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Collaborative Art with Toddlers

The toddlers at the Denver JCC are up to some interesting and unexpected art projects! While most people would never associate wedding dresses with toddlers, Judaics Specialist Stephanie Leen and Nature and Technology Specialist Josh Rifkin are pushing the boundaries of what can be expected from collaborative art with toddlers. The toddlers were first introduced to a dress their teachers, Katy Roberts and Rose Lucas, brought into the classroom, which resulted in them painting it, using it as a backdrop for their play and overall experiencing it as a new material. Thanks to Katy and Rose’s innovative thinking around new materials, and the support from specialist teachers Stephanie and Josh, a wonderful project has been born and extended to other classrooms. Here is a picture of the dress hanging while the children painted it:

The teachers wondered what it would be like for the children to paint a dress while someone actually wore it. Stephanie did not need to ask me twice if I wanted to be the person to wear my old wedding dress while the toddlers were invited to add more beauty to the dress with paint.

I put on my wedding dress and sat on the floor of the garden while the children and I collaborated to make something new, something unexpected and something even more beautiful together. The children were exploring boundaries – sometimes it is ok to do things we normally do not do – this dress was meant for artwork and painting together, but our friends’ clothes are not for painting. Many of the toddlers showed a clear desire to get my consent before they painted – even through non-verbal communication. It seemed important to them to make eye contact and connect with me before they painted on the dress. I would talk to them, crouched down at their level, and tell them it was ok if they wanted to add their own art to this new material.

This project has stretched the minds of adults and children alike – begging questions about the meaning of art, the nature of adult and child collaboration – the colliding of two worlds. A wedding dress is so rich with symbolism, tradition, and perfection – combined with toddlers, finger paint, and mess, is an original and provocative project. One child walked hesitantly towards me and said “you’re so dirty!” and I said “yes, there’s lots of paint on this dress now, it looks different than other dresses look.” The child started to paint and after a few minutes she looked down at her own hands, now covered in paint, and said with delight, “now I’m so dirty!”

After I changed out of my wedding dress I noticed some of the children staring at me, wondering about my recent transformation back into my “civilian” clothes. I wonder what was going through their minds as they pieced together that I don’t always wear a big gown covered in paint. I wonder what these types of experiences tell children about thinking creatively, getting consent from others, and being given the freedom to create beauty in unexpected ways.

On a personal level, having gone through a divorce, I cannot think of a more beautiful ritual for my old dress. I will always remember my wedding day – the joy, love and happiness that my dress symbolized. However, this day with the toddlers was a wonderful way to accept the unexpected changes my life has taken. Creating something new and beautiful – allowing myself to grow out of a relationship, physically grow out of this dress (which did not zip up all the way 8 years later!) and collaborating with our most innovative young artists to make new beauty, and new relationships, was the perfect journey for my old wedding dress. I can’t help but think of Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world – the taking of something damaged and repairing it with compassion… and possibly a little finger paint. I am looking forward to seeing what comes of this project and the places the children and educators will choose to go. It will undoubtedly be exciting and unexpected!