Here there be Monsters

Kids & Art welcomed families to a workshop in Emeryville earlier this month. Our location, a fine art studio, was a fantastic place for a workshop with its red-brown Plasteline sculptures of figures lined up along the walls, and paintings from live model studio sessions set out flat on racks to dry. I greet some of the artists and volunteers I know. I introduce myself to others and feel a little buzz of anticipation.

Volunteer Adrienne Ranft, who helped coordinate the workshop, has been involved with Kids & Art for several years now. She is pleased with the day’s good turnout. “I find it wholly fulfilling,” she says, as she evokes how the experience artists know well: creating, losing themselves in the moment is especially poignant to witness with these children. “These kids dive in fearlessly to whatever project is there for them. They lose themselves in it. It’s the simplest action, that sense of losing time when you’re creating,” she says.

These workshops provide an outlet for kids and families whose lives have been turned upside down by cancer. They allow kids to focus on something joyful, creative, and fun.

In advance of the workshop, a few of the artists finish up their proto-types, and by the looks of it, we are there to make monsters. One table has some potatoes, and I’m thinking they must be for printmaking. Artist Tanya Momi shows me the little monster she has created from a potato. He, or maybe she, is a one-eyed monster with some crafty little popsicle stick legs.

At this table I meet five-year-old twins, Ellie and Tim. Tim likes the idea that his monster could take after him, so he paints it blue to match his shirt and decides it should wear blue glasses, too. Ellie sits with volunteers, Henry Li and Philina Mui, who have teamed up to make monsters out of yarn. At the end of the day, I see their monsters along with a few others, which have been collected to sit and dry. Someone has made one with a potato body that has long paper legs. A few peek out from behind their three-eyed pipe cleaner spectacles.

I’m reminded of the curious names given to groups of animals. Perhaps you have heard of some, too. A convocation of eagles. A mob of emus. A charm of hummingbirds. What do you call a collection of more than one monster?

Whatever we call them, the thing about monsters, I muse, is usually they’re to be avoided--or tamed. Ever since they were placed in phantasmagorical detail on ancient maps, their territory labeled “Here there be monsters,” we have known to steer clear. Monsters evoke fear, yes, but they can also bring out our courage. Today is most certainly about exploring these waters.

But, it’s not only about the monsters. Other artists find their own symbols and thematic inflections. One is working in collage. I admire some acrylic drip paintings, which catch my eye with their abstract shapes, and colorful off-center hearts. A pleine aire painter, Mary-Claire works with a teen on an under drawing of a dragon.

I’m drifting around like a jellyfish observing what everyone is doing. One of the teen girls I talk with has been adding paint to the dragon canvas. I keep tabs on her and the teen at the table next to hers who is working on an assemblage, a sizable up-cycled monster made of found objects.

Purvi wanders by different tables and offers her encouraging commentary. Her voice has such a warm quality to it, I find. It is so uplifting and upbeat. I often watch faces transform and smiles form when she asks kids about their work. As a child gets ready to leave with a painting, she asks him to show her what he has created. He holds it up proudly. “And where will that go? In your bedroom?” she asks. “Mm-hmm,” he replies sweetly. The interaction is really cute.

Kush and Jade have been roving around, too. They are taking photos, and Kush is also recording interviews with kids and parents. This is a growing archive of stories about the day-to-day experiences that different families care to comment on. The pair tries to be invisible so they do not distract the children at work. In turn, they are working on capturing the tone of each event.

“Each workshop is unpredictable and interesting,” Kush tells me. “There are different ingredients each time, a different blend. Different kids, different projects and different artists make for new combinations,” he says.


Kush says he has come to appreciate how Kids & Art helps these kids and families right now and today. “After hearing so many details of what these families’ lives are about,” he says, “I have learned no story is the same. Each is unique.” He tells me that before he came to one of the workshops, he had a rather narrow concept of what it would be like to be a kid—or a family—dealing with cancer.

I settle in to sit for a while with a group of parents who are working together on a collaborative piece. It is a canvas with a heart drawn on it. It doesn’t take much prodding to get me to fill in a few squares since I love to draw. I’m not sure how many I am allowed.

So, here we all are together at the table, working on the same canvas doing our own thing in our little square. We’re reaching over each other for paint and chatting. I remove myself from the moment, as I’m also observing with a mind to how I might describe being there. How would I describe this? Being in the moment?

I sense we are all pretty content making this collaborative piece. It’s a nice idea: a patchwork of squares. Parents and volunteers can leave a mark, a personal symbol or a signature color. Unity and diversity coexist here. Each symbol imparts meaning to the whole but tells its own story. One mom paints the letter L. Tanya adds ‘Compassion.’ Henry glues in a row of yarn. Charu Clark, who has a digital art background, declares, “This piece needs some yellow.” After the yellow is added I feel the brightness shift in the mood of our canvas heart.

Parents seem relieved to have a time and place to share in conversation, sometimes share the details of their daily life with others. When the discussion turns to struggles of kids with their friends, I am so impressed to hear such strength inside a parent you know is being challenged by all their child’s struggles. The topic does not feel too heavy because, as I see, there is understanding and compassion in the faces of the others listening. I think of the ordinary childhood and how often these days we are told that transformative challenges can be empowering.

Our group continues its work on the canvas with even more concerted effort now that we know the day is about to come to a close. We’re bonding over the simple enjoyment of watching the piece evolve. Still a work in progress by the end of the workshop, even the fact that the heart is unfinished seems a good symbol of our joining together this day, and our continuity over time during the workshop year.