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Food for Thought

Our imaginary trip to Egypt took my summertime art students and me to our basement for a part of the session. A rainy day prevented us from enjoying the outdoors while we learned about Egyptian art. The basement was gloomy and windowless – perfect for setting the mood for painting the walls of a tomb. Since our “cave” had pretty much consumed all the available cardboard boxes, I “borrowed” a couple nice panels of plywood from my husband and allotted each child enough space to tell a story, comic strip fashion. We had looked at pictures of Egyptian tomb paintings and taken note of the animal-headed gods and goddesses. We talked about the difference between drawing what you actually see and drawing what you KNOW about the subject. This was easy for the kids, as young children tend to draw what they know. Heads and feet in profile, shoulders straight on, hands spread open with all fingers carefully shown.
The drawings were done on lengths of paper from an old copy machine that used paper from a roll. Each child had one row the whole length of a sheet of plywood. On subsequent days, we took the paper strips out to the picnic table in the backyard and worked on our story panels. These were later painted with tempera paints and magic markers. I had pointed out that some of the design elements in the drawings I had shown them were, in fact, hieroglyphs – or picture words of the Egyptian alphabet. That turned out to be a mistake because most of my students promptly included words in their drawings – some enclosed in cartoon balloons like comic strips. Oh well. That was my own fault.
I made a large batch of homemade play-dough, which we formed into beads, painted and strung together to make big, chunky Egyptian jewelry. We made fans for our “slaves” to fan us with in order to keep the flies away and provide a cooling breeze. First, we made feathers by fringing layers of tissue paper and gluing them to soda straw quills. Several of these “ostrich feathers” were sandwiched inside the edge of a folded paper plate with a stick inserted for a handle. We sprayed some of the paper plates with gold and silver paint and the feathers made of layers of colored tissue paper fluttered prettily in the breeze. My students took turns being pharaoh fanned by slaves.
Before we had finished all the tomb paintings, our tour of Egypt was interrupted by the Shrine Circus. We were presented with a dozen or so free tickets, donated by my husband and some of his office-mates, so I squeezed all the kids into the car and off we went for an afternoon at the circus. My plan was to have the kids spend our next art class drawing scenes from the circus. There are so many colorful elements to a circus: the gaudy costumes, bright tents, clowns, band music, balloons and cotton candy. I’d acquired a big roll of wrapping paper almost as wide as our front sidewalk and I planned to unroll it on the walk in front of our house and turn the kids loose to draw a big, wonderful circus picture. I was beginning to think that we should end our summer with a neighborhood art show. The circus picture would be the star of the show, I was certain.
What I hadn’t planned on was that a trapeze would collapse during a performance that afternoon and while no one was injured, that one event was the highlight of the afternoon for most of the children who saw it.
At our next class meeting, I talked about all the OTHER things we’d seen at the circus. The tigers perched on their stools, spitting like angry cats as the trainer cracked his whip; the clowns with their big, floppy shoes and tiny little car that backfired with great puffs of smoke; the girl dressed in glittering purple tights who rode standing on the back of a galloping horse; the elephant that seemed so dusty and, somehow, sad up close; the cowboys who did amazing things with their spinning ropes – all the color and hoopla and music of the circus.
I learned that tragedy takes precedence over razzle-dazzle in children’s minds. My hoped-for circus panorama turned out to be several different versions of the collapsing trapeze.