The artist, 5, and the critic


THE ARTIST approaches with a piece of construction paper on which is depicted a tableau of great emotional energy: jagged lines, bold circles, vivid splotches, all in tasteful shades of crayon.

"It's . . . beautiful," I say.

"Do you know what it is?" she asks.

"Of course I know what it is," I say. "It's life. Feelings. Exhilaration. Confusion. The beastly fear that lurks in all of us."

"It's a pig," says The Artist. "Here's the farmer and his cows. That's the sun. And those are trees."

"I knew that," I say. "Life. The food chain. All energy derives from the sun. Riveting."

"This is a horsey over here," she says.

"A powerful piece of work," I say. "Spare, yet unrelenting. I don't know how you do it."

The Artist is 5 years old and seems enormously proud of herself at this moment. Wordlessly, she hands me this latest creation and we solemnly march into the kitchen and over to the refrigerator.

There we secure four fruit magnets -- two pineapples, a banana )) and an orange in this case -- and this newest creation is hung on the Sears Coldspot in a quiet, dignified ceremony.

"Now I'll draw you and mommy in the car," says The Artist, dashing away.

"Careful," I say. "Creativity takes its toll on the psyche. Might want to take a spin on the Big Wheels first. To get the juices flowing, I mean."

The singular beauty of a child's artwork -- although The Artist herself often denies being a child -- is that it's open to vast interpretation.

Four squiggly blue lines might be a giraffe. Then again, they might be the ocean or a school or (I was actually told this once) a wicked witch on a broomstick.

Nevertheless, there is a certain protocol to be observed when a child hands a sample of artwork to a parent and waits patiently for a response.

The first thing the parent should do is thoughtfully purse his lips and say: "Hmmmm."

This sort of vague reaction hints that you have been overwhelmed at the sheer brilliance of the work before you, as well as the enormity of its theme.

More importantly, it buys you time to carefully inspect the drawing from all angles, in order to determine exactly what the hell it's supposed to be.

Turn it upside down if you have to -- providing you can figure out what upside down is in this case.

Then allow a soft smile of recognition to play over your features as you say: "It's . . . beautiful."

(Some parents like to embellish this scene by dabbing at their eyes with a handkerchief, as if overcome by the weighty realization that they are in the presence of the next Picasso or Georgia O'Keeffe.

(Personally, I find this to be a bit much. But if it works for you, go with it.)

The one response you should never, ever make is: "Oh, sweetie, it's . . . uh, what is it?"

Understand, it's not that this reaction will hurt the child's feelings in any way.

Rather your own feelings will be bruised when the child stares at you as if you'd suddenly grown a third eye and says (in an exasperated voice, no less): "It's a frog on a lily pad, silly! Anyone can see that!"

Right. The point is, it's always best to let the child volunteer any information on the theme of the artwork. Because your guess, no matter how educated, will inevitably be wrong, leading to the burning shame and humiliation of your child as she contemplates the unpleasant realization that her daddy is a dunce.

(By the way, just because a splotch of green was a frog on a lily pad in today's drawing, it does not necessarily follow that the same thing will hold true tomorrow. The next splotch of green might be a pussycat for all you know. Or a sailboat. Or Charlie Brown. It's all a crap-shoot, is what I'm saying.)

In the often arcane world of child art, it is also considered bad form to point out that a horsey does not, in fact, have 12 legs.

Sifted through a child's active imagination, a horsey has . . . excuse me, a horse has as many legs as the child wants the horse to have. Accuracy of depiction and adherence to a reasonable scale of measurement are not high priorities with very young artists.

On paper, a ducky might be depicted as the same size as a story building. Sure, the critics will rip that kind of haphazard rendering a few years down the line.

But not when the kid is 5. Nobody has the guts to do that.

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