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This fall, Children’s Museum of the Arts invited artist and designer Justin Teodoro to select works from the museum’s permanent collection to display in the lobby of Ace Hotel Brooklyn. Below, Justin spoke with CMA Residency Producer Tommy Coleman about the exhibition Little Artists: Selections from CMA’s Permanent Collection.
Tommy Coleman: Do you have any favorite artists or currently favorite artists?
Justin Teodoro: David Hockney and Keith Haring are two of mine. I also love this illustrator Antonio Lopez. He was a fashion illustrator of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I was just in Paris and I saw the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit. When I talk about how I want to get into fashion, fashion illustration is where I realized I was wanting to go. That show was amazing. His museum was just walls of all of his drawings.
T: Wow, that’s beautiful.
J: Yeah, it was. I was the one guy gasping as I walked into each room. [laughter] And just seeing it all, it’s set in his actual studio. But yeah, Keith Haring and David Hockney, I always call my two art dads.
T: That’s really inspiring, especially because of how similar yet vastly different they are.
J: Tomorrow, I think, is Hockney’s birthday.
T: Yeah, yeah it is.
J: I have it marked in my calendar. [both laugh]
T: Gotta call dad tomorrow.
J: Yeah, gotta wish him a happy birthday. [laughs]
T: I remember seeing one of Hockney’s pools in a fashion magazine growing up. I just loved seeing them. I was like, wait you can do that … paint a pool?
J: Definitely. I think I fell in love with Keith Haring first. So much of what he did resonated with me — his style and his murals. I remember one of my first trips to New York, I went to the Pop Shop when it was still open. And now, learning more about him over the years, about his activism and work with kids. For Hockney, I really got into him when I came to New York and discovered he had this pseudo documentary called The Bigger Splash.
T: I remember seeing that at the Metrograph when it came out and thinking it was fantastic.
J: Parsons had a library so that’s where I watched it. I really got into his pools, his aesthetic, and his whole vibe. The fact that he’s still doing it, too. That’s a goal of mine, to be the type of person who keeps working every day. He’s still doing those iPad drawings, too.
T: I wanted to start with something you said in the exhibition statement, “I’ve always been struck by Keith Haring’s famous quote, ‘children know something that most people have forgotten.’” I wanted to hear why that quote was your point of origin, and how you curated the show through that ethos.
J: Because I was traveling, I was going through digital images of the permanent collection. The first thing that struck me was that these are all done by kids. Just seeing that kind of energy and whimsy in approaching art. That’s how we all start approaching art — the joy of creating it. Seeing it reminds me of “drawing just for the sake of drawing.” Not having a deadline or thesis behind it, just drawing for the sake of purely drawing. I need to remind myself to do that more. When I had to figure out how to curate the show, I started by overthinking it. I remember walking through different galleries and seeing how they curated shows. I was thinking, I need to do it like this, or make it more esoteric. But then I thought, well, maybe it’s just the joy of being a kid and creating artwork. That’s the beauty of it. For me, sometimes I can forget that. I was traveling recently, and I went to Paris by myself, just to get away. People were asking me if I was here for work, this or that. I was like, no, I’m here just because I happen to be in Europe for work, and I wanted to get away. Some of my best times were just sitting at a bar in Paris, with my sketchbook, and just drawing for myself. Not feeling as if it had to be for a brand, or whether I needed to pitch it to someone. Just drawing.
There’s this other quote by Picasso, “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” We are all born artists, but sometimes we lose that growing up. For the title, I thought to keep it simple — Little Artists. It’s very joyful just seeing this artwork done by kids. I have nieces and nephews, and there is a purity in watching them draw.
T: I think you’re touching upon a funny nexus of a problem. At CMA, we believe all children are artists. The funny thing about society is that we, in the United States, rule out being an artist as a job. When you go to another country, people ask if you’re here for work or pleasure, and you don’t know where to draw the line. It makes seeing the children’s work more inspiring, because you can see that a child is working through an idea, regardless of capital, but they’re not laboring.
J: Exactly. I always want to get back to a point where I’m drawing just to enjoy it. Sometimes I find myself sitting in front of a piece of paper and having a staring competition with it. Kids can just do it and approach artmaking without the filters that we gain as we grow up.
