In Rhoda Kellogg’s World, Every Child is an Artist

Rhoda Kellogg pictured in the San Francisco Examiner. (Courtesy of the Rhoda Kellogg International Child Art Collection of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association/Phoebe Hearst Preschool)

Rhoda Kellogg could be remembered for any number of things, but you’ve probably never heard of her. A San Francisco resident from 1945 until her death in 1989, she was a suffragette, an educator, an early childhood development advocate and an artist. On top of all that, Kellogg amassed a collection of over two million pieces of children’s art in her lifetime, perhaps the largest in the world. In recent years, a small group of devotees have taken up the mantle of promoting her life’s work, spreading Kellogg’s dedicated scholarship and radical appreciation of child art. The result of their efforts currently line an improbably adult space: City Hall’s basement.

Brian Belott, a found-art aficionado and ebullient visual artist, known for his fine-tuned command over what kind of trash should be pulled out of the garbage (oh and for setting his hair on fire), has always loved child art. This love brought him to a storage unit in Connecticut, where he first encountered Kellogg’s millions of specimens.

“There were boxes and boxes, they went 20 feet to the ceiling and the pressure of the top ones had crushed the lowest ones,” he remembers. “It was chunks and chunks of art. It was like a force of nature. It was like the Grand Canyon.” With the help of the Phoebe Hearst Preschool in San Francisco, which Rhoda Kellogg founded in 1966, and preschool teacher Jennifer DiGioia, he began to archive the International Child Art Collection, and share it avidly.

After seeing Belott’s 2017 show Dr. Kid President Jr. at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, which included selections from the archive, San Francisco artist Lindsey White and curator Jordan Stein couldn’t believe they’d never heard of Kellogg. So last summer, when the San Francisco Arts Commission invited them to curate a show in the basement of City Hall, they jumped at the chance to feature the un-sung legend in her own adopted home.

Installation view of 'Brian Belott's RHODASCOPE: Scribbles, Smears, and the Universal Language of Children According to Rhoda Kellogg,' in San Francisco's City Hall, 2019. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries; photo by Phillip Maisel)

Kellogg’s Collection: The Id on Parade

City Hall’s basement is uniform and barren: a long hallway, scarred with unidentified doors and ornate signs. Belott was thrilled: “I thought it was the perfect architecture to parade a child’s motif through. It’s an incredible contrast to hang scribbles in a building dedicated to laws.”

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And it is. The ubiquitous, drab hallways are transformed by Brian Belott’s RHODASCOPE: Scribbles, Smears, and the Universal Language of Children According to Rhoda Kellogg. The building works like an institution-sized zoetrope. Sequences of vivacious crayon marks are set into analog motion as visitors walk through the exhibition. This is very Rhoda. In her 1969 text Analyzing of Children’s Art, she wrote, “Scribbles, if they were an instrument, could record where and how fingertips move through the air.”

The 200 pieces from the International Child Art Collection are exhibited unframed, save for sheets of protective Plexiglas, and kept at a child-sized scale—presented like specimens. Made up of equal parts scribbles and finger-painted smears, the archival work conjures an inalienable kinetic energy. “Three years into the project and scribbles are my crack,” Belott gushes. “They make me bounce off the wall. They are filled with primordial energy, honest utterances, glee and static ecstasy.”

Installation view of child art in 'Rhodascope,' in San Francisco's City Hall, 2019. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries; photo by Phillip Maisel)

Carolyn M., a featured child artist, has 15 works in the show: a series of spontaneous orange and yellow marks, each elegantly partitioned to the upper-right corner of the page. Think Richard Tuttle for his confidence in minimalism; think Joan Mitchell for her fearless use of color.

The fame adhered to such artists for their emotional immediacy begins to feel arbitrary within the context of this exhibition. Kellogg undercuts the art market with fine-toothed grace, once declaring in a Psychology Today article: “What the great artist struggles to achieve, the child creates naturally.” An oversized plastic stroller, molded into an ersatz sedan, full of children from City Hall’s preschool program, drives through the exhibition several times a day. Each kid is an abstract modernist.

The exhibited finger paintings swirl in an aura of anti-staleness. The hand movements of toddlers, fossilized in pigment, graph their own vocabulary of propellent freedom. Spirals and grids expertly fill canvases and color is embraced without apprehension.

