David Rios Ferreira in front of his site specific installation at Wave Hill. Photo by Rhea Byrne.

by David Rios Ferreira

“He’s got the gift”, my family would say. It’s the 80’s, I’m three years old. My big sister is playing with paper dolls she cut out from the Sunday newspaper’s department store ad. The boy and the girl look like Dick and Jane. Their hair indicates blonde, while your brain fills in the blue eyes, rosy cheeks and light skin — all through variations of grey newspaper ink.

I wanted everything my big sister had and I wanted those paper dolls. As the youngest boy in a Puerto Rican household, I usually got what I wanted — much to my siblings’ dismay. This time my parents wouldn’t give in. So, I decided to make my own.

I scoured our apartment for materials. I borrowed my sister’s newspaper dolls for reference, promising they would be returned unscathed, unlike the infamous Little Orphan Annie Doll and toilet incident of ’84. While I wanted to capture the shapes and look of the newspaper dolls, I had never met a little boy or girl that looked like them. That light grey “blonde hair,” blue eyes, rosy cheeks — this isn’t what my family and I looked like. I made adjustments to my dolls. I drew the boy with a dark messy tuft of black hair. For the girl, I drew long hair with tight curls like my sisters had. I didn’t know what clothes to draw so I shared my work-in-progress.

I held up the drawing to my parents as well as my sisters and brother. I awaited the usual praise and delight — waiting for “He’s got the gift!” Instead, a wave of laughter filled the apartment. You see, I hadn’t created any clothes for my paper dolls. I didn’t understand why Dick and Jane of the newspaper had tank tops and shorts. Instead, my paper dolls were anatomically illustrative, taking my family by surprise. This was the first time I realized I could do something special, something that set me apart from my five siblings, and even my parents.

Whether this was the formative moment that made me an artist — I’m not sure. What I do know is this is how I experienced art in the world. It wasn’t at a museum or in front of a European painting. Even now, I remember my process and the thinking that led me to make these drawings. I’d later grow up and go to art school. Today I keep a steady studio practice. But, I balance this practice with a very active museum career as an arts administrator.

It is in this balance between artist and administrator that has given me perspective on how children (and adults) grow to see art, love art, hate art, consume art, or avoid it altogether. While the perception of museums remains a barrier to many, there are other spaces where one can find and experience the arts. I believe it’s important for parents, for their children and for themselves, to see art, all the arts, as vital to our communities, and to their lives. It’s important to realize that art is for everyone, not just for the few. As Yoko Ono once noted about her own passion for art, it’s vital for all of us to want art in our lives, that “art [should be] like breathing.”

It’s important to explore what art can do, how it can impact you as an individual, motivate a community, change perspectives and elicit emotion. Here are a few ways to think about art:

• Art takes many forms, it can beautifully messy or methodically structured. Art is wet like paint, delicate like leaves, bright like a computer screen or sensitive like our bodies. Art doesn’t have to belong on a canvas or a piece of paper. It doesn’t have to hang on a wall. Art can be sound you can’t see or a visual cacophony that envelops a room.

• View and experience art with curiosity. An artwork, dance or musical piece is not “smarter” or more intelligent then you are, but stay open. It may teach or reveal something about you or about the world. Ask yourself how you feel when experiencing a work, but then ask yourself why you feel this way. Art isn’t necessarily successful because you like it.

• Art can be beautiful, and scary, ugly and sad. Acknowledge these emotions when looking at and making art. Emotions are important and help us see things with different perspectives.

• Religious belief, scientific studies, natural phenomenon, evolving technologies, literature, family turmoil, love — art finds inspiration everywhere.

• Art can have a responsibility. The 1960’s Civil Rights Movement knew the power of the image and how it could galvanize others. Art can move a person to act, energize a movement or shed light on injustices. It can inform and add resources where there are none. Art can fight.

• Art is a process. Sometimes you can tell how an artwork came to be and other times it’s a mystery. Art isn’t more important because it’s in a museum, but remember artists are people. Where they lived, when they lived, the friends they had, the books they read, all informed their art. Learning how an artwork came to be reveals more about our world and ourselves.

• Artists share how they see the world. They share what the people of our time find important, from color and light and ways of seeing, to moments in time and history. They can be the record keepers of what has happened or the shamans of what is to come. They can be alluringly enigmatic or exuberantly extrovert. They are professionals.

In those days in the Bronx, we had long train rides to Manhattan or Brooklyn to see family. On those rides, my parents made sure I had my tiny pad of unlined note paper, the kind you’d get free at the bank along with the branded pen. I would unknowingly kick folks as I looked out the train’s window observing and drawing the New York City skyline whizzing past. I would stare at people on the train as I drew them — sometimes sharing the finished portraits with my train muses.

My parents didn’t know how their actions would impact me. They couldn’t see the many years the arts would influence me. They didn’t know how integral art would be in my life. Nonetheless, they encouraged and nurtured this “gift” in the ways they knew how. They believed art was for everyone and that I had a right to it. They were open to what art could be in my life and now see that what I have learned as an artist has helped me navigate the world in all its facets.

David Rios Ferreira is a vistual artist and the Director of Public Programs at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. His work was recently on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Find more of his work on his website.

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan is New York City’s leading cultural institution dedicated solely to children and families. Find out more about the Museum at cmom.org.