January 31, 2005

Color Your World

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 1:43 pm

I am a fan of the Home and Garden section of the newspaper, and a card-carrying member of the home improvement/do-it-yourself club. I find that a design project, or even the smallest repair, provides a tremendously satisfying creative outlet for me.

Paint color is a topic often covered in the newspaper, on television and in magazines. Usually, professional designers and artists encourage the reader or viewer to be bold with their paint color choices, urging them to stray from the mind-numbing pull of builder’s white, beige or, for the ultra-daring, grey-blue.

I happen to adore color, so I agree with those battling to rid this culture of vanilla decorating. However, an article about paint color in a recent Contra Costa Times Home and Garden section got my ire up. A sidebar about Style Notes read, “For those who are nervous about bold colors, start with a child’s room or a study. Those areas are more forgiving than public rooms.”

What I don’t like about this statement is the re-enforcement of the faulty notion that bold color is for kids, or that we can hide behind kids as an excuse to express the colors within ourselves. Rather than stating, “those areas are more forgiving,” the second sentence of the Style Notes should have read, “Children are more accepting.”

Elementary school classrooms are often bright displays of primary colors, inviting a child to enter and learn. But once we hit high school, the oppression of beige, white and grey-blue becomes the environmental color palette.

An article in Child magazine showed pictures of the wonderfully colorful and creative ways in which children’s hospitals are decorated throughout the United States. Abstract and vivid mobiles are hung from a glass ceiling in Philadelphia. Whimsically dressed cow statuary greets the children in Houston. A purple, red and yellow locomotive sits in the emergency room in St. Louis. I would love to see how medical statistic would be affected if adult hospitals were as cheerfully and inspirationally decorated.

I envy the colorful world in which children get to grow up. What I don’t understand is the loss of color in our surroundings once we leave childhood and the perception that beige, white and grey-blue are synonymous with maturity. It seems more like lethargy to me.

There are businesses generally perceived as fun places to work, and that reputation is often reflected in spiffy wall colors. Fun restaurants follow the same recipe, and I don’t mean Chuck E. Cheese, but rather Chow and those of its ilk. A lot of hot retailers also know that happy colors mean happy customers. For some reason, “serious” businesses and cube farms stick to the psychologically uninspiring beige, white and grey-blue. Can’t employees or customers be productive and happy at the same time with a little lift from a red wall? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I know for some folks, beige, white and grey-blue actually cause your heart to flutter. I’m not talking to you for you are the lucky ones for whom walking into a bank must be sheer excitement itself. But for anyone else who dreams of living in a more colorful world but for some culturally bizarre reason thinks this is the province of children, please know that you can be free of this misperception. Artistically expressing yourself through color, and being acted upon by the properties of color, is a true delight of the human experience.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Society rewards us for conforming in so many ways that in this one inconsequential area, I encourage you to fight the power with all the spunk, vigor and wild abandonment of a two-year-old.

November 22, 2004

Teach Kids an Artistic Way to Say Thank You

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:07 pm

Three years ago when I started doing Art and About, I wrote a column about making my own thank-you notes. I described how I folded blank pieces of cardstock and used leftover crafting materials to put my unique stamp on each individual thank-you card I wrote. That column remains one of the most commented on pieces I have written, so like any successful form of entertainment, I am writing a sequel. And I believe this is better than the original.

Sometime after my son turned one, I started having his design his own thank-you cards. When he was really little, we did hand and footprints because we found his public couldn’t get enough of those, and since a toddler’s prints are ever growing and changing, it became a nice marker in time for people. As he became adept at working with paints, he would do finger-painted cards, and eventually graduated to using a paintbrush. After passing his second birthday, he decided mixed media represented his artistic voice, and he would create thank-you cards combining paint, crayon, colored pen, oil pastels, and anything else that made a mark on the page. As he learned to use scissors, we got him a set of fancy crafting shears with which he could cut fringes or shapes that rarely fit into a standard stationery envelope, but we sent them nonetheless.

As we approach his fourth birthday later this month, my son has gone full circle back to paints, but now he strives to create representational art. After his third birthday, we switched from having me write the notes to requiring that he dictate his own thank-you message, so now the inside of the card is as special as the outside.

I started my daughter out on the painted thank-you cards when she was eight-months-old, last December. She refused to hold still long enough for a hand or footprint, and latched right on to doing brushwork. As this past year has progressed, she has focused all her attentions on crayons. She has the lightest touch and creates feathery designs with delicate strokes.

