“I have been using polka dots since I was a very young child. Only after that, it seems, have they been used throughout the rest of the art world.” ~ Yayoi Kusama
Art Night is a very special event where I work. For one night each year the walls of my school are plastered with children’s art work. This year, Art Night coincided with Mental Health Week. Some children explored such artists as Mondrian, Pollock, Kandinsky, and Klee; but it was particularly interesting for the children in my class to be introduced to Yayoi Kusama. Her show caused quite a stir in 2018 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was important to learn about Kusama because she is a woman who had to work hard to establish herself as an artist in an arena dominated by men. She is 90 years old and still creating magnificent works of art. And she has coped with mental illness much of her life through the creation of these works. Her story is remarkable, and it made quite an impression on the children. With limited time, minimal materials, and a few serendipitous finds we were able to make Kusama’s love of polka dots a whimsical and wonderful part of Art Night.
“With just one polka dot, nothing can be achieved. In the universe, there is the sun, the moon, the earth, and hundreds of millions of stars. All of us live in the unfathomable mystery and infinitude of the universe.” ~ Yayoi Kusama
Initially I wasn’t certain about how to proceed. We had a large square of opaque acrylic which was our surface for a mural; we began by having each child stamp a circle onto the acrylic, using a cup dipped in paint. They could leave their circle empty or fill it in as they chose. We also had a package of paper circles; these the children decorated with paint and pastels. The mural and circles were then put aside while other plans for the event began to unfold. I envisioned creating an interactive experience, much like the “obliteration room” I had enjoyed at the AGO. As visitors exited the Kusama show, they passed through a room where they could place stickers on white walls and furnishings, filling the space from floor to ceiling with polka dots. This struck me as perfect for Art Night – it would be fun, hands-on, child-friendly, and it would help participants understand the concept of extending art beyond the borders of the frame as Kusama did.
“Polka dots are fabulous.” ~ Yayoi Kusama
We had a table, a chair and a small shelf. A trip to our neighbourhood junk depot yielded two big, yellow styrofoam people, and fabric for covering the bulletin board, (which we filled with painted polka dots and Kusama quotes). We put the mural up in the window at the end of the hall, so it would become a focus of attention, illuminated as the light streamed through it. We taped on a few mirrors so people could see their reflections in the art. And then we drew dots on the windows around the mural with washable markers. These extended the mural, and also cast shadows on the floor. The final touch was to place rubber dots we had borrowed from the gym on the floor, creating a playful pathway to the installation. I filled a bowl with stickers, donned my purple polka dotted dress, and waited in suspense for the event to begin.
“Suppose I put polka dots all over my body and then cover my background completely with polka dots. The polka dots on my body, merging with those in the background, create an optically strange scene.” ~ Yayoi Kusama
I should probably mention that there was a playful “publicity” aspect to this installation. When Kusama’s show was in Toronto, there was a huge advertising campaign, to build excitement about it. Anyone who wanted to see Kusama had to book tickets on-line, which involved hours of waiting in a queue. It took me nine hours to get my tickets! In order to focus attention on our installation I placed assorted polka dots and posters around the school: Last Chance to see Kusama! Become Part of Infinity! Any families who had seen her show would certainly appreciate the humour behind this tactic. But the best part of all of this was watching the children’s reaction to the installation. They jumped from dot to dot on the floor. They loved putting stickers anywhere they pleased on the furniture. One child sat on the chair and others put stickers on him, making him part of the installation! Children plastered their faces and arms with stickers. They were overcome with the participatory aspect of our Kusama art experience and I could not have anticipated a better outcome. We moved beyond simply looking at static pieces of art on the wall to engaging with and being a living part of art. On reflection, I think this is an ideal and inspiring way for children to enter the world of art – as an expression of the self, an expression of creativity, and an expression of joy. I like to believe that Kusama would agree.
“I am happy that the polka dots I started using have become a symbol of love and peace around the world with everybody joining hands to use them in this way.” ~ Yayoi Kusama