A painting by "Ann, age 2," included in 'Rhodascope.' (Courtesy of the Rhoda Kellogg International Child Art Collection of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association/Phoebe Hearst Preschool)

“Reality is over-emphasized in kid art,” co-curator Lindsey White observes. “Parents want to control their kid’s drawings. They say, ‘Is that your mom? Is that your dad?’ instead of just letting them have a free space.” The show pushes back against adult ideas of reality, privileging abstraction as a legitimate style.

A selection of Kellogg’s original collages, which Belott discovered while digitizing her collection, are included in the show. It’s hard not to compare her pieces, composed of monotone, pleasingly round, abstract shapes, with the work of Ellsworth Kelly. Wall text in Rhodascope anticipates this and reminds visitors that her inspiration came from the spontaneous abstraction of children—not a great male minimalist.

Kellogg’s Scholarship: A Taxonomy of Smudges

Kellogg assembled her collection with scientific fervor. As the director of Phoebe Hearst Preschool from 1966 until her death in 1989, she took home thousands of drawings. She diversified her sample by traveling internationally and soliciting work from other teachers. Each archival piece is annotated with a careful sticker, in which Kellogg scrawled descriptors like “roving enclosing line” or “multiple-line overlaid circle” in gentle cursive. Where most people might have seen nothing, Kellogg saw a physiognomy of abstraction. She cataloged the 20 or more hand techniques children use to spread paint and create texture, among them “hand twirl” and “whole palm spread.” It’s a dadaist taxonomy of smudges.

Installation view of Brian Belott's 'Kid’s Copies,' 2014–17 in 'Rhodascope,' in San Francisco's City Hall, 2019. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries; photo by Phillip Maisel)

At City Hall, between the scribbles and the finger paintings, a selection of Belott’s self-described “forgeries,” inspired reproductions of favorite pieces from Kellogg’s collection, are also on display. This enclave of the exhibition overflows with color and anatomically incorrect figures, like a distorted children’s hospital. White points out a favorite painting: shades of blue seem to depict two people in gas masks vacuuming a field.

Rhodascope, a funny word Belott made up, is a near homonym of rotoscope, a device used by animators to trace frames of film. It points to Kellogg’s style of analysis. She traced thousands of child drawings, translating their work into thicker lines so that she could develop graphs that conveyed the information she was gathering. Perhaps like Belott, Kellogg enjoyed tracing the work of children because it temporarily allowed her to inhabit their instinctual and spontaneous mark-making.

A Plexiglas mandala sits at the end of the City Hall show as a kind of pinnacle. The mandala, organized by Kellogg, is meant to be read center to circumference. It shows the evolvement of simple pictorial utterances into circles divided by symmetrical crosses (mandalas themselves), and from there, essential shapes like ships, flowers, humanoids and snakes. With dozens of traced and rearranged drawings, Kellogg presents her greatest finding—a graphic representation of pictorial development in child art. After decades of research, and millions of specimens, the mandala proves her essential claim: art making is biological.

Rhoda Kellogg's mandala in 'Rhodascope,' in San Francisco's City Hall, 2019. (Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries; photo by Phillip Maisel)

“I chant ‘biological art’ to myself all the time,” stresses Belott, “Rhoda Kellogg’s collection is a hurricane, it’s a force of nature, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but biological art—that’s the most important thing she gave us.” Biological art is the idea that certain aesthetic forms are native to the world of children. And, that art is a universal language—everyone starts off with the same spontaneous shapes until pictures become words.

Jennifer DiGioia, who taught at Phoebe Hearst for over a decade, stresses the importance of letting kids just do their things. “Hands off!” She pantomimes throwing her hands up. Kellogg emphasized the importance of looking, really looking, at children’s art before trying to exercise control. The Phoebe Hearst Preschool still sports signs warning adults to “resist interrupting children’s explorations unless safety is at risk.”

A contemporary of Carl Jung, Kellogg saw him speak about the mandala symbol, which he viewed as an archetypical shape. He argued that it indicated the “unity of the psyche with the collective unconscious.” She noticed that the mandala was nestled everywhere in the scribbles of children, and sought to share this revelation. Now, with the help a few others, Kellogg’s scholarship, her most powerful legacy, is on display: an invitation to unlearn conventional languages and recognize the brilliance of a scribble.

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'Brian Belott's RHODASCOPE: Scribbles, Smears, and the Universal Language of Children According to Rhoda Kellogg' is on view at San Francisco City Hall through March 13, 2020. Details here.