T: Definitely. I know you were away when you first started working on this show, and didn’t get to see the works in person. Could you describe what it’s like to see the digital representations of these images versus finally seeing them in person?
J: Because I’m seeing all of them in the same tiny frame, I had no idea about size and scale, so that really wasn’t something I thought about. I went more by what captures my eye. When I first saw them in person, they were a lot bigger than I imagined them to be. There’s this one picture of a woman reading the paper, with a yellow background.
Lucy Menga, Portrait of Miss Dunn, Age 12, Gouache, Greensboro Art Center, North Carolina, USA. Kuniyoshi Collection, Permanent Collection, Children’s Museum of the Arts
T: That piece is beautiful.
J: When I was looking at it, it seemed so small. Seeing them all in real life was very cool, just being pleasantly surprised by the variety of scales. When you see something in real life, you see its textures, and that becomes another frame.
T: I’m really glad that you picked out that painting. I’ve seen it before as a digital image, but I never thought of it as a portrait of an actual identifiable person. There’s something so remarkable about it being an Edward Hopper moment. It looks like it’s coming from Nighthawks, a closed-in moment of it. Even the background has this Byron Kim After Sun in an Empty Room feeling.
J: The lines are so strong and simple, and managed to capture the essence of this person. I want to know what she’s reading. Even on a phone, it struck me, and then seeing it in real life, it’s so much bigger than I thought. Any time you see something in real life, especially art, it gives you a different relationship to it.
T: It’s funny to sit here and be so giddy and grateful over a child’s drawing that is so empathetic and so considerate. Some of the works in the exhibition, you can tell a child really had to look at what they were drawing or look at something in real life and pay attention to it. At this level of observation, it’s magical. I would like to hear about what it’s like for you to think about the observational, in this exhibition and in your own work.
J: With fashion illustration, we work so fast, and try not to make it laborious, so it’s more about the moments. When I’m drawing, it’s more about the mood. For some of the artworks that I selected, there is a mood that you can’t be taught. Kids have this way of looking at things that can be really weird but also very special. There’s also some things that I missed about some of these pieces, looking at them digitally. The elephant artwork is from the 1930s, and it’s made on brown paper with shades of white and gray. Even the idea of drawing an elephant from the front is hard. How you capture the trunk …
Unknown Artist, Untitled, circa 1938, Tempera on paper, Joseph Solman Collection, USA, Permanent Collection, Children’s Museum of the Arts
T: The idea of coordinating that through the lens of an eight year old, also.
J: That’s what was great, just capturing it.
T: That drawing is from 1938.
J: Yes, that’s the thing. When I saw that piece, I was told that it was one of the oldest pieces. I was struck by that.
T: It’s so fascinating. Your reference to the Haring and Picasso quotes inspired me to think about this quote I love from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It’s a bit of what you were just talking about, in relation to what we see and what we know. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” It’s also what happens when the child goes into this imaginative state of thinking, that there is a larger-than-life elephant floating in trees with a skywriter about it. There’s still so much attention to that perspective. I would love to hear about how you selected the works through those imaginative moments.
J: Magic moments. That’s something I’m going through with my own art, and why I mentioned my identity crisis right now with my art. I was inspired by what I saw in these kids’ artworks. The approach can be whatever you want it to be, versus having to be something specific. With the work that I do, sometimes it’s commercial. You’re working with different clients, and everyone has their own opinions, so you often lose track of what the art is. I was coming from this difficult headspace. Looking at the drawings that I selected reminded me of why I like to draw in the first place. That energy. There’s something pure about it.
T: That makes sense. The other Berger quote I was thinking of is, “We never look at just one thing, we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” You can think about how you would draw those curves and what that motion would be like. But when you’re looking at a child’s work, and you can see that they’re doing it without fear, it’s ecstatic.
J: Yeah. This project came at a point where I thought, “I needed to see something like this.” I need to see these works that are beautiful, amazing, and pure. It made me think about that again, through myself.
T: When you look at these works, do you think of what they might have done next?
J: Seeing them in person brought more of an intimacy. I would be curious to know more about the situation they are drawing in. There’s one drawing of the blue cityscape after 9/11. That was really interesting for me to learn about. I want to go to these kid’s art studios, in the moment, and watch what they are doing. There’s also the embossed aluminum piece that was created at a school for the blind. These works remind me of the importance of art for kids. It’s such a great tool for discovery, expression, and things that I take for granted.
