A Simple Christmas Keepsake Idea for You

Xmas Big Picture Publishing

Our Christmas tree is a bit like a scrapbook. Many of our tree ornaments have stories behind them, or they mark obsessions or events in the lives of our children. I like this because these decorations come out once a year, and since they’re focused around a holiday tradition it makes sense to save them. As our children have grown older and we hang these decorations, Mollie and I are often reflective, and filled with gratitude over how the personalities of our children have born fruit in their adulthood over each passing year.

I want to share a simple, simple idea with you for an ornament that can become an heirloom for your family. This is one of my favorite keepsake gifts that I have given to Mollie because it recorded a specific point in the lives of our children. I suppose it’s really a variation of the plaster-cast-hand-print craft that we have probably all received at some point as parents, except I never really knew what to do with all those plaster casts. (I think we have them somewhere!…)

craft gift idea xmas

In this case, I had each child put his or her handprint in white on a red glass Christmas tree ornament. I put the age of the child next to their print, and the year. For the space that was left I asked the child what they want the ornament to say. (Usually it was something like “Merry Christmas Mommy!” and, “Love, child’s name.”) You probably need to do this before your child’s hands get too big!

I started with my oldest two when they were 3 and 1 and a half years old. After that, in subsequent years I decided to only do one handprint per ornament. The kids got into this because they knew we were making a Christmas present for Mom. I still remember each child’s reaction as I brushed paint on their tiny hands during the handprint process:

Caleb, who is legally blind and very tactile, got a big grin on his face.

Lee became very serious about the importance of the task, and did his best to carry it out perfectly.

Sierra giggled out loud and said it tickled, and that the paint was cold.

Joel kept making a fist, once he figured out I didn’t want him to make a fist.

Renee freaked out because she thought it was gross, and I had to reassure her that the paint would wash. off.

So that’s it! All you need is:
A set of large matching ornaments set aside for this purpose. I used white acrylic paint for the handprints, and green and gold paint for the lettering. Acrylic paint cleans up with water. I suppose you could also use latex (not oil base) house paint. (Don’t use poster paint as it will come off, unless you want to clear coat the ornament when you’re done.) You might want a small, pointed brush for the lettering, but a medium size, soft, flat works best for brushing paint onto hands.

A handprinting tip:
In order to increase your chances of getting a legible handprint, instruct your child to spread his/her fingers apart slightly before printing. (You might need to model this for them.) Then, guide the hand gently onto the ornament and pull the ornament away once you think a good impression has been made. If the hand slides around once it’s on the ornament you will have a globby smudge rather than a handprint. It might help to put the heel of the hand on the ornament first and then lay the fingers down. Also, you only need a thin layer of paint on the hand.

A final thought is that you might consider using plastic ornaments. I prefer glass, and we happened to have a matching set on hand, but I’ll be sad if ours get broken someday.

I’d love to hear from you if you decide to try this!

Brief book update: I’ve finally started illustrations for the next book, The Friendly City. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Thank you for you support – I hope you and your family have a joyful Christmas season! May God reveal Himself more clearly to us all in the coming year,



Dad says all the angels have to go at the top of the tree…

A Fun Craft Idea That You & Your Kids Can Make For Your Spouse

arts crafts gift ideas for children

Tiny items on these frames include small erasers, buttons, fake pearls, sea shells, Barbie shoes, beads,  hair barrettes, various game pieces, and a couple of pictures cut out of cereal boxes…

I’m sending this out early enough so that you and your kids can get this done before Mothers’ Day. Or Fathers’ Day. It’s a simple idea, easy to do, and yet the final result is something that will bring a smile to your spouse’s face for years to come.

The end result is a functional picture frame that reflects your child’s unique personality.

When my kids and I made the frames pictured here, my grand scheme was to make a frame with a different kid each year. Their frames still hang in our bedroom. The idea was inspired by looking at a lot of “found object” artwork while I was working as an artist at Hallmark Cards Inc. years ago.

