The Transformative Power Of Art


Shivering against a bitter wind, docent Dale Drake pulled open the giant wooden door to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Saturday morning and quickly moved inside.

She was making way for the second “storm” surging in behind her—an energetic 6-year-old by the name of J.P. Carrello, her grandson, who clearly had better places to be.

“I pulled him out of playing in the snow,” his mother, Adrian, whispered to a group standing in the lobby as they watched him stomp over to the coat rack with a brazen pout.

He dragged his feet as he walked back to them, joining his grandmother’s conversation with docent Marie Braccia and her enthusiastic 8-year-old grandson, Brandon, who was sporting her identification pin.

“We were almost afraid we weren’t going to get here because the snow was really coming down,” Ms. Drake said to Ms. Braccia. “But I’m glad Brandon is here to keep J.P. company.”

“So am I, and I’m glad you made it,” Cara Conklin-Wingfield, the museum’s education director, said as she approached. “We have these all ready for you.”

She held up a pair of transparent, plastic briefcases—two of the museum’s 10 self-guided exploration kits called “Open Studio on the Go,” or conversationally known as “Go-Packs”—by their black handles and passed them to the boys, who eyed them curiously. Brandon gave his a shake, rattling the activity sheets, colored pencils and sketchbook inside.

“These are designed for families to use in the museum,” Ms. Conklin-Wingfield continued. “I’m not going to explain anything, because that’s how they’re supposed to work.”

“Ohhh,” the adults and Brandon mused, while J.P. continued to frown.

“Go ahead and get started,” she said. “See how it goes!”

Seconds later, Brandon was leading the pack and disappeared into the first gallery, swinging the Go-Pack at his side as a group of guards hovered from a distance. The women scrambled to catch up and J.P. took the rear.

But when the young boy heard his new friend exclaim, “Awesome!,” he picked up the pace to see what the excitement was all about.

Inside the gallery, J.P. skidded to a halt. “What is that big box?” he asked his mother.

“Go find out,” Ms. Carrello urged.

He drew back the gray curtain blocking the entrance to Christine Sciulli’s “Engulf”—a two-channel HD video projection—and stepped inside next to Brandon. “Oh, cool,” he breathed out.

“It’s a video installation,” Ms. Drake explained, as various projected shapes danced in front of their eyes before vanishing. “It’s like drawing on a chalkboard, but it’s all with light. Isn’t that a neat idea the artist had?”

“All that’s here is just this light?” her grandson asked.

“Yes, but it looks like it goes on and on and on,” she replied. “To infinity.”

The boys stepped out and J.P. settled onto his mother’s lap as she knelt in front of Don Christensen’s “Top 40—2013”—a collection of outward-facing tables—in the museum’s hallway, or “spine,” as staffers call it. He sifted through his Go-Pack until he came across scavenger hunt instructions on the “Changing Views: Painting As Metaphor” exhibition, a selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection that opened last month. The idea of a scavenger hunt piqued his interest, as well as Brandon’s.

Until a work by John Chamberlain caught their attention. With outstretched arms and reaching hands, the boys gravitated toward the late sculptor’s massive piece, “Tambourinefrappe.”

“Touch with your eyes!” Ms. Drake admonished.

Snapped out of their reverie, the children immediately dropped their hands and walked around the sculpture, glancing up at the twisted metal towering above their heads.

“This used to be a car,” J.P. said, matter-of-factly to his friend. “See?”

But Brandon was already looking at “Lemon” by Donald Sultan—oil, plaster, latex paint and tar on vinyl tile mounted on four large Masonite panels.

“That’s a lemon,” the boy said, half-laughing because of its size.

“A huge lemon,” J.P. said. “I think you’d have to get, like, 10 people to eat that lemon. Well, at least 20 glasses of lemonade from that lemon.”

The two boys wandered into the “Changing Views” gallery, plopped down on the center seating area and emptied out their briefcases. After a brief search for a number of objects in the paintings—a cannon, a bus, a woman with a red hat, a speed limit sign—they opened their sketchbooks to a blank page and surveyed the room.

Brandon zeroed in on Howard Kanovitz’s iconic “Hamptons Drive-In” airbrushed acrylic on canvas, spreading himself out on the floor while looking up at the masterpiece.

“I like to draw and see paintings,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

J.P. took a little longer to decide. He finally settled on the adjacent painting, Rackstraw Downes’s “Currie’s Woods Housing Project, Jersey City, Buildings One and Three, Vacated and Fenced for Demolition, 1992,” focusing on the flowers and bus in the urban scene. His peer—a quick artist, apparently—had also moved on to the same work, humming as he sketched the piece’s high-rise.