Rachel Yoes, Different, Paint on paper, New York, USA, Permanent Collection, Children’s Museum of the Arts
Gladys Fernandez, My Dog, Grade 8, Embossed aluminum on paper, Lavelle School for the Blind, Bronx, New York, USA, Permanent Collection, Children’s Museum of the Arts
T: It’s unique that drawing can be a tool for understanding. It is a form of dialogue. I imagine the child, Gladys, making an embossed aluminum drawing of what she titles My Dog. Who’s to say she has or hasn’t seen her dog, but there’s a tactile relationship that she has, knowing her dog. I’m personally thinking a lot right now about Emilie Louise Gossiaux, who is a close friend and artist here in New York, who is blind, and makes a beautiful work about her service animal.
J: Wow. Yeah. I also just love Rainbow Over Ulster County because of the colors — it’s so energetic and spontaneous.I think that’s the only truly abstract-looking piece in the collection. I love the whole energy of it. I can just imagine what or how that was made, or what they were doing.
Tina Steffanatos, Rainbow Over Ulster County, Age 5 1/2 , Watercolor on paper, St. Agatha Home for Children, PS 17X, Bronx, New York, USA, Permanent Collection, Children’s Museum of the Arts
T: Yeah, a five-and-a-half year old made a drawing called Rainbow Over Ulster County, and it looks like it’s a fragment of a Turner painting. [laughs]
J: I love using color in my work, but sometimes I can get intimidated by color. That’s something I love about this painting, it has so much energy and there’s a great sense of color balance. That’s very sophisticated, and she’s five years old … you can’t say the same about some professional artists!
T: Five-and-a-half! [both laugh]
T: Do your niece or nephew ask you questions about your process?
J: They don’t ask too many questions, it’s more about watching and trying to imitate or understand. I would not think about the weird, crazy, spontaneous way that kids approach stuff. It’s fun to draw with them because, again, it’s just doing it for the sake of doing. I’m seeing my nephew later today. He has books of these drawings, and the characters he makes are based off of superheroes with these weird variations. He cuts them out and makes these huge paper characters. That’s the thing — I want that energy. I need that osmosis!
T: He’s changing your world by changing his own. I would say that all the works in the exhibition have a sense of confidence. It may not be the first thing that someone would say when they look at the works, but when you sit with them, you really see that a child is not suffering from comparisons.
J: There’s a confidence that kids have that’s evident in the works. They have resolve, they have energy. Like the portrait of the woman reading that we talked about earlier. The lines are so simple yet so confident. That’s one thing I kept saying to myself — these were done by kids!
T: Confidence is the word at the moment. As for being an artist, do you also consider yourself an educator?
J: I see my role differently than how I saw it five or ten years ago. I see the importance of art as something we need in humanity, in the world. Art can put together ideas that people can’t vocalize, and that’s the role of the artist — to capture that moment.
T: The kids in the exhibition have grown up, and I wonder how they see their work now. Is that something that you thought about in the process?
J: Definitely after. Just hearing when these pieces were made, and knowing more about them. Your relationship with your own art can change day to day. You can look at something you love one day, and, like with musicians, you can get sick of hearing your songs ….
T: And never play it again.
J: It can be like “play your greatest hits, and not the new stuff.” With our own art, it changes everyday.
T: Considering this is your first time curating, what do you think about having it up at Ace Hotel in Brooklyn, and what does that do for the audience?
J: It’s very cool. I went to get coffee this morning, and I saw people stop and stare and look. Art can change the space, give it personality. It’s nice to see people look at it — even as we were installing it, people were peeking in and being curious about what it was. We told them it was done by kids and there’s this “oh wow” reaction.
T: Thank you for your work. I would love to hear something you’re thinking about, anything in particular, anything that I missed.
J: It’s a great opportunity for me, a different way to work with art. I’m really happy and proud of how it came to be, and it’s nice that people responded to it. When you have really beautiful things to work with, you just want to arrange it in a way that shows it off. Ultimately, it’s all about these pieces that are done by kids that are really beautiful to see.