The fine art of making a mess

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There are times during the mundane tending of small children that a mother craves uplifting cerebral diversion. This perhaps explains why I've found myself contemplating such lofty questions as "What defines art?" as I kneel to wipe up yet another spilled glass of milk.

Consider, for example, the fine art of mess (not to be confused with the mere craft of clutter). True mess is unexpected. It snatches one's breath and slackens one's jaw: The entire box of saltines ground to dust on the bed; fish food dumped in the sock drawer ... the jeans drawer ... the jamma drawer. These make one gasp. The element of shock is essential.

A mess must be deliberate. A baby diaper mess is at times unexpected. (It might even snatch one's breath.) But it is not an intentional act until Baby's sister massages both Baby and the sofa with baby powder while Mother is rinsing the diaper.

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To reach its full potential, a mess must be timed correctly. The garlic powder (gasp!) is poured into the silverware drawer - moments before guests arrive. The cat food (aargh!) is shaken into every shoe on the back porch - while the cleaning woman is still walking to her car, folding the check. The poster paint (gadzooks!) is spattered across the kitchen during a phone call from the pastor.

An unexpected, deliberate, well-timed mess is indeed an art form, with recognizable technique and style. We know the distinct look of a sprinkle-it-over, rub-it-in, or walk-through-it mess. My budding artists (inspired by product availability) have self-expressed with a variety of foodstuffs, cosmetics, large quantities of water, and toothpaste. They are not timid about mixing media. I can recall each darling's glue period.

I've seen Impressionism (etched on the car door with a sharp stick); Expressionism (calling for my dramatization of Munch's "The Scream"), and Realism (as in this is a real mess). Post-Modernism is what's left after kids Deconstruct the little metal shields on computer disks. A Minimalist mess is a contradiction in terms.

One can develop a certain appreciation for mess, learning to value its familiarity. The baby who cannot crawl is left for a moment 10 feet from a newspaper. He amazingly scootches across the room, blackens his hands and face with newsprint, and cakes bits of the classifieds to the roof of his mouth. We gasp, then nod proudly at this developmental milestone.

But messes are not the exclusive domain of children. I returned from an evening meeting during the winter our first child was a tot to find the house relatively in order, my husband and daughter both sleeping. Picking up a stray towel, I sent shards of glass Christmas ornament flying in all directions. Although it was our little girl who had broken the bulb, it was her father who'd "cleaned it up" by covering it with a towel, helping to transform the small inconvenience of a broken ornament into a full-blown mess.

I can sympathize with my husband's cleaning method when I consider the Where-Do-I-Start dimension of truly awful messes.

My twins, as toddlers, under the direction of their three-year-old sister, made a trail of pancake syrup from the refrigerator, across the kitchen, up the stairs, down the hall, and into the bedroom, where they emptied what was left of Aunt Jemimah. Too horrified to speak, I surveyed the scene in utter defeat, thinking "This one is beyond me; I do not know where to begin."

And following that thought, overtaking it, came a little voice from within: "Pick up the syrup bottle." I did. Then I ran the bath, washed my children, mopped the linoleum, swabbed the walls, scrubbed the carpet, and vowed never again to make pancakes, waffles, or French toast.

My art education has thus limited my family's breakfast menu, but it has given me new-found confidence: I know art when I see it. I can critique it. And then I can clean it up.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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