© Noemi Vola on Tumblr

The illustrator Noemi Vola teaches children to observe the little things that surround us

July 28, 2021

For of the second week of Summer Escapes, we decided to transform our drawings and ideas into three-dimensional objects. Together with the illustrator Noemi Vola, we started from small, insignificant, useless things that our eyes managed to discover in the museum garden.

One of the works made by the children during the Summer Escapes summer campus with Noemi Vola

© Noemi Vola on Tumblr

As Ludosofici, together with the Education department, we curated the Broken Nature project during the 22nd Triennale with a series of workshops. These aimed to imagine and design worlds that were no longer anthropocentric but open to other beings, both animals and plants... and, why not, also to new forms of artificial intelligence. You take up the same idea in your new book, which is entirely devoted to worms – you try to step into the shoes of another being, in order to see the world from new points of view. Why do you think this exercise is so important?

The habit of thinking in an anthropocentric way has all too often led humans to think they are the most important form of life on Earth. Unfortunately, this idea is not just extremely arrogant, but also very short-sighted. We humans have absorbed this idea so completely that, in most cases, we don’t even wonder if this hierarchy, which puts us humans at the top, with animals and the environment in general underneath us, is right or wrong. But, as we know, this approach has led us to some really bad outcomes, which are ruining not only the planet, but ourselves too.

Personally, I’ve always been shocked by how people have such scant consideration for the life of insects: the fact that these animals are smaller than us makes us feel we are justified in not considering them as our equals. 

If we tried to empathise with and take care of what is smaller than us, however different it may look, we might just manage to interpret the complexities of the real world in a new, more effective way.

On the other hand, if we changed our point of view and looked at ourselves from outer space, we humans would also appear to be minuscule, just as ants appear to us. This ought to make us realise that something is not less important simply because it’s less visible and that, however small it may be, everything can be important. Perhaps this kind of approach could help us become less selfish as a species. 

© Noemi Vola on Tumblr
© Noemi Vola on Tumblr

Childhood is often talked about as though its most important feature were the fact that it’s only a temporary state: so, for example, we often hear of children being referred to as the “citizens of tomorrow”. In other words, in the popular imagination they are like caterpillars that will soon turn into butterflies. This leads the adult world not to consider them as people with particular needs and desires of their own, who need to be listened to seriously. But if, instead, we began to consider them on a par with worms, what do you think might change?

By the way, I loved what you were saying about the fact that they have no particular aims, functions, or objectives...

The category of children is, to some extent, similar to that of “artists”, precisely because they are categories that are not often taken seriously by some adults who believe there must always be an end, a purpose. But who says that it always has to be this way? No one knows why we exist on this Earth and all too often we forget we are just tiny little people walking on the surface of a planet that’s floating in an infinitely vast universe. That’s why, in addition to not taking ourselves too seriously, we ought to make more space in our lives for things that make no sense, for what can’t be explained or programmed, for what is useless and has no purpose, for what exists today in one form but might exist tomorrow in a form that’s completely different. A new way of reasoning might open up whole new perspectives from which to observe things.

© Noemi Vola on Tumblr
© Noemi Vola on Tumblr
© Noemi Vola on Tumblr
© Noemi Vola on Tumblr

During the workshop in the Summer Escapes project at Triennale, you offered the children a project in which a large part of it was devoted to observation. Armed only with notebooks, the children raced off to a frenzied competition in which they tried see who could find the most details in the Triennale garden – an area that, even though fascinating, is nevertheless quite small. How did such a simple task arouse so much enthusiasm?

The idea of asking the children to write down in their notebooks all the things they could see around them came to me when thinking of Georges Perec’s famous lists. In particular, when looking at a square in Paris, Perec notes that there are lots of things, and adds that “[...] many, if not most, of these things have already been described, classified, photographed, told or reviewed”. But his aim was to go beyond the things that are seen immediately, at a first glance. What he attempts to do is to “[...] describe the rest: what is normally not noticed, what is not observed, what is of no importance: what happens when nothing happens, except for the weather, people, cars and clouds.”

What I find fascinating about this observation exercise is that you can do it anywhere, wherever you are, whenever you like. Whatever the place, whether it’s somewhere we know well (or rather, that we think we know well) or somewhere that doesn’t seem to have anything interesting in it, there’s always lots to find – much more than one might think. Writing down, black on white, what it is simply there, helps us realise how much we can discover simply by observing things better, and going to look in the most hidden places. This discovery always surprises us: that’s why it’s so exciting for everyone, not just children. 

One of the works made by the children during the Summer Escapes summer campus with Noemi Vola
One of the works made by the children during the Summer Escapes summer campus with Noemi Vola

The second part of the workshop involved modelling, with an action that you’ve already explored in your work. What are the main differences between two and three dimensions? Between illustrating and modelling?

When you’re modelling, you can never go wrong, because the material you are working with is changeable and malleable, and you can work it indefinitely. This encourages you to try out new and different forms, to destroy what you’ve done and start over again when you aren’t satisfied, without being in a rush to create something definitive. What is more, three-dimensional modelling has the advantage that you don’t have to worry about some aspects such as the composition of the image or the background, which can both complicate the construction of an illustration and, in some cases, even make it impossible. So, if you’re modelling a particular subject, you can mainly concentrate on that alone, without worrying about the rest. You sometimes find that the “background” is quite simply the space it’s in, which is to say a space that already exists: it’s fascinating to see how what we’ve created with our own hands can be placed in and interact with the landscape around it.

Noemi Vola

Noemi Vola, born in 1993, is an Italian author and illustrator. With Corraini Edizioni, she has published Da Qui a Molto Lontano, Un libro di cavalli rivoluzionari and Un orso sullo stomaco, winner of the Premio Nazionale Nati per Leggere award in 2018 and selected, that same year, for the exhibition 100 Outstanding Picturebooks curated by dPICTUS at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Her book FIM? Isto nao açaba assim (Planeta Tangerina) won the International Serpa Picturebook Prize in 2017. In 2019 she was selected for the Illustrators Exhibition at the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna. She has worked with various publishing companies in Italy and abroad, including Bruaá Editora, Danchu Press, Vogue Bambini, Smemoranda and Kuš!

Credits

Triennale Milano’s Summer Escapes camps are also made possible by the generous support of Scalo Milano.

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