The Artists' Mind

By Alicia Anstead


"It would be naïve to think that a game like Bananagrams—or any game for that matter—couldn’t have an artist’s brain behind it"

When you think of the great contributions to American visual art, you may think of Winslow Homer and his watercolors of the civil war. Or Georgia O’Keeffe and her ubiquitous flowers. Or Maya Lin and her Vietnam Memorial.

I’d like to add one more name to that list: Abraham Nathanson, creator of the board game Bananagrams. I’m not suggesting that a board game is like a painting. But I am suggesting that the imaginations of artists may be broader and more useful to us than we sometimes give them credit for.

Nathanson attended Pratt Institute of Design in Brooklyn, NY in the 1950s after the war. He went on to become an industrial designer. But he was also a jewelry designer, a fine-art photographer and children’s book illustrator.

Although he may have been an artist his whole life, Nathanson’s game fame was rather brief. But it was an auspicious and swift rise to glory. He was in his middle 70s when he invented Bananagrams for his grandchildren who visited him during summers in Pawtucket RI. And he was 80 when he died on June 6th. In 2009, the Toy Industry Association named Bananagrams “Game of the Year.” Millions of the little yellow crescent purses holding letter tiles have been sold in this country.

I had never heard of Nathanson before I read his obituary in the Boston Globe this week. The story caught my eye because it had the words “artist” and “Bananagrams” in the headline. You don’t often see that combination. I suspect Nathanson thought of himself as an artist in relationship to his photography and to his jewelry. But it would be naïve to think that a game like Bananagrams – or any game for that matter – couldn’t have an artist’s brain behind it.

One of the major benefits of art is that it makes us think more creatively. It helps us become better synthesizers, cross-discipline thinkers and problem solvers, even if the problem is: What should I do with my grandchildren when they get bored this summer? I wonder what would happen if we asked artists like Nathanson to help us solve some of our bigger problems such as health care or the devastating gusher down in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not saying there’s a direct line from Bananagrams to world peace. But there is a connection between imagination and solutions to both the trivial and the tragic. Just ask an artist.

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