Ms. Carrello watched her son in awe.

“It’s capturing his attention, which says a lot,” she said. “His mood changed completely, thank goodness. He’s very active. Moving constantly. Sort of like a shark. He has to keep going. It’s blowing my mind that he’s sitting down, so focused on looking at these flowers.”

She smiled and turned her attention back to J.P. “How are you doing? Are you using blues, greens or reds?”

He picked up a green pencil and began sketching a patch of flowers. “See these?” he asked. “They’re like the cattails by the pond. I made them.”

“Those are beautiful flowers,” his grandmother commented. “I might frame that one. Or you can take it home.”

“I can?” he asked, returning to his drawing with a smile, which almost immediately dissolved when the point of his colored pencil snapped.

Ms. Carrello glanced at Brandon, busy with the earth tones of his skyscraper. “May we borrow your green?” she asked.

“Green?” he said. “Sure.”

“Thank you very much. Ours is getting sharpened,” she said, taking the pencil and handing it to her son, who quickly and determinedly got back to work.

When Ms. Drake returned with a fresh pencil, J.P. hopped up, plucked it from her hand and gave the other green back to his friend.

“Now, we can become an artist,” the docent declared.

A few minutes later, sketch time was over—much to J.P.’s dismay. The two boys packed up, crossed the museum’s spine and bumped into a few unexpected friends.

“Hi! Hi, J.P.!” Renata Kiszkova gushed, waving with one hand and holding onto her 5-year-old daughter, Adriana Tapfer, with the other. Ms. Kiszkova’s mother, Evzenka, kept tabs on her 2-year-old grandson, Marc-Andre Tapfer.

“Oh, you two know each other?” Ms. Conklin-Wingfield asked.

“Yes, they’re in drama together. Hi, happy holidays,” Ms. Kiszkova said, squeezing Ms. Carrello’s arm, making her way into the “Changing Views” gallery with her family.

They took a lap around the room and settled onto the center bench, much like the Carrellos and Braccias had.

“So, Adri, what do you do?” Ms. Kiszkova said. “You sit down and you take a look around. See what comes to you.”

“Draw, draw,” the young girl said, smiling up at her mother.

“We will draw, we will draw,” she laughed. “But first we will observe and then we’ll draw.”

“Why?” Adriana asked, with a wide-eyed innocence.

“Well, that’s the process,” her mother explained, trying to keep a straight face.

Sitting next to his sister, Marc-Andre had already gotten started in his sketchbook. Scribbling circles onto the stark white page, he cooed, “choo, choo.”

“Is that a choo choo train?” his mother asked.

Marc nodded, enthusiastically.

“It is so beautiful!” she encouraged him.

He hopped up and took his grandmother’s hand, pulling her forward. He wanted a change of scenery. They toured a few galleries before settling on the floor in front of the Chamberlain sculpture. To the left, Adriana oriented herself facing the acrylic-and-neon-light installation, “Voyage,” by Stephen Antonakos.

“So, what do you do when you sketch?” Renata asked her daughter.

“Make shapes.”

“Right, so you’re going to look at the shapes and draw what you see.”

Her daughter nodded thoughtfully and dove her hand into the plastic bag to retrieve her colored pencils. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre had his Go-Pack upside down, shaking it furiously until the pencils dropped onto the floor, where he was sitting in a half-split.

Unsatisfied, he lunged across his sister, snatching the orange pencil from her tight grip and placing it in his pile. When his head was turned, Adriana slyly took it back. The matriarchs watched without a word, exchanging a lighthearted glance, as he scribbled more circles with his green pencil.

“Mommy! Choo, choo!” he said.

“Yes, what a beautiful choo choo,” she said, ever supportive, until she took a look at his mouth. “Oh my gosh, you ate it? You have green lips!”

She burst into a short burst of giggles, which ricocheted off the museum walls.

“Choooooo?” he questioned, unsure why his mother was laughing.

“I can’t believe you ate that,” she gasped. “Don’t eat that anymore, Marc. Adri, are you done?”

Her daughter nodded, again, without a word.

“Wow, it looks great,” her mother said, before requesting Adriana’s autograph at the bottom of her drawing.

A few galleries away in the “Changing Views” exhibit, J.P. insisted that he return to sketch.

The young artist finished up his masterpiece. He held it out in front of him, comparing it to the original work.

“Mom, can we go into the room with the colored squares?” he asked, dropping his arm with satisfaction.

“Yeah, we can go in the next room,” she smiled, and remarked to her mother, “It’s a true testament. You’re witnessing a transformation.”

“Now, he’s getting warmed up,” Ms. Drake said. “Now, he doesn’t want to leave.”

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