At first glance, the big airy gallery at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston's Seaport looks a bit like a scrapyard menagerie: a herd of ceramic dinosaurs, robots made out of scavenged metal, an inflatable poodle with its puffy head cocked to one side.
Right in the center sits a marble run, by the Boston artist Peter Thibeault. When I visit the gallery the Tuesday before the opening of its latest exhibit, the executive director Brigitte Martin challenges me to a race. We drop wooden marbles through opposing chutes, and they zigzag down ramps made of old rulers before dropping into a funnel, where they jockey for position. Martin wins handily, her marble spitting out triumphantly into a bowl at the bottom.
This is one of the great appeals of “Child’s Play,” which runs through Jan. 18: You actually get to touch the art.
“We’re an agency for craft,” Martin says. “And craft wants to be touched.”
Well, some of it anyway. There are certainly pieces in the exhibit, which riffs on toys, games and all things childhood, that are off limits. But many invite you to touch, manipulate and play with them. Like the delicate metal seagull mounted on an enormous gear that flaps its wings when you depress a pedal, or the little dog with vacant glass eyes that squeaks mournfully when you squeeze a little hand pump — both by the artist Chris Fitch.
A big wooden top, by Coby Unger, hangs from the ceiling near the entrance. Mirrors in the center reflect a series of images etched inside the contraption’s outer ring, each slightly different from the last, like pictures in a flipbook. When the top — known as a zoetrope — spins, the mirrors bring to life one of the internet’s favorite forms of expression: the animated gif, in this case a parrot bobbing its head in a loopy dance.
The Society of Arts and Crafts is betting on the appeal of interactive pieces like this to attract new audiences. The organization, which was founded in 1897 and was at the forefront of the arts and crafts design movement in America, has not historically catered to children and families. Martin hopes “Child's Play” will bring them in.
“I was looking for an exhibition that would engage the whole family,” she says. “And what better way to engage the whole family [than] through toys and games and things that move and shake and rattle and hum?”
Not everything in the gallery is so lighthearted. One section features sculptures, by the artist Nathaniel Lewis, made out of colorful blocks arranged in disturbing configurations: an assault rifle, a hand grenade, a surveillance camera. The pieces are at once appealing and chilling, their menacing undertones at odds with their cheery appearance. There’s also an image of a child holding the rifle (the artist's son), an off-putting reminder of how common it is for children to play with toy guns.
“It kind of slaps people back in the face and says, 'Why would you want your child to have fun playing with a gun?' ” says exhibition associate Sam Aldrich, who curated the exhibit. Lewis’ work is effective, he says, in part because it’s so inviting. It’s an entry point to a more serious topic.
The Society of Arts and Crafts also sees the exhibit as an entry point to the oft-overlooked art of craft. “I do think that to people who are not as familiar with our materials and with our techniques, craft pretty much boils down to pipe cleaners and pasta paintings, which is not true at all,” Martin says. She points out that craft is used in all kinds of fields, from medicine to architecture to design. Being a craftsperson is about skill. “The word ‘craftsman’ or ‘master craftsman’ plays a role here, and has a distinct meaning. It means to be able to replicate certain efforts reliably to a very high standard,” Martin says.
“People don’t understand how much work it is, how hard it is,” says Mimi Kirchner, one of the makers included in the exhibit. The Arlington artist’s meticulously-crafted dolls sell for about $400 a pop. One of her most popular designs is a bearded man in tight pants with his bare chest blanketed in tattoos — part hipster, part circus performer, part Edwardian dandy. Kirchner says pieces like the bearded man aren’t toys — but they are rooted in childhood experiences.
“I’m very inspired by all the children’s books that I read as a kid, and it definitely comes out of that tradition,” she says. But more than anything, she says, her work is “just what appeals to me.”
When Kirchner was asked to participate in “Child’s Play," she jumped at the chance. But some artists refused because they didn't like what the title implied.
“A couple artists did say to me, when they were looking at the show ... ‘I don't want my work associated with the word child at all,’ ” Aldrich says. “That was really interesting to me, because people have, especially artists, I think have such a hierarchy about where their work belongs and how it should be viewed.”
Aldrich thinks that lack of seriousness is something we should embrace — even beyond childhood.
“A lot of us tend to lose that sense of play and happiness and doing something just to do it, just for fun,” he says. “So this show is kind of a celebration of that and bringing people back to it, no matter their age.”
It's as if the exhibit is saying: What is child's play, if not the act of creation — of art itself.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the materials for the toy gun sculpture. The post has been updated.
This article was originally published on November 22, 2019.
This segment aired on November 22, 2019.