February 28, 2002

Recovering from a Prop-13 arts education

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:54 pm

I have learned that I am a member of the Lost Arts Generation. We are not as famous as the post-World War I Lost Generation mourned by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. At least not yet. We are the generation who began our elementary school education in the wake of Prop 13 and spent most of our 13 years in the public school system tiptoeing around the rubble of the devastated arts programs.

Of course, at the time I was in school, I didn’t know any better. My inner drive was toward the performing arts and with my parents’ support, my extracurricular music, dance and theater education turned out just fine. But there was a huge gap when in comes to the visual arts of painting, sculpture, mixed media, printmaking, photography and anything else that doesn’t move.

The Lafayette Arts and Science Foundation was just getting up and going when I was at Happy Valley Elementary, but it was no where near the comprehensive and omnipresent organization it is today. I wasn’t born into a museum-going family. After standing in line for hours at The Louvre, we dashed in to see the Mona Lisa, and then our thoughts turned to a good place to have lunch. I think that was the single longest moment we ever spent looking at art on our travels. I come by my penchant for the performing arts naturally.

The art hung in my parents’ home was primarily created by family members— mosaics made by my grandfather, who died when I was five months old, and batiks by my aunt, a high school art teacher. She had an MFA and was always referred to with great reverence in our family as The Artist.

I thought having an MFA and being called The Artist was about the coolest thing in the world. But since I didn’t have any inherent drawing or painting talents, and I was never required to take an art course in school, getting the title of The Artist was a magical, mystical and unattainable privilege bestowed only on a select few.
Oh, there was an arts requirement at Stanley (then-Intermediate) School and Acalanes High School when I attended, but it could be satisfied with a music class. Singing is my passion, so signing up for choir was a thrill, not an academic necessity. I remember being surprised when I met with my counselor around graduation time and saw I had over-fulfilled the arts requirement with seven choir classes in four years. Apparently it didn’t matter that the performing arts part of my arts brain was over developed while the visual arts section was gasping for air.

It caught up to me though. Sophomore year in college I decided to go anti-establishment, forget the business school track I was pursuing and start preparing a graduate film school application. It was a sudden, exhilarating decision when in a moment of pragmatic weakness my heart said “Go for it. Get that MFA you’ve always craved” while my head wasn’t looking. Film has a lot of sound, a lot of motion, all those wonderful, comfortable aspects of the performing arts.

But I soon discovered there was a substantial problem with my plan. Films are not recorded plays, they are thousands and thousands of frames of individual “paintings” strung together. To remedy my visual arts void I signed up for a photography course in my senior year. I felt like a kindergartner in a class of primarily college freshmen representing a selection of the 49 states with better arts education programs than California. I went to Stanford. Photography was the hardest class I took.

I got into film school and earned that glorious MFA, which I guess was impressive enough that the powers that be allowed me to become the arts writer for the Sun. A dream gig, except for one little challenge. Lamorinda is packed with talented painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and countless variants and just about every week I profile an artist or preview an exhibit. Fate must have thought this was quite the humorous little twist to put in my life’s path.

If USC granted me an MFA, then these gracious and generous artists have helped me earn credit toward an MFA with Honors, although I’m far from completing that post-graduate program. One topic that often comes up as we discuss art, the universe and everything is a general lamenting among artists in our community about the lack of local interest in their work. One Moraga artist said that although it is wonderful to have the support of myriad Lamorinda business establishments who give Lamorinda artists exhibit space on their walls, the majority of passers-by just see the art as “background.”

I need another column entirely to discuss the politics of the art world and galleries and why some artists with a good PR person can easily sell a painting for thousands of dollars while your just-as-talented neighbor needs to keep her paintings in the category of “hobby” while she works a “real” job to make ends meet. A lot of this is snobbery, and a lot of it is art patrons not knowing any better. But I have another theory to put forth after almost four years of on-the-job research. One reason art in our community may not be getting the attention it deserves from would-be art patrons is that they, like I, may be unknowingly part of the Lost Arts Generation. Some may just now be realizing that they need to find some educational putty to fill the holes. We may be experiencing a phase of 10 or 20 years when that artist neighbor needs to be an informal art educator. Some of the artists in this community have already realized this and opened public studios to encourage the curious to come and learn more about what they do. These artists know they can’t communicate through their art with someone who can’t hold up his or her end of the conversation. The Lafayette and Moraga co-op galleries operate on the same principle.

