Organized Chaos

by Brian Dunphy

My 10-year-old daughter Ella is one of the most creative and artistic children I’ve ever known. I’m constantly amazed by the things she creates, whether they are paintings, chalk drawings, clay miniatures, figurines, doll clothes, scale model buildings or homemade puppets. I appreciate that these interests take her away from the digital world, and because I also like to create things, her little projects often give us quality time together. I will also not sugarcoat the fact that she is a very, very messy child.

Her creativity and ability to make a giant mess tend to go hand in hand. Without exception, the sloppier her workspace is, the better a project turns out. And for me, it’s interesting to watch her work in a cluttered environment. I see her taking scraps, little things she’s cut away from the big project, and using them to add details or even repurposing them to create something entirely new. I am quite sure that if she were to throw each little piece away and keep things only where they belong, she’d miss out on the opportunity to realize potential in what is otherwise waste.

The problem is that the mess compounds and spreads… rapidly. My wife created a crafting area for Ella in our basement where she can be as expressive as she wants. She has an abundance of art supplies, clay, crafting supplies, fabric and foam all neatly organized in clear bins that sit on shelves next to a well-lit drafting table. That same neat little space becomes an absolute disaster area only a few hours into a new project, and soon we find ourselves stepping over and around things just to get to the other side of the basement. And by the time she finishes a project (some last hours and some last days), the mess has become so expansive that she gets overwhelmed when asked to clean it up. That’s usually when the walls come crashing down.

Ella hard at work in her crafting area.

Even though I’m one of the voices constantly reminding her to pick up, I have to admit I understand her mode of thinking. My wife and I have had many conversations about my drawing board that sound a lot like the arguments we have with Ella about her creative space. For me, if my pencils, paintbrushes, crow quill pens and paper aren’t out and within arm’s reach, I tend to just not want to draw. It’s almost like the process of setting up an art space every single time squashes my creativity. As a result, my stuff is set up in our bedroom right next to my closet so I can at least try to keep things out of sight when I’m not using them. Neither my wife nor I am overly thrilled having that piece of furniture in our room, but I do get a lot of work done there and the clutter stays hidden. 

Anyways, back to Ella.

We tried everything. “Clean up each time you come upstairs.” “Clean up at the end of each day.” “Clean up now.” Each of those options was met with “but I’m not done with this or that” and the overwhelming mess happened regardless. It was frustrating for her and us. What to do?

It turns out, at least in our house, there is a happy medium. We call it organized chaos. Now, in addition to the clear bins that house all of her supplies, Ella has some new bins labeled, paper scraps, clay scraps, fabric scraps and so on. As she works on a project, she puts what would otherwise litter the desktop and rug into these bins so they can be easily accessed at any point during the current or on any future projects. So far this has proven to be an effective solution to the tamping down of her passion versus an unmanageable mess problem.

Anyone who doesn’t understand her method of creating things would look in these bins and see trash. She looks in these bins and sees what I do when I look at her: beautiful and endless possibilities.

Akron native Brian Dunphy is a father of three who loves his wife and kids, family, friends, music and art.