Where the Wild Things Are

by Laurie Bellet

Once again, we return to our classrooms amidst news of disaster. Save for Yom Ha-Shoah, disaster is rarely, if ever, part of our curriculum. Yet, processing cataclysm spiritually, aligning or confronting disaster and the Divine, provides us enduring moments of community with our students. Although we, as educators, are not art therapists, we can use art as spiritual process even with very young children.

For so many learners, beginning with those in kinder and primary grades, motifs from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, provide icons of immediate engagement. Viewing Maurice Sendak as a major, influential Jewish artist captures students in what I like to call a “wow!” moment. The “wild things” monsters in the book are actually representations of Sendak’s relatives, many of whom came over from Eastern Europe. The story monsters’ prominent teeth were what Sendak, the child, noticed when these relatives leaned close to kiss or pinch his cheeks. Ultimately, Max, the universally loved character, becomes king of his monsters. This is where we can journey through our own representations of Sendak style art, to explore some of the more difficult dilemmas of God in times of distress.

At the Limmud conference in England, whole families came for my Sendak inspired session, hoping that I too “knew” Max. When I assured them of such, they were immediately at home. I always begin the discussion from the picture of “King Max,” small yet dominant over his monster. I follow this brief introduction with a discussion, geared to the age of my students, of Maurice Sendak as a Jewish artist. From there, I present the concept that we all have personal “wild things;” things we fear, things in our lives we seek to tame. During calm times, children conjure responses of spiders, bees, difficult school subjects. Adults want to tame the local transit authority, their office technology, and traffic gridlock. In difficult times, I hear fears of being alone, noises from dark closets, and the alarm of the smoke detector.

I give each student a sheet of white paper (remember…sulphite paper 80lb weight) and a black Sharpie marker (it is important to use a permanent marker). Beginning can be difficult for many student artists so I recommend beginning with a crown. Constant reassurance that we are not drawing photographic representations and that even stick figures are fine are important. I do not give pencils because the presence of an eraser can lead to a road block of perfectionism. Rather, I encourage everyone to incorporate “mess ups” into the scheme of the picture. I always have extra paper for those who simply must begin again. The actual drawing seems to allow themes to take shape and even transform. Yesterday, in a kindergarten group, discussion of ninjas and spiders, gave way to curious images of circles on the page. When I invited the children to tell me about their work, they explained that the circles were rocks falling from the sky in an earthquake (not an unreasonable fear for a child in northern California). In each picture, though, the child’s monarch caricature stood out, clearly taking charge. Some children went on to describe to me how their characters were in their houses in the picture. We completed the pictures with metallic watercolors for a stunning result and concluded with a lovely discussion of how we are safe in our homes. You can get palettes of metallic watercolors, by Prang, at many stores for less than $3.00 each.

No matter what images your students produce, be them timely for the news, intensely personal, or even lighthearted you will find that a whole new level of community and sharing emerges in your classroom. In classes of older learners, conversations processing concepts of God’s role in the universe and in our lives are generated and sustained. Maurice Sendak’s Jewish upbringing provides rich opportunities for contemporary study. A quick web search will yield you many resources from which to extract pertinent material. A remarkable book, The Art of Maurice Sendak, 1980 to the Present by Tony Kushner offers teachers of older learners significant insight, biographical information and hundreds of images by Sendak, a Jewish artist, and observer of contemporary society.