November 10, 2021 / News & Blog

Gardens Grow, and So Do We

This article is part of the “Inside the Curve: Business as (Not Quite) Usual” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.
Q&A with Liz Rosenberg, Chicago Children’s Museum

Before assuming her current role as Lead Arts Educator and Developer in June 2021, Liz worked for twelve years in a variety of other positions at the Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM). Most were part-time, enabling her to also work for Chicago Public Schools as a middle school and high school art teacher. 

Liz came to Chicago from Houston, Texas, to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2005-2009).  As a teen, she volunteered at Children’s Museum Houston and worked on the Teen Council at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston. She describes herself as “a bit of a museum nut!” Along the way she got a master of teaching degree in art education at Columbia College (2013), worked at a zoo, and sold bath bombs.

Let’s Grow Together, a visitor-created art exhibit, was born out of a desire to celebrate reopening the museum in June 2021.  In a large display case located in a well-trafficked hallway (across from the dinosaur), Liz developed a program to transform the space to welcome returning children and families.  Liz: “So much loss happened while we were closed. But I didn’t want to focus on that so it was natural to think about growth instead, and gardens immediately came to mind. We can’t see all the emotional and social rebuilding that’s happening within us, but we can see a garden grow.” 

For Liz the exhibit was a “great mental challenge as a developer/educator.” Guests dropping in to the Art Studio could make a leaf (or a flower or a bug) and either take it home or tack it to a burlap wall in the studio. Because individual leaves, flowers, and bugs were made over eleven weeks by young visitors, she couldn’t anticipate how the mural would look from week to week.  When the museum was open from Friday through Sunday, Liz worked in the closed museum during the week to gather parts that had been “planted” on the burlap wall (seen in panel #1 of the cartoon) to assemble into the hallway mural. (Panel #2 shows the visitor process in action.)

Liz uses cartooning as a tool to help develop other exhibits and programs. In the cartoon presented at left, Liz portrays the many components of Let’s Grow Together—from the participating artists (kids), to their families/caregivers, to the staff, to the ideas and feelings that the project sparked—in six meaningful and delightful panels.

Let’s Grow Together’s garden beds are full now but will remain on display for the coming year.   —ED

In panel #3, week 1-5 shows flowers, week 5-8 leaves, and week 8-11, bugs. Were you encouraging a botanical story progression? As a gardener, I noticed flowers come before leaves. Huh? But I also notice you included the bugs! Oh, the bugs… 

Liz: Good eye on noticing we planted out of order. Flowers don’t come first, but we started there because it was so bare! I love leaves, but maybe our returning guests wouldn’t find them as interesting as flowers. As it turned out, leaves were the most popular! Just yesterday, a three-year-old talked to me about how he continues to make leaves at home. We ended up with “body builder” leaves, “cat” leaves, “dragon” leaves, “alien” leaves, and “COVID mask” leaves. From a practical standpoint we did leaves second so I could more easily arrange them naturally in bunches around the flowers. (You can see the whole process on my Instagram highlights—

Through Let’s Grow Together, what have you discovered about the kids in your audience? 

Liz: I was amazed at how they really embraced the unique aspect of it all and how responsive they were! We are really into process-based education in the Art Studio at CCM and so I would show them folding techniques to work with symmetry. And that was it! They came up with whatever they wanted! I didn’t think two- or three-year olds would get the symmetry bit very well, but they really seemed to enjoy it.

Your Instagram feed has a lot of cartoons that seem museum-related, e.g. Lay off the Masters, Sock Puppets, Scribbling, Bird Creative Play, etc. Do you actively push these out to museum audiences? Are they related to other programs at the museum?

Liz: Some of my comics have been featured on our CCM Instagram page. During pandemic quarantine, an artist I know asked me to make comics for her to share with her many followers who were caregivers. So, for a while there I challenged myself to make a comic every weekday. She would share them with her followers, and I shared them with mine. I was working very little at the museum at the time. All my videos were made in my own apartment! (I’m the gal with purple hair.) So, yeah, I wanted to help people in the best way I could—with play tips!

