Life in the Box: Artless Imagination


I don’t know about you, but I worry a lot, especially about things I create. I want to make things that are unique, polished, meaningful, and engaging for my audience. They need to stand out in some way. And, it wouldn’t hurt if they were marketable and profitable.

But, that’s the grown-up way of thinking about art and creativity. Dan Wardell, aka Dantastic, of Iowa Public Television, has a different approach. He is the epitome of artless art. He’s a super-duper cheerleader of that endless source of art—imagination. 

 For about a decade, Dan has traveled Iowa to stir up kids to be imaginative. With what seems like endless energy, he drives from library to library and bounces off the walls, entertaining hundreds of kids and getting them up “on stage” with him to act out silly plays and sing silly songs.

 Try singing “Row, row, row your boat” using the word “banana,” instead of boat, stream, and other nouns. Now try singing it as an opera star. I’m not making this up—Dan is. Fast –forward his video to 15:30 and see the results.  Or, don’t fast-forward through it and see him crash a toy car into the slime over the bow-tie titanic, ask whether owls can spin their heads like tops, and get a check-up with Dr. Pete. 

There are times when I just feel so liberated by watching his antics. In video, he will make animations with cut-outs and marking pens, and tell stories with no real plot but lots of action. There are always mean characters and virtuous ones, but they interact in such unreal ways that there’s not a moral to be found. Imagination is the moral. Do something  with your imagination and you will be “awesome.”

What he does makes me nostalgic for the era of kids’ television when every station had to create something local for children. We had Romper Room, the Bozo show, and Captain Jinx and Salty Sam.

 I always knew that Miss “Judy” on Romper Room could see me through her magic mirror when she said, “I see Jimmy, and Nancy, and Beth.” As an adult, I realize she had a list of common kids’ names that she would rotate through, but back then, I felt so happy on those rare days when she’d actually see me.

 Dan Wardell doesn’t gaze through the magic mirror, but he sends approval to everyone, kids and adults both, but mostly kids, and he invites them to send him their drawings, he acknowledges their birthdays, and gets them excited about doing things that kids can do easily. Then, he shines a spotlight on them with a web page, blog, in person, and in March, on the air.

 That’s the funny part. He’s hired by the television station, but is only on the air two weeks a year, during the major fund-raising drive (Festival.)  If you’re not in Iowa, you can see some of his stuff on the web, but I’m telling you that his Kids’ Clubhouse segments are the favorite productions of the year for IPTV’s studio crew, his guests, and thousands of kids. He has them smiling and laughing and imagining.

 Anyone can do this. It doesn’t cost that much. That’s the point – that imagination doesn’t cost anything, and that everyone has some. I wish there was a Dan Wardell in every town and state. Someone to tell us to imagine! To keep our crayons going. To cheer us on when we sing silly songs. To throw out all those grown-up evaluations we do of our creations. Just being imaginative is enough. Imagine!


 author-picture2smallerNancy Heather Brown has had the unique experience of producing, writing, and editing nonfiction television as part of a broadcasting career that spans four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process. She’s harvested these jewels in the Midwest, namely Iowa and Illinois. A little slide show of her career, prepared for a reunion with Illinois State University television students, is available on YouTube, and some videos from her favorite series, “Living in Iowa,” are posted online at Iowa Public Television.


Nancy Heather Brown at YouTube

Nancy Heather Brown at Iowa Public Television, “Living in Iowa”

Nancy Heather Brown at Iowa Public Television, including Dewey Readmore Books

Dan Wardell’s Kids’ Clubhouse Video  

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