questions about why they do what they do as well.

“Why do we have an interest in continuing to come back to classrooms and to working with kids?” Jickling asks. “How is it that we move these practices outside of the classroom? And what are the ethics of that? How do we or don’t we identify as queer in this space? Can we think of children as these kinds of feral, wild agents with the potential to disrupt artworld hierarchies?”

The duo hopes that the book they have edited, and the work they continue to commit to, will further these questions.

“I think a whole thread in the book [Multiple Elementary, being released this summer] is destabilizing this adult-centric view of the world that we definitely encounter all the time in schools—this idea that child development happens in a very linear way and that we develop towards adulthood and that is the kind of end goal,” says Jickling.

“In many worlds, particularly in a contemporary art world, it is thought that if we engage with children, it’s not serious, it’s not rigorous, there is nothing they have to offer,” Jickling continues. “But despite it being very stressful and despite it being misinterpreted by critics and curators [as art education rather than art] we still keep coming back and centering ourselves here.”

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via