After only having watched half an hour of Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Child Could Paint That, I turned the TV off in disgust. The film depicts 4-year old painter Marla Olmstead’s rise to celebrity status. While she grins at the camera, refuses to be interviewed or sloppily spreads globs of paint around a canvas larger than her “pint-sized Pollock” body, the darker truth surrounding her artistic ‘genius’ is revealed.
I instantly recalled a vernissage at TS1 Gallery that I had attended a few weeks earlier. Searching for the gallery in Dashanzi’s maze of streets, I spotted children in fancy dress – shrieking and chasing one another in circles around their parents’ kneecaps.
Hordes of first-graders are an unlikely sight at any art gallery but TSI Gallery – one of the more consistently interesting galleries in Dashanzi 798 Art District – rose to the occasion. In fact, children were the guests of honour – it was their art that hung from TS1’s white-washed walls and adorned its wooden floors. Showing for three days, the exhibition was dedicated to the artwork of the Lycee Francais de Pekin’s four first-grade classes. An art student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, 21-year old Adrien Macera acted as a teacher aide and art instructor extraordinaire for all four classes. The result of his patient guidance and impressive child talent was an array of delightful paintings, drawings and sculptures.
In contrast to the Marla Olmstead phenomenon, no one was pretending that these kids were the next Picasso. The pieces, while beautiful, were there to be genuinely admired – not preyed upon by collectors hoping to discover the ‘next big thing’ – and the children to be applauded – not devoured by the media. With much of Dashanzi having become an over-publicized, excessively-hyped, jumble of commercial art, it was refreshing to be among artists who, a) didn’t take themselves too seriously – playing hide and seek with your sculptures generally alleviates art world pretension – and, b) buyers who gazed at the art with adoration that can only come from proud parents.
Yet, the TS1 exhibit was school-organized and school-oriented. What happens when school’s out? What outlet is there for young Beijing artists during the summer holidays? Not all children ‘bend it like Beckham’ and not everyone wants to spend their summer days on the basketball court or soccer field. While there is no clear distinction between sporty and artistic kids – indeed, many children fit happily into both categories – lists of summer activities are often entirely sportive, neglecting the more artistically inclined.
Again, one of Dashanzi’s galleries comes to the rescue; the Ullens Center (UCCA) is renowned for prioritizing children’s interaction with art and hosting family-oriented events. In April and May, UCCA held “Random Art” children’s workshops in which families and young children were offered an introduction to, and engagement with, the recent Huang Yongping exhibit.
In addition, The UCCA Student Club welcomes art enthusiasts (ages 16-23) to immerse themselves in Beijing’s contemporary art scene with a series of courses, lectures and ‘behind the scenes’ meetings with established artists and their works.
While private lessons are an obvious option for younger art fiends, there are several other alternatives for kids that want to make art outside of school.