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Of Secrets and the Beauty and Magic of Ordinary Things

This title was given to me by Dr. Renata Karlin, with reference to a show in 1970 of Joseph Cornell’s boxes.  If you are not familiar with his work, please look it up.  Any parent of young children will appreciate his vision.  Renata was my art history professor in the late 1970s.  She became and has remained a dear friend ever since.

Last night I was telling Renata about a gluing project I did that day with the kids in the playgroup.  It involves tiny matchboxes that I cover, ahead of time, with origami paper.  Kristen and I cover the work tables with newspaper (a rapidly disappearing commodity) and give the children each a small piece of cardboard and a small bottle of white glue.  As they pour the glue we give each of the six kids four of the origami covered matchboxes (without the matches and the little drawers that hold them).  They stack the boxes on top of one another, cementing them together with the contents of the bottle of glue.  I’ve always thought that this kind of activity is meditation for them.  After it dries (it takes days!), we put the drawers back inside the box frames and then the kids and Kristen and I put tiny objects inside of each box (sequins, tiny buttons, etc.) and they take them home.  The feedback from parents has been that these tiny stacks of drawers are precious to their children.  The boxes are just the right size for them.  It reminds me of watching a child who is lying on the floor playing with a toy car.  They are in that car as they play.

I asked Renata today to write about her experience with Joseph Cornell:

“I love going to museums with young children because their open acceptance of “what is” frees me from labeling, categorizing and judging and allows me to once more see anew and enter the magic realm of art.  Whenever that happens, I vividly recall the opening in 1970 of an exhibition of a dozen Cornell boxes.  At that time, I was teaching art history at Cooper Union in New York City and the head of the department had arranged for these boxes to be shown in the small gallery of the school. In retrospect, it was most fortuitous, for Joseph Cornell died within less than two years.  I recall that Cornell had insisted that the works should be placed very low on the wall, low enough that adults would have to bend down to see the boxes and right at eye level for most children. He had also insisted that we invite children to the opening (and I had brought my own two children with me) and that the children could touch the boxes.”

“The magic happened as I watched a frail-looking Joseph Cornell, who stood very still in one corner, observe the children as they touched and explored the boxes. Many of the boxes – like the so-called “Medici Princess”- had a drawer, which each child surreptitiously opened, peeked in, closed and then walked over to another child and whispered in his or her ear. That child promptly walked over to the box or often just any box with a drawer and then passed on the “secret.”  Within a very short time, Cornell’s initially sullen face was beaming and smiling and his whole body seemed more alive and energetic. The master conjurer of beauty in ordinary things had found his audience and their secrets floated in the air evoking pure joy in the children and apparently in the artist and a vague nostalgia and longing in the adults.”

Published inOf Secrets and the Beauty of Ordinary Things

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