Tag Archives: imagination

What Happened to My Lincoln Logs?

September 17, 2015 by

The interwebs tell me that the academic term I’ve been searching for is something called “structured block play.” You know, LEGOS, building blocks, and the like.

My 5-year-old grandson, Easton, is particularly enthralled with structured block play. Such toys in the hands of growing minds have many benefits in childhood development. Besides the obvious of honing fine motor skills—that ability to dope out how this piece fits into that one—there are higher cognitive functions at work here.

Children must be able to envision a finished product, one that begins with nothing more than a mental blueprint of their own making. They are confronted with a hodgepodge of disparate parts and must somehow envision a cohesive whole. Along the way they learn about spatial relationships, geometry, math, and problem-solving.

But that’s not Easton’s game.

He almost never sets out to build anything. Sure, he’ll occasionally erect a towering skyscraper of sorts, but his structured block play is almost always a lot less…well, structured.

He can occupy himself for what seems forever assembling intricate two-dimensional patterns on the floor, ones that seemingly serve no purpose other than to fuel his imagination. Some look like abstract art. Others evoke images reminiscent of those spindly models of molecules seen in science labs. The only common denominator appears to be the establishment and repetition of pattern for pattern’s sake.

Further distancing himself from the intended purpose of his toys, he eschews the “connectedness” functionality of the blocks. Instead of joining the pieces together, he lays them end-to-end.

Easton is usually at a loss for words in describing his convoluted creations, and I learned long ago to consider his installation art as something dwelling in the realm of the arcane, even the trippy.

I’d give anything to get inside Easton’s head to survey the workings of his brain as he puzzles through these puzzling arrays. Just what the heck is going on in that noodle of his as he conceives such fantastical explosions of variegated color?

I intended to begin this column reflecting on childhood memories of playing for hours on end with a set of Lincoln Logs. The problem is that such a statement would be a lie. It was impossible to tinker with toys like Lincoln Logs for any period of time without quickly losing interest. Maybe that’s because they represented an entirely different form of play, one decidedly lacking in possibilities compared to the limitless selection of block toys available today.

No, young children now have a more unfettered mode of play. Millennials are the first generation to have had the benefit of such free-association upbringings, and they’re the people who are defining a brave new world where imagination is the most prized of skills.

Baby Boomers like me had the endgame—the desired finished product—handed to them for all to see right there in the picture of a fort on that box of Lincoln Logs.

Easton is learning to think outside the box.

DWilliams1

Editor David Williams

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Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

Christopher McLucas thinks laughter 
is the best 
medicine.

December 20, 2013 by
Photography by Keith Binder
Illustration by Bob Donlan

Way down on the Giggle Farm, the Guffaw family grows grinning laughing stalks and chuckleberries by the bushel full. Farmer Guffaw and his wife proudly watch as their children spend days playing outdoors, inventing clever contraptions, daydreaming, and getting lost in reading. Soon, though—as is the case in all families—their children grow up and move away to lead their own lives. The Guffaws become sad and lonely while the laughing stalks wither and the chuckleberries shrivel.

Spoiler alert: The story does have a happy ending. The Giggle Farm, by 25-year-old Christopher McLucas, is a rare kind of children’s book, one that is funny and profound by turns. That’s because the young author didn’t want to write a typical children’s book. Instead, he set out to create the kind of story that would take both parents and children alike on a thoughtful and interactive journey.

Laughter: Something kids and adults love

Focusing on laughter as the book’s theme was a logical choice for McLucas, whose previous book Feint Peace & Other Stories, a collection of science fiction stories, was published in 2012. “I didn’t want the message to be just for children. I wanted it to be for adults, too,” he explains. “I wanted to communicate that laughter really is the best medicine. Laughter is what gets us through a lot. I thought it important to reference what both children and adults would know.”

A laughing stalk shown as a positive rather than a derisive term provided McLucas with his starting point. “I thought, ‘What if laughing stalk was something you could grow?’” he remembers. “The whole story started rolling from there and didn’t stop. I could see the entire idea in my head.”

giggle_02

That idea involves witty puns, crisp story telling, and an imaginative interpretation of traditional family life. As a child, McLucas was particularly fascinated with how artist Norman Rockwell encapsulated entire narratives in his paintings. “There were stories locked inside them,” he says. “I wanted The Giggle Farm to be like that and to be an ode to Norman Rockwell. I wanted New Age Americana. We can all associate with this family.”

This is what gives the book a charming retro feel. For example, the small town of Gale (as in gales of laughter) has old-fashioned storefronts featuring a barber, a dry goods shop, and a laugh ware store. In place of a traditional county fair, there is instead a more playful Funny Festival. There are no video games, mp3 players, or cell phones. They use their imaginations, which McLucas sees as deeply important to 
childhood development.

It’s another reason why he wanted to make The Giggle Farm interactive and developed it as a coloring book. “I want parents and children to be able to work on it together,” he says. “It changes the dynamic of family reading. It makes reading time a family activity.”

Interaction: Something kids and adults need

McLucas also envisioned using coloring as a way to reinforce reading. The letters are in a plain, white, bubble font so that children can sound out the words as they color them in. Participating in how each page looks makes the experience personal and creates a sense of ownership in the book. “That way,” McLucas says with a smile, “it’s more yours than mine.”

giggle_01

Illustrator Bob Donlan perfectly captures the Rockwellian mood that McLucas’ words convey. His illustrations have a gentleness to them and are filled with the kinds of details children can get lost in for hours. Donlan says he was impressed with the author’s vision for the book. “Chris wanted an interactive book for children to read and color. He liked the idea of a coloring book that would have sophisticated art,” he says. “He wanted it to have an imaginative quality. It is completely original.”

The element of The Giggle Farm with the most impact, McLucas thinks, is the dialogue that will occur between parents and children. “I really want them to talk about the story and for children to come back to it over and over.”

A book signing and launch party for The Giggle Farm (CreateSpace; $15.00) takes place on Jan. 23, 2014, at 6 p.m. at Legend Comics at 52nd and Leavenworth. You can also find the book at Chapter Two Books in Bellevue and on Amazon.com.