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Opening A Door Into Childhood Memory

We all know memories are fleeting, perhaps none more so than those of a child.

Artist Brandi Maddelena has spent the last six months recording the children in City Heights as they share their favorite memories. She's heard stories of birthday parties and family trips. Often they included that odd, seemingly random detail that children are so good at focusing on.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Kindergartner Sydney explained her fierce devotion to her teddy bear: "When I was a baby, I got my first toy and it was a bear. His name is Nunu and he’s still with me but he’s very old. I still love him so much, he’s my favorite stuffed animal of all of them."

I know, it's so cute it’s almost unbearable.

Not all of the stories are as sweet as a well-loved teddy bear, but they’re all charming in their own way. Take fifth grader Edwin. His favorite memory is fighting with his sister. He explains how they carry out their sibling attacks: "So what I did at night was to stick slimy gum in her hair. When she woke up she was very sad. Then what she did to get back at me was to put ketchup on my face. That was gross."

The artwork is called “The Nature of a Door is to Be Opened.” The installation features 48 brightly painted cabinets, each holding a different story that plays when the door is opened. The cabinets run the length of a wall in the lobby of the City Heights Center. They’re all different sizes and shapes. Each has a unique handle.

The stories reflect a childhood spent in the city. "A lot of the memories were more urban," says artist Maddelena. "You had little kids talking about their city bus trips, and that’s not something you would find in a rural town. Some of the stories were about families immigrating to the United States and landing in City Heights."

Kenny is a third grader at Central Elementary. He remembers growing up in Vietnam. "One day in Vietnam, I woke up and went to a friend's house. He told me to go to his barn. He knew how much I love to feed fish. He give me biiiiig fish food. As big as a head!"

Maddelena was inspired to work with childhood memories after hearing a lecture in which a neurologist explained how easy it is to manipulate memory. "Afterwards my husband and I went out for tea and we started having this amazing conversation about what our small children are going to remember," says Maddelena. "Is it because of pictures that we have or stories that we tell too many times or amazing things that happen to them?"

Maddelena applied for a Creative Catalyst grant from the San Diego Foundation to do the project. She wanted to focus on the kids in her own neighborhood of City Heights. She also wanted to include older kids, so she asked middle and high school students to choose a younger child’s memory and use it as inspiration for a sculpture. She explains the result: "So when you open the cabinet you hear the child’s favorite memory, you see the sculpture from the middle or high school student, then it lights up."

Cinthya Barron Broussard, age 12, built one of the sculptures based on a little girl’s memory of a purple treehouse. Broussard opens the cabinet to reveal the tree house she built. It has shelves. "I put a little of myself into it by putting in the things I liked," says Broussard, shyly. "Like a skeleton key, I think those are really cool. And the Eiffel tower is something I really like."

Maddelena says part of her goal as an artist is to include the larger community of City Heights. It seems to be working. People stop and open the cabinet doors, delighted at what they hear and see inside.

And how can they not be when they hear a child's voice saying things like this: "My favorite memory was when I got my pet bird. I was so happy, I named him London. He was so cute I cuddled with him."

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