What?: For convenience’s sake I wish it wasn’t the case, but I do find myself a million times more drawn to gallery-hosted messy-art sessions than the potato-printing classes put on by our local community centre. Obviously traipsing to a Central London gallery is much more of a faff than popping to the church hall at the end of the road, but there’s just something so much more inspiring about creating ‘art’ – and I use that term loosely – in a gallery setting, surrounded by centuries-old masterpieces, than in a nonspecific community space that also hosts pensioner pilates and a Wednesday afternoon beetle drive.
The National Gallery understands the importance of creative stimuli, both for pint-sized Picassos and their carers, beginning its Messy Mondays classes with a tour of its Pigott Education Centre’s downstairs galleries and a short group discussion of a chosen painting (with some singing shoehorned in, of course) that then supposedly becomes the catalyst for the entire session. Supposedly because, as one might imagine where under-fives are involved, the whole thing is a bit tenuous. I mean, let’s face it, you can talk at a one year old about flowers and butterflies until the cows come home but ultimately all you’re going to do is insert a paintbrush in their fist and grit your teeth while they splash paint indiscriminately at the wall before giving up and decorating your face instead.
In spite of, and perhaps in some ways because of, this inevitability – plus the fact that most toddlers are too restless to even contemplate sitting down and engaging in a meaningful discussion about a still-life painting of a vase of flowers – I do think there is a lot to be said for the pre-mess gallery tour. It’s the same format followed by another two of our favourite gallery-based art sessions – Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Mini Masterpieces and Parasol Unit’s Project Light and, while you might think that there’s little to no point in trying to interest pre-schoolers in old paintings, at the very least it gets them used to being in a gallery setting, which should hopefully go some way to promoting a lifelong love of art. Even if it doesn’t, it’s reassuring to know that there is life beyond Tumble Tots and that culture is still something that’s available to you post-childbirth.
Once we were finished gathering inspiration and warbling along to I Can Sing a Rainbow we headed up to the studio to transfer our ideas onto paper – or, in Bab’s case, completely ignore everything we’d just learnt and paint the floor purple using a thick sprig of broccoli. Purple, incidentally, was this week’s colour theme (which I thought was curious given that the inspirational painting contained no purple whatsoever) and we’d been pre-instructed to wear or bring something purple to class. Bab wore her brand-new, now-permanently-paint-covered purple floral leggings and said “poo-pool” a lot.
The walls had been papered with clean white A3 sheets, ready for the onslaught of red and blue poster paint, which was loaded onto paper plates and given to battle-ready toddlers along with a wedge of sponge or a raw vegetable spear. Those who preferred their messy play with less mess were given crayons, while pre-sitters were invited to chill out in the adjoining room, which had been set up with cushions, a dressing-up box and musical instruments – though the less said about those the better (see worst bits). Bab more than got her money’s worth where the mess was concerned and was the last baby standing at the end of the session, by which point it was hard to tell where the paint wall ended and she began. It was like that bit in Garden State where Zach Braff blends in with the wallpaper.
Where & When?: Messy Mondays sessions run from 10.30-12pm and 12.30-3pm every Monday during the school holidays and are held in The National Gallery’s Pigott Education Centre on Orange Street, a few minutes’ walk from Charing Cross tube station (Northern).
Best Bits: The instructor was lovely, which always helps.
Worst Bits: The chill-out room was anything but thanks to the popularity of an apocalyptic klaxon-type device that sounded like an ambulance that needed an ambulance. I literally could not stay in there listening to it. It sounded like a siren signalling the end of all life. Also my new jeans and Bab’s new leggings both got covered in poster paint and are ruined forever, so that’s a complete pain in the arse.
Facilities: Buggy parking, step-free access, baby changing.
Cost: Free, if you don’t count the £50 it will cost me to replace two pairs of trousers.
Would We Come Back?: Yes. Trouser Gate aside, it was really good. Plus we think Bab might be cultivating artistic tendencies and I would much rather she nurtured them in an environment that isn’t our rented, beige-carpeted flat.
Bab paints the walls red at Messy Mondays, The National Gallery.