“Emma was Here“ by Jen Norton

“Emma was Here“ © Jen Norton

This essay was published on iParentz.com and is re-posted from my former blog, Dec 2008. I wrote it to remind myself to always look at things from other points of view…in this case, my daughter’s.

Recently, we had an opportunity to take our family on a trip to Italy. As an artist, I relished the idea of exposing my young daughter to the wonders of the creative seat of Western Culture. I tried to excite her by explaining that much of the design culture we enjoy now got its start in Italy…way back when the wealthy and powerful Medici family began funding the arts, inadvertently pulling us out of the previous “Dark Ages”. Her eyes glossed over and she countered with a newly-found fact about Hannah Montana. In Rome, we wandered through the Forum and Colosseum and I attempted to ignite her imagination with the thousands of variations of Roman civilizations that had built these structures. No luck…it was July, about 120 degrees Farenheit, she was pining for gelato and declaring the ruins “just a pile of old rocks.” The Duomo in Florence, vertical architecture of Cinque Terre and the Piazza del Campo in Seina all met with similar enthusiasm.

I was just about to give up, when her eye focused on something that really interested her: Graffiti!  It was everywhere…on old stuff, new stuff, trains, sidewalks. Anything that stood still bore the mark of modern Roman youth. It’s not that I hadn’t noticed it before. I just wondered why no one seemed to care about cleaning it up. But my daughter loved it, exclaiming, “Look at that mom!” over some spray-painted animae character or colorful wording. I should have known. She loves to write. She never draws a picture without including dialogue in those “talking bubbles”. When I drag her to art shows (“not anuuuther art show!”), she only taken with the calligraphers. She loves colorful, graphic pop art. And why not? What it lacks in subtly, it makes up for in immediate communication and fun. What kid doesn’t respond to that?

As a consequence, I began to look at this display of modern ego in a different light. All those layers of line and color…mark over mark over mark. It’s like Italy itself, especially Rome. You have centuries of humanity building and living one over the other. Unlike the states, no one tears down the old to build the new. You can’t. Half a shovel down, you’ll probably hit something archeological every time. So, you just build up, next to, across…imagine any preposition, and the Romans have architecturally rendered it. The Roman Colosseum isn’t off in some protected national park. It’s smack dab in the middle of modern Rome, vespa traffic, graffiti and all. In my daughter’s eyes, graffiti is just the next generation leaving it’s mark, and far more colorful than that old “pile of rocks”.

In honor of her appreciation of “graffiti as art”, I began to incorporate it into my paintings as well. I can over-think just about everything, so I’m relieved when I can just take something at face value. “Hey mom, graffiti is cool!” OK, I get that. I don’t understand it all or experience it with the same emotion, but I get that it speaks to her, and that makes it interesting to me. In my work, it shows up mostly as a background texture because that’s how I relate to it in the real world. Sometimes it tells something more about the painting. In the end, all good art is a form of communication first between the artist and God, and then the artist and the viewer. Graffiti is certainly an art of communication, even if not everyone can understand it. My Italian’s not so good either, but it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the melodic rhythm of the language or know that it has meaning.

As a parent, we all want to infuse our kids with our life lessons, enrich them, make them see beyond their own elementary-school universe. But sometimes it pays to listen to them too. In the bible (Matthew 18:3), Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” What if this moment is heaven? Can you see it? The wisdom of decades is a good thing, but for added appreciation, try seeing through the eyes of a child.

(In defense of my daughter’s culture appreciation, I should add that she did find a few other things fascinating: the preserved head of St. Catherine in Siena and the leaning Tower of Pisa (as well as the tchatchkis stands along the road leading up to it) were big hits. Also, the marble sculpture in the Vatican, tiny European cars and the plethora of pizza.)