Wanna come out and play? This artist turns other people's childhood memories into dreamy photos

Artist Mindy Stricke will transform the project into an actual playground, June 24 at Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park.

Artist Mindy Stricke will transform the project into an actual playground, June 24 at a Toronto park

Mindy Stricke. Edgewood Elementary School, Scarsdale, NY, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

"What do you mean draw with your eyes closed?"

Mindy Stricke's heard that line a lot this year, ever since the Toronto artist began bringing her collaborative art project, Play Passages, to events at home and in New York, and each time, she tells the folks who've sat down with a pencil and postcard to relax and trust their instincts.

"I really believe that everybody is an artist in some way," says Stricke.

"Adults think they can't draw. You pass a point and you're told you can't draw, so you just don't," she says, and her project, Play Passages, is a bit of  an intervention for anyone who's suffered this unfortunate rite-of-passage — whether you've drawn her a picture or not.

A lot, I think, has been lost in terms of our connection to our own sense of play. We kind of forget how important it is.- Mindy Stricke, artist

But if you have, in fact, met Stricke while she's in action, she always has the same assignment for passersby: Share the story of your most vivid childhood memory — a time when you ditched the parents or the babysitter (or anyone else too old to doodle) and ran wild outdoors. Then, draw it.

From those accounts/drawings — and she's collected 75 of them over the last two years — Stricke creates abstract landscape photographs that look like the hazy scenery of a dream. Familiar, but never fully in focus.  

The effect's not meant to be nostalgic, she says, but more of a reminder: it's not too late to get back in touch with your sense of play.

Here's one example.

Mindy Stricke. Ras Tanura Beach, Saudi Arabia, 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Raymond Shih. Location: Ras Tanura Beach. The story: “I remember going to the beach in Ras Tanura, in Saudi Arabia. I was probably 12 or 13 years old, and had just moved across the world from Toronto (where I had spent my entire life) to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I didn’t have any friends there and even getting reacquainted with my parents felt strange; they had moved six months earlier and left me behind with my brother, uncle and grandmother so I wouldn’t need to interrupt a school year. I felt alone before, during, and after the move and now found myself living in the middle of a desert! Going to the beach made me feel like everything might turn out well after all. There is an intrinsic comfort about sand between toes, salty air, and the white noise of waves washing up on shore. We didn’t do much except build sandcastles and splash in the Persian Gulf but we worked up a serious appetite. I remember the beach snack bar serving up one of the most satisfying helpings of French fries, even if it did come with Libby’s ketchup instead of Heinz." (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Why do we press pause on play?

"I've been obsessed for a long time with children's free play, and how little of it they get," says Stricke. She's mom to two young kids, now aged 9 and 6, and when the artist began developing the idea for Play Passages, it was because she kept looking at how their reality — scheduled activities, mandatory supervision — compared to her own childhood in the New York suburbs. (One of her own memories, an afternoon quest to find a hidden rope swing by the river, features in two Play Passages photos.)

"As they started to get to the ages where I had had a lot of freedom as a child, it just started to bother me. It made me start asking questions," says Stricke. "I wanted to talk to people about their experiences — how it relates to how they parent, but also just how they think about childhood, and how they think about play."

"A lot, I think, has been lost in terms of our connection to our own sense of play." Kids at play are creative, they take risks. "We kind of forget how important it is," she says.

You're it!

Just like the best schoolyard games, Stricke's project requires multiple players, and she recruited most of her collaborators at public pop-up events run through Earth Day Canada's Earth Play, a program that lines up with her personal interest in getting kids outdoors and having some off-leash fun.

On site, she collected stories from parents, getting them to jot down the details on one side of a postcard, and then draw a map of where the story took place on the other. (That's the bit that's blindfolded.)

After they'd coloured in their pictures (eyes open this time), Stricke pulled up the location on Google Earth, and they'd scroll through the satellite pictures together.

"It's virtual travel — and virtual time travelling in a way, too," she says. For off-grid locations, they'd dig up open-source images of the site.

Later, Stricke used the images to create photographs. She shoots her iPad screen with a macro lens, warping Google Maps pics into scenes that, ideally, nail the colour and feeling of each storyteller's sketch.

An art installation that doubles as a playground

June 24, Stricke will take the project back to the park, but this time, she's not gathering stories. Instead, she's turning Play Passages into a functioning "adventure playground" at Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park. Along with boxes and rope and other ordinary junk with the potential to become an in-demand toy — provided you're a kid with a smidge of imagination — she'll be installing 17 of her photographs, printed on large swaths of fabric. Kids aged 6 and up are totally welcome to play with those, too, and Stricke's not precious about whether they're worn as superhero capes or mixed into mud pies.

What was linking everyone's stories was a combination of adventure, imagination and freedom, for sure.- Mindy Stricke, artist

The stories captured in those 17 images are set all over the world — a farm in Ontario, a front yard in Kyoto, a bamboo forest in California — and the storytellers span multiple generations, from '80s kids to '40s kids. An audio track of each person sharing their childhood memory will be played to give some context to the scene.

"I think what was linking everyone's stories was a combination of adventure, imagination and freedom, for sure," says Stricke.

