Q&A with New Canaan’s Barbara Rucci, Author of Newly Published ‘Art Workshop for Children’

Book Trailer

I wrote a book! It’s called Art Workshop for Children. It’s all about process art with kids, and the deeper value of creativity. This is a sneak peak into what’s inside. Buy it on Amazon now! http://amzn.to/2dZPIzj

Blogger, art teacher, graphic designer, friend and mom—Barbara Rucci is known to scores of New Canaanites, in many ways.

Since 2012, the New Canaan High School and Skidmore College graduate (she took a bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in early childhood development) has kept up Art Bar, a widely read blog focused on what Rucci calls “child-led art experiences and handmade things.” Mom to three kids and a shedding Labradoodle, Rucci was sitting in her living room in August 2014 with longtime friend and New Canaanite Betsy McKenna (whose kids she used to babysit), when the pair started talking about a possible children’s book series.

New Canaan's Barbara Rucci is author of 'Art Workshop for Children.'

New Canaan’s Barbara Rucci is author of ‘Art Workshop for Children.’

Last month, London-based Quarto Knows published their book. “Art Workshop for Children” (see video above) provides parents with not only a guiding philosophy but step-by-step, adaptable instructions for tapping and stimulating a child’s creative process. With essays by McKenna, a Reggio Emilia-inspired teacher and administrator, the colorful, photo-filled book will be available during a book signing attended by both authors, to be held 12 to 2 p.m. Sunday at Elm Street Books.

We had a chance to put some questions to Rucci ahead of the book signing. Here’s our exchange.

New Canaanite: Share some basics about yourself. You told me that you grew up in New Canaan and live here now. What’s your maiden name? Where did you go to school? When did you get married? How many kids do you and David have? Where do they go to school? How old are they? I see David all the time at land use meetings. What kinds of groups or activities are you and the family involved in?

Barbara Rucci: I moved to New Canaan at age five from Holland, my parents are both Dutch. My maiden name is Barbara Bergmans. My mom is a real estate broker in town—Houlihan Lawrence—and has been for 30 years. I went to East and South, Saxe, NCHS, then Skidmore College where I was an art major. Got married to David in 1997. We have three children: Grace is 16, Ava is 14, and Nate is 10. They go to NCHS and Saxe, 11th grade, 8th grade, and 5th grade. My girls do theatre, Grace does High School Theatre and Ava does Saxe, they also both do theatre at The Studio in town. David is in Rotary, I teach art to children in my studio. Between my mom and David, and my girls in shows, I feel like everyone knows us.

Nowhere in this book are you wagging a finger at grownups or even talking about parenting. It opens with an invitation to remember the exploration and discovery that baby-boomers or Gen-X’ers may recall from our own childhoods. Yet I imagine many kids, even before they’re in middle school, are on smartphones when they’re not at programmed activities. How do you compete, in laying process art experiences, with Snapchat and Playstation? 

It’s very hard to compete with technology and sports. As kids get older, they are so busy, mine included. And after a long day at school plus homework, what they want most is to watch a TV show. I do let them watch TV, I’m not strict about that. But what I have also created at home is a creative oasis of sorts. It is an art table in my living room—which we call the art table—and some shelves on the wall next to the table with all the supplies you could imagine, pictured in my book.

I still set out ‘creative invitations’ for them.

For my son who is 10, I bring out the brown clay I keep in the garage. He likes to just mess around with it and get his hands dirty. He adds things from the shelves, like paper clips or cardboard. Or sometimes I cover the table with paper and bring out some paints and just let him mix the colors and do whatever he wants. Our rule is that is doesn’t have to be pretty or even anything at all. He can throw it away in the end.

The point being to just keep him familiar with the feeling of letting go and taking creative risks. I believe this will help him as an adult in any career that he chooses.

In school, there really isn’t that much of a chance to come up with new and original ideas. School sort of sucks the creativity right out of you. Kids are taught that there is usually just one answer. So at home, I really want my children to keep their minds agile and never give up when problem solving. In real life, there is never one answer. And one other thing about my art area at home is that for my girls, their friends think of this house as the art house—the place where they can make things. Whenever they come over, they gravitate towards the art table because it’s something they don’t normally get at home, and definitely not in school.

