What I Learned from Looking through My Childhood Artworks
This past August, I was summoned via text message to spend a few hours clearing out my mom and dad’s basement. Their house, on a quiet, porch-lined street in Brooklyn, is where most of my childhood took place. I lived there from the time when I was a curious, well-behaved 5-year-old who loved crafting, playing soccer, and hunting for snails to the time I moved out on my own, as a wide-eyed college grad with a liberal arts degree under my belt, and a master’s on the horizon. In the time in between, an accumulation of things from my schooling, travels, and artmaking pursuits had claimed valuable space in my generous parents’ home, and it was finally time to go through it. The most daunting part of the task ahead was to parse through—and part with—my childhood artworks.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been making things. One of my earliest memories is creating a papier-mâché snake—with red skin and black spots—during a “mommy and me” art class at Pratt Institute. As a toddler, I had a miniature easel, where I avidly painted. I could also often be found cutting up magazines and catalogues (Oriental Trading was my favorite) for collaging, or crafting gaudy necklaces with candy-colored beads or googly-eyed finger puppets with fuzzy hair. Like many children, I spent a lot of time drawing with my 64-pack of Crayola crayons. And around first or second grade, when I got my hands on Sculpey—a polymer clay that hardens when you bake it in the oven, a concept I found magical—I became obsessed with sculpting miniature cakes, ice cream cones, bunnies, and teddy bears.
As I grew up, my creative impulse wavered, but never that much. It perked up in school, where I was lucky to always have art classes and summer camps—one year as a preteen, I took classes in analog photography, puppet-making, and Ukrainian Easter egg decorating. In college, my love for ceramics, which I still practice today, was cemented. My ever-supportive parents didn’t hold onto my whole creative output (the spotted papier-mâché snake was just one of the casualties), but they did keep a lot—which I was touched by on that day in August.
I tore into the task of discarding my childhood effects with efficiency, saving the things that held solid sentimental value and trashing the junk that was just taking up space (let’s face it—Brooklyn real estate is a precious commodity). I easily parted with old notebooks, exams, essays, and a giant cache of printed sources that informed my undergraduate thesis on
That’s not to say I kept them all. Given the quantity—dozens and dozens of pieces—and my career, which has me looking at art constantly, I set the bar high for what was good enough to keep. I got rid of around half, discarding redundant pieces (I drew a lot of cats), slapdash drawings, and silly projects—like a book I wrote and illustrated about a humanoid carrot who went on vacation. When I was done, I’d whittled down my adolescent possessions to a tidy pile of boxes.
I didn’t think much of the experience until a month later, when one of my Google alerts directed me towards an article in The Atlantic, with a headline that caught my eye: “Throw Your Children’s Art Away.”
In the article, author Mary Towsend recalls the recent experience of reckoning with her own childhood artwork, then coming to the realization, as a mother, that she doesn’t need to keep everything her children make. She surmises that the act of making art is more important that the actual artwork, and a parent’s urge to keep it has more to do with wanting to hold onto memories.
“Throwing it away actually does everyone a favor,” Townsend writes. “It completes the artistic life cycle, allowing ephemera to be just that: actually ephemeral. Childhood is like that, too—or that’s how parents ought to think about it. Kids thrash about until a more recognizable self takes hold. Then they turn their attention toward preserving that developing self. The paperwork they produce along the way is mostly a means to that end.” She concludes that art created before age seven is particularly ripe for trashing, and that you shouldn’t discard something your child wants to keep.
Townsend’s points rang true to me, but I was still glad to have my earliest artistic pursuits tucked away safely in my parents’ basement. Soon after, I decided to take another look at my artwork. I was thinking about the value of children’s drawings and paintings, and what they could say, or express, about a person during that incredibly formative part of life.
Teachers, psychologists, and doctors have long toiled over interpreting children’s drawings, analyzing them as tools to measure a child’s social, communication, and motor skills, while also using them to tap into their mind and get a sense of their emotional state, self-esteem, and family life. Given my lack of expertise in this area, and the warnings some experts make against over-analyzing children’s drawings, I decided to look at the artworks as whole compositions, rather than a melange of symbols for decoding.