"The thing for me is for adults to look at this. [...] It's to make people think about their own relationship to play and creativity. Like right now. And how that relationship was formed by their own childhood."

"What happens when we don't take risks? What happens when we prescribe play? Or even, what we do as adults when we say, 'Oh, you can't do that because you're not good at it."

"Whatever happens, I hope that people just see the beauty of play."

Check out a few of the stories featured in Play Passages.

Karina Haber

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages, Karina Haber. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Karina Haber. Location: St. Saveur, Que. The story: "When I was a young girl, every summer we would visit my grandmother’s cottage in the Laurentians. As soon as we woke up, my sisters and I would run outside to play. The cottage was surrounded by forest, various berry bushes, ponds and hiking trails. We loved foraging for breakfast before mom and dad woke up. It was usually a medley of forest berries in a bowl of milk with sugar. After that we would spend the entire day outside. We wouldn’t see or hear from our parents unless it was meal time. We would look for frogs, weave mats out of grass and ferns and build nature forts. We learned how to pick mushrooms, play bridge with my grandmother and her friends and paddle a boat across the lake to Blueberry Island. I am so grateful for these memories. Certain smells — pine, rain, forest — still evoke them for me. (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Sara Gootblatt

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages, Sara Gootblatt. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Sara Gootblatt. Location: New York. The story: I was a very fortunate urban child. Although we lived in a massive housing project in Parkchester, in the Bronx, NY, my family had a unique apartment that had a large concrete area just outside our door that we called the 'terrace.' One of several families that shared the terrace had daughters around my age. We played street games: 'potsie' and 'rolly-polly,' which were were versions of hop scotch, and ring-a-levio, a variation of hide-and-go-seek. We had plenty of room for jumping rope and no one wanted to be a 'steady ender.' In the winter we built snowmen and had snowball fights. There was a problem, however, with our private play haven. The noise from our games could be heard all around the courtyard. One of the upstairs neighbours, Mrs. Murphy, regularly yelled at us from the third floor. We would look up, listen to her rants, take a short break and after 10 minutes would go back to our games. Mrs. Murphy and others complained to management and both families were offered more spacious apartments to get us off the terrace. The other family took the offer of a larger apartment. I hoped we could move as well, and dreamed about having my own room. But my parents recognized that the terrace was special. I was disappointed, but now realize it was a very wise decision. I spent many more years on the terrace, playing games with new friends. Ultimately, as we moved into our teen years, it became a place to relax in lounge chairs and talk about boys. (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Jesús Torres Vázquez

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages, Jesús Torres Vázquez. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Jesús Torres Vázquez. Location: Tijuana, Mexico. The story: "I grew up in Tijuana, in a house very close to the US-Mexico border. I grew up playing in an area we called 'El Cerro,' or 'The Hill.' It was an empty deserted area, but it had beautiful life. Ants, pinacates (a black beetle that points its rear end at you to emit an unpleasant smell), spiders, white butterflies, squirrels, road runners, tadpoles in ponds after the rains. I often played alone. I remember searching for bugs in the heat of the day. I often collected beer bottles and threw stones at them to break them. I was a cowboy and the bottles were enemies, my stones were bullets. Sometimes they won, sometimes I did, but we were always courageous. I would spend hours there. Near a cliff, there was a secret tree, and sometimes other friends and I hid there and shared stories. (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Darja Vasiljeva-Malave

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages, Darja Vasiljeva-Malave. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Darja Vasiljeva-Malave. Location: Jelgava, Latvia. The story: "I grew up in Latvia, and in the winter, when there was a lot of snow, we used to climb the hill near our house where the train went through, and we would tumble down. The feeling of our heads spinning was exhilarating." (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Aya Nomura

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages, Aya Nomura. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Aya Nomura. Location: Kyoto, Japan. Nomura's story: "When I lived in the States our family would come back to Japan for summer vacation. We usually stayed at my mother’s home in Kyoto for a few months. I remember as a child, during the stay at my grandmother’s place, my cousins and relatives would gather for dinner. After dinner, my grandfather would buy some fireworks for us to play with in front of my grandparents' home. Fireworks are very common in Japan during the summertime and you see many kids playing with them in the neighbourhood. My favourite firework was called 'Senko-Hanabi.' It’s a very subtle, soothing and gentle firework compared to other fireworks." (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Tom Armstrong

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages, Tom Armstrong. (Courtesy of the artist)
Postcard by Tom Armstrong. Location: Markdale, Gray County, Ont. The story: "I grew up on a farm. The farm, bush and creek were our playground. We would play in the creek, without our parents’ knowledge or permission. We would start wading in the spring as soon as the river thawed. Our feet would freeze and we would lose our rubber boots in the muck, but we would keep on going. Later we would build rafts out of cedar rails, and 'pole' our way up the creek like the real explorers that we were. My brothers and I still talk about those adventures which, as far as I know, our parents never knew about. (Courtesy of Mindy Stricke)

Mindy Stricke. Play Passages. June 24, 1-5 p.m. at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Toronto.


Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.


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