Artist Dabs Class With Imagination : ‘Real Art’ Replaces Usual Projects in Santa Ana Workshop

Times Staff Writer

Artist Helen Seigel proudly surveyed the gallery where her students’ work was lined up on the floor ready to frame and hang. “I still find the work breathtaking,” she said of the drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures produced over the past semester by second- through fifth-graders, both gifted and learning-handicapped, from Jefferson and Santiago elementary schools in Santa Ana.

“It’s smashing. It’s wonderful. Adults are asking if the work is for sale.”

But most important, Seigel said, “They’re all different. You don’t see that often in the classroom.”

As one of only two artists in the Santa Ana Unified School District’s 7-year-old “Artists in the Schools” program, Seigel has been working to change a “ditto sheet” approach to elementary school art projects that often reward cuteness, neatness and realism with one that stresses individuality, ideas, imagination and making decisions.


“The thing is,” Seigel said, “all the kids need art instruction. . . . No one knows how to teach it. It’s a real crisis.” Art training is not required for elementary school teachers, and many art programs were cut after Proposition 13.

Starting with a federal grant from California Arts Council in cooperation with the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Seigel and Joycelyn Dixon, both painters, and three other artists in 1979 began giving classroom art lessons in the district’s 24 schools on a rotating basis. Only Seigel and Dixon, a part-time art resource teacher, stayed with the program. In the last two years, with funding from the district, Seigel has been teaching after-school workshops for 400 of the district’s 700 teachers and developing an art curriculum.

But the artists were spread too thin to teach art the way they wanted. In an effort to give the students an intimate studio experience, this year they expanded the Artists in the Schools program to create the Special Studio Program, a pilot workshop for a select group of students. Thirty-two students were chosen for their artistic potential and enthusiasm from the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and the Special Education classes at Jefferson and Santiago elementary schools.

“One of our ideas was to get the most extremes together, the kids who are usually separated from the mainstream for a variety of reasons,” Seigel said. “We wanted to see not only what kind of art they would make but what they’d learn about art, how they would interact with each other socially and whether they would gain an understanding of each other’s differences.”


Show Opened Wednesday

The show--the product of the Special Studio program--is titled “Major Art/Minor Artists” and opened Wednesday with a reception for parents, classmates and friends. It is on view through June 28 at the Art Corner Gallery within Standard Brands Paint & Home Decorating Center, 610 West 17th St., Costa Mesa. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays.

Seven students in the program are from the Special Day Class of Special Education, a program for children with severe learning problems, such as mental retardation, deafness or emotional difficulties.

The groups met once a week for 16 weeks at school, and Seigel held additional after-school workshops for those who would come.


“She has put her heart and soul in this,” said Marge Sawyer, director of elementary curriculum with the Santa Ana Unified School District. “I think she’s seen such results from the children. It just spurs you on. . . .

“It gives those children another dimension to their lives they might not have had before and gives them extreme self-confidence and an extreme excitement about their education. That’s what makes me so thrilled about this,” Sawyer said.

“We exposed them to artists and art materials and helped them work so they could express what they wanted to express rather than being told what to do,” Seigel explained. Seigel and Dixon also wanted the students to “connect with real art” rather than with typical “elementary school projects,” she said.

Seigel and Dixon brought in found objects--dried oranges, snail shells, magnets--as well as paint, brushes and clay. They also brought in slides and reproductions of the works of old masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and modern and contemporary artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollack. Relating to ethnic groups within the schools, they also showed examples of Hispanic, Asian and African art.


Copied the Masters

The students warmed up by copying the masters to learn about composition, detail and pattern, Seigel said. They studied Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky for line and color. They learned to fill up the whole space and that they--like Picasso--could paint different sides of one face in one portrait. They made a palette and learned to make greens, purples and oranges from red, yellow, blue and white. And they collaborated on making a seven-foot cardboard “robot.”

“In the beginning, the kids tended to stay with those in their own classes that they knew,” Seigel said. “After they started to see their work, they became interested in what others were doing.” One handicapped boy after finishing his sculpture, cried, “Look at mine! Look at mine!” But then, Seigel recalled, he started pointing to the other students’ work with equal enthusiasm. “He was so proud, he could look beyond himself.”

While the special education students were less verbal, they could communicate through art, Seigel said. “They can use more descriptive colors than descriptive words,” Seigel said. The works of the special education students are indistinguishable from those of the gifted students, Seigel said. “Some of the special ed kids, though they have a hard time organizing things in the world, really seem to be able to organize visually, balance the colors out,” Seigel said.


Colleen Brown, 11, a special education student, was judged the best artist in the class by some of her classmates. One student, Phuong Tran, a fourth-grader, asked Colleen three times for her opinion, Seigel said. The first time, Colleen looked at Seigel incredulously as if to say, “Me?” “Some of the special education kids bloomed,” said Susan Poole, Jefferson principal. “They needed the opportunity to express themselves.”

Special Studio will be expanded next year to eight schools, Seigel said. The programs will include students from regular classrooms as well as those from the gifted and special education classes. “What we do in each school may vary according to the needs of that school.”

“What is art?” Seigel asked her students in a written homework assignment. Answers she received included: “Art is having your own ideas and having fun.”

“Art is a good way to let someone know how you feel.”


“I think art is a good way to take your drems (sic) and put them on a piece of paper.”

Explained 9-year-old student Keith Gonzales, “It’s like everybody is different, right? So we all make different things, right?”

“What if they were all the same?” Seigel asked him.

“It would be boring,” he replied.