Superman sits on the edge of a white-and-gold frame, jaw firm, tiny plastic fists outstretched, poised to defend truth, justice and freedom of expression. Surrounding him are prints and original works the Bowmans have collected from around the world, yet somehow the cheap toy ties the whole wall together.
Maybe that’s why Stephany Bowman’s mother picked him up off the floor one day and made him part of the ensemble. “My mom found that little action hero and just put it up on the painting, and we’ve kind of left it ever since,” Bowman says. “It’s just fun.”
The Dallas mom doesn’t believe in coloring inside the lines. Her window treatments? Total lawlessness—in Superman’s room, curtain panels flanking the same window have different prints.
“I think that just reminds the kids that things don’t have to match; things can be unique and special and stand alone, and also blend together,” Bowman says.
But Superman is still the improbable star of the room, and a metaphor for the entire home: a changeable, creative space that everybody contributes to, even a superhero and his synthetic six-pack.
“Of course, we have things that are valuable, but at the same time, my kids grow up here, and I want them to feel like they can interact with things, or see things that make them smile,” Bowman says. “This is their home too—it’s not just my home, an adult’s world that they’re growing up in. It’s all of our home, together.”
By filling a child’s living space with art, “you’re normalizing the idea of being creative, being expressive, giving the child voice.”
Together, they’ve turned their home into what Mary Nangah calls a “livable work of art.” Nangah, who has a Ph.D. in art education and teaches at the Texas Christian University College of Fine Arts, believes that growing up in a creative, artful environment has a special effect on kids—more so than classes at school or the occasional trip to the museum.
By filling a child’s living space with art, “you’re normalizing the idea of being creative, being expressive, giving the child voice, giving the child value, and constantly challenging the child as well,” she says.
There’s no shortage of studies to back up her beliefs—a 2015 literature review by the National Endowment for the Arts found strong evidence that art activities help kids regulate their emotions and hone their social skills. Last year, we published a piece exploring the cognitive benefits of art, because creativity is important for STEM-wired brains too.
In the home, Nangah says, those benefits are both magnified and more crucial, because the home is where kids do a lot of their developing. It’s where they build a foundation of self-confidence and social-emotional competence that gives them firmer footing in a world of uncertainty, bullying, pandemics and other stressors.
“Having that grounding at home I believe makes a huge difference when a child encounters all these realities of life … in school and nowadays on social media,” Nangah says. In other words, art is a tool for building resilience—and have our kids ever needed resilience more than right now, in this year from you-know-where?
But when Nangah extols the virtues of art, she’s not talking about a few pricey investment pieces and a Taschen-strewn coffee table. Art, Nangah argues, includes the music you play, the food you prepare, the conversations you have, and the spaces you leave for your children to make their mark—in finger-paint or otherwise.
In fact, making an artful space may mean intentionally not hanging artwork on your walls. Here, a guide to cultivating a creative home environment for your family, starting with the most fundamental step: redefining the word “art.”
Change the Way You Think About Art
“When I think of art, I’m thinking of it beyond a painting, a drawing,” Nangah says. Rather, art includes “how a space is composed, how things are organized, the wall color, the smell of the space, is there music playing…”
You probably recognize color, music and interior design as artful elements, but Nangah goes on: “The energy that is put forth by the adults of that space … the family portraits you put up, the narratives that you bring up in that home, the stories that you tell—all of that is in fact an artistic experience. Because art is subjective, and it’s what we value.”
Everything you bring to a space—the words you say, the essential oils you diffuse, the time you spend playing with your child—can contribute to the space’s artfulness and foster creativity. That’s not to diminish the power of professional art, but to recognize that other things can have artistic value too.
Think about the word curate. Though it’s become wildly overused, the concept of making purposeful choices and thereby conferring value on things is central to creating an artful home. Pursue objects and experiences that have meaning, or that encourage your family to express themselves.
For example, when Angela C. Pitts’ three kids are in the kitchen, she says they’re not only whipping up a small-scale disaster; they’re having an artistic experience.
