“A family friendly summer exhibition celebrating the use of colour in contemporary art” – this by-line for the summer exhibition on at our local museum and art gallery certainly caught my attention. It sounded right up my street – and on Saturday we finally made it there.
The curators had indeed been successful in creating a place which the whole family could enjoy, with a huge pile of brightly coloured bean bags on cheerful rugs in one corner of the gallery, a box of lurid and garish dressing up clothes (the best sort really!), kiddie sized tables and chairs with plenty of paper and colouring pencils (though unfortunately most of them needed sharpening), a large box of lego and a plentiful supply of books from the central library around the theme of colour. Both my kids loved this space in the gallery but unfortunately the selection of art that made up the exhibition was not nearly as engaging, neither for me nor the kids.
Many of the pieces chosen were large canvases, which I think did work well for my 4 year old, as they made a big impact in the space they were hung in. Pictures and artifacts were placed together based on the main colour used in them, but apart from those grouped around red, and multicoloured, I felt that the colours chosen rather let the exhibition down – the yellows and greens were particularly dingy and certainly not the vibrant, zingy colours I had anticipated and which I think would have worked better for capturing the imagination of my young children.
Nevertheless our trip to the exhibition gave us a great excuse to unearth some fabulous books about colour, and later that day to make the most outrageous cake I have ever seen in my life….
We’ve had Lois Ehlert’s Planting a Rainbow at home for a while as I love to garden and had originally bought this book to help get the kids involved in choosing plants for the garden and then planting them out. Ehlert’s story is narrated by a child who does exactly this with her mum (actually, “mom”), selecting bulbs and seedlings to ensure a spectacular rainbow of colour in their garden. The simple text allows the show-stopping illustrations to sing on each page; Ehlert’s style is somewhat akin to that of Eric Carle, with the use of bold, cut-out shapes and strong colours, and these images are loved by both my 4 and 1 year old.
Once the garden has been planted and the flowers have started to bloom a single page is dedicated to each of the colours of the rainbow; “We have some red flowers…” (illustrated by tulips, carnations and a rose, “and orange flowers…” (illustrated by zinnias and tiger lilies), “and some yellow blooms” (paired with marigolds and daffodils) and so on through green, blue and purple ending up with a glorious bouquet from the entire garden, and the happy knowledge that next year the cycle will begin again.
The second book we chose for our colour-day-out was Here comes Frankie by Tim Hopgood. Frankie’s family life has always been quiet and peaceful but one day Frankie decides he wants to learn the trumpet. Despite the best attempts of his parents to keep the calm status quo, Frankie persists and after some initial teething trouble learns to play the trumpet so beautifully his parents are won over. In fact, Frankie’s trumpet playing is rather magical – not only does it sound wonderful, but it also fills his house and his street with colours and smells (there is a brief note at the back of the book on the phenomenon of synaesthesia), and thereby transforms his neighbourhood from one where “even the birds had lost their chirp” to one where Frankie, his parents and neighbours end up dancing “to the sound of sunshine”.
Colour floods through this book. Although the start of the story is accompanied by neutral tones (while peace still reigns), each blast on the trumpet introduces more colours and patterns, until they are quite literally bursting out and shining all over the later pages when a glossy sheen is overlaid on the illustrations. The endpapers display the colour palettes used in the book, akin to the colour swatches for paint in a diy store, and include the humourous names given to the different shades eg “Sssh! White” (a very pale bluey white), “Pin Drop Pink” (a pastelly pink) for the quiet colours, whilst many of the names of the loud colours are inspired by jazz musicians eg “Dizzy Yellow” and “Courtney Lime”.
The endpieces of Here come Frankie reminded my daughter of a costume I made for her over a year ago – her nursery was having an Ugly Bug Ball and she wanted to go as a snail (at the time I was only grateful she had not wanted to be a slug!). The day she announced this to me we happened to visit the haberdashery department of a local store, where they were throwing out the colour swatches for their sewing thread display so we grabbed them and turned them into decoration on her snail shell (something similar could of course be done with paint swatches):
But returning to Here comes Frankie, the story is delightful and one with elements many parents and children will recognise, not least the parents wishing for some peace and quiet whilst the kids want to make a racket. The illustrations match the story perfectly and leave readers young and old feeling buoyed up and full of energy.
With grandparents arriving the day after we’d been to the exhibition, when we returned home we fulfilled a fantasy of mine – we made a rainbow cake like the one I saw for the first time a few months back. M and I both loved how outrageous this was – so much cake, so much icing and then to top it all we added a whole container load of edible glitter…. this was definitely a lot of fun to make!
With each slice being nearly 20cm tall this was quite a cake to eat (we struggled valiantly!). When we sliced it open we could certainly imagine Frankie’s trumpet making a jubilant, jazzy peel!
Finally to summarize:
Whilst digesting our slabs of cake we’ve been listening to…
Colour the Blues Away by Jennifer Gasoi
and another time we return to these books I’d like actually plant a real rainbow with bulbs. Now’s a good time to be planning this (here in the northern hemisphere) as it’s only a couple of months until the bulbs will need to be planted.