The Lost Art of Play
May 01, 2020 12:03PM
By Karey Solomon
It can be startling, and a bit disconcerting, to learn that the toys you played with as a child are now stocked in antiques stores. Andrew Wales not only discovers some old favorites when he explores timeworn playthings on the shelves of second hand shops—he also finds inspiration.
In his still life series “The Lost Art of Play,” classic toys remembered by the grandparent generation take center stage in Andrew’s first solo show in more than thirty years. His collection of paintings, drawings, and ink illustrations is currently scheduled to be on exhibit at the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center, 34 Main Street in Wellsboro, in April and May. With this year’s unexpected virus-caused changes, please visit gmeinerartcenter.wordpress.com, Facebook, or call (570) 724-1917 for updated information.
The toys he depicts are not cuddly stuffed animals. Many were given away to children back in the day to develop brand loyalty via corporate mascots, like a cute plastic bee promoting honey and the caricature boy-with-a-gleam-of-mischief-in-his-eye representing Big Boy burgers. Some are iconic, like the platoons of rubber duckies facing each other with a hint of menace. Tiny Fisher-Price people appear in various works, possibly thinking deep thoughts or simply waiting out life’s indignities; a collection of blocks assemble themselves into a hidden message against a sky reminiscent of those painted by Belgian surrealist René Magritte.
The reference is not accidental. An art teacher at Athens Area High School, art is central to Andrew’s life. “A lot of my art is art about art,” he says. “I love art history, I read it for fun. I love art of all kinds.
“For a long time I did comic strips and comic books,” he continues. “I did some for children’s magazines and self-published my own comic books.” He called them “eclectic comics” because they were “a little bit of everything—some comedy, some superhero parody.” He produced six of them while he was working on his doctorate but he now says this temporarily caused his style to become “very cartoony.”
“Now I work in a high school and my students are drawn to realism, and I find myself doing more realistic work,” he explains. “Realism is very time consuming.”
The arrangements of toys, or the juxtaposition of toys and landscape, can be thought-provoking. Andrew works from the real objects, drawing them exactly as they are, complete with marks of wear, chips, rubbed-off paint—these are part of each toy’s history, he notes, and their interaction with the children who once played with them. “For those who remember them they’re nostalgic, and for those who don’t, they’re foreign relics from another age,” he says.
“Setting up a still life, you move things around and unexpected things happen. Great ideas come from that. As kids we called it play, and as adults we call it ‘assembling a still life.’ One painting I’m working on now, I chuckle at it as I look at it. Otherwise what’s the point? I’m definitely having a good time.”
Andrew said this before the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent change in everyone’s lives. With school temporarily closed, he has been spending his extra at-home time in his studio—a silver lining for an artist who feels the press of ideas wanting to be realized.
Is he working or playing? Andrew believes play really is a lost art. “From an educational standpoint, play has gotten a bum rap as if it was worthless, useless, time-wasting,” he says. “I think it’s getting pushed out of children’s lives.” He reminds us Albert Einstein said creativity was intelligence at play. And, he adds, many philosophers say play is enormously important for children and adults.
When his own children were young, art was a family activity. “When we were home and there was nothing to do and he couldn’t talk us into reading more, he’d sit us all down at the table to draw,” says Anna Wales, Andrew’s daughter. “We were always making art. When we went on vacation, it wouldn’t be focused on a theme park, but what museum can we go to? We went to a lot of museums, and I decided I wanted to work in a museum.”
Anna Wales, by the way, is the director of the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center, and in this role is frequently approached by artists with show proposals. Her father was among them with the occasional casual request. “I’d say, okay, type it up in an email and send it to me like anyone else,” she muses. “And he wouldn’t.” Until, finally, he wrote up some great ideas, and the show was on its way.
She was impressed as well that he’s planned the show from the point of view of the visitor’s experience. She says, “He’ll take these characters and put them out there so you can set them up in our own composition, take a photo of them and say, what’s going on here? If you ask him what he was thinking when he put things together, he’ll have a story for it, and that story will be pretty good. But if you have your own story for it, he won’t mind at all.”
And, she says she truly admires her father’s work ethic. “He’s always working on something.”
Andrew is also hoping to offer some drawing workshops in conjunction with the exhibit. “I firmly believe if you make room in your life for art it will be very valuable and beneficial and will make your life better,” he says. “The more you work on it, the better you’ll get.”
If the show has not yet opened and you’d like a preview, visit artofandrewwales.wordpress.com.