Art: Something Humans Are Up To

Outside Art – written and illustrated by Madeline Kloepper
Tundra Books, 2020

It’s not exactly intuitive how we should explain art to young children.  There are some fine books on the subject, and the versatile Madeline Kloepper might be the perfect artist to take on this challenge in an original way.  In Outside Art, some curious but puzzled woodland animals try to solve the riddle of a seemingly useless process. Why would “Human,” a dedicated painter, sculptor, musician, and textile artist with a pre-Raphaelite halo of beautiful red hair, spend so much time doing something with no clear point?” (“No, today Human is putting colors on a board using a furry stick. Why?!”)

These animals are pretty smart, and they speculate about what this person, living in a “log nest in the woods,” is up to. She must be expecting a specific, practical, outcome from each of her projects.  A concerned Mouse assumes that Human must be storing up food for the winter, while Doe conjectures that she is actually leaving marks to help her keep track of where to find the food, although Pine Marten is skeptical of this explanation.  Just like actual human observers of art, each animal sees something of herself in the need to create.  Food, shelter, even playing, all seem plausible, depending upon who is observing the finished product. 

When Grouse complains that “THERE IS NO MEANING” to the works of art, the one domesticated animal, a large fluffy cat, offers an academic monologue on the subject. At this point, adult readers will laugh, and kids will realize that using big words doesn’t mean you are right. One of the most striking qualities of Kloepper as an artist is her versatility.  Although this book, as well as her wonderful earlier The Not-So Great Outdoors, focuses on the beauty of nature, she is just as adept at portraying the great indoors, both domestic interiors and people. 

There is nothing abstract about the artist’s joyful and serious vocation.  She lives in an identifiably real home. She wears overalls. She stops work to look fixedly at what she has painted so far.  Traditional crafts are as meaningful to her as the fine arts. She plays the guitar and spins her potter’s wheel while barefoot, and her sewing table is a lovely mess of straight pins, tape measure, and scissors, as well as a sewing machine.  The look on her face as she feeds the quilt through the presser foot and needle shows the rewards of being a creator immersed in a task.

Not only will kids learn that the true purpose of art is self-expression, intrinsically different for each artist, but they will also learn about learning itself. Each animal offers a plausible hypothesis, argues with his friends, and considers other possibilities and consequences to their conversation (“I’ll dig a den to show the poor Artist how to make a better shelter.”) Ultimately, they reach a consensus: “I think all of us were right about what Art can be…and every one of us is a great artist.” Human looks away from her easel to watch them outside in the snow, perhaps unaware that they have the system all figured out.    

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