This December, my kids are developing their own line of stationery. Using heavily diluted watercolor, my son created rainbow swirls of artistry in colors light enough that the words of the penned notes can be read. My daughter did Crayola abstracts with her signature ginger touch. With the help of Allegro Copy and Print in Lafayette, we are having their names printed on each sheet, like big-person stationery, so they will be all set to write thank-you notes come December 26.

All of this is great, but two of my son’s preschool classmates have created the ultimate thank-you cards, and it is their idea that I really want to share. These sisters illustrated a bunch of thank-you cards and gave them, beautifully wrapped, as a gift to their teacher for her birthday. AND THEN, the teacher used the thank-you cards to write thank-you notes to everyone for the gifts she had received. It’s brilliant!

To me, this idea is the ultimate in the gift that keeps on giving. I see at least three values at work here. The child is immersed in the concept of saying thank-you by creating one-of-a-kind thank-you notes. The child, as the artist, is given an opportunity to creatively express herself. And the child is giving of herself while getting directly involved in the gift-giving process rather than her parent just going out and buying something.

I can’t think of a better way to get our kids profoundly in touch with the true spirit of holiday gift-giving than to do a project like this with them for anyone with whom they exchange gifts. I suspect both giver and receiver will be filled with the joys of the season.

April 16, 2004

Arts Mentors Make the Difference in Young Lives

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:00 pm

I ran into a friend, Jean Vosti, at the hair salon and she was all aglow. She had just spent the morning holding her granddaughter while her daughter-in-law had a doctor’s appointment. Hannah Grace is Jean’s first grandchild, and Jean was euphoric about how here daughter-in-law was inviting her to be an active participant in Hannah’s life. Jean was honored to have been included in the delivery room for the birth, along with her daughter-in-law’s own mom and step-mom.

Jean told me all this with a dreamy grin and starry eyes and then paused. Suddenly, she sat up tall, her eyes turned resolute and her jaw became determined. “I’m going to be the Arts Grandma,” she declared.

Gazing forward as if she was looking at a screen projection of her vision for the future, she recited a list of plans to take Hannah to concerts and museums, to take her to her first “Nutcracker.” Then she looked at me and added, “Because I had mentors who did that for me.”

She told me about her dad, who worked for a company that distributed and serviced juke boxes. He used to bring home the classical music records that people didn’t want in their jukeboxes. No one in Jean’s family listened to them, so they were given to Jean, along with her own little player, so she could enjoy the music. Jean says that even at age six, she had a nice library of classical pieces, and she was regularly swept away by the glorious sounds.

Jean said her life was filled with people who were her arts mentors when her parents couldn’t be. Her grandfather didn’t have much money, but when he died, he left a little money to Jean so she could have violin lessons. Those lessons meant everything to a little girl, and a gesture like that was worth more to Jean than all the money in the world.

Jean finished her tale by saying, “Anyone can give things, but it takes a special person to give experiences.”

Jean’s story resonated strongly with me. Long before I had children, I decided I was going to be the Arts Mommy. Sure, I would do everything else a mom has to do, but I was not just going to trust that my children would become arts lovers by osmosis, or even through a very heavy deluge of art genes from both sides of the family. My kids are lucky, if you view the world through arts-colored glasses. They have an Arts Mommy, an Arts Daddy, two Arts Grandmas, two Arts Grandpas, and a host of Arts Aunts and Uncles. My husband and I dictatorially decided that we will adopt any of our kids’ friends who need arts mentors.

But Jean said she thinks that there are arts-minded people out there who don’t realize that some kids come from homes which don’t make a conscious effort to include the arts in the life of the family. Different strokes for different folks. But what if one of those homes includes a young Jean Vosti? Think of how an arts mentor could change that child’s world by being a companion for artistic exploration. Her point made me want to put my antennae up even higher to catch any wayward signals from young people looking for a guide.

Jean happens to be a trained pastry chef, and to end our conversation, she said, “I’m going to make sure Hannah has a life full of the arts and good food.” What a splendid life Hannah has ahead of her.

November 25, 2003

Striking an Artistic Balance Between the Genders

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 1:54 pm

I was walking the Lafayette Reservoir with a friend when an acquaintance of hers stopped to say hi. In introducing me to the gentleman, my friend mentioned that I was an arts columnist. The man said, “Oh, I don’t usually read the arts page. I leave the arts to my wife.”