I love being able to provide that creative space for friends, too. I don’t try and compete with technology as much as I try and keep art and making things with your hands an option that is there for them. I don’t force it, but it’s always a choice. If it speaks their language on a particular day, they will come.

Much of your book—including the “experiences” themselves—brought me back to elementary classes in art taught by Ann Howden at Center School (ah, Center). How is what you are describing in this book different from the way art is taught now in preschools or beyond in New Canaan?

David always talks about Center and how great it was. It must have really been magical if all these years later, it brings up such strong memories. I give the public school art teachers in New Canaan so much credit. It is a really, really hard job. I have nothing but respect for them, and from what I’ve seen, they work hard to balance open-ended art with teaching skills.

At the preschool level, I strongly believe that art for this age should only be about the process and not about the outcome. I see many preschools in New Canaan adopting this philosophy and it makes me so happy. When my oldest was in preschool, more than 12 years ago, she went to a school where the art was mostly crafts. The teacher would make a sample and put it on the table, and then each child would get all the different parts and have to put it together to make it look like the sample. This was a huge frustration for her and it turned her off from art completely. Small children don’t have the fine motor skills to make something look like a sample—made by an adult. Not to mention very time consuming for teachers to have to cut out parts every night. She eventually moved to a different school that had an open-ended painting station, and she was rehabilitated, thankfully.

I think nowadays, the idea of crafts in preschool is pretty outdated. It turns children off from creating. Art for this age is about playing around with possibilities and stretching their imagination.

You did an outstanding job on both of the following things, so I want to know: What was your process in boiling down what you felt your reader needed to know about process art experiences, and what were your guiding principles as you structured this book, in terms of content and sequencing?  

I wanted to stay as basic as possible in my writing, and warm the reader up gradually to the idea of living a creative life – and how simple it actually is to achieve. I write an introduction where I appeal to parents and their inner artist. I then write a section called ‘How to Begin’ where I explain about process art and what it means, and how to set up an art area and why it’s important. Then comes the 27 art workshops, and in each of these I stress the process over the product by providing quotes from children and variations for next time. At the end, I write my biggest essay called ‘Raising Creative Thinkers.’

It is here that I weave in parts of my own childhood, and provide some context for the reader by giving some examples of what I do at home to develop my children’s own original thinking.

And Betsy provides some added depth and structure with her essays, based on her years in early childhood education. These essays are so valuable – even to me. I have read them over and over, and wish that I had them as I raised my kids. At the end of the day, I felt that I needed to be as open as I could, without standing on a soapbox. I really just want parents to understand that none of this is hard or unattainable. And the value of exposing your child to the creative arts far outweighs the mess.

We live most of our lives in a world of results, and the joy of process and discovery that you underscore throughout this book is refreshing. It’s a good read, the book is sort of infused with a singular spirit. All of us, including (and maybe especially) our kids as they pursue college acceptance, are subject to metrics and data points designed to grade and filter. I see this book as offering a counterbalance to all of that. It speaks directly to grownups in the opening sections, reminding adults that creativity is not confined to “fine art” as we know it. My question is: As your own children move into adolescence, past heart hangers or cereal box painting, how do you envision keeping alive this joy of discovery through art that is so prevalent in the book?

I am as curious as you are to see how all of this open-ended art at home affects my children and their futures, and where it might lead them. I really don’t know. I can only hope.

What I hope is that first and foremost, they remember a childhood of art and play and mess and fun. If that’s all that comes from this then I will be happy.

My second hope is that when they go out on their own, to college and to their first apartment, they have the confidence to create a home that is warm and inviting and colorful and that makes people feel welcome.

And of course, that they have a little art supply shelf to make a homemade card every once in a while. My last hope would be the biggest one, which is that they somehow take what they have learned in their creative childhoods, and go out into the world and make it better. Whether they become teachers, actors, inventors, NHL hockey players, I hope they have acquired the tools and the confidence they need to share their gifts and influence someone’s life.

One thought on “Q&A with New Canaan’s Barbara Rucci, Author of Newly Published ‘Art Workshop for Children’

  1. Hi Barbara,
    As an graphic artist myself I enjoyed watching your video.
    That’s the way art should be, free flowing. I believe working
    out of the line gives you more freedom. I was taught the
    opposite, stay inside the line.
    Norm Jensen

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