The idea is to completely encrust a bare frame with small found objects of your child’s choosing. I did not disallow created objects, but the overall effect was to end up with a found object piece. One of my kids created a tiny drawing to put on her frame. Some combined objects. One cut up tiny pieces of felt to fill in so that no white spaces showed through on his frame

Your child’s personality will come through in the objects they choose. My oldest son was big into nature, so his frame reflects this, including turquoise-colored aquarium rocks, acorns, and a rubber insect. (Fittingly, his photo features him with his butterfly net.) His younger brother was more into playing with the process and finding things on the street, (which we washed.) My oldest daughter was a girly-girl and wanted lots of pink items and cute things. Even with the differences though, the frames still all look great on the wall together because they all share a similar aesthetic.

There is not much to say about the process. We used Elmer’s glue to attach the items to the frames. I cut my frames out of Foam Core board, but you could use a simple purchased frame. With my last 2 kids I switched from white Foam Core to black Foam Core (below,) since the black isn’t as distracting if the board shows through. My plan was to clear coat the finished encrusted frame to protect the items and to help keep them from falling off over time, (which I will still probably do, perhaps when I retire.) I mounted black and white photos in our frames because the frames themselves were so colorful, I thought black and white photos would stand out better, but that’s just me.

Craft and gift ideas for kids to create

Tiny items on these frames include small toys, pieces from a broken Mouse Trap game, a reflector from a bicycle pedal, costume jewelry, old computer key pad buttons, and Grandpa Walker’s campaign button (which would have otherwise disappeared into oblivion) These two siblings obviously influenced each other…

Below are the dimensions I used for my frames. Of course, you can make yours larger, but if you make a two foot long frame it may take the rest of your kid’s childhood to cover it with small objects!

Found object frame schematic

If you and your spouse share this email and you decide you want to do this, you might want to ask him or her not to read this so as not to spoil the surprise. If you decide to make frames with your kids, I’d love to see the result! Send me a photo of your finished product and I’ll post it on my Big Picture Publishing Facebook page.

Have fun, and happy crafting!

Dinner Table Tales

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner with our foreign exchange student – 2012

Sharing a meal with others is one of life’s great, relational, creative expressions. It goes without saying that mealtimes serve an essential practical purpose – that of nourishing our bodies – but at the same time, sharing a meal is (or can be) a spiritually meaningful and life-enhancing act.

Of course, growing up, I didn’t appreciate this. Our family ate dinner together every evening. This seemed to me to be a routine, mundane part of suburban life. I was more interested in finding a way around eating my helping of canned peas than in relating to my family in a positive way. But I believe the habit of eating together had a lasting and positive effect on me.

There is a proverb of Solomon that says, “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov 17:1.) We now know scientifically that stress and strife is bad for the digestion. By contrast, relaxing around a table as a nourishing act of mutual enjoyment, and as an expression of unity, is a God-ordained pleasure. It’s interesting that with the establishment of the New Covenant 2000 years ago, Jesus used a meal as a sign by which to remember the covenant; a covenant that was intended to be characterized by love and unity. This meal is often referred to as “the communion meal.”

On an everyday level, one of the best practices we can share as families is to practice the habit of sharing a meal together around the table, looking into each other’s faces, and seeking to enjoy each other’s company.

Meal sharing is an act of communion.

I read an interview in the late 80’s that for some reason stuck with me. Dweezil Zappa was talking about his then-upcoming TV show, “Normal Life,” co-starring his sister, Moon Unit. He said something like, “Our show is going to be about real families, where everyone eats their food in separate rooms in front of a TV.” As though families eating meals together is a cheesy Ozzie and Harriet thing that cool people don’t do.

Whatever. Being cool is overrated.

Eating with actual human beings
Sure, it takes more effort, but relationship is what life is all about, after all. Even as an unmarried college student in midtown Kansas City, when I lived in a 3-story house sharing rent with 6 other art students, this ethic came through. Enough of us had been raised this way that we determined that we wanted to create a community rather than simply serve as a cheap boarding house. One of the first things we decided toward this end was to share a meal together at least once a week.

When Mollie and I got married, we decided early on as our young family began to grow, that we would try to make it a practice to always eat meals together around the table as a family, with TVs and electronic devices turned off, and earphones pulled out.

A Story About Dinner and Art
Many years later, Mollie and I moved our family to Colorado so that we could pursue careers as fine artists. Some of our old college friends from the 3-story house, now a married couple and living in Loveland, had offered to let us stay with them for a few months until we could get ourselves established. They had 3 kids, and we had 5, and their house was probably too small for this endeavor. But they welcomed us in nonetheless.