Yikes! What a frightening attitude! But it’s not surprising or unusual.
While having coffee with another female friend, my son wanted me to tickle him. As the tickling escalated, he said, “Mommy, tackle me.” I told him that he’d have to wait for Daddy if he wanted to be tackled. My friend chimed in, “That’s right. Daddies do the tackling and mommies teach piano and read books.” At the moment, it seemed like a perfectly innocent comment, but then I remembered the words of Selma H. Fraiberg in “The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood.”

Fraiberg warns about the pervasive misperception in America that the arts are a feminine pursuit. Fraiberg says that in our culture, lessons on literature, music and art are usually taught by the mother. Little boys, in particular, come to associate the arts as feminine and have trouble integrating those interests into a masculine personality. Instead of pursuing, or god forbid, excelling in the arts, they either hide their interest, artistically underachieve, or push those sissy arts out of their lives completely.

Well, no wonder the scale is seriously unbalanced when it comes to enrollment in ballet classes or choir auditions. I was horrified when I read these assertions from Fraiberg. I realized that even in my ultra-arts conscious household where my husband advocates the pursuit of artistic endeavors as much as I do, I, the mommy, have taken the lead in actually teaching the arts. Double yikes!

When I mentioned it to the hubby, he had to admit that this was indeed true. Is even our son learning to associate the arts with the feminine? Only days later, Tyrian gave us some scary insight into how his keen mind is assimilating the world as we have presented it to him.

Tyrian is almost three, and one morning his dad and I we were tussling with him about eating the quiche he had requested for breakfast but was subsequently refusing to eat. To change the subject, Tyrian went to the piano and said, “Come, Mommy. Let’s play music.” Boy, does he know his mom or what? Here I was trying to do some effective parenting about food consumption and committing to a decision, and he shot an arrow straight into my Achilles heel. Hmmm….physical sustenance or musical soul food? I joined him at the piano, of course. I don’t even mind that I sent the message that it’s easy to manipulate mommy when she’s invited to an impromptu jam session.

Since I’m home with the kids all day, I naturally have an advantage over my husband when it comes to exploring the arts with them. We know that my husband’s already active appreciation and participation in the arts provides excellent role-modeling for Tyrian as to what is acceptable masculine behavior. We also have had to make a conscious decision in our house that the gift of the arts will be bestowed by both patriarchal and matriarchal lines from now on.

I believe everyone is born with an inherent desire to sing, dance, paint, write and express themselves in an artistic manner. Please save your little boys from the turmoil of squelching their natural impulses. If there’s an imbalance in your home, fix it now.

August 18, 2003

Putting a Higher Dollar Value on Children’s Artistic Interests

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:25 pm

I have just learned about The Wiggles. They’re an Australian band that appears on the Disney Channel and has been called “The Beatles for kids.” Apparently, the rock we live under at our house is quite massive because to be the parent of a toddler and not know about The Wiggles recently elicited some stunned looks from our friends.

The Wiggles make TV shows, record CDs, do videos, have an interactive Web site, and tour the world giving live concerts. Apparently, a gripe from many parents is the high prices of the tickets for these concerts. Everyone over one-year-old is charged full boat and, according to our scoffing friends, “Parents will pay this to bring their two-year-olds to the concert.”

Initially, I scoffed, too. I believe I have a cultural reflex to scoff at parents who materially “overindulge” their children. But then it occurred to me that I’m being an arts hypocrite. I wouldn’t blink at an adult paying some exorbitant price for a concert they really wanted to see. Why do I put less value on something that makes a child’s heart go pitter-pat?

I can think of a few arguments. The Wiggles are just a fad. Well, maybe so, but they are a musical fad, which makes them important in my book. (Believe it or not, I will even heatedly defend Barney the purple dinosaur because of the show’s commitment to using music to teach important concepts.) And no doubt the fads that were important to me helped shape a small part of the person I am today. For better or for worse, they are part of my experiential make up and it isn’t for me to impose criteria on anyone else as to which fads they should follow.

Another argument is that a two-year-old won’t remember the concert. I believe he may not be able to remember it in his conscious mind, but no doubt a love of music, maybe even of music played live, will live on in his heart perpetuating the arts into the next generation.

