January 28, 2003

Kid-Friendly Museum Exhibit the Cure for Rainy Day Blues

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:58 pm

My son has a bad case of cabin fever this winter. Those intermittent sunny days that have been sprinkled in between the cold and raindrops since November don’t give him enough time to run around outside to compensate for the days he has to stay in. Oh, sure, we do lots of indoor activities, and he runs his grandmothers ragged three mornings a week, but I’m constantly on the lookout for an engaging yet energy-taxing indoor activity to help us get to spring.

The unlikeliest of places has come to my rescue. The Bedford Gallery at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek has an exhibit through March 9 that is ideal for curious brains and active bodies. “Conceptual Contraptions: The Art of Bernie Lubell and Sheri Simons” is the highfalutin name for a series of pine, string, latex, wire and cloth machines that don’t awaken to their full artistic potential without visitors pulling, pushing, tugging, cranking or squeezing the movable parts. They are all kid-friendly and the docent on duty the day we were there was eager to demonstrate how each installation worked, and to explain the significance of my toddler’s interactions with each piece in a way that he could understand.

As a side note, I brought my son there incognito, even though I have written about the Bedford several times, and I was delighted with how warmly they welcomed a two-year-old into the gallery and took the time to respect him as a patron as much as anyone else. That alone makes this a winning arts activity for kids when so much of the art world is still stuffy and exclusive.

As we approached the gallery, Tyrian broke into a run when he saw the largest installation through the entryway windows. Suspended on wires from the ceiling is a gigantic circular train track, spinning in a clockwise direction due to the force of the electric train traveling around the track. Large cardboard buildings surround the track on the floor, making up a scene not that different from what Grammie and Opa had under their tree this past Christmas. While Tyrian was mesmerized by the swooping and swinging, I could contemplate whether I agreed with artist Simon’s assertion that this piece, entitled “Sayonara,” suggests the realities of life and humanity such as “earnest but misguided efforts” or “fragility and vulnerability.”

Another favorite of Tyrian’s was a piece called “Cheek to Cheek.” He sat on a stool and wore a headpiece that fitted two latex bladders next to his cheek. When he rocked or wiggled, the bladders expanded and contracted. For an expert in wiggling, this was very satisfying fun.

A series of coiled wires run overhead in about a quarter of the gallery and Tyrian discovered that if he plucked one wire in a certain place, a resonant rumble came blaring out a large, wooden horn on the other end of the room. It didn’t hurt the amusement factor that the innocent bystander who happened to be at the base of the horn the first time Tyrian figured out the physics jumped several feet in surprise. Fortunately, she smiled at the tot and even pulled out her camera to capture his fascination with repeating the experiment.

By far, the hit of the excursion was a more complex collection of working parts where my son tugged on a pulley, which set a gear in motion making the most terrific clacking sound while providing the energy to turn an adjacent wheel. With mouth open wide in enthusiasm, I think Tyrian could have tugged and clacked all afternoon.

This machine was in tandem to Lubell’s “Etiology of Innocence,” a three-stage installation whereby a person working a crank starts a latex heart beating, and the sound of the heartbeat emerges around the corner through a horn. On this first visit, Tyrian wasn’t quite ready to digest the significance of Lubell’s interpretation of the nineteenth-century belief that even the most complex life processes could be understood mechanically. But an older child with some science classes under his belt might be compelled to contemplate the similarities and differences between man and machine while enjoying the power of making a heart go “thump-thump, thump-thump.”

I’m fairly certain my son thinks he went to the Exploratorium, while I know that he had a kinesthetic lesson about art, science and engineering. When I tried to convince him we had to leave before our meter expired, he implored “More, more.” You can’t ask for a better response to an art exhibit.