Remember Plaster of Paris? Gosh, I sure do. I remember a fifth-grade art-class project in which we mixed the plaster powder with water and filled our molds to make three-dimensional reliefs of our choice of animal. I made a butterfly, which had a great big air-bubble dimple on its wing caused by air trapped on the bottom of the mold. I didn’t care a bit. I painted that butterfly, wrote my name on the back of it, and took it home to perch on a windowsill. I was thrilled with my creation. Recently I shared this experience with some girls from my community. What started with a little paint and plaster ended with dancing and laughing.
Even though it may seem like a simple thing, mixing plaster can be a challenge. Things can go wrong; the mix can harden quickly on a warm day, or it might never dry. The oldest of my guests, a sixteen-year-old, mixed the plaster with some hesitancy after reading the instructions while the younger girls worked on painting the casts I had poured earlier in the day. As she worked, the plaster alternated between being too thin and too thick before it clumped up, and then when we added more water, it liquefied, but only in places. We were only able to get one viable cast from the mix. As I observed Kea, she was just a little afraid to get her fingers dirty and quite tentative about pouring the thick goop into the mold. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Dive in. Use a rag if your hands get dirty.” She grew slightly more emboldened yet remained guarded. I mentioned that the plaster could also be used to repair a hole in a wall, to which she nodded casually. Of course, being competent is important for a person her age. I wanted to let Kea have dignity, while gently letting her know that making mistakes is only natural when you’re doing something for the first time. I’m not sure she believed me, but she walked away visibly relieved that our time was over. As the oldest girl, I knew I had to let her take the lead with the others in an activity. She had to be in charge.
When Kea rejoined the younger girls, the plaster painting was winding down, and the youngest ones were getting extra silly mixing paint colors for fun. The signal that the activity was over registered, and I began to direct the girls to clean up their areas before heading down to the garage for planting seed starts.
In the garage, I gave each girl a small tray with six cups that I had set out earlier. I showed them how to fill the tray with soil from a large orange bucket that contained potting mix. After the demonstration, I put Lea in charge of managing the soil distribution while I gathered the seed packets from my special gardening drawer. She lined them up by age and had the job done by the time I got back with the seeds. The magic started when I read of the seed choices. Each girl got excited over different seeds. They were sweet and eager and tender with the tiny seeds. I made sure they each took a good look at all the seeds to see just how different a bean seed is from a collard and tomato. They were impressed and focused on the task of planting and observing. They covered the seeds with a light layer of soil and watered them. After labeling their trays, we headed out to the garden so they could see what their seeds would look like in a few weeks with sunlight, care and attention.
In the garden, the second-oldest girl, nine-year-old Kia, was ecstatic. She ate raw broccoli and snow peas and poked her nose into every bush. She was fearless and clearly a naturalist. In the garden older brother and father to Kendall, Eli, who had been weeding and sowing with Hal, watched over the brood and his five-year-old daughter with tenderness. After showing them how to plant garlic cloves, we gave the girls garlic and let them plant them wherever they wanted. Soon Kendall grew jittery with the awareness of the terrifying bugs in the garden and had to retreat to the safety of the house. Lila, on the other hand, was instructing the older girls on how to identify onions and garlic. She’s finally comfortable in the garden. After some pictures, we headed inside for refreshments, followed by show and tell. Big smiles and good-natured teasing flavored the early evening.
In reality, an art project is just an excuse to fill our house with the noises and laughter of children. The girls showed off their art projects while we ate snacks and cranked up the stereo. We laughed at our own foibles and teased each other over our eccentricities. We found the easy place between newness and trust and found we liked what we discovered.