One argument that I sincerely hope is not the root of any scoffing is that a toddler’s artistic interests are not as important as the parent’s and therefore should not be supported financially. This would probably be one of those repressed, psychological issues that Dr. Phil would have to dig pretty deep to discover for us because perhaps our parents sent the message when we were young that our artistic interests weren’t worthy of their hard-earned cash. If perchance this is an issue for some parents, then maybe by bringing it into the light it can be overcome.

This subject of people having a different scale for money they spend on art for themselves as opposed to art that interests their children came up in my family last March when my parents returned from a trip to the Pacific Rim countries. They focused on buying hand-crafted souvenirs for my kids made by artisans from each country — puzzles, toys, games, wall-hangings, and even embroidered T-shirts whenever possible. They told the story of a chat they had with a person in India about the beautiful embroidery on shirts in that country. My mom had noticed there were no children’s sizes available, and the artisan said that although children’s embroidered garments take as much effort for them to make, tourists are not willing to pay a high price for a child’s shirt. So the message I’m getting here from those tourists is that children are not important enough to be given wearable art, probably because they’ll only wear it for a short time before it’s outgrown. So what? And, choosing to support art created by the talents of another individual is something only for the realm of the adult world. Hmmm……

I know there is nothing on earth worth as much to me as my children. Don’t you feel the same? We should make sure we underscore that worth by supporting their personal connections to 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.

April 14, 2003

Big Brother Gives New Sister an Artistic Welcome

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:33 pm

A new baby arrived at our house earlier this month. That means Tyrian, our two-year-old, is now a big brother.

From the moment we found out I was pregnant, my husband and I kept Tyrian in the loop about the baby, telling him about my doctor appointments, showing him ultrasound pictures, and having him help set up the baby’s room. But we wanted Tyrian to have a chance to do something really special to help prepare for our new family member.

Both my husband and I are first-borns in our families, and we are particularly sensitive to how our little addition is going to change the world as Tyrian knows it. Although neither Matt nor I consciously remember the moment we were dethroned by our siblings, both of us are positive it was a life-changing experience that helped shape who we are today. Neither of us would trade our birth position, and we want to show Tyrian how special it is to be the oldest.

As usual, I turned to the arts for answers. I had an idea that Tyrian and I could paint a unique work of art for the baby’s room. The inspiration came from a mixture of nostalgia and practicality. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I still have the dresser my parents bought for me when I was a tot. It was an inexpensive purchase that Mom never intended for me to keep 30 years. But hey, the drawers are a perfect size to hold a large portion of my wardrobe, and why should I have to learn to fit my clothes into a new furniture unit when this one has served me so well? However, the dresser has been looking a little tired and outdated lately, and never matched the furniture I share with my husband. So recently, I decided to replace my dresser with a piece I inherited from my grandmother, and my old dresser was put into service as extra storage in an unused room.

Then I thought about how all those home decorating shows and magazines encourage us to buy furniture at thrift stores, flea markets and consignment shops and give them new life with a coat of paint. Tyrian and I love to paint, and what greater gift could he give his sibling than original art?

I decided that the body of the dresser would be white, and Tyrian would custom decorate the drawer fronts. Without Tyrian’s “help,” I covered up the vintage 1970s walnut stain with three coats of a nice, warm-tone white latex paint. Then I set the six drawers on some newspaper on the floor and stood back while Tyrian waited for his muse. He always tells me which painting tools he wants to use, and on this day he chose a fat brush, a tiny brush, a small roller and his ten digits. He also opted for all seven basic rainbow colors from the non-toxic finger paints I provided.

At first, the good behavior we have been drilling into Tyrian for two years backfired on me. He refused to paint the furniture. He set to work on the newspaper around the drawers, but was distinctly uncomfortable actually putting paint on the drawer fronts. Once I showed him it was O.K., the creativity started flowing.

I admit, I had a vision for how I hoped the project would turn out, but Tyrian surpassed my expectations. He approached each drawer as an individual canvas, using different colors and techniques on each. On two of the drawers, he insisted on using crayon as well as paint. On one crayon drawer, he drew squiggles and then as not to obscure them, he went over the red and green crayon with yellow paint. Quite minimalist. On the other crayon drawer, he mirrored the squiggle marks on the right side of the drawer with some finger-painted squiggles on the left. One drawer has only brush work, while two are primarily done with the roller. The last drawer is a combination of brush and roller, with a Tyrian hand print right in the center as his “signature.”

When Tyrian was done, which he announced by declaring it was time for a bath (and trust me, it was), I let the paint dry for a couple of days and then went over the entire dresser with two coats of a non-toxic varnish. Once I reassembled the dresser in the baby’s room, I got tears in my eyes as I stood back to observe the masterpiece.

