Madonna and Child, by Amy O'Dowd
Madonna and Child, by Amy O’Dowd

–By Sally O’Dowd

Happy Mother’s Day!

This post is particularly special to me as it is an interview with my sister, Amy, the mother of three children: Aidan, 26; Griffin, 25; and Naomi, 22.  And as my big sister, she certainly has been a mother to me many times.

Motherhood is the most important profession there is…where would we be without a mom? On this spirited occasion—they are all going to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago today—I spoke to Amy about her own creativity and how she fostered it in her children.

Read on for inspiration that you can apply to mothering and other professions where you are mentoring young people.

Sally:  Amy, as a mother, artist and art therapist, you have done a terrific job of fostering your kids’ creativity. How did you go about that?

Amy: Given my own personality, I naturally looked for ways in which to interact with my children whether it was through those very first finger paintings or making homemade “play doh.”

Sally: I am not domestic at all; sometimes I live like a frat boy and eat cereal for dinner. How in the world do you make play doh?

Amy: It’s a mixture of water, flour, salt, oil, and cream of tartar, which is used as a binding agent in meringues. You cook it in a sauce pan on medium for a few minutes and knead it like cookie dough. Add food coloring and you’re ready to go.

Sally: When the kids were young and you lived in Hyde Park, you always took them to museums. I have a hunch that is why Aidan got straight A’s and a perfect score on his SATs…and why Griffin and Naomi are so artistically inclined.

Sarcophagus, Naomi's bedroom, by Amy O'Dowd
Sarcophagus, Naomi’s bedroom, by Amy O’Dowd

Amy: Museum visits of all kinds were part of my children’s agendas as they were growing up.  Watching chicks hatch at the Museum of Science and Industry and studying science and technology provided wonderful exposure even before the kids knew they were “learning.” We were members of the Children’s Museum and took advantage of nearly all of the day/family passes at the Art Institute and Field Museum and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

Frequent visits to the library helped them explore their interests even more. For example, when Naomi was little she loved studying ancient Egypt. I painted, at her request, a sarcophagus by her bed.

Wily Coyote, or Don't Go Splat, by Amy O'Dowd
Wily Coyote, or Don’t Go Splat, by Amy O’Dowd

Sally: So kids tend to run a lot and skid on wood floors. You had a pretty hilarious solution to that problem, and the kids saw your art and sense of humor in action.

Amy: Yes, we have a winding staircase leading to the kitchen and they’d come down the stairs at warped speed like they were on a collision course. So I painted a huge Wily Coyote on the wall to remind them that they would go “splat” if they ran too fast. It was likes a public service announcement. It is still there to this day.

Sally: You also took them to wood-working classes sponsored by the Chicago Parks Department.

Amy: Yes, as the children grew, I allowed them to explore with wood sculptures, plaster, mural making, photography and all kinds of painting techniques.  All three of my children enjoyed music and took guitar and piano lessons.

Sally: Griffin and Aidan went to a magnet grade school, learned Latin and participated in the Latin Olympics. Griffin wanted to make a Roman bust as part of the project. How did you help him?

Roman bust by Griffin O'Dowd-Ryan in sixth grade.
Roman bust by Griffin O’Dowd-Ryan in sixth grade.

Amy: I had him lie down in the bathroom and rubbed petroleum jelly on his back and chest. Then I put plaster gauze–the kind used in casts when you have a broken bone–on his back and the back of his head. We turned him over and did the same thing with his chest and face. I taught him how to use tools to contour the front; we sewed the two sides together and added a Griffin to his chest plate.

Sally: As if that’s not all, you obtained an art therapy degree from the school of the Art Institue of Chicago and then worked at the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital. How did you use art therapy to address the emotional needs of sick children?

Amy: Art therapy provides non-verbal access to what a person is experiencing physically and mentally.  It is especially helpful with children who, by nature, don’t have the vocabulary or life experience to verbally describe their feelings. I found the children—either dealing with trauma or very frightened by physical illnesses–to be truly empowered through their use of “super hero” imagery.

One child, in particular sticks in my mind. He had been abused and was becoming abusive himself. I had the children make masks; his was red and black and he called it “The Devil.” That’s how he saw himself.

Sally: Tell us about Hillary Clinton.

Amy: Yes, as First Lady in 1998, she visited the hospital to promote its “Reach Out and Read” program. I had the children create a mural that was hung on the wall behind Mrs. Clinton as she launched the program. Again, as vulnerable children dealing with adult issues before their time, this gave them an outlet and a chance to feel empowered.

Self portrait by Griffin O'Dowd-Ryan.
Self portrait by Griffin O’Dowd-Ryan.

Sally: As a proud aunt, I’d be remiss in not describing what your kids have “become.”

Amy: Aidan majored in marine biology at the University of Miami, tagged sharks in South Africa, got a master’s in education from the Univeristy of Chicago and is now a science teacher at a Chicago public school. He may be going to China to teach English.

Griffin is studying art and film, helping produce a documentary that was filmed in part at our house.

Naomi graduates this month with a music degree from Columbia College. She fronts a band called Giantess, writes her own lyrics and sings. They just broke into the top 10 chart of Chicago rock bands on  Reverbnation. You can like their Facebook page here.

Sally: Any final tips for being a creative mother?

Naomi O'Dowd-Ryan fronts the band Giantess in Chicago.
Naomi O’Dowd-Ryan fronts the band Giantess in Chicago. 

Amy: Remind yourself to let your child tell you what he or she is seeing… an unadulterated view is refreshing, and often times, amazing. And teaching them art is about the process not the finished product.

Sally: Thanks, Amy. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day.

Amy: I love you, too.

5 thoughts on “Creative Motherhood: My Big Sister, Play Doh and Wily Coyote

    • Leah Gauthier says:

      Happy mothers day to you too, Leah!! Miss you too and hope we can reconnect.., I’m feeling pretty honored today and hope you are too.., xoxo Amy

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