Ask Maxwell: How Do I Store Children’s Art (and Decide What to Keep!)?

published Jan 21, 2021
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I’ve got two daughters, one in first grade and the other in third, and they are prolific artists. It’s all over the kitchen walls and filling up corners of every room. I love it all, don’t want to throw anything away but I don’t know how to keep up with it all. What should I keep? What’s the best place to store it all?

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Lili's Drawings

Dear Nadia,

I have very firm opinions on this and kids’ clutter in general, which is far less special than their original art. Here we go.

As a teacher for seven years I not only curated and collected my students’ art, I was the chief instigator in that I taught them to draw and to paint. We covered A LOT of paper and sent most of it home (poor parents!). All of it was amazing in its own way and humming with life and energy as soon as it was finished, shining up from their desks. I had a strong feeling to preserve each piece (also to make sure they put their initials on each one so we could keep track of each one), and we spent a lot of time making sure it all went home in timely manner each month after it was displayed in class. In addition, they made a lot of “side art” with their free time, and this I would also hang the best of, AND collect up in my own personal box as a memento of the year.

Nevertheless, I was both taught in teacher training and I personally observed that while adults tend to be easily nostalgic and have grown into a view that art is a precious record that must be preserved (adults love museums), children are most joyful in the MAKING of the art. It is an activity for them, not a record they are making for the future, and, aside from the minutes they spend making, they also love when, right after it’s done, it is appreciated by the teacher, parents or other children.

A day later it is history. A week later it has been totally forgotten and bringing it back elicits only a faint recognition and not a great deal of excitement.

Which makes sense!

If you love MAKING things, what joy is there in LOOKING at it?

Children are rarely sentimental about their own art as they live largely in the moment (as they should), and so it puts adults in a strange position as to what we should feel for ourselves or for them.

What I remember as a child is that my mother put her favorite drawings my brother and I made on the kitchen wall and changed it every six months or so. THAT WAS COOL. Why? Because it was all about our mother’s recognition. We were proud that she’d chosen us and every picture she hung of ours was a reminder of her love. It had very little to do with my appreciation for my drawing. I just liked that she liked the weird stuff we made.

So, in my opinion, I would respect that children live to MAKE and appreciate your gaze in the moment and then throw most of their art away so that it doesn’t clutter up your home and become a problem. Definitely hang the few ones you love in plain site (that is awesome) and keep very, very, very, very, very little for a future time.

Okay, so now HOW much do you keep? How do you keep it?

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Here is my very rudimentary time capsule that I started in 2001. It contains five years of selective artwork from about 20 children. Only the best!

The One Box Rule

I taught my last class for five years (1st to 5th grade) and when I finished I had one box of beautiful writing and artwork that I’d collected from them over those years. One box. And there were over twenty children each year. So my rule would be to stick to the one box rule and you can either use a very sturdy bankers box as I did or something that might fit into your house better and accommodate larger art, like these flat storage bins, which can slip under a bed or on a shelf or will be protected in a basement.

One More Story

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
2000 Class Four

Here’s another question that people rarely ask, and which I just had to figure out, which is, “Okay, now that I’ve got that box of my favorite kids’ art and they don’t really care about it and they’re now adults, what do I do with it????”

Back in 2000, when my class was in fourth grade and just crossing the 10-year-old mark, we marked the Milennium in January of that year by writing an essay titled “Where Will I be and What Will I be Doing in 20 Years?” The idea was that I would keep a copy and then call them all up in 20 years to surprise them with their answers. They were all in my One Box and I was planning on doing it right when the pandemic hit in March.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Carolina's essay

I hadn’t yet figured out how to track them down and with everyone spread out and impossible to reach in person, I decided that I would go through the whole box and start uploading their treasures to Instagram in the hopes of finding them. I started that project in September and it got cooler and intenser and much more involved than I ever thought, but by the end I had found the whole class and they were following the gradual reveal – the final weeks were their predictions of where they would be in 20 years.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Jasper's drawing

Which brings me back to you, Nadia. I would not only try to curate down to one box, but also consider it very much a time capsule which you will create some sort of show out of—as a gift to your children—when they reach a certain age. I think 30 is perfect, which is the age of my students. It’s a time when you can barely remember your childhood, are fully discovering the joys and trials of adulthood and are most curious about what you were like back then.

Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Akira's Drawing

And given that they’re most likely to be on their smart phone all the time, it’s sort of a nice surprise from your parent to be sent an old picture once a day as you turn 30. And then THEY will have them forever. 🙂

Best, M