The drawers had looked great individually, but collectively, the effect is stunningly whimsical, colorful and beautiful. I brought Tyrian into the room to see what he had made, and it took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. I knew he had made the connection when a huge smile curled the corners of his lips. He calls it the “baby’s dresser” and hasn’t made any efforts to use it for himself, so I think he might have a sense of the gift he has made. But I know it will be several years before he realizes the true gift he is sharing with his little sister. A part of Tyrian’s creative soul will live in Allyndreth’s room to greet her each morning and comfort her every night.

February 14, 2003

It Takes A Village to Raise an Artist

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:37 pm

Clark Pang’s favorite composers are Robert Schumann and Grace Vamos. This seven-year-old cellist says that Schumann’s propensity for long notes gives him a chance to stretch his arm, while Vamos, a contemporary composer from Danville, gives him the opportunity to play fast and with a sense of humor.

Pang recently won first place and a scholarship in the Elementary Division of the Vamos Competition sponsored by the Contra Costa String Association. It was his first competition. Last summer, Clark was invited to play at the Music Teachers’ Association of California convention. Clark’s teacher, Ariel Witbeck, believes Clark has what it takes to make it in cello, or whatever he decides to do. But she doesn’t give Clark all the credit for his success.

“The Pangs are a just a lovely, functioning family. And as a teacher, I know there are a lot of families in this area that aren’t functioning. When I teach music, I involve in the whole family — you have to,” Witbeck remarked.

Clark’s mom, Elena, laughs as she recounts the family’s learning curve in supporting a cellist. Elena is a concert pianist and older daughter Chloe seems to be traveling the same path. As Elena says, when you play piano, all you have to do is show up and the instrument is waiting for you. With cello, “we have to load the car with the instrument, and Clark’s special chair, and the rock-stop — there is just so much more to do. But every time before he plays, his sister goes and whispers in his ear, ‘You’re the best cello player ever,’ and she screamed the loudest when he won,” Elena recalled.

I have been fortunate enough to visit the Pang’s house several times, and there may not be a more nurturing arts environment in Lamorinda. Some of that environment is intangible, as if the walls, carpet and furniture have soaked up an artsy glow. Physical indicators of the ambience come from framed art in the entryway, all works done by the Pang children. And it looks like the Pangs are running out of room in the kitchen and dining areas for all the Chloe and Clark artwork hanging in there. These piece aren’t hanging crooked by refrigerator magnets, but rather each one is distinctly featured.

Witbeck’s comments caused me to recall how Stanley Middle School music director Bob Athayde once ran down a list of some of his most successful students of past and present. After naming each one and giving me a thumbnail about how they were not only an asset to the music classes, but were also leaders in the school’s academic and sports programs, he would follow up with the phrase, “two squared-away, put-together parents.” He would say something like, “Sue Smith, squared-away kid: violinist, an excellent writer and basketball player. Two squared-away, put-together parents.”
I’ve interviewed visual arts teachers, dance teachers and other music teachers who, without the catchy turn of phrase, echo the sentiment that success in the arts is a team effort for the whole family, not just the student. And the involvement needs to go beyond badgering the child the practice and reminding him or her how much private lessons cost.

All this has just reiterated for me how none of us can do it alone, whether our thing is the arts, sports or bug collecting. Around here, the soccer parents who haul their kids to practices and games, or the families who spend entire Saturdays at swim meets, get more PR than families who load up the minivan with band instruments and carpool to Fresno for a music festival. They’re all helping to shape a success story, though.

I know that there are those stand-out kids who manage to make it seemingly on their own, but most likely even they have found a “family” to support their endeavors. This supportive family just doesn’t happen to share their blood and often carries the title of “teacher,” “friend” or perhaps someone else’s family. And I’m sure we all knew at least one kid growing up who wasn’t very successful and whose parents never showed up at the concert or the game or open house at school.

It will take a village to carry Clark on its shoulders down the path his life is meant to tread. If you find you are not part of someone’s village right now, consider looking for a flashing “vacancy” sign and taking up residence.

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.

May 30, 2002

Young Thespians Need An Audience for Complete Theatrical Experience

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

The first week of May was unofficially “Passion for Youth Theater Week” at my house. I don’t know what messages the universe was sending you that week, but everywhere I turned, I was bombarded with cries for help in publicizing youth theater offerings.

