July 30, 2003

Arts education is in our hands

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 4:05 pm

So the California state government values arts programs so little they decided to insult artists everywhere by giving the California Arts Council a token $1 million in the coming year. That is equivalent to three cents per person, and California has the mighty distinction of spending the least per capita for the arts. That’s like giving a waitress a three-cent tip to send the message that you were unhappy with her service rather than leaving no tip at all.

But was anyone really surprised? Artists are angry, rallies were held, speeches were given about the importance of the arts in our lives, especially in the lives of underprivileged children. How many boulders have to fall on our heads before we just accept that the California government does not support the arts – period. Forever an optimist, I have spent a lifetime fighting the acceptance of this grim fact. As the budget gridlock played itself out, my heart hoped for a miracle while my brain winced in anticipation of the worst. When the numbers finally were announced, I mourned more for the loss of hope than for the budget cut.

I don’t believe in victims, however, and I’m tired of hearing how school programs, small and medium-sized performing arts companies and community outreach programs are going to be devastated by lack of grant funding in the coming years. I know I’m very lucky to live in an area where the impact of an arts budget crisis will undoubtedly be less than in communities whose socio-economic demographics reflect less educated parents and less money for education programs in general. I know in this community, parents will once again open their wallets to fund arts programs in our schools, and the talented and educated artists who live among us and already provide outreach to those less fortunate will find a way to continue doing it. There are the people who get it, and the people who don’t. What we have on our side is that for the people who get it, making art and sharing art is a compulsion.

It seems that the solution to funding the arts in California lies with each of us individually. Forget about the state government. They play for the Don’t-Get-It-Team and no longer are worth our time and energy. We weep for their lost souls.
I see two places every one of us can make a huge contribution to the well-being of the arts statewide. Just like charity begins at home, so do the arts. Arts education through music, painting, dancing and drama can all be done inexpensively through projects custom designed for your child and his or her interests. If you think you don’t have any talent or skill in these areas, you’re wrong. At the very least, you probably have an opinion on any artistic contribution you come across. Start by talking about that. If your child shows an interest in something in particular, then dive into that subject with as much enthusiasm as they do. There’s no crime in learning along with them.

Giving monetary donations to community arts groups and small performing arts companies is another significant way you can help. And you don’t have to give much. If everyone gave even $5 or $10 to local organizations, that would be a much bigger pile of money for them to draw upon than waiting for a blessed few to donate hundreds, thousands or millions. Most of the organizations that most likely won’t survive without state grants are non-profits anyway, so you get the tax write-off when you help them weather this storm. And, it is those smallish organizations that often provide arts programs to the kids in inner-city schools, rural communities, the disabled and the elderly — the populations most likely to be forgotten once the budget plague ravages those organizations.

I’d like to think that if this community had food while the rest of California starved, we would feed our children first, but there would also be a canned food drive on every corner. That’s exactly what needs to happen now for the arts.

July 22, 2003

Genetics at Work: Crying at Heartwrenching Musicals

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:48 pm

When I became a parent, I expected to celebrate certain milestones in my son’s early childhood development. The first smile, the first step, the first word — all breathtaking moments accompanied by excitement, a few joyful tears and a mass emailing to friends and family. But we reached one milestone last week that isn’t listed in any of the books – the first time my son was overcome with emotion by a musical.

My husband and I are huge musical theater fans, and to only a slightly lesser extent, movie musical fans. I rank musicals by how fast they move me to tears. The current leader is “Ragtime,” which had me sobbing by the end of the opening number. Matt’s the same way. We’re a sorry sight leaving the theater after a show that we love.

Matt and I have been plotting our son’s first live musical theater experience since the day he was born. We decided next year when he’s three-and-a-half and “The Lion King” comes to San Francisco, he will be officially initiated into our world. Until then, movie musicals seem the logical way to persuade him that musicals are the best entertainment on earth, but where to start? There are the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie adaptations that we grew up with, but their stories are a little more interesting to older children, I think. There are movie musicals made just for kids, but many of them turn out a little dorky for my taste. And, of course, the choice by most parents in America — the Disney animated musical.

This last choice comes with a huge prejudice from me. I was the rare American child who did not grow up watching the Disney classic animated musicals. My German-born mother didn’t like the way the stories were Hollywoodized. I’m fairly certain she is a distant relation to the Brothers Grimm. My first Disney musical was “The Little Mermaid,” which came out when I was a teenager. I don’t want to get into an argument with any Hans Christian Andersen purists, but I’d like to publicly state that this is the best movie musical ever made with the sole exception of “White Christmas,” which plays on our TV at least a half dozen times every holiday season. The world of Disney musicals was opened up to me and for a musical theater fanatic, it is still a way to get a fix when I can’t get to the theater.

Two years after “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” came out, garnering critical praise and an unprecedented Academy Award nomination for best film. I thought “Beauty” was O.K., but it certainly was no “Little Mermaid.”

