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[whitespace] Kids ArtSunday

Museum da' Young

Local art museum shoots for the pint-sized audience

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

THE PICTURES lined in neat rows across the second-floor walls of the San Jose Museum of Art are like stills from Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street: a fish stands eerily on two legs, eyes peer out from the hearts of plants, black roe bubbles on the bristles of a toothbrush, a piece of fruit forms the head of a chicken. The line of schoolchildren grows appreciably quieter as they move from image to image. Most had probably thought that a Sunday trip to the South Bay's premier modern art showcase would be a little dull. It's doubtful that any imagined it might be deliciously scary.

The tour guide for the museum's Kids ArtSunday program stops in front of a particularly striking montage photograph. She explains briefly that this is an exhibit by the noted Japanese artist/photographer Michiko Kon, then asks, "What do you see first in this picture?"

The answer comes back almost in unison: "The eyes."

"Why?" the guide asks. "How does the artist get you to look at the eyes?"

They don't know, of course, so the guide provides the answers herself. Slowly, picture by picture, she deconstructs the photos as the group walks along the polished floors. Light. Shadow. Perspective. Centering. Constructing sight lines so that the vision is automatically drawn to a certain spot on the photo, radiating back out so that the images on the print are absorbed in exactly the order, and to exactly the effect, that the artist intended.

Downstairs, the students find a little more accessible the satirical drawings of Robbie Conal. Caricatures of such political and business celebrities as Al Gore, George W. Bush and Bill Gates show faces like bloated and veined pieces of overripe fruit. The trying-too-hard-to-please portrait of a grinning Monica Lewinsky draws snickers and pointed fingers of recognition.

Later, sipping a soft drink in the spacious first-floor cafeteria, Museum of Art Educator for Youth and Family Programs Diana Sanchez explains the difference between the ArtSunday tours and what she calls "old school" art instruction.

"Curators used to take people through their galleries," Sanchez says, "stop at a painting and say, 'This is a Van Gogh,' or 'This is Picasso.' And then they'd give the date. And the period. And everybody would just stand there and look at it. And that would be it. You can't do that anymore. We're teaching the students how to look at art so they'll have the tools to use when they come back to the museum on their own, or to other museums. And we're teaching them how to create it themselves."

Sanchez says that Kids ArtSunday is one of the ways the museum is using outreach to make itself available and known to a Santa Clara County community that has not yet come to appreciate its merits. "This is one of the best modern art museums in the Bay Area," she says. "People just don't know. We have a little gem here."

Kids ArtSunday began as a museum-sponsored program called Family Sunday in 1992. In the mid-'90s, the name was changed after the museum held a contest among local youth. "We like to point that out when we're talking about the program," says Sanchez, who began working at the museum in 1999. "It shows how much what we're doing is shaped by the participants." Events are held the last Sunday of every month, from 11am to 3pm. Admission is free for SJMA members or with regular museum admission. Besides the art tour, the ArtSunday events each present an artistic performance as well.

Sanchez says that the monthly Sunday programs are meant to supplement the museum's regular outreach work in the South Bay's schools. The most extensive outreach program, she says, combines a museum tour with a slideshow lecture by a museum staff member at the school, as well as presentations to the students by area artists.

The next ArtSunday event is scheduled for September 24, when artist Phil Yeh and the group Cartoonists Across America will help participants paint a cartoon mural promoting literacy and the arts. The October event, two days before Halloween, features storyteller Megumi telling a ghost story from a World War II Japanese internment camp.

At the close of last month's event, the students gather in the vast, open lobby of the museum to hear a performance by the San Francisco drumming group Taiko. While young children grin and hold their ears against the sound of the booming kettle-style drums, Sanchez gives a nervous glance up toward the expensive, handcrafted glass sculptures hanging from the lobby ceiling.

"If all goes well," she says with a rueful smile, "we won't shake any of those loose."

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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