Under the developer umbrella, I am also currently working as an illustrator at the museum. I make illustrations to highlight upcoming projects or to help people understand how our spaces can spark play. My illustrations are very comic-like too. Even though these past eighteen months have been really tough, it’s been a great opportunity to try new things.

Do you regularly use cartooning to help develop programs?

Liz: I definitely use how I think about cartooning in my work. A challenge with cartoons is the balance of visual and word. I see that same challenge when introducing activities in the museum. I want kids and grownups to use their imaginations and the visual cues all around to inspire their making. So, sometimes I have to hold back. I can get too wordy in my comics too—ha-ha!—and, dare I say, in this interview!? Every museum experience is unique. For some guests it is their first visit; others are regulars or having a special family time together who may not want an educator talking to them very much. So I designed the Art Studio space to do a lot of the communicating on different levels.

What are the advantages of using cartoons in program development, over the usual written word or conversations? What can you communicate in a cartoon that’s hard to capture otherwise?

Liz: Accessibility! You’ll notice I tried to include Spanish translations in my cartoon (examples in panels #1 and #2). During the pandemic I worked with a colleague who is a native Spanish speaker (Hola, Alex!). I thought really critically about how to use Spanish meaningfully by making the text equal in size along with the visuals! If you don’t speak English or Spanish, a picture can help you understand something. When you travel to a place where another language is spoken, you can tell the power of simple images when you are looking for a bathroom. Or, where not to step. Also, for early learners, seeing a picture or simple cartoon of something and then the word is a classic phonics exercise. The simpler the drawing, the easier it is for our brains to “read” it or store the information.

The characters who appear in this cartoon—are they museum “regulars”?

Liz: Many of them are combinations of many regular visitors. The person in the hijab (panel #4) recently saw the comics and asked if it was her. Yes! An educator and artist who inspires me, she always wears bright and beautiful headscarves.

I also hide things, like cochlear implants, in my comics (seen in panel #5 in the little girl’s earlobe). The high school where I worked had a great “Hard of Hearing” program. I used to collaborate with the older high school students to teach our younger middle schoolers about sign language when I was introducing hand drawing.

I really love people, and many of them make it into my comics in different ways. All people should be able to find themselves in art.

How did you come into cartooning? Do you draw cartoons in other, non-museum aspects of your life?

Liz: I’ve been making cartoons since I was a child. In my teens I tried to move away from them because it wasn’t “cool,” but I kept going back to it. I have dyslexia and ADHD. My mind moves really fast. Comics are satisfying because I get to think about a million different things at once. Ultimately, I loved art because it was a place I excelled when I was struggling at school (I didn’t read until I was in 4th grade!). My parents were great and really encouraged it.

I try to draw every day, and not just art for work. Years ago, I saw people I knew on Instagram sharing art they were making and I decided I wanted to do it too. I have a comic about the power of envy. Occasionally jealous of what I saw among other people, I realized I had…unrealized desires. I also have a children’s book and a graphic novel I’ve been working on for multiple years. I don’t know if anything will ever happen with them because I work like crazy on one or the other for two months, then I don’t touch it for a year. I do take breaks when I need to but again, with the ADHD thing, I’m more stressed when I’m not doing something.

So yes, I do make comics in all parts of my life.

What do you think about when you draw a cartoon? How do you start? One idea/image, then a story flows from it?

Liz: I usually will begin with a thought I’m stuck on. A random memory pops up. Or something happens that totally changes my perspective. I write it in my notes app where I have dozens of ideas stored in no particular order. If an idea triggers a really big feeling, I will sketch out the comic, super messy, to get it out. Then later refine it.

Other times I’ll just go to the notes app and scroll until I find something that resonates with me at the moment. I tell my teen students to go with your gut, go with what you like. Art is about sharing with others things that give you a big feeling—good or bad. Preachy moment: art does not have to be made for a museum (except when it can?!). There is so much emphasis on the idea that art has to have some ultimate destination or objective—which also relates to the fact I’m a total play expert. If you want to get geeky about the definition of play (I got a comic about it), play is just doing a task for no particular reason.