One of the first things we did was to fix the situation with the dining room table. We knew we wanted to share meals together, and our host’s dining room table was too small for all 12 of us. So my friend Mike got a nice 4×8 ft board, and, since we were all artists, we decided to turn the table into a community art project involving all the kids.

We thought it would be fun to get everybody’s handprints on the table, as a small monument to our love and friendship. We had all the kids and adults interlace hands and arms around the table, something like this:

Tabletop design ideaThen we spray-painted over everyone’s hands to create a handprint border around the edge of the table. (We first applied lotion to everyone’s hands so that the paint would come off easily.) On the underside of the table, each kid wrote their name under their handprints to identify them. Then, back on top, we helped the kids stencil some primitive animal shapes running through the center of the table to complete the design. I designed the stencils to be suggestive of Native American art imagery.

Below is a shot of the finished tabletop.

colorado animals-tabletopI will always fondly remember that crazy season of starting over in Colorado, made possible because of the friendship of this family.

Some sad observations from across the pond
I recently read an article by British doctor and psychiatrist, Anthony Daniels, who has worked extensively in some of Britain’s deeply impoverished areas. His duties required him to visit the homes of his patients, and to personally interview them. Daniels recounts some universal patterns he saw in Britain’s underclass:

“Everyone lived in households with a shifting cast of members, rather than in families. If there was an adult male resident, he was generally a bird of passage with a residence of his own somewhere else. He came and went as his fancy took him…

I should mention a rather startling fact: By the time they are 15 or 16, twice as many children in Britain have a television as have a biological father living at home…Few homes were without televisions with screens as large as a cinema – sometimes more than one – and they were never turned off, so that I often felt I was examining someone in a cinema rather than in a house. But what was curious was that these homes often had no means of cooking a meal, or any evidence of a meal ever having been cooked beyond the use of a microwave, and no place at which a meal could be eaten in a family fashion. The pattern of eating in such households was a kind of foraging in the refrigerator, as and when the mood took, with the food to be consumed sitting in front of one of the giant television screens.

Surveys have shown that a fifth of British children do not eat a meal more than once a week with another member of their household, and many homes do not have a dining room table. Needless to say, this pattern is concentrated in the lower reaches of society, where so elementary but fundamental a means of socialization is now unknown. Here I should mention in passing that in my hospital, the illegitimacy rate of the children born in it, except for those of Indian-subcontinental descent, was approaching 100 percent.”
Imprimis: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass)

What a sobering glimpse of a government welfare state. The government has essentially become the household provider, the nuclear family has disintegrated, and there consequently isn’t even a table around which to share a meal.

Rise up and share a meal!
My purpose here is not to criticize Dweezil Zappa, or the underclass of Britain, or TV watching. My point is simply to encourage connection and communion within households. Whether you are living with family or friends, if you are currently not connecting with those around you, why not start the adventure now? If you are already committed to meal sharing with those you love, then may these thoughts serve as affirmation that you are doing a good thing. Keep it up, you crazy radicals!

Sometimes we do good things almost by accident, or by inertia, or habit. This is certainly better than not doing those things at all. However, at times I have found that doing those same things with intentionality and purpose reminds me to make the most of the moment. Meal sharing is one of those things. Reinforcing your values by reading stories regularly with your kids or grandkids is another. In this blog I’ll periodically share encouragement on other life-enhancing practices.

May God strengthen you to create a culture of life and love within your own family!
A Happy Thanksgiving to you,


Animal stencils-detail

(Tabletop detail.) Feel free to share a dinnertime story or memory below…





A Creativity Game To Play With Your Kids

DG covAs an artist, I am sometimes asked by parents about how they can foster creativity in their kids. Do I teach children’s art classes? Can I recommend a great art curriculum for home-schoolers?

Ironically, since my wife and I are both professional artists we may not be the best people to ask. Art was simply part of the environment within which our kids grew up, and we naturally incorporated the arts into life because that’s what we do. I would say as a general rule, though, parental enthusiasm plays a big role in fostering creativity. My wife and I both happen to love children’s art, and we did get pretty enthusiastic when our kids would create things we thought were cool. We hung a lot of it, and saved some of it.