Professionally, the week started off fairly normally. I had a story lined up about the youth theater group, Center Stage Theatre Company, and, always striving to keep our coverage in the Sun diverse, a story about an enterprising art gallery owner planned for the second article. Both had been scheduled weeks in advance.

When I checked my email on Tuesday morning, I learned the gallery owner was not able to do the interview later that day. Stomach clench moment. Although I always have back-up story ideas, my compulsion for order and certainty always sends me into momentary panic when I have to switch gears two days before deadline. So I did what any sane person would do and decided to avoid the problem, at least momentarily, and take care of some domestic loose ends.

I called to leave a message for one of our favorite baby-sitters to see if she was available Sunday night and her mom answered the phone. After polite chit-chat, she asked if I had ever written about the Youth Theatre Ensemble in Lafayette. I had not, and she told me they had a show opening in a week. This mom has kids in the performing arts and never fails to emphasize the need for more community participation in the audiences of community theater productions, particularly youth theater shows. As she says, “For the price of a movie ticket, you can see a quality live theater production.” From out of the sky dropped my second story.

Although I mightily try never to have two stories about the same artform in one issue, after talking to one of the founders of YTE, Moraga’s Rich Render, I got swept away, as I always do, in the passionate swell of enthusiasm imparted by adult supporters of youth thespian groups.. It was time for me once again to try to convince one or two thousand readers that they needed to go for an evening of quality theater produced by our youth.

Actually, they needed to go to two evenings of theater because the passion was swelling for Center Stage Theatre Company too, that week. There I spoke with more teens and more adult supporters who believed to the bottom of their hearts that the kids were producing a show as professional and entertaining as any adult company.

Being carried away in the tide of enthusiasm is part of my job as I endeavor to translate the emotions of others into print for all of you to read. But the next day, I was knocked off my feet, caught unaware, by a tsunami. I was wearing my mom cap instead of my reporter’s hat when I called our pediatrician for advice about my son’s stuffy nose. Our doctor was off duty, but his partner, Dr. Samuel Lewis of Lafayette, called me back. Through small talk, we quickly discovered we first met a few years ago at a Belasco Theatre Company production of “Grease.” Belasco is another well-established, professional-quality youth theater program based in Walnut Creek with a bevy of alumni who have gone on to be professional actors and theater artisans, and a wealth of super-supportive adult fans — but none bigger than Dr. Lewis.

Dr. Lewis was extremely frustrated because Belasco’s “Damn Yankees” was opening soon and they couldn’t get any press coverage. He complained that the paper didn’t cover Belasco “because they’re kids.” Not true of the Sun, but I can’t speak for other papers. He desperately wanted to share the talent of those kids with the world. He said that he just ran into a coach of a kids’ baseball team while purchasing cobbler the other day and gave the whole team tickets to see the show. At an upcoming performance, there were going to be free hot dogs for the kids who attended. Dr. Lewis may be a master marketer, but he understands two things very well — the artistic experience for the actors on stage is not complete without an audience with whom to share it AND life is incomplete for anyone who doesn’t have live theater in it.

Diane Kamrin, the producer of the Diablo Light Opera Company’s Stars 2000 youth theater program told me last summer when she was frustrated that I was writing about their production after-the-fact, “I don’t think our community gives the proper attention to youth theater. We have thriving youth theater groups in Contra Costa.”

There are more talented youth companies within 10 minutes drive of Lamorinda than I dare name because I’m sure to forget one. All of them have Lamorinda kids involved. Each of these groups has a Dr. Lewis, or a Rich Render, or a Diane Kamrin tirelessly promoting their talents. They’ve all told me in some form or another that first-timers to their productions are “surprised by how good these kids are.” I have gone through the surprised phase myself and now I’m happy to report that when I go to a youth theater production, I expect professional-level shows because that is what the youth of this area deliver.

Lyle Barrere, the stage manager for YTE, called me back too late to get a quote in that story last month, but he had one important thought he desperately wanted to share with you: “The whole point (of theater) is to have fun, but it’s great to have 100 people in the audience,” he said.

There will be a lot of bad movies coming out this summer. If you’re itching for entertainment, take your $8.75, open up the Arts Calendar of the newspaper, and find a youth theater production to attend. Between all the local groups, one of them is almost certainly doing a production of your favorite play or musical. Go nurture the next generation of theater artists, and you’ll find nourishment for your own soul as well.