“Letting them be involved in cooking or just around the creativity of food and recipes, that is a huge thing that can definitely add to purpose and meaning within the home,” explains the McKinney photographer and visual artist. “[The mess] is totally worth them getting to participate, and seeing how ingredients come together is kind of the same as [how] supplies come together for artmaking.”
Nangah even connects the dots between art and nurturing your child: Art is an extension of the maker, so tending to your child’s whole well-being influences their creative output. “What we make is just the avenue in which we express, if it’s through artmaking, if it’s through dance, if it’s through music, if it’s through writing, if it’s through narratives—those things come from within,” she says.
Talk About an Artful Home
Your curating work is not done once you’ve installed some artistic pieces in your home.
“Curating is not just the hanging,” Nangah asserts, “[but] the memories they build, the interactions, the experience that they create.” She posits that just putting art on the walls—even thoughtfully—does not necessarily constitute an artistic experience. True richness comes from engaging with the work.
Tell your child why you’ve chosen a particular piece or recipe, which may be a chance to pass on a treasured family story. Talk about how the artwork and colors and sounds in your home make your child feel, what they like and dislike. You can even ask for their input before painting the family room (though you may want to present them with some pre-approved options).
Not only does this kind of dialogue encourage creative thinking, it normalizes the practice of listening to other perspectives—a skill we could certainly use more of these days.
There’s a bit of personal accountability involved too in explaining the things in your home to your child. It forces you to examine whether your choices have purpose, even if that purpose is simply to spark joy. Nangah points out that parents might not consider, for example, the impact of a child’s reading material on their ability to appreciate people from other ethnic and social backgrounds. “If one perspective is all they’re seeing, they will have a harder time accepting, receiving, believing someone else’s perspective that looks totally different from them,” she says.
Life imitates art, right? So be conscious of what your home is communicating, and how you interpret it for your child.
Bowman hopes to relay a message of freedom and fearlessness. “I always tell them, ‘If it doesn’t work out, any pillow is replaceable; nothing is stagnant. I’m not stuck or married or committed to any of those items; I buy them for fun, to make us happy, to bring color,’” she says. “I hope that that inspires them to do the same, to just have fun with it and try different things, and if it doesn’t work to try something different next time.”
Give Your Child Some Space
In the Bowman house, instead of one designated playroom, there are creative stations scattered throughout where her three kids have supplies to color or play. “I feel like kids want to be together, and they want to create art while you’re sitting there with them, and not just in an isolated space,” she explains.
And for all the artwork under Superman’s domain, Bowman is careful to leave empty space— some bits of blank canvas, if you will, for her kids to “bring the home to life” with their energy.
“We definitely are mindful not to overcrowd the home, because a lot of what the kids contribute is themselves—their movement, being able to do a cartwheel, being able to spread out and do a puzzle on the floor,” says Bowman. “Part of having an inspiring home isn’t always the material things you put in it; it’s also gifting the kids with open spaces, no matter how big or small the home is.”
For Pitts, making room is as much about mental space as physical space—she sees the two as intertwined.
“I don’t like to over-decorate a space; I like to leave some space open for creativity to fill in,” she says. “With the kids’ stuff, I rotate out toys so that they’re not overwhelmed with a bunch of things just piled everywhere.”
She has noticed that when her kids’ playroom becomes cluttered, they’re less likely to initiate independent, imaginative play—instead, they pop into her studio, bored and restless, seeking direction. After a good cleanup, though, they’ll disappear to the playroom for long stretches.
Pitts also buys plain old paper instead of coloring books with characters in them, to liberate—and challenge—her children’s imaginations. “It’s teaching them to kind of think on their own and not just necessarily fill in the lines of a pre-existing picture, and that’s been really fun,” she explains. When she asks what they’ve drawn, “they go into this whole story of what it is in their mind, and that’s a really cool conversation starter.”
Show Off Your Child’s Artwork
This is not a PR campaign for minimalism. (Instagram has that handled.) In fact, the home of potter and art instructor Brandon Howell would probably have most minimalists sweating.
