The table is long, like the one shared by Alice and her friends at the infamous tea party. It's crowded with disheveled children, up to their elbows in yarn, glue, pompoms and peanut butter. But nobody will cry, as the Dormouse did, 'No room! No room!' At Abby Shotwell's art table, there is space for all.
'There is nothing worse,' says Shotwell, 'than trying to make art without enough elbow room.'
This tip is just one of many parents can glean from the charming DIY blog, abbysartclub.blogspot.com, that Shotwell created to chronicle the weekly exploits of the after-school art club she hosts for her son Henry and nine of his friends.
Visiting Shotwell's blog is a bit like falling through an online rabbit hole. On your way down, you pass kids stringing marigolds into garlands, sorting through googly eyes, or showing off a punk-rock sock doll. A movie about Transylvania, featuring claymation peasants and vampires, mesmerizes and confounds. Things get curiouser and curiouser. Fairy forts. Papier-mÃchÃ doughnuts, sprinkled and glazed. Do you dare to take a nibble?
Shotwell hopes so. The blog's chief purpose, she says, is to inspire other parents to start art clubs of their own. But devoting three hours every week to messy creative fun with not one, not two, but 10 grade-schoolers? To some, that might sound like hosting their kids' dream birthday party in their kitchen, 52 times a year.
How does Abby Shotwell do it? Where does she find the energy ' let alone the inspiration?
The answers have less to do with magic and more to do with hands-on parenting, a generous spirit, and a dash of artistic know-how.
Home-schooled in northern Minnesota by 'ex-hippie' parents who took her to live in Mexico every winter, Abby Shotwell received an art history degree from Carleton College and trained as a conceptual artist in San Francisco before moving to Madison seven years ago with her husband, Frank, and their first child (Henry, now 9). Family life led to a shift in artistic purpose.
'I'm interested in expanding the definition of art, and who gets to participate,' she explains.
Shotwell is a cheerful defender of the domestic arts who turns aspects of homemaking and parenting into art forms. For example: She loves sugar. But whereas you and I might stop at baking a cake from scratch, Shotwell has developed public workshops on taffy-making and indulged her art club's hankering to make their own candy canes. Sugar, at her house, is more than an occasional treat ' it's a joyful medium to be explored, appreciated, devoured.
Same goes for kids' art.
'I saw that making things was a passion for my son,' she recalls. 'But he was always going off alone to do it. I didn't want his favorite pastime to be a solitary pursuit.'
You and I might sign our kids up for a class at the library or settle them down with glue and construction paper on a winter's afternoon. Shotwell, characteristically, saw an opportunity to create something unique.
Having been home-schooled herself through the elementary years gave her a special sensitivity to isolation. But she remembered a high school art teacher who let the 'art nerds' hang out in his classroom during lunch and study hall.
'It was my first taste of artistic community,' she says.
Shotwell decided to open her kitchen, with its commodious table, to Henry and his like-minded friends. She'd charge parents $30 annually for basic materials, provide a bit of guidance, and let the kids set the pace.
'Children's art classes are usually so finite,' says Shotwell, who's taught many. 'I'm interested in fostering a kind of sustainable art. You lay down your sketchbook and pencil, or whatever, and you pick it up again next week.'
Or sooner. Lucia Nunez, mother of fifth-grader Carina, says her daughter enjoys Art Club projects so much she continues working on them at home.
'I have to remind her that homework comes first,' says Nunez. 'Right now she's very into sketching these elaborate caricatures, one or two a night.' But, she points out, Carina was always a child whose interest in art went 'way beyond crayons.'
In recruiting members for Art Club, Shotwell relied on tips from Henry about who enjoyed art. The formula worked; a few kids, invited just because they were buddies, dropped out, replaced by children eager to spend three hours dreaming, drawing, painting and pasting. Now in its third year, the club has a waiting list (Shotwell says the current number, 10 kids, is 'stretching it, because my table's just barely big enough'). Members aren't necessarily best friends, and though abilities and interests vary widely, she says the kids respect one another's strengths.
'I have one little girl who's really a writer,' Shotwell says. 'So she's becoming the chronicler of projects, the storyteller for our Drawing Game.'
It all sounds so enchanting: kids collaborating, exercising the right sides of their brains. But what about after-school crankiness? Attention span? Silliness?
'When they first get here, they need time and space to step away from school,' acknowledges Shotwell, who allows the kids to swing or play in the backyard or zone out on the front porch, while she's making their snack (with luck, her famous chocolate-chip cookies).
The first project is often a quick sketch. After the kids are in 'art mode,' many work with great focus on the group's ongoing project ' at present, an elaborate Drawing Game, with epic battles between forces dreamed up by students.
'It's like a videogame, but better. They draw all the characters for their team, make a game board, devise rules, and keep it going week after week,' says Shotwell, who welcomes silliness as part of the process.
Fourth-grader Olive, an avid drawer, loves the club, where she has learned to shade with a pencil, create facial features, and 'get some really neat textures with paint.' Her favorite project, though, was making painted gourds and knitted chickens to raise money for Heifer International, a charity that donates farm animals to Third World families.
'I thought that was really fun,' says Olive. The club donated $840 to the charity.
Shotwell thinks it's good for the kids to exhibit and sell their work. Last Christmas, at a local gallery's holiday bazaar, the club raised more than $150 from tea cozies and door snakes made from old wool sweaters. That money is theirs to spend on fun materials of their own choosing (fake fur is high on the list). Shotwell also submitted their 'Transylvania' movie to an adult exhibition, part of the UW-Madison's 'Trans: A Visual Culture' conference. It was accepted.
'It gave them a lot of confidence in their artistic ability,' says Shotwell.
Shotwell isn't paid for her weekly efforts. Nor does she want to be. Her goal is to inspire other parents to launch similar projects. Her blog's photos tell half the story; her regular postings reveal the spirit of the enterprise, as well as the infectious delight she takes in the kids' unpredictable ideas.
Should a parent who's no artist try this at home?
'If it's your child's passion, you should,' says Shotwell, reminding me that many parents coach soccer without ever having played the game themselves. Shotwell may find herself on the field with a whistle one day. Her youngest son, Jimmy, age 4, is 'a ball guy.'
'It would be difficult ' even intimidating ' for me,' Shotwell admits. 'I'm not naturally a sports person. But I've watched lots of parents do it well. I can learn from them.'