Meryl helping Michelle (6 yrs) with her Peanut Butter Jar. Dan supervising. Photo shows the main work table (Elissa’s scoop of ice cream in the foreground) and the color chart the children made.
The Night of Nothing by Barbara Feinberg ’78
One winter afternoon in 1974 when we were freshmen, Dan Hurlin, Meryl Schneider and I cooked up an idea. We would offer an art class to kids from the Yonkers-Bronxville area to be held at the College. We’d accept kids between the ages of six and ten, the class would be free of charge, and since we had no money-other than to buy some scissors and a few rolls of tape-we’d make it all based on “found objects.” We’d call it “The Collage and Sculpture Workshop.” I remember exactly where we were sitting when we planned it: in Andrews foyer, right near the stairs.Collette (9 years old)
Dan, our official secretary, wrote down all our plans in a notebook in his jaunty, precise handwriting. We had lofty goals: “We have concluded that a class of this sort is a good tool for children’s cognitive as well as emotional growth,” Dan documented. I had read a lot of psychology, and probably threw out sage terms like “regression in the service of the ego” and “sublimation.”
We’d each had experiences with kids: Meryl had done a lot of babysitting; Dan had run his own children’s theatre in a converted barn; and I, who took a rather circuitous route to college (I was a runaway, living on the streets), had in the two years before SLC found my way into a peaceful kindergarten where I had worked as a faithful volunteer. We were each doing conference work that involved studying childhood and art, and I remember I was reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and was particularly taken with his description of his synathesia, or dialogue between the senses.
At the conclusion of our planning session, we wrote up an official-sounding letter-in turquoise ink-asking the College’s permission, and to be granted a space to hold the class. (How about Andrews Sun Room?) We didn’t know exactly where to send this, so when we dropped it in campus mail, it was addressed merely to: Administration. Then we waited for a reply.Elissa (9) and me
What strikes me now is that, as much as we strove to be earnest professionals, we were also giddy-from the happiness of being at Sarah Lawrence, and also from our own desire to play. We recognized in each other the kids we had been (not that long ago) and, for me at least, that whole world of making things up-stifled for a long while-just came zooming back full throttle. I felt a sparkling energy akin to laughing, to the shininess of a river at night. Underneath the seriousness of our enterprise was a feeling of an enchanted game.
In the mailroom, a few days later, I pulled the tiny knob that opened the little door of my mailbox, and reaching into that low, hand-size room I found a silent missive (from The Administration) saying Yes. Yes, we could have a class. Yes, we could use Andrews Sun Room. We were thrilled, and ran out immediately and stapled flyers all over town. The result of our advertising: 12 kids showed up for the first class.Michell (6) and me
And much later, after we had done the workshop for one year, and kids had made dozens of sculptures, and then a second year, when Dan and I had formed a children’s theatre group called The Green Sensations, we again sent notes to The Administration: Can we exhibit the kids’ artwork in the library? Can we use a theatre to present the kids’ original play? The answers came back: Yes and Yes. I remember being met by a librarian, who opened the quiet, glass exhibit cases that, only the day before, had housed African artifacts. We were a little awed by these hallowed shelves, and barely spoke while we arranged the kids’ sculptures-the paper mache volcano, the shoe box with the ocean in it, the evil robot.
But that was at the end. The night before the children were to arrive for the first class (Would actual kids actually come?) I remember Dan, Meryl and me, our arms linked, rounding the wintry paths, in search of our “found objects,” calling plaintively out into the night, “Why won’t you give us your garbage?!” and doubling over laughing. We knocked on doors of bewildered or bemused (or irritated) students, pulling ourselves together to say soberly, “Hi, do you have any garbage for us?” We must have seemed like deranged trick-or-treaters. We collected bags of handed-out junk-I remember socks and old jewels and a tiny ferris wheel-crunching across Andrews parking lot in the “padded stillness of a frosty night”-Nabokov’s phrase came to y mind. And we spent hours setting the stuff out across the huge oval table, as if we were laying out a feast.Flyer for the first workshop
Thirty years have passed. I am a writer, and for the past 13 years I have been running a creative arts program for young children called Story Shop. I invite kids to build things under tables and in boxes, using all kinds of found objects. Kids build “places where stories take place”-and then tell the stories, or build “a mood in a box” or-most recently-an underground glittering kingdom where witches and queens hobble through narrow lanes made of chopsticks.
In many ways, my interest in and understanding of how junk can be transformed into treasure came from the Collage and Sculpture Workshop; it was the prototype for much of what I do now.
But what I hold on to especially is the memory of Dan, Meryl and me running through the campus in winter, feeling everything was slightly enchanted, and the sense that all around us doors were opening, and everywhere a silent voice was intoning “Yes.”