Kai explains his illustrations to photographer Vincent Luk.

Kai & the Blue Polar Bear

A Story of Growing up at the Museum

As we waited for the post-award show meet-and-greet to finish, Kai reminded me of a time when we were both a bit younger.

“Do you remember when we made snow animals outside? That was my favourite art project. I made a polar bear and you said I should use blue food colouring ’cause polar bears are already white like the snow. When we were leaving, I got my mom and dad to come and see all our snow animals, and I stuck a stick in mine because I thought all polar bears should have a stick.”

Kai was recalling his first ROM camp experience as a 5-year-old — it was also my first group teaching experience as a 23-year-old. Kai looks just about the same as before, but taller. He’s initially shy when you meet him, but when comfortable he becomes a ball of energy. He’s still funny, likes to talk, and loves animals. I’m… balder.

Animal Alphabet featured a group of happy, energetic, and exceptionally curious 4 and 5-year-olds. We did a lesson on flying animals where we had the kids design their wings on fabric paper and then bent thick gauge wire into the necessary shape. We then flew through the building with our new wings. It was adorable. But for the kids, it was a huge experience, and hard work- fluttering by like butterflies through the biodiversity galleries requires focus.

But my favourite day, like Kai’s, was when we made snow animals. We were gifted with the first significant snowfall Toronto had seen in years, and our group took advantage of it. Split into groups we all created our snowy creatures inspired by our favourite animals inside the Museum. We brought out spray bottles with a food dye & water solution to add colour to our creations.

It was going to be cold. The counsellors and I had spent the day before phoning all the parents reminding them to send their kids to camp in full winter gear. We knew if it didn’t work the kids would go home freezing, and miserable. But if it went right, we’d create a really special memory.

Turns out we did.

Kai, now 10, is involved in a different nature-themed art project, this time an art show inspired by the ’Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibit. Over the last six weeks Kai and his classmates in ‘Drawing from Nature’ have slowly put together a collection of illustrations based on the biodiversity galleries at the Museum. Alison Cooley, their instructor and an artist herself, led them through various lessons on art theory, biodiversity, and even writing. Artist statements accompanied each piece, explaining how each illustration was created, and why the project was exciting to the creator. Kai’s read:

Have you ever thought of turning a picture into something new? That’s what I did here with the sphere and the crocodile. What I did to make the sphere was cover a piece of paper in charcoal and erase out the shape. I went to the Wildlife Photographer Exhibit and sketched the crocodile. I filled the piece with different patterns to make it pop. I chose the picture of the crocodile because I thought it was the most interesting one there, and I like water — especially oceans and lakes.
Kai based his piece on Mirko Zanni’s ‘Cuban Survivor’.

Instead of drawing the animals on display in the galleries, several of the kids, including Kai, decided to recreate the photographs from the WPY exhibit. These photos, taken by world-class photographers and youth alike, tell stories that kids can relate to. When children see pictures or illustrations, they can visualize a moment of the story, and with their imagination, they can fill in the rest of the details. Occasionally, when mounting displays, museums take the specimen out of the story, removing them from context — where do they live, what do they eat, do they live alone or in groups? A photo freezes an actual moment, allowing the viewer to analyze the image, and gain a greater awareness of the subject displayed.

Kai even saw this. “I love the water, and so I imagined myself like the photographer, wearing the scuba suit and goggles and coming up from under the crocodile, and snapping the photo. It was probably scary for him. But the picture is cool.”

Kai was eager to show off his work, but also nervous.

“I’ve done lots of public speaking at school — I’m good at it. But I’ve never presented my art before… Do you think anyone will even wanna look at our drawings?”

Positioned between the coral reef aquarium and the giant spider crab, Kai sat with his easel and art, waiting. Directly across from us was a room full of photographers, scientists, Museum brass, and their families. They had just finished handing out the ROM Photographer of the Year awards, given to ROM staff and volunteers who snapped particularly spectacular images. One featured a bat mid-flight, while another featured the Cheltenham Badlands. The winner, Debbie Stelzer, a Museum volunteer, took a gorgeous landscape photograph that featured two zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater, with a background filled with thousands of flamingos.

Debbie walked out of the room and went straight towards Kai’s work. This was it. Kai knew she was the winner too. She stopped and looked at his art. And Kai… he stalled. The nerves took over!

I jumped in, prodded him with some encouragement.

Kai stuttered back to life, and almost as if there was never any issue, casually put his hands into his vest pockets and started talking about his piece.

“Well this is a picture I drew, and it’s the story of a crocodile…”

While Kai spoke with Debbie, I looked around and saw all our kids engaged with visitors about their art. Some needed coaxing, some couldn’t stop talking. It was a terrific experience for these young artists — a unique opportunity to show off their work in one of the world’s great museums.

“Did you see that? She was the winner, and she liked my drawing! That must mean I’m doing something right!”

As the morning moved on, Kai would count how many people he spoke to. His list included other winners, the managing director of ROM Biodiversity David Ireland, Ornithology Technician Mark Peck, photographers Vincent Luk and Stacy Lee Kerr, as well as general Museum visitors and the parents of his classmates. After an hour in the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, Kai had spoken with 33 people.

“That was fun, but I’m tired now!”

Over the last five years, Kai had grown and taken part in just about every camp group a child can enroll in at the ROM. He’s made bottle rockets, ceramic castles, canvas masterpieces; he’s touched dinosaur poo, billion-year-old meteorites and more. Every Saturday he’s explored classrooms full of mummies, tigers and knights. His teachers have been practising artists, archaeologists, and most importantly, talented educators. His counsellors used to tie his shoelaces, and now they help him practise the finer points of shading.

But what’s been Kai’s favourite moment?

“I’m not sure. My blue polar bear was pretty good though.”

Originally published at romkids.tumblr.com.
Updated: April 29, 2018

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