Left to right: Santa, monster with sword, mother and daughter snake-necked people. (Photography by Jeanie Chung)

Guardians of the holidays

Santas and swords at the Smart.

My seven-year-old daughter has two preoccupations these days. The first is, understandably, Christmas. The second is the Percy Jackson series of Greek mythology–inspired middle-grade novels and movies. As we arrived at the Smart Museum of Art for its recent family day program, Guardian Figurines, she was undecided as to whether she wanted to make a Santa or something more monstrous.

Fortunately, the Smart supplied her with more than enough clay to make two figurines, plus wire for structural reinforcement, sculpting tools, and a damp sponge for blending. The other mom with me used her long piece of wire as the basis for a creepy snake-necked man, and her daughter followed suit with one of her own. As a nonartist, I supervised.


Actually, my daughter created three sculptures: a monster that she described as combination Cyclops/Medusa/Hecatoncheire, a Santa, and, most important, a sword. Although the sword—a small, tapered strip of clay with another strip across one end for the hilt—looked pretty ordinary to me, I was informed that it was Percy Jackson’s sword. Fearing we’d lose the inch-long piece of clay, I suggested, “Maybe give the sword to Santa?”

She agreed instead, reluctantly, to put it in the monster’s hand.

Guardian Figurines was inspired by the Chinese mingqi tomb figures in the Smart exhibit Carved, Cast, Crumpled, nearing the end of its run. The idea was that, just as the mingqi guarded the dead from evil spirits and grave robbers, these figurines would protect their owners, or their owners’ possessions.

As my daughter washed the clay off her hands, a museum volunteer told us that she had made her own figurine to protect her from bad dreams.

“What are your guardians protecting?” she asked my daughter, who replied that Santa would protect the cookies we’d be leaving out on Christmas Eve for his real-life avatar.

“And what about the other one?”

My daughter sighed, clearly thinking that grown-ups just don’t know anything.

“He’s protecting the sword,” she said.