Which comes first, the whimsy or the mama? One of the decided perks of having children is the way in which they reignite playfulness, a trait that gets turned off, or at least dimmed, in many people about the time they have to write their first resume. But have a baby, and you get carte blanche to make goofy faces and crawl on the floor. (After all, one synonym for playful is infantile.) A few years later, you’re reenacting entire scenes from Star Wars: “No Mama! You’re Boba Fett! Stop breathing like Darth Vadar.” And then it’s on to glue guns, cello concertos, and dramatic readings.
Some mothers tap deep into this territory, becoming not only creative but entrepreneurial. Before they know it, they’re making little t-shirts for their baby and every other tyke up and down the block. The cute onesies beget a stall at the farmer’s market; boutique-worthy pinafores find a home on Etsy; and wacky stuffed animals get hocked under a “Buy Local” sign at the toy store. Fathers get into the act, too. Famously, indie rocker Dan Zanes discovered as a father that most children’s music made him want to stick his fingers in his ears. So, he took up his guitar, rounded up some musical friends and recorded modern twists of the old Americana chestnuts he’d learned at sleep-away camp. “Pollywaddle Doodle” never sounded so charming.
Rarer, though, is the parent who still wants to paint onesies into the midnight hour once the kids are getting their driver’s licenses. The few exceptions seem to have been born with a sparkling inner tutu around their waist and a magic wand in hand.
One such pixie is Vicky Grube, who I met years ago at a neighborhood gathering where she was wearing a bear’s head hat. I don’t mean a fluffy teddy bear, but a toothy, shaggy grizzly. A painter and longtime preschool art teacher, Grube is now a professor at Appalachian State University. Her two daughters, Nell and Emma, are both grown and her official students are in their twenties, but Grube still finds time for paper maché and puppets. Several days a week, she runs after-school kids’ art classes, including drawing and puppetry, which are as much for her as for the kids. “Making art with children feeds me!” she exclaims. “Besides, you don’t usually get to make art with other grownups. They’re too busy paying their utility bills.”
As a trained painter, Grube has always found it interesting to watch a child paint and see what decisions she makes with regard to color and form. But she also began to find that painting—and other art making—is a very social activity for children. They riff off of one another and begin artistic conversations. In her drawing classes, when one person comes up with a new look on the page, other kids will want to mimic it. “If they think is really unique, they’ll say they’re copyrighting it!” Grube laughs.
That Grube’s own work has a fanciful flare is not surprising. Her art heroes tend toward painters with a faux naïve style. But how much of that bent comes from working with kids or being a mother is hard to say. There’s an unspoken dialogue between parents and children, teachers and students, she believes, in which both sides influence the other. “Would I have put on parades [Grube’s answer to performance art] with giant paper maché creatures if it weren’t for having kids?” she asks, and then shrugs as if to say, “It doesn’t matter.”
With three-year old Ruby in tow, artist Clare Crespo is closer to untangling her whimsy from her motherhood than Grube. “I was definitely into weird stuff before Ruby,” she says, ticking off some of her obsessions: crocheted watches—both analog and digital, dioramas, and food theme parties. Food especially was her passion, and she dreamt of making a career out of it but couldn’t quite imagine how. She held on to her “fancy” job producing music videos and commercials until she just couldn’t stand it any more and took the proverbial plunge.
She started a clunky, quirky Web site, Yummyfun.com, and published a book, The Secret Life of Food. “I thought they’d mainly appeal to other weirdo adults like me,” she admits. But soon the fan mail started rolling in from kids. “A girl in Iowa made my recipe for sushi cupcakes and won first prize at the State Fair!” she recalls.
At the same time that Crespo’s second book was coming out, Hey There, Cupcake, her daughter Ruby was born. Ironically, for such a whimsical person, becoming a parent was a bit of a low point. “My identity had been so wrapped up in what I did,” she says, “that I sensed that when people asked what I was up to, ‘Taking care of my kid’ was not a valid answer.”
The book’s success, along with the kids’ cooking classes she’d started teaching, got her out of her doldrums and gave her the confidence to go for her ultimate goal: filming a TV cooking show. Last summer, she rounded up the troops, enlisting her husband, a production designer, to build an elaborate set in their garage—which is no longer referred to as a place for cars and paint cans, but is called The Stage. She called in favors from friends who work in Hollywood as stylists and make-up artists to work their magic, grandparents to babysit Ruby, and neighborhood kids to act.
The finished result is The Yummyfun Kooking Series, three shows with puppets, animation, a band, and, oh yeah, some cooking. Think Julia Childs meets Pee Wee Hermann. Although Crespo could try to sell the series to a network, she’s intrigued to see just how far she might get on her own, especially since one of her goals as a mother is not to have a boss. “Ruby may grow up to hate cupcakes,” she admits, “but at least she’ll have plenty of time with her mother.”
If Vicky Grube’s daughters—a cellist and a graphic designer—are any example, Crespo shouldn’t fret; a child can’t be harmed by too much whimsy. “I remember Nell wearing canvas cake costumes and playing her cello at my parades, and thinking, ‘Gosh, this is going to be a Mommy Dearest moment,’” Grube remembers. But a few years later, when Nell did a scene from Julius Caesar for high school, she created a paper maché body wrapped in gauze, with a realistic dab of bloody. Grube knew then that the drama from all of those crazy parades had become part of her daughter’s sensibility, too.
Photo: Vicky Grube and her daughter Emma
Related Story: Intentions for New Year: Mothers of Invention