Perhaps indicative of our enthusiasm was that our most entrepreneurial son used to try to sell his drawings to people who would come over to our house. I suppose because that’s what he saw me doing. (For a living, I mean. Don’t worry – if you come for a visit I won’t try to hard sell my art to you.) He would make little pictures of cellos (we don’t know why) and write “25 cents” at the top of the page. When people would come over he would show them, and ask them if they would like to buy one of his cello pictures. We like to think this was a reflection of our supportive parenting, rather than our poverty-level artist income.

When I was a kid, I was obviously artistically gifted, but my parents had no clue as to what to do with me. What they did right was encourage me, not only with their words, but also by making sure there was always plenty of paper and art supplies on hand. Even though my dad was a manly, blue-collar guy, he never gave me the impression that he thought I was an overly-sensitive, skinny, weird little artistic kid. (Even though I was.)

Looking back, I think what my parents could’ve done better was to provide some art materials other than the usual color pencils, which tend to be not very visually impactful and may be a bit tedious to use, depending upon a child’s personality. We usually supplied our kids with Crayola markers because of their bold and bright colors, especially when the kids were small. We would also let them paint, but this requires more time, supervision, and commitment, especially for parents who may not be as comfortable with paint.

Also, it might have been nice if my parents had exposed me to some fine art, but I think this was simply outside of their bandwidth. (Mostly I pored over my big brother’s Marvel comic books.) My third grade teacher, whom I did not particularly like, once got permission from my parents to come to my house and take me to the St. Louis Art Museum, which kind of freaked me out in general. Miss Cunningham. I suspect she must have been an art-lover. I now think this was a pretty amazing and outside-of-the-box thing for her to do.

A Simple Game to Play With Your Kids
Today I want to share with you a simple art game that I often played with my kids. We think we invented it, and we called it “The Drawing Game.” (Admittedly, not a terribly creative name for a game about creativity.)

It’s not much of a game, really. The main point is to think creatively and to make each other laugh. It is also a bit of a challenge to keep the game going, because it’s possible to shut the game down by limiting possibilities too soon. The game also teaches patience and forbearance in relationships because the other party will be taking something you’ve drawn and changing it, usually not in a way that you would’ve chosen. Kind of like in life.

I was reminded of the game in my previous post. You may recall that I quoted a researcher who said that over the past decade American children have become:
“…less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” The largest drop has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way…”

Well, The Drawing Game is all about thinking creatively, synthesizing, and expanding on an idea, just for the fun of it.

You will need:
A piece of paper
A pencil or marker
your kid or kids
your creative minds

How to play:

  • Someone starts off by drawing one simple shape, geometric or organic, on the page.
  • That player passes the page to the next person, who adds a new, simple element to the page.
  • The page is passed to the next person, who adds a new element. The page may be turned sidewise or upside-down to help in imagining new possibilities, and to keep the game going.
  • Continue on in this way as long as everyone is having fun, or until the page becomes too cluttered. Your kids can color the picture in when the game is over.

Rules of play:

  • No making fun of anyone’s lame drawing. The point is to enjoy each other, not make awesome art.
  • No obliterating anyone’s drawing. You can only change the drawing by adding to it, or changing the context. (For example the scene may suddenly become an underwater scene if someone adds a waterline.) If you feel you would like to cover part of someone’s contribution, ask their permission. Like in real life.
  • Be complimentary when someone draws a creative idea. Say things like, “That’s a great idea.”
  • If you have boys, you may want to place a limit on the number of times they can add blood or projectile vomiting to the drawing.

I asked my 17-year-old daughter if she would play with me, so that you could see an example of how the game is played. It was still fun.

I drew the circle first. I thought it might become a sun. Or Renee might have added a long string to it to turn it into a balloon. Or it might have become an eye on a giant face. Or the wheel of a car. Part of the fun is seeing how other people’s minds work, and watching the “story” develop.

Drawing Game-1
Below I show the subsequent stages without comment…

DG 2-3DG 4-5DG 6-8DG 9-11DG 12-14Let me know if you tried The Drawing Game, and if you and your kids enjoyed it!

 (Click the Book Store tab to order my new kids’ storybook, The Cocky Rooster.)