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My kid could paint that

Art workshops for children at the Musée d’art contemporain are fun but imaginatively restrictive

Trees can talk; shadows are monsters; and everything has a life of its own before rationality and self-consciousness replace our whimsical imaginations. Sometime along the way, we get old, we grow up, and we lose the enchanted perspective that we once had as kids.

Visiting the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal (MACM) to participate in their educational family programs, I did my best to recall how I would have seen modern art as a child – looking at shapes and colours as opposed to pretentiously evaluating the works. Thinking back to how even the mundane can inspire children, I thought about how the world of experimental art could provide a creative outlet for kids.

The MACM has two hour-long workshops every Sunday afternoon open to all ages. The program follows a three-part structure. First, the instructor gives a short explanation about the theory behind a chosen piece or exhibit in the museum. Following the brief introduction, the instructor then gives the parents and kids a short demo of an activity inspired by the chosen piece. The rest of the time is left for the participants, both kids and parents, to create. The museum supplies smocks, paint, and paper, all at no cost for children under 12.

Last Sunday’s workshop was based on Canadian artist Wanda Koop’s series of airplane paintings. Koop’s large-scale work is filled with bold colour and broad shapes. Her paintings can be categorized with other modern art that appears influenced by childlike spontaneity and simplicity; thus, art with these childlike elements is, in turn, inspiring children.

In the museum exhibit, the workshop instructor points out the movement in Koop’s brush strokes along with the painting’s other basic features. She asks the small audience – young children, their parents, and me – “What colour do you think went first: the red or the black?” The instructor does a sufficient job of introducing basic elements of art theory to the kids despite the difficulties of giving an explanation to a group whose ages range from 16 months to nine years to adults. She points out elements of the work that the children can grasp, focusing on shapes, colours, and size. She also explains the way that the artist painted so that the kids can later imitate the style.

Following the explanation of the painting’s basic features, we all go back to the workshop for a brief demonstration on how to stencil an airplane figure and paint it in Koop’s style. In addition, the instructor cautions us to stick to three colours, to avoid creating a “scary” brown. When faced with the conflict between unrestricted creativity and structure, the program favours the latter.

Children’s sculptures inspired by the current Geoffrey Farmer exhibit scatter the room – products of the previous week’s day camps for spring break. It’s apparent that the museum chooses art that children really can reproduce. In fact, it’s hard to tell the kids’ works from their parents’. But how much creativity is involved in imitation? The kids seem to be asked to play copycat rather than draw inspiration from the museum’s art.

The kids seem excited about their paintings, especially getting to take them home, and most tell me that they have been to the program at least once before. When asked if he liked airplanes, one five-year-old says that he prefers “des animaux fantastiques.” Still, it’s evident that he, his sister, and both of his parents are genuinely enjoying their afternoon.

I had forgotten how fast kids make friends until Sasha, a wide-eyed 16-month-old, got distracted from all the painting and decidesd to sit in my lap instead. Her mother informed me how MACM’s programs compare to similar ones offered at Montreal’s McCord and at other museums in Ottawa. While other programs sometimes incorporate dangerous tools such as hot glue guns, MACM only uses materials that are safe for young ages. She also pointed out that such programs provide social interaction opportunities for Sasha, who’s still too young for daycare, and that they also give her a chance to be hands-on since the look-but-don’t-touch rule of museums can be tempting for a toddler to break.

MACM’s program is well-organized, educational, and provides an opportunity for quality family time, while giving children an introduction to the institutional art world. Thinking back to my childhood, though, I remember times that my imagination was far more inspired from spontaneous and self-directed creativity rather than from a stencil of an airplane.

To find out more about MACM’s programs, visit