When Tyrian was born, we received the requisite supply of Disney musicals as gifts. Almost everything except “The Little Mermaid.” Matt and I thought that much of the content in several of Disney’s most famous films was pretty scary and our son demonstrated early on that he was pretty overwhelmed by frightening images on the television. When his friends started watching Disney musicals at age one-and-a-half, Tyrian couldn’t get past the talking cave in “Aladdin” without running out of the room. The Disney movies were shelved.

But one Saturday night during that heat wave in July, my husband was working a 3 p.m. to midnight shift and I was left alone with two sweaty kids under three trying to pass the hours until bedtime. Based on how many little girls under four still dress as Belle for Halloween even 12 years after “Beauty and the Beast” was originally released, I opted for a night with the Disney legend.

The movie started and as Belle launched into her opening number, Tyrian was obviously hooked. He intently watched with eyebrows raised, asking questions, narrating actions and dancing to the songs. Our newborn and I watched with him until the movie neared its dramatic climax. That’s when the baby got fussy and I had to start walking her around the house and was unable to continue watching Tyrian closely as he watched the movie.

I heard the strains of the title song start to play and I knew the cinematically magic moment when Belle and Beast meet in the library to dance was playing out on the screen. The song ended, and the dialogue between Beast and Belle told the plot point that she was sad because she couldn’t see her father since she was locked in the castle. The Beast, having come to love Belle, tells her she was free to go, which she does, leaving Beast sad and alone in his castle.

It was at this point my daughter and I strolled back into the television room. I glanced at Tyrian and he had giant tears rolling down his cheeks. I was concerned that he was frightened and asked, “Tyrian, are you O.K.?” With a quivering lip, he nodded.

“What’s wrong?” I anxiously queried. Without taking his eyes from the screen, he said, “The beast is sad. She had to go away.”

As a parental high for me, on the Christina sob-o-meter this ranked right up there with “Ragtime.” Based on Matt’s reaction when I told him, I think “Ragtime” has just been unseated.

July 11, 2003

Artfully Opening the Lines of Communication

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 9:53 pm

While waiting for our appointment in the lobby of American Express in Walnut Creek, my husband and I came up with a game to occupy the minds of two over-educated MFAs. We were sitting across from a soft pastel abstract of mostly hazy images sharing the canvas with a recognizable though free-floating bridge and some discernable foliage.

Matt broke the silence with a tongue-in-cheek, “When I look at that painting, I see a dream world that eludes the grasp of man.”

After a guffaw, I took a moment to look at the painting and came up with a little b.s. of my own.

“With the soft strokes in the sky and the bolder images on the ground, the artist is trying to say that the more specific our goals, the more grounded in reality they are.”

Without missing a beat, Matt said, “The bridge represents transitions between phases of our lives.”

Gesturing broadly over the painting I queried, “Isn’t it interesting how distant memories from our childhood are more clear than our recollections of what happened yesterday?”

“That was a good one,” Matt grinned.

Although it started as a farce to pass the time, our little exercise ended up luring us into a serious conversation about the painting. And as we worked to connect with the art, we entered into a dialogue with the artist, which is what art is all about in the first place.

We have found that this game is a very portable pastime that can be used just about anywhere by people ages one and up (based on some informal market research with our son as the only sample from the tot set). When my son was about one, I found that a cure for the wiggles when we had to wait in line somewhere or were held up someplace was to distract him by talking about art. So many places have art on the walls that is easy to overlook until one desperately needs to distract and engage a curious young mind. It has turned out to be a very effective and rewarding parenting technique. Back then, he would simply point out the artist’s use of representational objects, making sure that I understood that there was a fish, water and a tree on the canvas. I would then supply a narrative as to what I interpreted the fish, water and tree to be doing in the painting.

Now that Tyrian is two and a half, he has definite opinions about what he is looking at and no longer accepts my narrative. He will first tell me the fish is purple, the water is blue and the tree is green. Trees to him in paintings are always big trees, whether or not their scale in the painting is actually large compared to the other objects. I figure when he’s older, he’ll give me a lecture on how a tree empirically represents largeness, the vastness of the universe, the boundless dreams of mankind, the unending triumph of the human spirit, the power and majesty of Mother Nature — that sort of thing.

After establishing that he and I interpret the objects the same way, he will say the fish is swimming in the water, and that there is a big tree. On some days, the fish eats the tree. On other days, the fish isn’t swimming at all, but rather sleeping. Oh, and the water is wet. And every now and again, a painting will get some highly critical praise as he declares it “pretty.”

What do you know? Our waiting is over. The Toddler Lapsit at the Orinda Library is starting, or the doctor is ready to see us or we’ve reached the front of the line at Starbucks.

It works with adults for awkward silences at parties or in restaurants when the service is slow. Just try saying, “Wow, that is a yellow painting,” or “I wonder why the artist chose to immortalize that particular fruit stand,” and see how your friends and acquaintances take the bait and run with it. You’ll find you gain instant insight into their souls and a glimpse of their life experiences through their interpretations. Plus, it often just makes for a good conversation starter for someone to lead into a story that may or may not be related to the painting, but certainly was recalled due to its influence.
The best part about this game is that there are no rules, no one is ever wrong, and no one loses. All critiques and observations are valid. We can’t say that about many other things in this world.