Art and reason through a child's eyes: finding the sky in a rusted car

I used to think, as I'd stare into the eyes of my newborn child, "I can't wait for you to talk. Ah, the things I will teach you."

Now, at the age of 4, Adam is the Curious Mind and I am the Answerer of All Questions. Most of the questions he has for me begin with "Why?"

"Why does it get dark at night?" No problem, I can cover that one.

"Why do I have to eat vegetables?" I've got a good response for that, too.

"Why do we keep the vacuum cleaner in the laundry room?" I'm not sure, but he still accepts most answers, no matter how vague.

So when my son asked me about a framed abstract photograph that a friend had given us, I was eager to teach and explain.

"Why is that picture upside down?" he asked.

My friend had taken a series of still shots at a farm. The photos were close-ups of things like wagon wheels, rocks, and rusted cars. The one that we had was of a part of a rusted car.

It has vibrant blues at the bottom of the photo, blending into rusts, yellows, and oranges toward the top.

I took this opportunity to explain another concept to Adam: oxidation. "Paint," I said, "is not on cars just to make them look pretty. It also protects the metal from

rusting." I went on to say that when we don't take care of cars by waxing them, the paint will chip, peel, and wear away - and the car will eventually rust.

I also explained that this photo was an abstract, that our friend, Jackie, saw something beautiful in a rusted old car, and she took a picture of a small part of it.

I even went so far as to imply that he was looking at it incorrectly because the way he was seeing it was not the way the artist intended. She put it in the frame this way, I explained, and so this is the right way it should hang.

"Does that answer your question?" I finally asked. I knew that I'd given him more information than he required, but I felt quite proud of myself for sneaking in two concepts (rust and abstract art) in one "lesson."

"Well," he answered, "I just want to know why the sky is on the bottom."

And then I realized that my son didn't need a lesson in art appreciation. I did.

He knew it was an abstract picture, even if he didn't know the word to describe it. He had used his own imagination to see sky where there was blue and earth where there were browns.

Some days, my son teaches me more than I teach him.

Noelle Bowman lives with her husband and son in Noblesville, Ind.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to

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