If you suspect you’re a casualty of Prop-13, I recommend that the next time you see a piece of art on your doctor’s wall, or in a coffee shop or if you dare to venture into one of Lamorinda’s growing crop of galleries, take a look at the wall on which the artwork is hanging. Most likely there’s an artists name and sometimes a phone number on a small card affixed somewhere near the piece. Give that artist a call and enroll yourself in an art make-up course.

February 5, 2002

Broadcast Your Artist Vibe to Kids

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:45 pm

Every morning my 13-month-old greets me from his crib with a wide grin and an expectant look in his eye which seems to query, “What are you going to show me today, Mom?”

Strewing his toys about the living room, emptying the linen closet and strolling through a hibernating garden are only alluring for so long before he starts tugging on his diaper bag, ready to go, go, go.
I’m fortunate because I have a job where I get to go to art galleries, play rehearsals and concerts all the time. Most of the time, my toddling side-kick goes with me.

He has run through the halls of the Orinda Library Gallery just to press his nose against the lighted display cases and study Tom White’s sculptures and smile at Liz Piatt’s art quilts. The lowest shelves are just his size.

We’ve gone to a jazzy jam session with trombonist Steve Turre and the young musicians at Stanley Middle School. Last week, we sat by the tympani during the Mayor’s Concert at Stanley for a first-hand look at the busy percussion section. Without a quick e-mail from Stanley music director Bob Athayde, we would have missed Trombonanza at Papillon in December with half a dozen A-level Bay Area trombonists doing their brassy version of holiday caroling.

A visit to Susan’s Studio not only gave us a chance to practice our brush strokes with invisible paint on an empty canvas, but co-owner Susan List didn’t mind small fingers exploring the texture of the dried oil paint comprising her creations around the room.

One Monday we made friends with the residents of Lafayette Elder Care when we joined them for their sing-along with guitarist Michael Kistner. Kistner even tailored the musical gathering by singing some favorites enjoyed by the young and young-at-heart.

There are fantastic animal paintings at Pacific Wildlife Gallery in Lafayette for a youngster just learning about the natural world. And a trip to any of our Lamorinda libraries includes a stop by the walls exhibiting the work of local artists as we make our way to the children’s section.

Granted, my job affords us some opportunities not everyone has. While I watch the singing and dancing on stage at Town Hall Theatre during a rehearsal for “We’ll Take Manhattan,” my son seriously investigates why the theater seats pop up every time he stops pushing down on them. But I know not every kid has the luxury of exploring an empty theater on a Monday afternoon.

However, most of what we do, and everything I’ve mentioned above, are free activities open to anyone. Certain paintings are absolutely captivating. Music activities are always a winner. And small eyes can get pretty big when a voice projects dialogue from the stage. For me, it’s just a matter of keeping my eyes and ears open to the daily arts events within minutes from our house, and informing the powers that be that I’ll be bringing a young one. No one has asked me not to bring him yet.

In fact, last month my whole family went to The Waybacks concert at the Orinda Library Auditorium as part of the Neighborhood Energy Company’s Community Concert Series. I had heard how wonderful the community concerts were for adults and kids alike and decided it was time for me to see for myself. This is not a free event, mind you, but not a bad deal at $18 for an intimate concert with dynamite performers.

Before the concert began, my husband and son took a tour of the sound system set up on the floor in front of the stage and got a good look at the drum set and myriad string instruments waiting for the band to bring them to life. Several people stopped to chat with the little boy who was so obviously soaking in the atmosphere of his first professional concert. Before a single note was played, they were sharing the communal experience of folks brought together by music.

I hope the message my son is receiving through all these outings is that the world of the arts is a welcoming place, no matter your size, level of experience…or attention span.