Using Art To Help Children Tell Their Stories

Illustration by Joseph Belisle

By Guest Author Joseph Belisle

Long ago I bought an “art box” that was filled with about fifty post cards that featured a wide range of art done over the centuries from artists all over the world. When working with some of my art students, it is always a fun exercise to go through this box and let them pick out a favorite. They always choose something unique and surprising and they always tell me something insightful about themselves using the art from the postcard as a springboard for their feelings. Sometimes words can’t be found until a visual stimulus jogs a memory or suppressed feeling.   

For as long as I can remember, one painting in particular has stirred my soul and captured my imagination; Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. It always fascinated and simultaneously disturbed me. Once I laid eyes on it, I could never really get it out of my head. Years later, when I finally committed to producing my first children’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Wyeth, Christina, the Olson House and that endlessly wide chasm of grass that separated Christina from that house. I reference this painting in my new children’s book, What if Wilhelmina, because it so strongly affected me and I found a way to use it to help tell my story.

In the book, which I both wrote and illustrated, I make use of classical art in my illustrations. As an art museum fan and lover of art history, I was intrigued by the idea of using classical art in this way. I wanted to somehow use the great artists that have long inspired me to help explain what was happening in the story I tell. I write about a real-life experience that happened to me and my family when my daughter was seven years old. I admittedly take some fun liberties in the book but it is based largely on real-life events. 

What if Wilhelmina is about my daughter and the time she lost her beloved pet cat and furry “sister” (as Wilhelmina is affectionately known in our house). On its surface, the story is indeed about a lost cat, but for me, I wanted to delve deeper into what my distraught daughter was really thinking during this upsetting time of “what ifs!” Referencing classical art helps tell my story, it also educates and helps explain the emotional state of my seven-year-old protagonist.

One example of how I use classical art in my book can be found when the little girl is being counseled by her parents.  At this point in the story, our little girl is very distraught about her missing animal. She’s in a veritable storm of worry and her parents fruitlessly try calming her down. What better painting to put over her head in this illustration than the dark and tumultuous Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt? It’s a classic and powerful painting that speaks to her fragile emotional state at this point in the story. 

In addition to being a children’s book author/illustrator, I run an LGBTQ youth group for a non-profit agency called Lighthouse. We meet once a week in a relaxed, social environment where the kids can talk about their feelings and share whatever is on their mind in a safe, non-judgmental space. Sometimes we have our meetings at local art galleries or museums and these are some of my favorite memories with the group. When we do this, I ask each of the kids to wander around the space and choose a specific piece of art that speaks to them. Then we gather around their favorite art and they talk about it.

Visiting galleries and museums like this has proven to be such a powerful and transformative experience for these teens. Each person had a different piece of art that spoke to them. It was incredible how, through the art, they were able to open up and talk about their feelings. They each saw something unique that, at first glance, didn’t resonate with me but through their stories, the artwork gained new life and meaning for me and for all of the other members. I saw how they connected with the artwork and I heard how it helped them tell their story of frustration, joy, heartbreak or whatever it was they were trying to say. The artwork helped them express bigger issues that were on their mind. 

Though What if Wilhelmina is aimed at a younger audience for ages 3 – 8, I’m so thrilled that it is connecting with all ages. Children are sending me their own drawings about more “what if” scenarios. Some of this art features more mischief that befalls our poor, lost cat and some of the art is about “what if” scenarios featuring the disappearance of something that they love — like a favorite stuffed animal that once was lost but now is found. The idea of loss or even impending loss can be upsetting and through art children can tell their own stories and subsequently heal.

I am planning more children’s books in this “What If” series. A second book is written but I’m still pondering what classical art I’ll use to help tell this next story. I’m trying to write about fears that hex children. That is what piques my interest. By using classical art references to tell my stories, I hope it will further enrich not only the books I write but start children on life-long journeys to loving art history. Art has so much to teach us and I’m just beginning to tell my stories and write my books. Hopefully, I’ll have more books to come that will feature even more art-enriched experiences that we can all learn from.

Art can have an amazing effect. Two people can look at the same image yet still have completely different reactions to it. You may connect with a piece of art that leaves me flat or I may see something in an abstract painting that you see as just blobs of color. That’s the fun and interesting thing about the visual arts; it’s up for interpretation by the viewer. 

Art can be a great way to connect with your child when words just won’t suffice. Give them ample opportunity to be creative by always having lots of art supplies around and at the ready. Take the time to look at art with your children by simply looking at a picture books or magazines together, browsing online together, or by bringing them into galleries and museums. This can make for very rich, fun and rewarding experiences that will help you both grow and learn more about one another.     

Author: Joe Belisle is the Coordinator & Lead Adult Facilitator of the Kids In Crisis LGBTQ teen group, Lighthouse. He is coming up on his ninth year working with LGBTQ teens and he learns something new from them every time they meet. Joe is also an author and illustrator of a new children’s book called “What if Wilhelmina.” The book is based on a true family story and will launch in early March, 2021 from Blair Publishing. He, his husband David, 12-year-old daughter Faith, and Wilhelmina the cat, all live happily together in Old Greenwich.

To order “What If Wilhelmina,” check it out here!

CPCK Note: We love this book and are so grateful to Joseph for writing about how to use art to help children express their feelings! This tale of a little girl losing her beloved cat shows how children can quickly escalate their little worries into big ones imagining catastrophes that haven’t actually occurred and amounting to an emotional spin out. With numerous opportunities for dialogue about the themes, this delightful children’s book shows how pausing, seeking support in caregivers, expressing feelings – through words and through art – can offer valuable support in tumultuous times. Highly relevant and relatable, this is a story that will help families discuss how to manage times of worry or uncertainty.

Jennifer Miller and her son learned about three game-changing female artists this week in seventh grade homeschool including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe and how they expressed their feelings through their work in recognition of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!

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