ArtsBlock resident and artist Margarita Friedman displays her collaborative work with kindergarten students of local schools at the ArtsBlock Gallery, 2300 Independence Ave. Photo by Abby Hoover

By Abby Hoover, Managing Editor

A LEGO factory. A butterfly’s birthday party. A dream home. These are some of the works of art created by students of Scuola Vita Nuova (SVN) and Garfield Elementary with the help of their assistant, artist Margarita Friedman.

On display at the Pendleton ArtsBlock Gallery at 2300 Independence Ave., the work of kindergarten students has been transformed by Friedman.

The idea started developing as she watched her grandson sketch, unprompted, a self portrait.

“I was brewing it, but only about doing my family, my grandchildren,” Friedman said. “The first time, it was when I saw my grandson, being about eight years old, and he made a huge portrait of himself – only the face and the tiny neck with two eyes, two nostrils, four rows of 100 teeth on each row, two ears – so for me, that was really powerful because I studied psychology and I took children psychology. So if I was interpreting that one, I would have said, that is a kid that is all ears, all senses. Okay, all senses, the body doesn’t count because he’s all about absorbing all kinds of information.”

She thought she’d like to turn it into a huge painting, but she had to check with the little artist whether he wanted her to add the body. Ultimately, she left the original artwork unchanged, but kept the idea in the back of her mind.

The idea came to her a second time one night when painting with her neighbor Bethany Alzanadi. Bethany’s son, Eithan, joined them, drawing an ant inspired by his recent search. 

“He was the most adorable ant, and I thought, ‘Gosh, this is a painting. This is painting. I just can see this one,’” Friedman said. “So I painted the sky, I added grass, but he needed something so I added a loose balloon. But he needed something, and I put him in boots. So it was called the ‘Ant with Boots,’ and it was sold at the Art Garden KC.”

Friedman, a cofounder of Art Garden KC, teaches free art classes to children at the weekly art festival in Pendleton Heights. After the success of her first work with Eithan, she saw how much people enjoyed it – both visitors and the little artists.

“I called Scuola Vita Nuova, with an art teacher and I said I wanted the drawings from the kindergarten, they gave me 26, all of them, and the drawings are this,” Friedman said, gesturing to the printer paper drawings lining the bottom row of the gallery.

In the gallery space facing Independence Avenue, the children’s drawings are matched up with Friedman’s interpretations.

She spent a generous amount of time deciding how to interpret each drawing, which she had instructed the art teachers not to give direction on. She did have the teachers ask each child what they drew and sign their name.

“That was really a huge challenge because now I felt responsible for the child’s intentions,” Friedman said. “They are kindergarten[ers], and obviously, they were reading stories about unicorns, because there are a whole bunch of unicorns. ‘My fish, unicorn, my cat, unicorn, my cat – I don’t have a cat – is a unicorn,’ and other kinds of silly things.”

Friedman worked in the mindset of a child, an important step because she sees children’s drawings as innocent, which makes them perfect. 

“It just represents what they want, and they are happy,” Friedman said. 

Friedman spent a lot of time asking her inner child what she would do. She usually worked on three or four paintings at a time, bouncing between them when inspiration struck. She estimates she spent two days on just painting each sketch.

“Don’t worry about smearing, no, no, nothing of classical painting techniques, use children’s drop, drip the paint, something like they will do,” Friedman said.

She used squirt bottles with liquid paint, kitchen and makeup spatulas, rubber bands, all to keep the details low.

“I was feeling all this freedom to make justice to the child’s way of painting, but at the same time trying to make it come beautiful, because I wanted it to be beautiful for the children,” Friedman said. 

She took very few liberties in shifting the position of some object objects for composition, and she did add anything that she thought would add to the painting, but did not remove anything the children drew.

“I put myself in the position of being the assistant to the master artist, which is true,” Friedman said, adding that she signed each painting with the child’s name. 

Many famous artists had assistants who would work on landscapes or fill in details. She said the best example of her adding a background was for Abel, who drew a pizza and a hamburger as people. Friedman set them on a stage surrounded by sweeping red curtains, a theater.

“Some I really did struggle a lot, others the concept came out very easily, I engage very easily with a painting,” Friedman said. “But others I really had to go back and keep on looking at the drawing and looking and looking at the painting to come up with something that I would feel I would like a child would feel, ‘Oh yes, this is what I wanted.’”

Friedman spent hours brainstorming how to create a painting reflective of each child’s imagination. She even scoured donut shops throughout the city looking for a perfectly iced pink donut with hand poured, slippery, drippy icing.

“It was quite difficult just making justice to the little drawing they did because if it was too simple, it’s not the imagination of the child,” Friedman said. “I think the child’s imagination is like, completely dressed, full with all the jingles, so I tried to figure out how he would do it. For them, when they make a drawing, nothing is missing. It’s all complete. So that’s what I tried to do.”

Friedman was disappointed that she got so many fewer drawings from students at Garfield Elementary, a Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) neighborhood school. SVN doesn’t have so much red tape. 

“It was extremely easy for me to talk with the art teacher, get in touch with her, get her on the phone and get the drawings,” Friedman said, with the go-ahead from the school’s director, Nicole Goodman. Only 11 of the students turned in the signed permissions Garfield required after months of waiting, Friedman said.

Friedman does want to focus on public schools because they have the most issues funding art programs. She won’t sell the paintings, but will instead have them rotating at different public buildings, children’s hospitals and galleries to bring awareness to the need for art in schools.

“This drawing of a child, if he just knew how to smear paint with a spatula and with bottles, squirting the paint, that is his drawing, that is his LEGO factory,” Friedman said, gesturing to her interpretation of SVN student Teddy’s drawing. “Those are finished paintings with spatulas and smearing, and a little bit of composition – but that comes with the territory when you take art classes.”

Friedman discussed with the teachers her hope to get neighborhood parents, especially minorities, involved and engaged in their children’s work, and eventually Art Garden KC.

She understands why the parents won’t engage. When she moved to the United States from Mexico, even as an educator herself, she was intimidated by the schools. She hopes having the paintings in an open area where they can be seen from the street will be more welcoming. Friedman will open the gallery anytime for the children and parents through February, and she would love to have a true gallery opening with refreshments and little cookies.