Marlo and the Sparrow

“I want to paint… the clouds.”


In the Fall of 2023, I was a graduate research assistant for Dr Martin Luther King Jr School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA). My research was focused on a historical piece of art in the museum’s permanent collection; three oil paintings by Portland artist Charlotte Mish depicting scenes from the fairy tale, Thumbelina. 

The paintings were commissioned by the WPA for the school in 1939. Through my research, I found that many Portland public schools received WPA works of art, many of which are still visible today.

The first Thumbelina painting (in the series of 3) depicts the scene in the story where Thumbelina sits on a lilypad weeping to herself as she has just been kidnapped by a toad who wants her to marry his son. The fish in the water below hear her crying and decide to help her escape by chewing the root of the lilypad so that she can float away on it.
In the second painting, a field mouse is ordering Thumbelina to sew her own wedding dress. After escaping the first arranged marriage, she finds herself in another. 
The third and final painting in the series depicts Thumbelina riding on the back of her friend, the swallow. They are escaping her last arranged marriage and flying toward a magical kingdom of flower people in the distance.

Photographs of Charlotte Mish’s paintings, Thumbelina No. 1, 2, and 3, taken c. 1940. Images courtesy of the Multnomah County Library WPA Archive. 

As part of my research, I spoke with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr School’s media consultant, Beth Schlegel, to see if she remembered any children who had shown interest in the paintings. She introduced me to Marlo, a kindergarten student at the school, who I interviewed about the drawings he made from looking at the paintings.

Marlo in the school library drawing the sparrow in Charlotte Mish’s painting. Portland, Oregon. Image courtesy of Beth Schlegel, 2023.

Luz: I heard that you were drawing the bird in the painting.

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: What do you like about it?

Marlo: The wings.

Luz: Do you know what story the paintings are from?

Marlo: No.

I read the story of Thumbelina to him. The summary of which is that a tiny girl is born inside a flower and is later kidnapped by several animals who want her to marry their sons or friends. Thumbelina does not want to marry the toad or the mole, and escapes with the help of a sparrow. Together they fly to a flower kingdom where she meets a prince just as tiny as she is who asks for her hand in marriage and offers that she become the queen of the flower people. 

Luz: Why did you want to draw the bird?

Marlo: Cause it looked… good.

Luz: Do you like birds?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: Do you see any birds by your house?

Marlo: Yes.

Luz: What birds do you see by your house?

Marlo: A crow.

Luz: We do have a lot of crows here. What do you think about crows?

Marlo: They’re black.

Luz: Yeah, they’re also very smart and they–

Marlo: Eat worms!

Luz: Yeah and they can remember people’s faces.

Marlo: I know.

Luz: You know a lot about crows, huh?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: What else do you see in the paintings?

Marlo: Uh… a castle right there!

Luz: Have you either seen a castle in real life?

Marlo: No.

Luz: Me either. Do you think that’s where the flower king from the story lives?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: I think so too. Why do you think the paintings are so high up?

Marlo: So they don’t get knocked down.

Luz: That’s a good reason. They’re really big, huh?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: Do you like to paint?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: What else do you like to paint? 

Marlo: Uh… I want to paint… the clouds.

Luz: It looks like the person who painted these also liked to paint the clouds. I see clouds in two of the paintings. What shapes do you see in the clouds in the second painting?

Marlo: It looks like… a bunch of beaks.

Luz: Like birds’ beaks?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: (laughs) I could see that. Do you ever see pictures in the clouds in real life?

Marlo: Sometimes.

Luz: Do you remember any of them?

Marlo: No.

Luz: Sometimes when I look at the sky I think that the clouds look like ice cream.

Marlo: Me too!

Luz: Do you like ice cream?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: What’s your favorite flavor?

Marlo: Uh… vanilla!

Luz: I like vanilla with rainbow sprinkles.

Marlo: And I like it with caramel!

Luz: Yum.

Marlo: And also rainbow sprinkles.

Luz: I think they’re pretty and they also taste good.

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: Do you think that Thumbelina would like ice cream?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: She’s so tiny. We would have to give her a really small amount. What do you think we could give her ice cream in?

Marlo: Uh… definitely this. (points to an acorn in the Thumbelina book)

Luz: Like a little nut? That seems like a good size. Maybe she could have some ice cream with her friend, the swallow.

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: Those paintings were put up there in 1939, a really long time ago!

Marlo: I know.

Luz: Have you seen any other things that are really old?

Marlo: Uh… yes.

Luz: What else can you think of that’s really old?

Marlo: Uh… it is… when Michael Jordan died.

Luz: (laughs) Michael Jordan… is really old?

Marlo: Yeah.

Luz: How old do you think birds live to be?

Marlo: 10.

Luz: I know that some birds live to be 80 years old, which is such a long time.

Marlo: I know.

Luz: If you could paint something up there, what would you paint?

Marlo: Uh… that bird.

Luz: Would you want all 3 of the paintings to be of the bird?

Marlo: (laughs) Yeah.

Luz: If you ever got the chance to ride on a bird’s back like Thumbelina, would you do it?

Marlo: No, because maybe the wind would blow me off.

Luz: Oh yeah, that does sound dangerous. I would be scared. She looks pretty brave, huh?

Marlo: Yeah.

Marlo’s drawing of the sparrow and the castle. Image courtesy of Marlo, 2023.

Marlo (he/him) is a kindergartener at Dr Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School in Portland, OR. He likes to draw, especially birds.

Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a transdisciplinary artist and writer with a background in Early Childhood Education. Third generation from Oakland, California, they currently live and work in Portland, Oregon. Their practice is about looking and noticing, research and history, and personal archives. Luz’s work has taken forms such as an unofficial artist residency at the Portland State University pool, teaching preschool, making things public through publications, an open invitation to play with soft sculptures, a radio program about field recordings and the immateriality of memory, and more.


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.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207