Artist Rachel Harper wonders why society does not value the cultural works of children. Children are given pats on the head, high fives, and encouraged with “good jobs!”, but their actual work is often dismissed. Rachel notes that children represent 25% of the U.S. population and are prolific cultural producers, yet there are no libraries or collections of their work. For Rachel, this means society is missing out on a great deal of valuable knowledge, wisdom, and culture.
“The exclusion of children’s self-driven arts and sciences matters to me as an artist and knowledge-worker because it means that we, as a global society of knowers, only ever hold a partial image of our existence, our communities, our problems, and our world,” says Harper. Kids may be valued for their future potential but not for what they offer now.
Rachel started Seen + Heard, to create a repository of children’s visual art, music, philosophy, science, theater, poetry, political actions, and other powerful works from across time and around the world. For her first Seen + Heard project, Rachel wanted to collaborate with a child on curating an art exhibit featuring the work of children age 0-12.
“We, as a global society of knowers, only ever hold a partial image of our existence.”
Enter Ada Grey.
Rachel first met Ada when she was a baby. She was teaching children’s programs at the Art Institute of Chicago and one day while walking the galleries, she overheard a mother talking to her baby about a piece of art. Taken in by their interaction, Rachel met them and invited Ada to take her class for 3-5 year-olds even though Ada was only two. Rachel and Ada have been friends and collaborators ever since. At twelve years old, Ada is already a cultural producer in her own right. She is an actress who has been in many plays and (with the help of her mother) has been blogging theater reviews since she was 4 years old. It only made sense that Rachel would approach Ada to be her first Seen + Heard collaborator.
Ada and Rachel put out a call for art, reviewed submissions, selected works, and mounted an exhibition at the Chicago Art Department. The work was installed professionally and it opened on the 2nd Friday Artwalk with the rest of the gallery openings in the neighborhood. It was important to Ada that it would not be “just another kid show”. The child artists, dressed-up for the reception, mingled with adults and children. “It felt amazing to be able to see all these adults and kids having normal conversation’s about the kids’ work,” says Ada. Rachel, who was originally worried that the show would be full of candy and cupcakes, was happy that the exhibition featured a variety of interpretations on “treats” such as a stop-motion animation about marshmallows, a couch and pillow fort, and CD of punk music featuring “explicit lyrics”.
The Treats exhibition is a good example of what an authentic collaborations between children and adults look like. In a sign of how rare such collaborations are, Rachel notes, “It’s an interesting relationship because people are like… is this your daughter? Is this your…? Talk to us about this relationship.” Ada and Rachel’s relationship is not parent/child. It is no longer a teacher/student or even a mentor/mentee relationship. If it is a true collaboration it is because of authentic motivations. Seen + Heard is an important part of Rachel’s own artistic practice and life’s work. Rachel needs young people like Ada to make Seen + Heard happen, and likewise Ada is able to do something cool that elevates the status of her peers. Both of their names are on the exhibition flyers. This lead to real discussion, problem solving, and decision-making.
“We have a lot of fun when we do this stuff.”
While she tries her best to make it an equal partnership, Rachel is conscious of the natural imbalance of power in adult-child relationships. She has to distinguish between taking advantage of her adult power to get her way and those moments where adult experience is needed. This is where Ada’s mom, Jennifer is key. When Ada was much younger, her mom was a translator of sorts for her. As Ada grew older, her mom was able to protect Ada’s interests and be her advocate when needed.
Watching Rachel and Ada put together the show, you sometimes forget you are listening to an adult and child, that is until Ada cracks a silly joke and you remember that she is a normal twelve-year old girl. “We have a lot of fun when we do this stuff and don’t try to make it all serious,” says Ada.
Rachel responds, “We’ve been talking about this show in terms of taking kid’s art more seriously, and that’s important, but I think we also need to take grown-ups’ art less seriously.”