First Crayons


Acclaimed food and wine critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl muses on the perils and pleasures of trying to raise a creative kid.

When my son was fifteen months old, i bought him his first box of crayons. I was leaving the Galleria after a business lunch, and I bought them with the typically bizarre mixture of best intentions and overwhelming guilt that seems to come with being a parent.

On the one hand: What was I doing at the Galleria when I could be at home with the baby?

On the other hand: I had read on the Internet that some other mother of a fifteen-month-old was already archiving her child’s drawings. Why wasn’t I archiving my kid’s drawings? How could it be that my darling didn’t even have any drawings to archive? Bad mother!

On the third hand: Didn’t I want to be modeling good, strong, working-woman behavior for my little boy? And if I didn’t, what was the alternative? Modeling living-under-a-bridge behavior?

On the hundredth hand: Does buying crayons for a fifteen-month-old put undue pressure on a kid, like buying an SAT prep book for an eight-year-old? Once I was in the store and surveyed the options, I had new doubts: maybe fifteen-month-olds should work, not in crayons, but with collage! Perhaps the two of us should be exploring Jean Arp’s ideas of automatic composition and the organic beauty of chance? Don’t Arp’s collages kind of look like they were done by toddlers anyway? Or, wait: Is it wrong to buy scissors for a fifteen-month-old?

Bloody hell.

It was out of just those thousand-arms of doubt and hope that Creative Kidstuff netted eight bucks for soy-crayons and paper. I would say the hardest thing about raising creative kids is that you don’t do it in a vacuum: the world intrudes.

My little boy is almost twenty months old as I type this, and he is a bona fide Twin Cities art lover. He goes to the Walker or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts at least once a week—in fact, he almost caused a major incident at the MIA yesterday. When two art-installers were removing the glass cover from a priceless jade sculpture, the baby shouted out: “Be ca’ful!” It was only the grace of God that kept that vitrine intact as both the art-movers laughed so hard their arms shook.

At the Walker right now all of his favorite pieces are found in the Sculpture Garden: He loves the big bronze sculptures by Magdalena Abakanowicz; Sagacious Head 6 and Sagacious Head 7 may be grave and immutable to adults, but to my son Asa they’re the perfect little mountains designed for peek-a-boo; last weekend my husband, the baby and I spent half an hour running around them in figure-eights. “Where’s Asa?” he cries as he runs. “Where’s Asa?”

He also loves Sarah Sze’s installations in the Cowles Conservatory, and as his language grows so does his understanding of her haunting constructions. Two months ago Sze’s pieces were mostly made of “pretty”; now the pretty is made of “boo flowers”, “white flowers”, “fan on” and “light on”. And Asa loves the lights that illuminate the Sculpture Garden’s pathways. Did you know that spiders sometimes build webs in those lights? On lucky days you can also find the dried husks of former beetles in there. On very lucky days I just let him do what he wants with the dead beetles, and don’t pester him about not getting them near his mouth. All of us have a better time when I just let the baby be the baby and when I am not prey to all the doubt and fears about what I might be doing wrong.

But without those doubts and good intentions Asa might not have ended up with his first crayons and paper. So my fretting isn’t all bad. The day I bought them, I opened the pad up to reveal the paper and showed him how the crayons work. I folded a blue one into his little hand. He unfolded his fist and tried to spin the crayon on its point, to see whether this thing might be a particularly skinny top. Then he threw aside the blue crayon and seized the white one. Naturally, I tried to take it from him: drawing with the white crayon on the white pad, that won’t work! At which point he, quite rightly, freaked out. So, chastened, I backed off.

Asa stabbed at the white pad with the white crayon for a while, spontaneously creating his own version of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”. Then he tasted the crayon. Knowing it was made of soy, I left him alone, idly wondering if the next generation of crayons would contain vital antioxidants. Then Asa tired of the white crayon and moved on to the blue, yellow, and orange ones; putting them in and taking them back out of the box, rolling them, tasting them—experiencing art on his own terms, in his own way.

I peered at the white paper, and wondered if anyone but me could see the white crayoned dots on it or the tiny tracings of blue and orange made by rolling crayons on paper. Eventually Asa decided the paper would be good for peek-a-boo, and later that it would be good to stand and, finally, dance on.

Soon the paper was in shreds, and the baby was playing with cars.

As I put everything away, I considered other things which are more difficult to put away, namely, the mess of trying to be a good parent. You start out with such a hodgepodge of good intentions, guilt, and confusion. If it’s a good day, your best intentions come out the other side as well as you hope they will. Asa’s first experience making art came out in a hail of white dots and microscopic orange and blue lines, and while I haven’t archived that first drawing in the usual scrapbook sort of way, I’ve archived it nonetheless.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award-winning writer on food and wine, and the recipient of the 2005 Loft/McKnight Fellowship for fiction. In addition to her weekly City Pages column Dara currently writes a monthly column for the magazine Experience Life, and occasionally contributes to magazines including Gourmet, Wine & Spirits, Midwest Living, and Condé Nast’s Traveler. She is a frequent radio and television guest, and can occasionally be heard on local Minnesota broadcasts of NPR’s All Things Considered and Weekend America; on television she wears a wig and funny sunglasses in her role as monthly restaurant critic for local NBC affiliate KARE-11. She’s also working on her first novel, a black comedy about adolescent girlhood tentatively entitled Tempest, Tossed.