I went about this by pulling out some broad themes from artworks I’d created between preschool and fourth grade. There’s a small body of abstract pieces, some self-portraits and drawings of friends and family in journals, an outsize quantity of cat drawings and paintings, and a cache of optimistic, blue-skied paintings.
The early abstract works are clearly preschool projects. One piece, with loops of black-and-white paint overlaid with a spray of confetti, is likely the result of dipping marbles in paint, then running them across the sheet of paper. Another piece, from the same year, made with cray-pas on black construction paper, could be read as a landscape—though I could have just enjoyed the satisfying sensation of running soft crayons across construction paper.
From what I can tell, by age three or four, I’d begun more representational works. The earliest ones are blob-like characters that, with a few tweaks, could represent dramatically different things, from a roly-poly feline to Princess Jasmine from the film Aladdin (1992), whom I idolized. A self-portrait I made during kindergarten is a crayon drawing with spare scrawls of brown hair, a curving pink swoop of a mouth, blue bug-eyes, and a peach-colored beak of a nose, all over a beige scribble of pale skin. After years of light exposure to the paper, the large pink bow I made a point of drawing on my head is barely visible. It’s accompanied by my kindergarten musings about Bugs Bunny and the seven cats that belonged to my upstairs neighbors in the first home I lived in.
I’ve never owned a cat (nor do I wish to as an adult), but as a child, I was obsessed with the creatures, in part, I think, because I couldn’t have one—my mom is allergic to them. So, I channeled my passion into my artmaking. I drew the real cats who lived upstairs, like Tut, an fuzzy orange-colored troublemaker who was prone to escaping and went for walks on a leash; the elegant white Persians I saw in Fancy Feast advertisements; and myself dressed up as a black cat for Halloween (my preferred costume for several years). A personal favorite is a rendering of a stoic tomcat made from three pieces of tangerine-colored tissue paper and a black pen.
My cat-drawing practice was bluntly thwarted around second grade, when my art teacher grew frustrated with my friend and I for constantly drawing and painting cats. She was convinced it was fueling a rash of copying (I’m sure she was right), so cats were no longer allowed in art class.
I also drew portraits of my family. In a first-grade journal, I used crayons to capture the likeness of myself, my mom, and my dad, huddled together with outstretched arms, in monochromatic outfits; above us is a failed attempt to draw my brother that I’d scratched out, perhaps unhappy with the placement. (If I were psychoanalyzing these drawings, the all-black outfit and potentially grim expression I’d drawn on my brother might raise a flag, but looking back on our genial relationship, I know that’d be a false alarm.)
My Sculpey sculptures—miniscule objects that mostly only survived because my mom kept them in a shadow box hanging on the wall for many years—are more illustrative of the development of my artmaking abilities. While a pale blue mouse isn’t much to look at, later pieces, like a small wizard and a thumb-sized layer cake, are delightful. As I got better at handling the pliable, colorful clay, I’d challenged myself to work smaller and smaller, evidenced by a small rabbit the size of my pinky nail.
While a fascinating next step (for me, at least) would be to have these artworks psychoanalyzed by an expert, left to my own devices, I found the exercise to be a fruitful and cathartic way to trace my trajectory into adulthood. While they may be based on naïve whims, these early creations are somewhat transportive, sending me back to the joyous experience of making art as a child, when I wasn’t concerned with how it would be seen or judged by others. It was no revelation to see the physical remnants of my feline fascination, but it was a joy to be reminded of how encouraging my parents have always been (even when I wanted to get a master’s degree in art history). Plus, as a 28-year-old who writes about creativity for a living, it was fun to turn the lens on myself. I can’t help but think that still having pieces so many years later has contributed to my ongoing hunger for creative fulfillment.
While I probably wouldn’t know what I was missing if my parents’ hadn’t kept the artworks I made before age seven, it is pretty cool to be able to hold a glittering sand painting that my tiny hands made a quarter-century ago. I may feel differently when I’m a parent—who knows—but for now, I’m going to hold onto what I’ve salvaged. And I might even turn to my cat drawings the next time I need some creative inspiration.
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.