Motherhood Literature + Art

About The Anxious Child’s Alphabet

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The Anxious Child’s Alphabet

Kendra Keefer-McGee


“The Anxious Child’s Alphabet” consists of twenty-six mixed media works on cradled wood panels. Together the Alphabet explores the existential anxieties of a child who experiences the world differently.

“The Anxious Child’s Alphabet” came out of the tension between my children’s need for mothering and safety and my own need to create. My oldest son had ‘existential angst’ beginning at age 3. He worried constantly– about war, viruses, injustice, mortality, and religion. The Anxious Child construct was originally based on him, but came to represent the experience of contemporary life.

As any mother will tell you, my children are creative, funny, and beautiful. Mine are also ‘twice exceptional’, which means that they are intellectually gifted while simultaneously having special needs—their diagnoses include Autism, Dyslexia, and Sensory Integration Disorder. Because of these differences (or exceptionalities, according to the psychiatrists), the systems in place for child rearing and education often didn’t meet their needs. I had to learn to bridge the gap. Unfortunately the time and the strength that took often meant that managing mothering and financial survival with art making was simply not feasible. There weren’t enough hours in the day.

Still the need to create persists. So, I came up with an idea to document the kinds of things my children thought about, to represent our lived experience of the world, while nodding to the children’s art that exists in the nostalgic Never, Neverland of kids’ catalogs and mommy blogs.

“The Anxious Child’s Alphabet” is one large work made up of a series of twenty-six small paintings. I began the project, hoping to complete it in a year. However, Individualized Education Plan meetings, counselor’s appointments, doctors appointments, testing, the everyday of loving and guiding, the drudgery of cleaning, and beginning and maintaining my career as an educator, all ate up my time. It ended up taking me seven years to finish the series. While my sons aged and changed and learned during this period, the alphabet gave me a thread to follow.

Most of the pieces began with a family discussion about which word best represented a given letter. Some discussions were very quick, some lasted for days or weeks. Many of the words are topical in that they deal with current events, but some are funny, or spoke to a larger idea that could be (anxiously) pondered over. Once I had the word we would all brainstorm ideas to go with it. Sometimes I used Google to see what the hivemind thought. Often my kids or my husband had ideas, but, I, of course, had the last say.

I created each panel with mixed water media (watercolor and acrylic), ink, pencil, charcoal, and/or colored pencil on paper that I attached to a cradled board. Many of the panels contain snippets of past work or ephemera. A few include drawings by my children. The lettering was done with an antique stencil I found at a yard sale in Cambridge, MA. I loved the typeface and the process of using the stencil because it reminded me of my own mother, who was the breadwinner for four children and my veteran father, suffering from PTSD in the 1980’s and ‘90’s often doing lettering by hand as a graphic artist. The pieces were meant to be exhibited together, but they have occasionally been split up.

Kendra Keefer-McGee works with mixed media on paper and wooden panels. She is influenced by Kiki Smith, and Anselm Kiefer, 19th century Naturalists, and Albrecht Durer. She has a BFA and an MA in Art Education from UNT. She has lived in a variety of places. As a child, Keefer-McGee spent her time caring for her younger siblings. From an early age, she mined myths and fairy tales to make sense of the adult world.


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