By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Three little bears sitting in chairs, clocks and socks, kittens and mittens. To most people, mentioning these simple rhymes brings back a flood of nostalgia, to childhood storytime and Margaret Wise Brown’s seminal bedtime story, “Goodnight Moon.”
Now, children and children-at-heart can enjoy Brown’s classic tale in a new way at the Torpedo Factory Art Center: a three-dimensional, interactive recreation of the room described in the book. The exhibit was the brainchild of Torpedo Factory artist Lisa Schumaier and was built with the passion, hard work and volunteered time of several collaborators. It was originally scheduled to close on Sunday, but the exhibit has been so popular that the Torpedo Factory has extended it to March 13.
The temporary installation is a picture-perfect recreation of illustrator Clement Hurd’s iconic room, with its green walls, crimson floor, blazing fireplace, stylized animals and titular moon shining through the window. For Schumaier, an artist who specializes in salvaging items and turning them into unexpected creations, the idea was not only to capture the coziness of a winter evening – the exhibit was installed in December – but emphasize the value of reading for young children.
“In my life, when I’ve been really down or really bad, I can pick up a book. I remember one time in a really, really low point in my life when I couldn’t think about anything – I couldn’t even really read a book, I couldn’t fall asleep – I picked up ‘The Secret Garden,’” Schumaier said. “That whole thing where when you’re a little kid and you sit in someone’s lap and get a book read to you, I feel like if you’ve done it right, that sets up self-soothing that you can do for the rest of your life.”
The exhibit, which has taken on a life of its own on social media, started as a simple proposition from Leslie Mounaime, the curator of exhibitions at the Torpedo Factory. Mounaime wanted to bring some festive flair to a vacant space on the first floor of the art center that was previously occupied by a café.
“We always get so much more visitation that time of year, so we really want to take advantage of that pick up in visitation and really make the space something fun to see,” Mounaime said. “We’ve had to be pretty budget conscious this year because of COVID, of the pandemic. … So, I really wanted to keep it in-house this year.”
Mounaime put out a call to artists who wanted to volunteer their time and create a new exhibit that was more immersive than a typical seasonal gallery showing. Schumaier responded almost immediately. Mounaime had collaborated with Schumaier on several other projects and said she was so confident in Schumaier’s work that she “kind of gave her free reign.”
“I just wanted to do something that said something while still being family friendly and welcoming and cozy. That just seemed like the perfect thing right now,” Schumaier said.
Schumaier, an avid reader since a young age, said she aimed to recapture the warmth of childhood memories of her father reading a book to her and her siblings as they went to bed, of walking to the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library with her mother to check out new books every week. The nostalgic spirit of those memories became the emotional heart of this unconventional winter-themed exhibit.
Schumaier then recruited other artists to volunteer their time to assist with the project, including Chris Cardellino, Marcel Deolazo, Judy Heiser, Tracie Griffith Tso and Jenae Michelle. Overall the exhibit took about two months to put together, with each artist contributing pieces that Schumaier integrated into a cohesive vision.
Heiser, a mixed media artist and painter at the Torpedo Factory, created the kittens with mittens, tiger rug and painting of the bears sitting in chairs. Cardellino created the big red balloon and painting of the cow jumping over the moon, while Tso, a longtime friend and collaborator of Schumaier’s, created a painting of a rabbit fly fishing.
Schumaier used her own salvage-based style to create many of the room’s signature pieces. Most of the furniture came from Community Forklift, a nonprofit reuse warehouse. Her mother provided the red chest, which was originally a local Goodwill find. The entire back wall is made out of painted cardboard and was constructed using repurposed cardboard boxes that were collected from empty boxes left over from deliveries throughout the art center. There is also a separate bookshelf with copies of “Goodnight Moon” available for anyone to read.
“Pieces that have already had one life, they add this special little story to the new life you’re giving them,” Schumaier said.
Schumaier also found space to inject a message into the piece through the inclusion of a bookshelf full of banned books. Like the rest of the exhibit, the bookshelf is present in the original illustrations, though the books that fill it are non-specific in “Goodnight Moon.” Schumaier used Herd’s abstract illustration to comment on the latest wave of book banning that has swept the nation and to emphasize fostering, not limiting, reading for children.
When she was first conceiving of the idea behind the exhibit, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) was on the campaign trail advocating for parents to have the right to opt their children out from reading Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” in which a Civil War era fugitive enslaved woman kills her two-year-old child to prevent her from returning to slavery. Earlier this month, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted to ban Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus,” which depicts the experiences of Spiegelman’s father in the Holocaust through the use of anthropomorphic animals, from its eighth-grade curriculum. The School Board cited the use of eight swear words and one scene involving nudity in its decision, although the work only depicts non-humanoid animals.
“To my mind, you can read anything you want: Discuss it,” Schumaier said. “… “Books help you think about the world in a way that you can’t really imagine.”
Tso, an avid reader and daughter of a retired schoolteacher, has taken to adding banned books to the bookshelf.
“The banned book thing is close to my heart, and I liked how Lisa tied that in because it is a very current issue and you’d think it wouldn’t be in 2022 – but it is,” Tso said.
Schumaier said she was surprised to learn that “Goodnight Moon” was also a banned book for several decades in the New York Public Library system. Brown’s book was a casualty in a decades-spanning battle between Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a scholar who sought to use social science and research to create a more scientific approach to educating children and encouraging them to express themselves creatively, and Anne Caroll Moore, the head of the New York Public Library’s children’s division. Moore was a strict traditionalist who believed children’s books had to have a direct moral for children. The ensuing battle between Mitchell and Moore is referred to as the Fairy-Tale War, according to Leonard Marcus’ biography “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.”
Brown’s focus on everyday objects and refusal to write in the moralizing terms of most children’s literature was directly at odds with Moore’s philosophy. As a result, “Goodnight Moon” was unavailable in New York public libraries from its publication in 1947 until 1972, 20 years after Brown had passed away.
Despite its turbulent history in New York, the book remains a timeless classic for thousands of American families.
“[Children] know what to expect, and they know the story. They have a connection with these little cartoon characters that don’t really have a lot going but there’s a rhythm throughout that brings a sense of peace to it,” Heiser said.
The exhibit went up 74 years after the publication of “Goodnight Moon,” but people have flocked to the installation as if the book was a bestseller published in 2022.
“It really connects with a lot of people. For me, that was one of the books that I wanted to have read to me as a child, and I think I’m one of the thousands in that sense,” Mounaime said. “There have been people who have been coming to the Torpedo Factory just to see that piece, so it’s been great to get new audiences in.”
Children light up when they see the rabbit sitting on its bed and the signature red and green color scheme, but parents, many of whom also grew up on “Goodnight Moon,” also lose themselves in childhood memories and the nostalgia evoked by the exhibit’s immersive quality.
In advance of the exhibit opening, Heiser said she likened it to watching a set come together for a play – and the reveal that comes with opening the curtains for the first time to an audience.
“I just couldn’t put it all together, and then the day it opened and there were children in it, it was just this magical moment,” Heiser said. “It felt real and wholesome. With COVID too, you read the books, you’re watching T.V. online, but to be in something that’s three dimensional, the story itself with real live tactile things, it was just surreal realism.”
Schumaier described the process of putting the exhibit together as a “slog,” but she said the payoff has been worth all the hard work.
“I think putting kids on a road to appreciating art is really important, and it’s an important thing that we do here at the Torpedo Factory,” Schumaier said. The “Goodnight Moon” room is open in studio nine at the Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., until March 13.