“In our house, we have art all over the walls, all over our shelves,” he says. “Even when I was growing up, both my parents were art teachers also, so our walls were covered just about from ceiling to floor in this kind of bohemian collage of different artwork.”
But the Collin County father of five hasn’t crowded out his kids’ creativity with “big ‘A’ Art,” as he puts it. Besides the customary fridge exhibit and a gallery wall in the laundry room, “we also have little pieces of pottery and paintings and different things that they did in different spots all over the house,” Howell explains. “It’s mixed in along with our more professional stuff. I want them to understand that art is very approachable from all levels.”
As a parent and a teacher, Howell has noticed that kids get easily discouraged, especially when certain skills don’t come naturally to them. “Having their art on display really hopefully encourages them to keep doing it, and doing it not because they’re going to be a famous artist someday, necessarily, but to do it for their enjoyment,” he says.
Nangah agrees that displaying your child’s masterpieces bestows a critical sense of worth. “In the home, we have family portraits that are hung up, we hang up diplomas, we hang up different things that show meaning,” Nangah explains. If you treat their work like you treat other precious items in your home, your child will understand that you value their voice.
Even if you can’t hang every single piece (after all, you only have so many walls and refrigerators), be sure to praise your child’s creative expressions—the good, the bad and the messy. This reassures your kiddo that, no matter their skill level, what they’ve drawn or sung or danced is meaningful and worthwhile.
“When they’ve created something, it is really, really important,” Howell says. The confidence to express oneself is liberating, for a child or an adult. Howell reveals that of all his students, the most creative are the kindergartners, who take a no-holds-barred approach to art.
“They create the most wonderful, creative creations,” he says. “And you might not always be able to tell exactly what it is, but if you ask the child, they will tell you the whole story, the backstory about the character and how they saved this magical universe.”
Then in older kids, Howell often sees a progression of skill and a regression in creativity—you can actually tell what they’ve drawn, but their work lacks the unrestrained vibrancy of a kindergartner’s marks.
“They are going to start thinking more about friends and video games and have all of this pressure on them, and creativity somehow gets squeezed out of it,” he notes. “I think a creative environment … has to be done in a very purposeful way to keep that creativity alive.”
Don’t Touch That!
Parents may be hesitant to put original art they love—especially investment pieces—on display within reach of uncapped markers or a flailing preschooler. Angela C. Pitts, an artist and mom of three, says the risk is worth it. “I would say the greater risk is not exposing them to original works of art,” she explains.
But obviously there need to be boundaries. “Part of [having art in your home] is raising your kids to understand and appreciate art and what you should and shouldn’t do,” says artist Brandon Howell.
Screeching, “Don’t touch that!” every time your child gets within striking distance is not the most effective way to keep your pieces pristine. Instead:
Invite them to talk about the work with you. Texas Christian University instructor Mary Nangah has to rein in the potentially destructive enthusiasm of her two young nieces, who often visit. “I have to say, ‘Hold on—get close, but not too close. Let’s look at it. What do you see?’” Nangah says. “If you engage that child in dialogue and for them to value this work with you, it becomes something that we value in the house, and not just, ‘Oh, this is Mom and Dad’s, or this is Auntie’s stuff, and I can’t touch it.’”
Explain why they shouldn’t touch it. According to Pitts, even young children grasp the concept that something is worth a lot of money or took a long time to make. Nangah even tells her nieces that the oil on their fingers could damage the art, which gives them a concrete reason for keeping their distance. But again—the more they value the art themselves, the more they’ll want to help you protect it.
Enforce your expectations. Still, accidents happen. Howell reveals that as a child, he broke some of his parents’ pieces, and his five kids have returned the favor. “They should get a consequence if you’ve set the expectations,” he offers, “but the kids will hopefully learn their lesson and that they are more important than that piece of artwork.”
This article was originally published in October 2020.
Photos courtesy of Stephany Bowman