For many people the sole of the foot is a sacred part of the body. Our feet carry us through the world. The soles of our feet carry us from the moment we stand erect and take our first steps to the the eventual final steps after what hopefully has been a long and well-traveled life.
There are few moments when working with children that are more precious than when a young person allows themselves to be in a vulnerable position and the peers near them treat them with kindness and trust. These moments are hard to create, and yet the potential for growth is incredible.
One of my favorite art projects that aims to create a safe yet vulnerable space is to ask children to paint the soles of each other’s feet.
- Paper large enough to fit feet.
- Paint and brushes, preferably small to allow detail. Rollers are also fun.
- Soapy water (preferably warm), and rags for washing.
When I’ve presented this project to children the reaction has almost always been the same. Most of their eyes have lit up, a few inched backwards hoping they would not have to get their feet messy, and a few have usually already removed their socks by the time I’m done explaining.
I try to give as little instruction on the art as possible and more focus on emphasizing the care and empathy that will need to go into the work. I do not force the children to do the project a certain way, although I always hope that they will pair up and mutually paint each other’s feet at the same time. I do, however, provide a simple rule: if you paint someone’s foot you must be involved in cleaning their foot afterwards.
What happens next has always been breathtaking for me. The care and delicacy that young children exhibit when holding and painting somebody else’s body is admirable. Recently at Sunflower Afterschool, Sole Painting was the daily paint option. One boy who usually comes to us with the stored up energy of a jet-powered speed boat immediately and eagerly volunteered to have his foot painted. The person he chose to allow to paint his foot was one of the gentler, quieter girls in our program. Together the boy and girl spent an extended time painting each other’s feet with extreme delicacy, taking care not to tickle.
I was thrilled when the adults, both teachers and parents, joined the children allowing them to paint their feet. Just as remarkable as the painting was the washing. Everyone who took part in the project spent extra time with a washcloth making sure all the soles were clean.
Consider giving this project a try at home with the young children in your life. If you are feeling adventurous don’t be afraid to let someone paint your foot. I feel this project is a good way to promote intimacy, empathy, and care. Just remember, paintbrushes tickle!
© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2011