Guns, Money, Mud, and Play

By Artists Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and Katie Shook

Katie and Michael are both artists, and both have practices that involve working with children. So questions about what play is and how play in childhood transfers to adulthood, and to an art practice, are central themes for both of them. Does play in childhood inform one’s interests and pursuits as adults? Does making art for money make art less altruistic? Do violent toys lead to violent behaviours? Is the making of art inherently correlated to play?

Here are some ideas they gathered in response to these questions and others paired with photos drawn from their respective practices and beyond.


Children playing in the mud at the Adventure Play Garden, run by the non-profit Portland Free Play. Most people over thirty have memories from childhood of playing outside without adult intrusion. These days, kids don’t get as much time and room to roam, free from an adult agenda.


Artmaking really depends on the ability to take the time and space to get into a creative frame of mind. Everyone works differently, but for my practice, I find I need several hours uninterrupted to get anything constructive going. It’s harder for me to get to that place when I’m stressed and feeling under pressure. Creative thinking and the flow state are akin to play, resembling the mindframe that children get into when they are given unstructured play time.

Children deserve time for free play, just as adults have a right to pursue their own intellectual and creative interests. 

It can sometimes be hard for adults to see a child’s play time as valuable, and not impose some expectation for learning or performance. There is inherent value in what a child wants to play at according to their own motivation, but the special secret about free play is that children are actually learning and developing on very complex and nuanced levels, often far beyond the outcome of a traditional classroom.

Adults who watch children at play sometimes interpret their actions and intentions inaccurately. We see children’s play through an adult lens, influenced by our history and adult motivations. One way to find out about what kids are playing at is to observe and listen. It can be intrusive to ask kids to explain themselves. And also, I think when kids are in a deep play trance, their experience can be outside of language and putting words to it. 

Reflecting on my own experience of art making or being in a state of play, can I put that into words? Would others be able to understand my experience? Sometimes my most satisfying feelings while making art aren’t about ‘fun’ really, but about feeling a drive, or a sense of compulsion. Michael, you’ve used the word ‘compulsion’ in describing your artmaking.

Elijah and Michael open for business at the Totally Honest Bazaar during the Schemers, Scammers, and Subverters Symposium


In some of the work that I’ve done with Elijah for Well Made Toy’s㏇, and in other Imagination Academy projects, there’s this imaginary or imaginative premise that then gets actualized in a playful way. Where the rules can change and there’s feeling highs and lows, there’s discomfort with engaging strangers outside the game who’re being invited to play. However in Well Made Toy’s㏇ there’s the fun and exciting pay off to playing the game, actually selling a toy that was made for the game.

The socio economic dynamics that surround the exchange of goods for money are complicated, emotional, and hardcoded into our culture. These things are challenging to understand and navigate for adults, but through gamification of capitol exchange young people can participate and learn from a safe and constructive method of engagement.


Joseph at the 2017 KSMoCA International Art Fair shows off an artwork to a patron that later resulted in a sale


Some recent research has found that kids behave more selfishly after playing with money, real or fake. (See the story in Pacific Standard magazine here: ) The act of handling or playing with money results in a decrease in generosity and prosocial behavior. 

What happens when we introduce the notion of selling artwork that children make – does the introduction of monetary exchange alter the creative experience for children? Does money change the act of creating for adult artists as well? 

It’s curious to think that the materials we provide for children in play can actually prompt very different kinds of behaviors, emotional experiences, and levels of human connection or disconnect. Our choices in the environments we design for children may have greater implications than we anticipated. 

Artwork by DeAndre at the KSMoCa International Art Fair


In the first KSMoCa International Art Fair, Michael, one of the youth participants, was paired with well known and renowned artist Christopher Johansen. Together they made a few drawings using a pastel color palette. They were listed at $200 a piece and began to sell quite quickly. Other KSMoCA participants saw this capital enterprise and became enthralled by this commercial exchange. They quickly started making drawings and listing them at 10, 20, 50, 200, and 500 dollars. One of the minimally vocal youth scrawled his pricing structure onto an amazing drawing of transformer characters, “20 or 15$ if transformer fan, 5$ I mean it!”

Elijah makes a sale of a Well Made Toy’s㏇ toy

When Elijah and I began setting up for this project I let Elijah know he could set the prices for the objects we were selling. All the toys were made by him and his peers, they were quite simple but elegant and had wonderful pops of color accentuating their preexisting features. I had spent quite a few hours making custom mounts for each toy from some beautiful reclaimed wood. Elijah said “let’s sell them for $7 each!” I was shocked as selling them at that price wouldn’t even cover the cost of materials much less labor. However the goal of the project was not an in depth understanding of economics, so I agreed. Later after making a few hard earned sales, a more confident youth from the Living School came over to Elijah and offered him a photo copied single page zine for $10. It Seemed Elijah contemplated this for less than second and agreed to pay the price. I was shocked again, the premise of material and labor value was totally subverted, the desire for exchange was greater than any other criteria. As the money was his, I pulled $10 out of my pocket and handed it over, and continued to look on with amazement as Elijah handed the money over much more easily than anyone had for him.


“Toys” in Michael’s collection of objects poised for future projects


Children learn positive social skills through play fighting. In combat play, children learn negotiation, empathy, how to read complex facial expressions, and assess boundaries. This can be playing with swords, sticks, toy guns, and rough and tumble play. Dr Stuart Brown’s research has shown that this kind of play reduces violence in adulthood. It’s important for children to have access to all kinds of unstructured play time, including playing at fighting.


O’Donnell proposes that working with children in the cultural industries in a manner that maintains a large space for their participation can be understood as a pilot for a vision of a very different role for young people in the world – one that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers a ‘new social contract.’


In any artmaking, but especially in socially engaged projects, there is the potential to push boundaries that begin to protrude awkwardly and ambiguously into the cultural contexts in which they occur. I often wonder what can we do playfully as adults that challenge societal structures, social norms, the status quo? Again, with any artwork, through viewing or participating one is being asked to understand a complex idea or set of ideas architected by the artist/maker. This form of expression is often attempting to create a dialogue between the work and those experiencing it. This is much like an invitation to play.

When this paradigm within art is extended into a social space, a simple subversion of an ordinary thing may cause participants to extend their comfort zone beyond the ranges in which they are currently held. 



Preschoolers and gun play

Old fashioned play builds skills

Penny Holland research on gun play

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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