Awash in Art

It isn't the explosive proliferation of mail-order catalogs, the unbridled expansion of the paperback-book industry, or even the advent of photocopying machines that accounts for the deforestation of North America. It isn't even the need to wrap tens of billions of fast-food hamburgers or the disposable diapering of millions of infants.

The blame for the loss of so many innocent trees lies squarely on our doorstep. Across it, each week, pass hundreds of oatmeal-colored sheets of construction paper, the kind kids are so fond of drawing on, the kind our kids seem to excrete. Judging from the volume of artwork that entered the house last month, half of Canada must have been put to the saw.

Anyone looking for those trees can find them rolled up in the front hall, lying open on the kitchen table and counters, the living-room floor, the sun-room couch, on the sideboard in the dining room. The kids must spend 12 hours a day, seven days a week covering those sheets and themselves with paints, crayons, and felt markers.

I wouldn't mind it so much if my wife didn't insist on displaying them all; they make excellent kindling. But to her eyes, the work of our children is sacred, so the sheets accumulate.

Never before have I been so conscious of the calendar. Every season generates its artistic theme: maple leaves and acorns glued to paper in celebration of fall, cotton balls and pine cones as witness to winter, green-paper grass and bits of eggshell announcing the advent of spring. Not to mention all the holidays: Nias, Pintas, and Santa Maras bouncing on blue-crayon waves for Columbus Day, grinning orange pumpkins and black hats for Halloween, and for Thanksgiving, hand-tracings decorated as turkeys.

And how they enjoy starting over, loving nothing so much as a clean slate! On a piece of paper roughly the size of our kitchen table, our first-grader will draw a flower no larger than a postage stamp, carefully sign her name in large red letters, and declare the work finished.

We have only ourselves to blame, of course. Whatever the kids bring home, whether macaroni glued to cardboard or twigs pressed into clay, we praise, extol, and otherwise gush with enthusiasm.

When we ran out of display space on the refrigerator, my wife began taping drawings to the kitchen walls and doors. Sensing that matters were getting out of hand, I surreptitiously gathered up the most crinkled, dog-eared sheets, the ones that had been stacked on a chair for weeks, and quietly disposed of them. That I had to do so discreetly suggests how broad is the umbrella of a mother's love.

Needless to say, I lived to regret my unilateral rashness. Within hours my wife sensed a change. I was working in the study when she walked in with that bewildered look she gets when searching for something.

"Have you seen David's collage with the feathers and bits of sponge and glitter on it?" she asked, her eyes searching the far corners of my office. How did she do it? I wondered. In a sea of undifferentiable scribbling, how did she identify and catalog each piece the kids brought home and then hold them all in her mind, in her heart?

There had to have been 800 pieces of paper wafting about the kitchen at that moment, at least half of which fit her description. How did she come to miss that very one, the one that was coming apart, shedding glitter every time someone moved it from one part of the kitchen to the other?

Now I had a choice: I could boldly own up to my treason and suffer the consequences, or conceal my transgression and hope the affair would blow over. I was leaning toward cowardice, hoping to avoid a long lecture. But I was also concerned that my wife might devote the better part of the next week to turning the house upside down in search of it. (It's a heartbreaking sight, a mother looking endlessly for a lost mitten, a missing shoe, a jacket, a piece of paper. I'd seen it often enough. Sometimes the hunt lasted months.)

I could not do that to her.

"It was coming apart," I confessed. "There was glitter all over the counter."

"You didn't throw it out, did you?" she asked incredulously. I nodded. "I could have glued the glitter back on," she mourned. "I loved that piece." Her voice was full of lamentation.

"The kitchen is full of pieces just like it."

"They're not the same."

"He'll do another."

"That one was special. How could you throw it out? Why didn't you ask me first?"

THAT one was easy. Because if I had asked her, she would have said no. And under the circumstances, I thought it was more important to have sufficient counter space to butter my morning toast than it was to preserve every single piece of paper the kids bring home.

And frankly, it wasn't just the paper that annoyed me, it was all the stuff that would usually end up in the garbage - discarded toilet-paper rolls, bits of ribbon, shirt cardboard - but was, instead, being recycled as art and deposited back on my kitchen table.

I didn't say any of that, of course. Instead, I apologized profusely for my misguided effort at tidying up and promised it would never happen again.

Foolishly, I believed the problem was self-limiting. Eventually we would run out of display space. But I underestimated my wife. When she mentioned over dinner that we had run out of room to hang the kids' drawings, I smiled benignly, waiting for her to arrive at the same conclusion I had, that some of it would have to go.

But instead she turned slowly around the kitchen, carefully studying the artscape she had created, then announced, "We just need another refrigerator."

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