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The Visual Vocabulary of Education

Sep 3, 2014 | By: Evanleigh Davis

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Team Through My Window has always had a specific demographic in mind, of course.  And it’s easy to say, ‘I’d like to teach children so-and-so.’  The question that arises directly afterward, and that lingers around like a bad smell, is precisely how.

I mean, everyone’s been a kid at one point.  Hopefully.  Yet we, as 20-something undergrads and well-established industry professionals, look back on our younger years and find we’re craning our heads.  Kids like… basketball, right?  Kids like Harry Potter…?  They do, don’t they?  Well, that’s a relief, because our necks have started cramping.  Somehow our early years elude us, because nostalgia is easy and memory is fickle.

I’m not going to pretend I thought much about what kids like to look at before I set pencil to paper.  I doubt kids have any one aesthetic, and besides, I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.  The realm of education handles the younger generation very delicately—it’s a necessary precaution, I guess, since education is so monumentally important and lasting.  But with narrative, with the visual language, where we are sculpting not with clay but with human emotion, I thought—and still think—that children understand.  The visual vocabulary is easy for them … I still find it a shame that, as one grows older, the realm of the visual is surgically removed from stories, as if illustrations were shameful or pedestrian.  But I can still speak the language here, to kids.  It’s the language of lines and colors—the speech of the cartoon. 


There’s a theory that exists about the cartoon, actually, and pertains to child education.  It seeks to explain why a child seems to gravitate so strongly to the simplistic forms of Mickey Mouse, Superman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokémon, Cinderella, etc.  The theory states that the cartoon face reflects our own face—not the one we see in the mirror, but the simpler, more scattered mental image that everyone has of themselves and of the world around them.  When a person says, ‘my bike’, they’re not imagining their bike—not really.  What’s in their heads is for more simple—two wheels, the cool splash of red on the side, the big plush handlebars, the nice basket their mom installed for them in the front.  What they see is what the bike means, not what it appears to be.  The same can be said of the cartoon. 

In other words, a cartoon is an image of what we are, not what we look like.  The photo-realism of a movie, a photograph, or a still-life is not nearly as interesting to children because it represents what we already see, in vivid clarity, with no room for the imagination.  In a way, it represents the stranger, the foreign, the unknown: something that does not reside within our own heads and thus, something we cannot control.  It is irrevocably, solidly, scarily real …  This is the reason cartoons are so often associated with escapism.  Yet it’s good to remember that cartoons can speak profoundly through its simple, immediate empathy.  Cartoons aren’t real; but that’s not important.  They feel real.  And so they affect us.

My goal when creating the art and style of Through My Window—if there ever was a finite goal—was to create a balance between these two extremes.  The empathy and simplistic beauty of a cartoon meshed with the asymmetry, imperfection and wildness of real life, to form something as bizarrely, truthfully human as I could get it.  I don’t think I succeeded, though.  Honestly, if I ever succeeded, I don’t think there’d be a reason for me to make art anymore. 


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1223868 and 1223460.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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