Kids honor an artist with their art

Children’s librarian January Sanalak, left, and information assiistant Jo Henning, created the Webster Library’s salute to Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Emily Higginbotham
A library project inspired by the work of Yayoi Kusama attracts children of all ages
By Emily Higginbotham

The first thing one two-year-old did when she walked into Webster Library with her babysitter Friday morning was put her mark on a work of art. She grabbed orange and green dot-shaped stickers and placed them — with no particular design in mind — among the many other stickers dotting a bookshelf covered in white construction paper. It was her best attempt at recreating a Yayoi Kusama original.

Of course, she didn’t know that she was participating in an interactive display honoring the contemporary Japanese artist, but she still was getting a lot out it.

That’s according to the masterminds behind the display, January Sanalak, the children’s librarian at the York Avenue library, and Jo Henning, an information assistant.

A few years ago, Sanalak, 34, saw one of Kusama’s exhibits and the experience stayed with her. Kusama is best known for her use of “dense patterns of polka dots and nets,” according to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which put on a retrospective of Kusama’s art in 2012. In 1954, she came to New York City and quickly became a part of the avant-garde scene, running in the same circles as Andy Warhol. She moved back to Japan in the 1970s, but left a lasting impression on the counter-culture in New York.

With her 90th birthday and Women’s History Month coinciding in March, Sanalak and Henning thought it would be the perfect time to pay homage to a woman they see as an inspiration.

“She’s 90 and she’s still putting stuff out there,” Sanalak said, explaining her admiration. The installation, she says, is an invitation for kids to “come do art like she does art.”

Sanalak, Henning and some of their co-workers went dumpster diving to find more objects to add to their display and came back with a chair, trash can, desk organizer, pencil holder, and a mirror, which proved to be a popular item for kids to place their stickers.

“Babies like to look at themselves in the mirror,” Sanalak said.

“There’s a lot of child development stuff going on here,” Henning, 23, replied.

Sanalak agreed, saying putting the stickers on the shelf helps young children develop motor skills. But in general, Sanalak said, it’s important to provide free interactive art for children to fill the gaps left when public schools have to cut art funding.

The Kusama display was the first art project Sanalak and Henning put together at Webster, but they hope it won’t be the last. “I don’t know what will be next,” Sanalak said. “How will I top this?”